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'Are You Dating Yet?'

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I remember reading an interview with Martha Stewart once where the reporter asked her if she planned to re-marry. "I was married for twenty-five years," she replied. "Isn't that enough?"

Her retort made me laugh, because it seemed to me that Stewart was impatiently expressing a shift in attitude that had been embraced by a certain subset of divorced middle-aged women, but had yet to be acknowledged in the zeitgeist. 'Christ," I thought, "Even she gets asked!'

I know how she felt. After my marriage ended a few years ago, a friend I hadn't seen since the split asked me if I was seeing anybody yet. I knew he had my best interests at heart, but his question prompted a visceral reaction, even though, at the time, I'd have been hard-pressed to articulate why. Now I know that what bothered me about it was its underlying assumption, that I--indeed anyone in my position--would naturally want to get back in the game. But I didn't feel that way, and not only did I find the assumption strangely irksome, I felt powerless to reject it without seeming defensive.

Since then, I've been asked that question many times, and although I've known the pleasures an intimate relationship can afford, and believe that coupledom is a lovely way to live for those who thrive within its domain, that is largely beside the point. What I'm questioning here is the deeply-embedded assumption in our culture that throughout their lives, all hetero women have the same goals in this regard, and after a divorce they're merely just marking time until a sentient male crosses their paths, or they're paired up again and the order of the universe is restored.

But for me and many women I know, that's not the way it is. If we think about it at all, which we almost never do, we're fairly certain that the only kind of pairing that would interest us now is one in which we don't have to compromise our work, freedom or need for solitude. Sure, a companionable life sounds appealing at times, unless we have to share it under one roof, or with insufferable relatives and alien step children, in which case, not so much.

It's not that we don't trust love, or are cynical about relationships; it's just that we're no longer delusional about them either. Maybe our feelings will change, and maybe not. And yet it's impossible to take three steps in our culture without somebody asking a newly-separated woman "Are you dating yet?" However well intentioned that query may be--or not--often it's asked by unhappily married women who prefer to pity a single woman rather than feel threatened by her relaxed independence--its socially sanctioned subtext is always the same: "Enough already. When are you going to get back on the horse and be like us?"

But what if that horse has left the barn, and you no longer have any interest in chasing it? More importantly, what if that horse is so old and lame, it's time to retire it and put it out of its misery?

Martha Stewart had a large life and a billion-dollar company when she told a reporter that the desire to remarry was not top of mind. My mother had a more modest existence when she left her marriage at the age of 70, but I have no doubt that she and Martha would have totally related.

For the last fifteen years of her life, my mother was what I would call a woman in full. Beautiful, loved and extravagantly alive, she could have re-married if she'd wanted to, I suspect, but the idea simply did not interest her. She had her family; she had her friends; she had her bridge and political shows. Next to the swagger and flash of an independent life, no guy had a chance.

And yet as soon as she was on her own, people kept trying to set her up. My mom liked men, and men definitely liked her--they flirted with her all the time--but she was of the view that at a certain stage in life, a man was largely a liability. If you weren't already attached to one out of love, habit or obligation, then why start up?

I can still see her waving one arm dismissively when people asked her if she wanted to meet a guy. "What do I need it for?" she'd say. "They get sick. They get set in their ways. You just have to take care of them."

Once, my cousin tried to fix her up with her girlfriend's widowed father, who happened to live in my mom's building. Mostly as a favor to my cousin, my mom invited the man in for tea. Her duty done, she promptly forgot about him and went back to the only serious man in her life--Bill Maher. Afterwards, my cousin reported back that he didn't approve of my mom's smoking, and had told his daughter that if my mother wanted to go out with him, she'd have to quit.

The notion of this man--of any man--assuming she'd be automatically interested in him--not to mention that he could tell her what to do--was so galling to my mother, her response (which she shared with her kids, and not him), was a completely uncharacteristic albeit hilariously intemperate "FU!"

Not exactly the stance of a woman longing to catch a fish.

There are periods in life when it is deeply pleasurable to be with someone, and periods when it is deeply pleasurable not to be. I've enjoyed long stretches of both over the years, and each has its longings and charms. But to suggest to women who've logged a few miles that there's only one consummation devoutly to be wished in this life--and it's coupledom? I don't think so.

Being with someone you love is high on the list of life's great pleasures. But so is vanishing for days into a cherished pursuit with no one to answer to. So is not having to deal with another person's schedule, stomach or tiresome shtick. And in case you haven't heard, marriage, for all its hype, can be a real bummer sometimes. I've been lonely married and I've been lonely single, and compared to the torture of sleeping beside someone you no longer love, or know has left the building, or maybe are hoping will choke in his sleep, lonely single is a walk in the park.

Sure, I know divorced women who dread the thought of ending up alone. But I also know married women who pine for their freedom. One close to me candidly admits that she lives for the days when she or her husband travels on business, and she fantasizes regularly about living alone in a boutique hotel. Another is the envy of all her coupled girlfriends because her husband lives in another town, and she only has to be on duty part-time. Yet another jokes that she's seriously considering polygamy. Maybe then her husband will leave her alone and spend more time with the sister-wives.

Time, and how one chooses to spend it, is really the issue here, for one doesn't arrive at this stage of life without a keenly felt awareness that tempus fugit. It's worth noting as well by the way that the desire to fly solo post-marriage is shared not only by those whose unions did not end happily, but also by those who mated with the love of their lives. For the time remaining to them, the latter simply have no interest in settling for Mr. Goodenough.

A few years ago, I spent an afternoon with a woman who lives in an assisted living facility. The place was a hotbed of intrigue and romance, like high school, but with walkers. The women so outnumbered the men in that facility that every time an eligible man turned up--and I use the term loosely--it was as if someone had fired a starting pistol. My friend, who is widowed, watched the proceedings with detached amusement. "I have no interest in any of that," she said. "I had the best. I'd always be comparing."

Still, I think something else is at play here besides not wanting to be defined by other people's projections, and it has to do with the right to privacy. For unless a divorced person raises the subject--something I did happily earlier in my life when I did want to meet someone--the state of his or her romantic life is really nobody else's business. For that reason, I've often wondered how a married or otherwise coupled person would react if, after they've quizzed me about my relationship status, I casually asked them, "So what about you? Found the cojones to leave your marriage yet? Having an affair? Getting any?"

That's something you might want to consider the next time you're poised to ask a newly single woman if she's dating yet.

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