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By Pauline Phoi Thi Ho
Here I am in my 40s and single again. As I looked back, I realized that I had done everything according to our society’s social constructs. In my late 20s, I met the perfect man – educated, successful, and from a good Chinese family. Then came the big Chinese wedding attended by the who’s who of the Chinese Vancouver community.
As wonderful as he is, we simply weren’t meant to be together. In my 30s I dated millionaires who should have fulfilled the North American dream. They were handsome, intelligent, funny and uniquely flawed.
I settled for a wonderful emotional connection in my late 30s. Someone who was a friend first and lover after. But, common-law bliss ended in a bitterness I had never experienced in my history of relationships. This speaks volumes since I’m friends with most of my exes and best friends with my ex-husband.
After 18 months of solitude, I realized the path to intimate relationship happiness meant a better understanding of what a relationship really means for me. I also had to consider how that works with modern dating.
The truth is, it is a brave new world of dating. My parents separated in the late 80s. Back then, the world of dating did not exist for my mother.
When she and my dad separated, the broad consensus was this does not happen to a nice, successful Vietnamese couple. I still remember when my mom came home after being insultingly asked out by an attractive lawyer at work. He approached her by saying that he wanted to ask her out to find out what was wrong with her. According to him, why would an attractive, successful and intelligent woman be divorced?
Thankfully, by the time I was separated at 31 years old, two of my closest friends were experiencing the same situation. I was no longer the misfit but part of the 50 per cent who were going through divorce.
For a one-year period, I joined online dating sites and went on 150 first dates with only about 30 second dates. The horror of that experience lead my friends to suggest starting a blog or a book. In hindsight, I wish I had.
As I navigated the weird world of online dating, I did the obvious, vented to my friends and came to learn that it was not a singular experience. Most of my friends, both male and female, were going through their own challenges of dating and being single.
A dear friend who wishes to remain anonymous, a very successful and attractive Vietnamese man, talked at length about his guilt from leaving his assumingly happy family because it was suffocating. Another friend talked to me about leaving hidden books under her bed about divorce and finding happiness while crying herself to sleep. Both left what society labelled “good relationships” because something was missing.
They, like me, had it all – a successful partner, financial security, and no ideological conflicts. Why wasn’t it enough?
The truth is something I’m only beginning to understand – relationships and marriage are an outdated social construct. The fact is, in developed nations, women no longer need a partner for protection, money, or procreation.
Since I left my parents home, I have financially and physically taken care of myself. My emotional network comes from a wonderful group of friends I rely on as my social safety network. So why do I need a partner?
In asking myself this question, I also asked a series friends in their 20s to 60s.
What I found most interesting was the commonality of determining what we want in our relationships. No longer are there the ideals of the nice home with 2.5 children and happily ever after. Since the divorce rate in western countries is more than 50 per cent, people are beginning to redefine relationships based on what makes them happy.
If I don’t need a partner for money, safety, fixing things around the home or fathering children, what do I want a relationship for?
I started by asking my 20 something friends. Both Alyson, 25, and Archana, 29, talked about looking for a life partner who could meet their emotional needs and share in their passions. Both are young, attractive and successful but have very different approaches to dating.
Alyson has been online dating and meeting people through colleagues at work. She talks about numerous awkward dates and the difficulty in meeting someone who can accept her early career success. Meeting people has not been an issue for her but meeting someone who isn’t socially awkward or emotionally damaged seems to be the greater challenge.
We spoke at length about how 20 somethings are dating in a very pragmatic manner. With the digital ease of access to 1000s of people, if one date doesn’t work out many 20 somethings immediately move on.
Archana, on the other hand, is newly divorced and approaches dating very differently. She reconnects with people she used to know through social media. Online dating with strangers scares her. The thought of putting herself out there, being genuine and vulnerable does not make her feel safe.
She recognizes that it is difficult to date without joining an online dating site. In her experience, most of the men on these sites are white. As the daughter of Sri Lankan immigrants, it is important for her to meet people who have similar life stories and experiences.
Multiple studies including data collected from Facebook and OKCupid found that odds are in favour of white men and Asian women on North American dating sites. Black people and Asian men have the hardest time on these sites.
