‘I’m Too Old for Love, But I Want It Anyway!’

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Dear Polly,

I’m one of those readers who never thought I would write to an advice columnist since, deep inside, I know (or should know) what to do. However, I am writing because I am still stuck. And as an “older” reader (I’m turning 54 this year — ugh) it seems I should be in the prime of my life, not struggling or feeling down.

Specifically, while on the surface all seems fabulous (great job, wonderful friends and family, own my condo albeit with a mortgage, I travel, etc.), while I am truly lucky/blessed (though I’ve worked very hard all my life for all of this), I feel an important piece is missing. I so very much want to be in a relationship again. Or at least I wish I didn’t WANT to have a relationship again — as in, if it happens, it happens; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I’ve been separated/divorced eight years now and tried online dating and I’m just depressed about it all.

When I reread the above, I get so mad at myself. I have NOTHING to complain about. Absolutely nothing. I work hard and get to do what I want — whether that’s a trip to Europe or lunch in a Michelin-starred restaurant (all on my own). But I loved my ex so deeply and completely and I loved being married to him. Getting divorced was not my choice (I wanted to fight for my marriage, but my ex did not — and surprise, surprise, he ended up marrying someone 15 years younger than me). Frankly, it took me far too long to get over my divorce, over five years. But when I reread the above, I guess I’m still not over it (and yes, I blame myself for the failure of my marriage, though of course I know it takes two to tango).

Yes, I am in therapy. Yes, I have spoken with my friends. Yes, I have my gratitude list, which I update everyday. Why can’t I just be happy with the incredible (single) life I have? I feel that at 54 I will never truly be fulfilled. If some of your 20- and 30-something readers can’t find the life they want, what chances do I have?

Stuck in My 50s

Dear Stuck in My 50s,

You’re stuck because you’re not allowing yourself to be exactly where you are. You’re ashamed of where you are. It feels demeaning to be here. You know that you should be grateful, damn it! You should cherish what you have! You shouldn’t want to fall in love! You should feel fulfilled already! You should be over your divorce by now!

When you’re furious at yourself for HOW YOU SHOULD FEEL about your life, that usually means that you spend most of your time pretending that you feel the way that you SHOULD feel, and you spend some of your time feeling angry at yourself for feeling terrible. This ping-ponging between I AM FINE and FUCK EVERYTHING is not good for you. It doesn’t help you to grow. And it alienates you from other people. What they see is a conflicted person who lies to their faces about how she’s doing. It also makes you more and more insecure, because people aren’t that kind or open to you when you’re at war with yourself. And I don’t need to tell you that it’s fucking impossible to try to meet people and date when you feel this way! No one likes a person who’s manifesting anxiety and self-loathing while trying to sound cheerful.

You’re like a car that’s out of alignment. I lived that way for a few years, too. I was popular but old friends seemed annoyed with me and new friends thought I was kind of sad and weird. I wanted more from my life. I wanted things that I wouldn’t admit out loud. I thought I should be different, better, stronger, above it all. I wasn’t. I couldn’t live in reality. I wanted to pretend that I was good instead of trying to feel good.

I’m sure all of this probably sounds too dramatically negative to you. You like your life! You do stuff, you travel, you’re satisfied in many ways! But you’re also disgusted by yourself, if you dig a little deeper. You hate yourself for not getting over your divorce faster. You hate yourself for being 54 and still wanting a different life. Wanting things at your age is unseemly.

Do you see how absurd that sounds? You’re angry at yourself for being a human with needs. No wonder you want love so badly. You associate love with a way of actually being valuable and mattering again, which would also mean relaxing and feeling things and enjoying yourself. Love gives you an excuse to slow down and savor the moment. Yes, love is about having a partner in life. Of course! But for you, love will also save you from feeling like an expired can of beans.

I’m not making fun of you. I’m actually describing what any woman would feel after fighting for her marriage, losing it, and being replaced by a much younger woman. It’s sick that we expect women who’ve been through that experience to pretend that everything is awesome or risk being seen as desperate. But right now, you’re buying into cultural expectations of where you should be. You’re being a scoldy, unfair boss to yourself. Your emotions and your mind and your soul are fighting back by keeping you stuck.

Women are handed so many bad, unbelievable scripts over the course of their lives. Fuck this triumphant, grateful, divorced-lady script you’ve been handed! Shred it. Set it on fire. It’s unjust. This script is making you miserable. Every single day that you repeat the lie that you’re over your divorce, it makes you more stuck. This is how obsessions work: We keep denying that we feel what we feel, but something inside of us gets more and more invested in exactly what we’re NOT supposed to care about. “Caring about this makes you weak!” our culture tells us, and we repeat it to ourselves until it’s THE ONLY THING WE CARE ABOUT.

