Did I really know why I was dating? What kind of man was I looking for? What kind of relationship did I want with a man? My experience with Ned had provoked those questions. I decided some self-examination was in order.
When my husband, Howard, died, I was happy to be alone for quite some time. Not only was it a matter of the toll that illness and death had taken on me, it was a matter of having spent many years in relationship, which, among other things, meant always having another person close at mind, respecting the other’s wants and needs, and considering the other in everything from planning the day’s activities to deciding whether to buy a new car. There was a luxurious kind of freedom in having only myself to take into account. The flip side of that, though, was a lack of intimate companionship, a lack of ongoing discourse with a man who cared about me as much as I did him, and a lack of knowing that a man loved me and always had me close in mind. There was paradox to it.
It was illuminating to see that some of the things I had been happy to leave behind had become the things I longed for: another person in the house, someone who actually cared what my plans for the day were, someone to cook for and care for, someone intruding on my time alone. It wasn’t that I wanted to be married again or even live with someone again. I liked my time alone enough to want it on a regular basis, and I didn’t much see the point in marrying again at my age. Besides, marriage meant taking on certain aspects of another person’s life that I was pretty sure I didn’t want to take on: their financial obligations, their credit history, some of their legal commitments. It also meant that some things, like the Social Security benefits I was currently receiving, would be impacted.
For quite a while I wanted, or thought I wanted, a companion who could accompany me to arts events, someone I could have over for dinner, someone who was a good conversationalist. Slowly, I began to realize that I wanted more than that. I wanted a serious long-term relationship, one that involved love and commitment, even though it was outside the social structure of marriage. But many or most of the men I dated seemed to want a relationship that would involve cohabitation and even marriage. That came as something of a surprise to me, though I knew that widowers sometimes married quickly after the death of their wives. It seemed that men were more fragile than women in some ways, or at least more in need of someone to take care of the everyday details of living–like cooking, laundry, and housecleaning.
I wanted to be honest with the men I dated about what kind of relationship I was looking for, but perhaps I was a bit too quick to state that I wanted neither marriage nor cohabitation. I had sworn off marriage in my thirties only to marry again. The right man and the right conditions had changed my mind. Perhaps they could again. I knew myself well enough to know that sometimes, at least, when I took a firm stance against something, I later did a 180 on it.
What kind of man was I looking for? I had considered that over time, and I had a long list of characteristics in my mind, some of them also on paper. My recent experience with men had not changed the kind of man I was looking for. It had, however, reminded me that what sparks the heart has no respect for the lists of characteristics we make for ourselves. A man might lack half or more of the characteristics on my list and move me to the point of making me weak in the knees. On the other hand, a man might have so many of the characteristics I was looking for that long-term success in a relationship seemed a given, but the lack of tug on my heart would make even a short-term relationship unlikely. I didn’t think I needed to reconsider the kind of man I was looking for.
But I did want to revisit the kind of relationship I wanted. It seemed to me that more of my fantasy life was wrapped up in the kind of relationship I had with a man than in his physical or behavioral characteristics. In fact, the man I fantasized was more an energetic force than a physical object. Asking myself what kind of relationship I wanted impelled images, feelings, and thoughts. They came tumbling out of me in no particular order of importance.
I wanted a relationship that satisfied me intellectually, emotionally, physically, and yes, even spiritually. We would be able to converse as equals, and we would seek out one another for counsel, conversation, and lighthearted verbal play. We would share a level of physical intimacy that was comfortable, inspiring, exciting, temporal, divine, unrestrained, tender, novel, familiar, salacious, sensual, and ethereal–not necessarily all at once or all the time, but usually comprised of some nourishing combination of those things. Sex had to be a part of it, but the physical intimacy needed to be about more than sex. And the sex needed to be often enough to keep us interested and satisfied without being so often that we were worn out and fantasized the other taking a holiday without us.
We would do things together, but we would also do things on our own and be happily engaged in both the conjoint and separate aspects of our lives. Likewise, some of out interests would be in common and some would be separate. We would include friends and family in our life together, too, knowing that we needed more than one another to have fulfilling lives.
I had held a fantasy about cooking with a man for some time, but was that really the root fantasy? What had given birth to the fantasy was my love of cooking, of nurturing others with food, and of the particular kind of intimacy that sharing a meal generates. And I loved being cooked for as much as I loved cooking for another. That fantasy was really about having a relationship that included a shared love of food (mostly healthy food) and an appreciation for the salubrious aspects of preparing and sharing food with the one you loved. It was as simple as that.
I wanted a relationship with a man who loved and admired me as much as I loved and admired him, one in which we each strove to care for and please the other. There had to be playfulness and laughter to it too because, for me, play and laughter are critical elements of tending to and nurturing a relationship.
Was it possible to be in a relationship with a man who wasn’t satisfied with letting me take care of him, our daily life together, and the relationship itself by myself? Could I let in a man who wanted to take care of me as much as I wanted to take care of him, who wanted a mutual kind of nurturing? A man who could give without controlling and take without feeling diminished? I wasn’t sure, but it was what I wanted.
As I contemplated what I desired, images and feelings continued to tumble around in me like stones being tumbled by a rushing creek, refining them, making them smooth and beautiful. No, I wasn’t looking for a boy toy, as Ned had implied. I wanted much more than that. And I didn’t plan on settling for less.
Note: The name Ned is fictitious and has been used out of respect for the man involved.
Copyright 2016 by Melanie Mulhall