Dear Rocky Road, My last relationship ended a year ago, and was a long term suffer fest of misery and dysfunction. I took space, healed, and got good with myself. Now, I am developing feelings for someone much younger than I. The age difference alone brings up enough insecurities. Of course I know I am awesome and deserve to be loved, but past hurts have me questioning my self worth. Now that I’ve broken them, I’m terrified of repeating negative patterns. I also need to live, not check out because of fears. What should my main focus be with my vulnerable heart? How can I believe in my self worth and ability to be in a healthy loving relationship and move forward in love? Confused Cougar
Dear Confused Cougar,
I recently attended a writers conference where I met a woman who resides in San Fransisco. Over a dinner seasoned with house-made salt from the nearby bay, she recounted how, after her unfortunate marriage ended in 2004, she decided to give this new-fangled thing called Online dating a try. Nearly 15 years later, she’s still trying. She could write a book on the ins and outs of every dating site or app that ever was. One might expect such a person would be pessimistic, perhaps even suicidal, after sifting through so much detritus. To the contrary, she relished her dating adventures.
“At least I’m still trying,” she said, giving a little shrug and downing the last of her Cabernet.
I love that attitude. It sums up what I believe is the only way to live a rich life. To approach each day with an open heart despite the knowledge that it may suffer damage.
“The secret of life … is to fall seven times and to get up eight times, ” writes Paulo Coelho in The Alchemist.
This is not an easy thing to do. Our brains are wired to weight negative experiences more heavily than we do positive ones. The basis for this is evolutionary. Through time, it was more important for our survival to remember a poisonous plant or threatening person than it was to have on ready recall a beautiful sunset or kind gesture. While the salience of negative stimuli may be good for our short-term survival, it is not good for our long-term happiness. In avoiding pain, we also miss out on pleasure.
This is the rub. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t go all in for pleasure while still insulating yourself from pain. You must accept that hurt might happen. What you can control is your fear. You said you were terrified of repeating negative patterns. What if, instead, you were mildly worried, somewhat leery or slightly nervous? By knocking that fear mountain down to speed bump height, you make it surmountable. You make it possible to close the distance between the experiences you crave and the relationships that can deliver them.
Diminishing fear is easier than you think; you’ve already got the tools. As you’ve said, you’ve got good with yourself (love this). This means you’ve got your self-worth locked in an impenetrable safety deposit box. No matter what relationship challenges may come, you will never sink to the place you were before because you know now what you have in the bank. You don’t have to be terrified because you are not the same person you were when those destructive patterns were happening. You can endure getting knocked down because you have the strength to get right back up.
As for the age differential, I could say it’s nothing so long as you feel you are both at a similar stage in life, but that would be denying blatant sexist injustices that exist in our society. Take for example this scenario: instead of candidate Donald Trump having a spouse 24 years his junior, Hillary Clinton had. Hard to imagine, eh? The disparity glares from the hair color aisle of our local drug stores. You will know from the faces on the boxes that this aisle is for women (unless, that is, you are a male wishing to turn your hair cobalt).
Ageist ideals of beauty also have evolutionary roots. Attraction in its most primitive form is a vehicle for reproduction. In a strictly biological model, a woman’s attractiveness declines with her fertility. Sadly, modern society has done little to counteract this entanglement. So if the age of the object of your attraction makes you feel insecure, that’s society talking. Listen to your heart.
“True belonging and self-worth are not goods,” writes Brené Brown, author of Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. “We don’t negotiate their value with the world. The truth about who we are lives in our hearts. Our call to courage is to protect our wild heart against constant evaluation, especially our own. No one belongs here more than you.”
What I love about this sentiment is that it grants each of us permission to live a messy, complicated life. Or let me put this way, if you are uncertain about where you are going, that’s a good sign you are forging your own way. You won’t get lost on a well-worn path, but you also won’t get where you alone want to go.
Being lost isn’t so bad so long as you are enjoying yourself along the way. That was the message I got from my dinner acquaintance. She was savoring the quest for love.
Coelho writes, “It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.”
As long as you believe in the possibility, then you have hope, and hope is an essential ingredient to a gratifying life.
I’m borrowing the idea of a “keeper” from The Atlantic podcast to close this column. A keeper is something that you heard or read that you want to hold onto. Mine is from the movie Free Solo, which is about climber Alex Honnold’s pursuit to climb El Capitan without a rope. It’s playing at the Animas City Theatre.
What stuck with me about this movie was not just the physical and psychological challenge it depicts, but the emotional one as Alex attempts to navigate a new relationship while pursuing his passion. We see him juggle something he is expert at – climbing – with something he knows little about – love. It drives home a fundamentally human reality: to experience the full magnitude of our accomplishments, we need someone to share them with.
Katie Burford has worked as a social worker, journalist, university instructor, nanny and barista. These days, she’s a mom, professional ice cream maker and writer. Reach her at email@example.com, @rockyroadadvice (Twitter) or Rocky Road, 1021 Main Ave, Durango, CO 81301.