You’ve been such a mean boss to yourself for so long that you can’t even feel the lunches at the nice restaurants and the good friends and the travel. That’s what happens when you don’t allow yourself to exist in reality, to be where you are, to feel what you feel. You lose your ability to feel anything at all.

So many of our scripts, as women, have that in common: We are not allowed to live in reality. Instead, we have to mouth lines from some fantasy realm where nothing can touch us. Even though we were taught at a young age that our value is the sum of our charms and our sexy bodies, even though we swim through toxic messages every day that tell us, as we age, that our value is slowly leaching out of us, drop by drop, we’re still not supposed to internalize the news that our spouses have left us for younger and therefore more valuable mates. And now you blame yourself for all of the mundane ways you failed to be the perfect wife! Whew. What you need to understand is that just as your “failure” as a woman is a story line you learned from our culture, your trauma over your divorce has been amplified by our culture: You discovered that all of your fears about getting older were true you aged and therefore you became disposable. On one level, sure, we can all say, “Marriages fail, people move on, whatever.” But the fact remains that this is not how it feels from the inside, as a woman, living in our poisonous sexist culture, after 54 years of swimming through polluted sewage. Instead, the inverse of Happily Ever After (the outcome we’re taught to fear just as much as we’re taught to long for the fairy tale of eternal marriage) has come to pass: You were once perfect and special and valuable, and now you’re the one who gets left behind, the old woman in the cottage with the poisonous apples, Ursula the sea witch, reduced to stealing the voice of an insipid redhead just to win the affections of some worthless aristocratic pretty boy in her midst.

You have to throw on the brakes, right now, and give yourself some credit for surviving that trauma. Stop underestimating how utterly devastating and earth-shattering an unwanted divorce would be for any woman alive. Stop treating your enduring love for your husband as some kind of a liability and treating yourself as weak for feeling it, even now. The story you’re telling, that our culture is telling about you, is dead fucking wrong. The so-called moral, that you were rightly cast aside (a rational high-capitalist decision on the part of your ex) and you’re pathetic for continuing to care, couldn’t be less true. Your continued investment and love for your ex signals that you have a gigantic capacity for love, that you are incredibly generous and loyal — loyal beyond all reason. Even if your affection feels a tiny bit misplaced at this moment, it springs from a beautiful place. Your ability to give your love generously lies at the precious and irreplaceable center of who you are.

You have not become less and less valuable. You are not toxic flotsam, drifting by in the sewage, while some new princess gets crowned queen. You are more valuable than ever, in fact.

THAT is reality. It’s time to live here now. You are not over your divorce. Feel that and dig into it. Let yourself feel it the way you couldn’t for years, because you had to be tough and survive instead. I know this might not seem like the best image of empowerment, but you know in The Little Mermaid, how Ursula the sea witch is pretending to be a sweet little bride in a white dress, then the spell is broken and she’s exposed as this hideous purple-skinned octo-hag? And instead of shriveling up when she’s exposed, she grows bigger and bigger and wrecks the ship and almost kills everyone, including the boring prince and the dull-as-mud redheaded mermaid (who’s not only stupid enough to trade in her MAGICAL TAIL but also her BEAUTIFUL VOICE just for a very average white boy with a pair of meat Chiclets and a little cash)? Remember how Ursula seems angrier but also, oddly enough, happier than ever as she’s expanding to infinity and beyond and destroying everything in sight and throwing her head back and cackling? It’s as if life has never been better or more hilarious or more deliciously terribly perfect until now! That’s how it feels to embrace reality, my lady. Even though you’re not the adorable girl in white anymore, it feels good! You hated that singsongy voice anyway! It was all bullshit! That white dress was so itchy and restrictive! Even though you’re scary and your eyes are bloodshot and your skin is lavender and you are fucking GIGANTIC, it just feels so good to SHOW YOURSELF to BREATHE IN THE TRUTH to LEAN WAY THE FUCK IN to your hideous, frightening self! That’s Ursula throwing all of the toxic unfair nightmares she’s been fed back into the faces of those drippy tedious losers in their drafty castle by the sea. Those fucking gutless aristocrats matter? They’re the kinds of motherfuckers heartless enough to murder singing crabs! They have bleached white teeth and no souls! That dipshitty prince kicked Ariel to the curb the second she couldn’t sing like a bird anymore!

And Ursula can see that clearly, at long last.

Fuck them, she tells herself. She’s got a pair of clever eels that do her bidding, doesn’t she? She doesn’t need that singsongy voice! She has a growl deeper and darker than the sea! That’s what you get from being alive a long-ass time. Your rage and joy and frustration and loyalty, when you channel it, when you love it with all of your heart the way you love your ex, the way you love being alive on a good day? It makes you formidable.

