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What It's Really Like To Date Again After A 12-Year Gap

I've allowed my old self to fade into the past.

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Couple standing hand in hand in a field of wildflowers.
Jeremy Pawlowski/Stocksy United
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I hadn’t heard from Ben in 36 hours. Although our romance was only five weeks old, I felt like the length of his silence was out of step in our little dance, and I was at an utter loss. Was he ghosting me? Should I reach out? Play it cool? How do middle-aged relationships even work?

Sometime after lunch, I quit nibbling on my cuticles long enough to text him: “Hey! How goes?”

“Just rolling out of bed.”

His response, although swift, didn’t soothe my nerves. Actually, I felt worse because of the meaning with which I imbued his words.

Context: This is the first guy I’ve been with since my long-term marriage crumbled more than a decade ago. I spent so much time with just one man — and shared tens of thousands of interactions during 22 years of dinners, car rides and telephone calls — that my reactions are etched deeply within me, like an emotional Grand Canyon.

So, when Ben said he slept in, I went with what I knew: I pictured him spending the night with another woman. All I needed was a few hours of silence and a reference to a bed, and my brain tossed me back to the nights my ex was traveling. To the times he was slow to return my calls. To the doubts ignored, and the questions I never asked, lest he give me an answer I couldn’t unhear.

All Ben had written was that he’d slept late. I could have imagined a barking dog keeping him awake, or a headache, or worries about a work project. But I didn’t. I jumped straight to suspicion — which, objectively, was my (subjective) interpretation of his five rather banal words. While I fretted, he followed up, saying he’d had a sore throat and slept poorly.

That’s when I realized that — even though Ben and my ex differ in their upbringing, race, temperament, religion, politics and career paths — I was behaving the same. I was assuming that, despite contrasts, Ben will think and act like my ex. I was reading Ben’s behavior from a tattered old script. And I already know how that story ends.

But how in the world can I tell when I’m feeding him his lines? Or more accurately, the lines I assume he’d use? What can I do when I catch myself supplying motivations based on my past, not his present?

Changing old patterns is a toughie. But I’ve come up with a few rules for myself, which are helping me shift my perspective.

Pay attention to your own thoughts

Admittedly, catching myself in an assumption is tricky, but not impossible. I’ve spotted two red flags that, when I notice them, mean that past-Amy may be driving the present emotional bus. First, I need to pay attention to that familiar ol’ creeping sense of unease when it sidles in. If we have an exchange that leaves me feeling uncertain, I need to take a clear look at whether I’m filling in blanks with my own set of crayons. I mean, Ben told me he slept late. Even if I’m feeling anxious, I can pause long enough to consider that, objectively speaking, a statement of sleep pattern does not mean an affair. I need to be honest with myself about whether he is creating discomfort, or I am. Second, when I catch the word “should” rattling around my thoughts, I need to slow down. If I’m thinking, He should have texted by now or Shouldn’t he have booked the table? I’m likely running into my preconceptions about how relationships function. “Should” is loaded with judgment and blame, implying that someone isn’t living up to whatever standards I’ve set. For this relationship to work we’re going to have to forge our own standards — together.

If you’re not certain about an interaction, clarify

Slowly but surely, I’m learning to evaluate my own reactions with a bit more objectivity. But there are times that I can’t talk myself through something Ben said or did, or didn’t say, or didn’t do. So, I ask him. His response to a simple question — “What did you mean by that?” — can sweep away cobwebs, both real and imagined.

Enlist your partner’s support

For me, working through preconceptions involves lifting them from subconscious to conscious thought. Given that this issue impacts our relationship, I’m thinking Ben and I can work together on this. So the next time I see him, I’m going to tell him about this essay. I’m going to fess up about the unhealthy mental gymnastics I sometimes put myself through. I’m going to acknowledge the damage I could unwittingly do to our budding connection. And I’m going to ask him to speak up if he feels I’m mishearing or misjudging him, so we can talk it through. Who knows? Maybe he’s going through something similar.

I get that following these steps — especially that last one — leaves me vulnerable. I’m nervous about exposing my weaknesses to someone I want to see me as, well, spectacular. But I’m going to try. It’s time to help old-Amy fade into my past. As it turns out, to let my middle-aged romance blossom, I’m not quite done growing up.