This statistic may seem like it is working in my favour but the sexualisation of Asian and Latina women has reached the point of fetishism. It is a problematic issue that I’ve experienced often. The desire of white men to find the exotic, ever youthful, demure and well educated woman who tends towards submissive gender roles is a stereotype steeped in racism and sexism. Unfortunately, online dating helps to perpetuate this since it is based primarily on the pictures that are posted.
My friend, Carol, 54, talks about the stereotypes she has experienced as a Latina woman. Her eyes roll as she talks about her irritation when men talk about how much they love a Spanish accent.
Carol is a pragmatic romantic like myself. She believes in great love but dating in her 40s and 50s has been daunting.
When asked about online dating, she talks about it as a numbers game. There is the opportunity to meet so many people but those who she would be attracted to are few. At her age, she has noticed the decline in suitable matches due to a number of factors.
Since people of colour appear to age slower than white people, the look in age disparity is much greater even with men our own age. Health is also a big factor in how we appear as we get older and as superficial as it seems, physical attraction is a big part of finding a compatible partner.
Like her younger counterparts, Carol is looking for an emotional partner who enjoys the same passions in life and can be her partner on all levels. The big difference is that her life is established and whoever comes into it must fit well.
This was also echoed by Edith, 68. Edith and her daughter, Angela 30, find themselves on the same dating sites, looking for love at the same time. What is interesting about their situations is the difference in dating norms of each generation.
According to Edith, money, health and where people are at in their lives are determining factors in seniors’ dating. If poor health is an issue, that is the focus of a person’s energy and they likely will not date.
Many seniors today continue to work or are semi-retired. This is a huge factor in the person they are looking to meet. She had found that most men are looking for women who have similar asset levels in order to travel and split the cost. If you’re still working, this won’t be possible.
Money was a bigger issue for seniors than for the other generations. When asked about the importance of money and accumulation of wealth, all the other women I interviewed said they wanted someone who was financially responsible but wealth was not a top priority.
Archana talked about how growing up she was taught to find a husband who had a good education, good job and came from a good family. Her life has taught her that those attributes are not a guarantee of a good partnership. What matters to her is compatibility, not someone who looks good on paper.
Edith’s experience was divergent. Since seniors’ assets will not increase but decrease, money is a determining factor. Her female widowed friends won’t date in fear of men wanting them only for their money.
When asked about the importance of sex in the senior relationship, Edith commented that it depends on the people involved and varies from person to person based on their ability to perform.
Ultimately, she would like to meet that one person with who to live out her golden years. She’d like to start out as one half of a committed couple that lives in separate residences but has power of attorney over each other. Then, if they are compatible to live together, she would enjoy sharing a home but with separate bedrooms. The need for space to accommodate individual ways of living was key.
“My life has little drama in it so I don’t need much emotional support,” said Edith.
What she did want was an intellectual connection, common hobbies and interests. Her life is settled and she knows it is harder for her to find the right person to stroll through life with at the same speed.
Her daughter, Angela, is looking for someone who has similar life goals. Marriage is not at the forefront of her relationship wish list. She’s looking for companionship and someone she can grow with. Her dating experiences, much like Archana and Alyson’s, have been free flowing. The social norm of three to five dates before sexual intimacy doesn’t necessarily exist for them.
Frankie, 26, has a unique experience that is growing in North America. As someone who recently left a heterosexual, common-law relationship, her journey of self-awareness has brought her a deeper understanding of herself. Her authentic self is a gender queer person who is seeking love in a gender non-conforming relationship. Basically, Frankie understands that her gender identity does not fit into the binary of feminine or masculine but is dynamic. Frankie recognizes that the right partner for her is someone who can be in a non-gender conforming relationship where they can shift roles based on who they are as a couple.
This may sound confusing and vague to heterosexual people, but it is a growing reality for many. Part of their reality is navigating the partnership dynamics that have yet to be scripted by society.
Each generation I spoke to had differences in dating experiences and desires, but they had much in common. Whether they believed in the five date rule or free flowing connections, they were uncompromising about what would work for them based on their lives and needs.
The Vietnamese have a saying that every pot has a lid, even the dented ones. No matter what generation we are in, we are all seeking that perfect lid. Which comes full circle back to me. What do I want?
Like my friends, I am uncompromising. I want someone will fit me well. As such, we will probably end up defining our own relationship dynamic based on our needs and wants rather than what society dictates. Whoever he is, he will be curious, funny and a fellow misfit with a burning desire to live life to its fullest.