Sometimes you can’t live in reality until you welcome in the UGLINESS. That’s why Ursula is so instructive and helpful here. When I started to feel really wound up about passing 42, 44, 46, when I started to feel disappointed in how high-strung I could get over minor interactions, when I started to notice people backing away from me, possibly because I was conflicted and insecure for the first time in years, and possibly also because my head was filled with the words YOU SHOULD BE BETTER THAN THIS, I had to lean into ugliness. I started to look in the mirror and say to myself: “You are old and gross and it’s good, good, good.” I started to be much less friendly to people I was pretty sure didn’t like me anyway. I started to own my grouchy self. I started to make it very clear to my kids that I was a moody person — not by freaking out over small shit, but by talking about what a goddamn moody person I am, and have always been, come hell or high water.

I needed to live in reality for a change. I needed to let go of the fantasy of finally being POPULAR AND BEAUTIFUL AND CALM AND PERFECT (not kidding!), and I had to decide that being unpopular and ugly and also oldish and also grumpy was not so bad after all. All of these supposedly scary things SET ME FREE, MOTHERFUCKER. And honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever looked better than I do now, but maybe I’m a little biased because I really do like myself as I am, even when I’m a bitchy old piece of shit. I do what feels good now. I set my own standards for myself. I trust myself. I forgive myself.

It’s time to recognize your raw power and strength for a change. THAT is reality. Like Ursula, your understanding of your own power will grow, oddly enough, at the very moment when you can finally see how defeated and vulnerable and pathetic and left behind you feel and have continued to feel for years. The second you let yourself admit the full force of your shame and fear and sadness over your divorce — and also understand that all of that is wrapped up in bad cultural messages you’ve been ingesting since you were little — a new sensation will flood in: You’ll feel proud of your sadness. You’ll see how big your heart is, that you could still feel so sad and so full of love for your ex. And maybe you’ll even laugh at the terrible wrath that was placed on you, from day one. You were fucked from the start. Everything good about you had an expiration date.

That was all a lie. Your power and your scary hideous rage and your real wisdom and beauty grow more and more each day. The more you accept your true feelings instead of telling cheerful stories about how well you’re doing, the more the full force of what you have to offer this world will expand to infinity and beyond.

I want you to stop it with the cheery lunches and the gratitude lists for a while. I want you to stop putting on the white dress and singing “I got over that a long time ago, no worries!” in a pretty voice. I want you to take up more space. I want you to write very sad poetry about your divorce. I want you to cry into a series of very nice hankies, and leave them piled up around you in a heap. I want you to be big and bossy and negative and frightening as hell for once in your life. I want you to be everything you were never supposed to be. And when people tell you it’s not okay, you should be over this by now, you’re desperate, it’s not attractive, I want you to throw your head back and laugh like Ursula the fucking sea witch, a laugh that says, WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU KNOW, YOU FLACCID LITTLE SLEEPWALKING ARISTOCRAT?

Your scary cackle and your boundless love and your hard work and your gratitude make you beautiful. Take some pride in who you are instead of giving yourself shit all the time. And even when you feel ashamed, really feel that shame, and forgive yourself for it. Be where you are, without making every mood a new verdict on your character and value. You can have everything you’ve ever wanted, still. You can. You care about love so look for love. Take a break when it gets depressing, but don’t try so hard NOT TO WANT LOVE. Struggling not to feel what you feel is bad for you. This is what you feel: You want love. Feel it without judging yourself as lonely and desperate. But also examine what, specifically, you think love will bring you, and if you can give yourself some of those things without finding a prince, do that, too. Craving love is a human thing. It’s natural and normal and good. It’s not a failure on your part. It doesn’t make you sad or hideous. The more you allow room for what is real, the more other people will see you clearly. The more other people can see you clearly, the easier it will become for them to appreciate and love you.

But you have to start to embrace and celebrate your crazy old sea witch self FIRST. The world is waiting for you to laugh in the face of its lies. That’s what it secretly wants from you. Your emotions and your mind and your soul have been wishing for this moment for so long. They want you to stand up and say, “This script isn’t convincing. I don’t buy this story. The villainess is the real heroine! I’m rewriting this bad script.”

But don’t just write another triumphant fairy tale. Write something darker and grittier and more visceral and more transcendent than that, full of the wildest dreams and murkiest feelings and the most brilliant, unpredictable twists. Your age is not a verdict that damns you to retire to some remote cottage with your poisonous apples. You are more alive and more real than you’ve ever been before. Let go of control and see where the story takes you. Let each sad, scary, gorgeous moment unfold and show you its grace and its promise.

Polly

Order the Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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‘I’m Too Old for Love, But I Want It Anyway!’