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Dating, Again

Hara Estroff Marano gives advice on commitment, family relations, and learning to date after being off the market for a half-dozen years.

I'm 30 Going on 15

I honestly need advice on how to meet women. I'm just coming off a six-year relationship and feel as if I'm 15 again. I'm scared to talk, and I don't know what to say when I do. Please help.

Yes, dating will do that to a person—at any age. Think of it as nature's incentive to invest time and effort in choosing a partner well, and in maintaining the relationship, so that you never have to return to the mate-market again. It feels scary and awkward now? Imagine it at, say, 50 or 60.

No matter how wise life experience may make us, dating always exaggerates the differences between men and women and tosses us back into absurdly primitive mind-sets. At best it's like high school all over again. You could be in the middle of preparing a brief for the Supreme Court and find yourself thinking of that attractive stranger whose eyes you met momentarily on the street: Does she work around here? How can I find myself in her path again? What would I say to her? Would she like me? How do I come across?

The best way to meet women is to be interesting and be yourself. Do more of the things you're passionate about; that not only makes you attractive and feels rewarding, it puts you in a position to encounter women with similar interests, making initial conversation that much easier. Let all of your friends know you are available—their girlfriends have girlfriends—and force yourself to accept all invitations to parties, weddings, celebrations of any kind. Join groups that engage in activities you like—hiking, biking and ski clubs. Lock up your television set, get out of the house and go where young people go. And don't overlook Internet dating sites; they vastly increase the pool of possible women. You can engage in flirtation and information exchange at a rate that is comfortable for you. Sure, there's still always the awkwardness of a first date, but without it, there'll never be a second.

He Wants His Ducks Lined Up Before Marriage

My partner and I have been in a very loving relationship for almost six years. He is 28 and I am 44. We intend to marry someday. For me, that's when my two teenaged boys are off to college, in two years. He agrees. However, I am ready for an engagement proposal. He says he needs to feel more secure in his career and have all the proverbial ducks lined up. But I don't see him working toward this goal. Most of his free time is spent coaching my daughter's softball team—a good example of his devotion to us. I have experienced enough about life to know that those ducks could be neatly lined up today and scattered about tomorrow. He admits to fears about marriage because of his parents' divorce. I am afraid of being taken for granted.

You may know the truth about life, but you can't bludgeon anyone else with it. There are just some things every person must discover for himself in his own way. Right now, you're allowing your fears of being taken advantage of to control the relationship. You need to listen more to your beau's perspective and understand what his real concerns are. Why not sit down with him for a loving conversation in which you both put your hopes, dreams (and fears) for the future on the table. In an atmosphere free of judgment and your disappointment, he may feel comfortable. And that may allow him to elaborate concrete goals instead of the vague ones that now set off your alarm.

Remember, he isn't just a whole lot younger; he has the unusual experience of walking into a ready-made family that's well on its way in life. He appears to be enjoying the roles he has taken on and doing his share of work in your home and your family, but you might want to talk about whether he is looking forward to the emptied nest ahead as much as you are.

Don't push him into your dream of the future. Allow him to express his freely. Then jointly develop a set of goals that accommodates both your visions. For any relationship to work, your ducks and his ducks need to swim in the same pond.

Can He Really Love His Fiancee—and See Me?

I have been in a sexual relationship for almost three years with a man who is engaged to be married. He insists he is not a "commitment-phobe" and that he truly loves his fiancee. He says she is everything he has ever wanted in a mate, but cannot explain why he continues to see me. The sex is very satisfying, but that can't be the only reason. Is he full of bull, or is it possible for someone to love his mate and continue other relationships?

The better question is not why he continues the relationship with you—but why you continue the relationship with him. Why do you invest even one brain cell of your mental capital on figuring out his motivation? Hint: Your availability may be the only incentive some men need. That's hardly a compliment to any woman. Do you enjoy driving down dead-end streets? A furtive relationship may be sexually satisfying, but it certainly can't meet your basic need for free and open
exchange of love and support when you need it most. Begin thinking of yourself as someone worthy of a partner who can provide emotional and sexual satisfaction in the same package—and start looking for a man who is interested in you enough to build a future with you.

I'm Worried About My Siblings

I am a 20-year-old guy, the oldest of seven children. There's a problem with discipline in my family. None of my siblings follows rules or listens to my parents. My 7-year-old brother burned the living-room carpet, and there were no consequences. My 18-year-old sister decided not to go to school last year just because she could get away with it. My 10-year-old brother's grades are terrible, and he will most likely be held back for a second year. I'm scared that they won't be able to face the real world. Both my parents work. My father comes home in the late afternoon but doesn't pay attention to the kids. My mother gets home late at night. I try to make things better by putting the kids to sleep at a normal bedtime, and it seems to be working. Is it OK for me to act as a parent, or should my parents be doing something?

No, it's not really OK for you to act as the parent—but it's sometimes necessary. And you are demonstrating your maturity in wisdom and authority. Your parents have obviously abdicated their roles as supervisors. You're discovering that kids need parental attention and will do almost anything to get it. How fortunate your siblings are to have you around. What would really be best? Sit down with your parents and tell them how much they are needed, as well as how worried you are about their apparent lack of concern, the effects it seems to be having and how afraid you are for your siblings' future. You might also suggest that they hold a family meeting to assign everyone chores, so that the responsibilities of living together are shared and everyone feels part of a common purpose. Someone still has to pay attention. Many parents work to support a family, yet they set up a web of concern and responsibility so that the children know they are still being looked after and cared for even when parents are not at home.

I'm Desperate to Move On

I've known a guy for just over two years. For the first year, we dated. It's been almost a year since we broke up and decided to remain best friends. However, I sometimes still feel the need to be with him and would hate to see him with someone else. I haven't really let go. More and more I've thought about distancing myself in an attempt to let go of emotional attachment. But I would greatly miss him. I often end up feeling confused, succumbing to my attraction and putting myself back at square one. I'm desperate to move on; I fear I will be hurt even more in the end.

It's always easiest to move on when you've got someplace really interesting to go. So work on creating other forms of excitement in your life. And do cut down your exposure to Mr. Ex. Seeing him forces you to look back. Old relationships are appealing because the known universe often feels more comfortable and takes less strategic and emotional effort than setting out for new territory. But it sounds like your comfort zone is really punishing you. No one enjoys seeing a former lover with a new partner; it can be a potent reminder of rejection. As you search for potential new partners and enjoy some social success, the sense of rejection will pale and you'll be able to access the affection you still have for each other without being jolted back into pain. Get going!