What a woman wants from her lover–and where she’ll find it

What does a woman want in her romantic relationship? Flaming passion… not so much, by the time she’s old enough to know better. The Top 4 values sought by the grownups I know are more Scout-like than sexual:

  • Dependability.
  • Communication.
  • Attention.
  • Trust.

A dependable lover shows up when he says he will and does what he says he’ll do. A communicative boyfriend emails/texts/calls her with a frequency roughly equal to her own—a happy medium between silent and stalker—and initiates as well as responds.

An attentive spouse keeps track of her likes and dislikes, and comes up with related ideas, activities, and the occasional pleasant surprise. As for trust, that works both ways—neither he nor she snoops or gripes, because each is utterly confident in the other’s fidelity in realms ranging from romance to finance.

In sum, the ideal lover carries an equal load in the liaison. Somehow women ended up as the relationship Teamsters in American society, and we’ve held onto that job despite all the new ones we’ve taken on since the 1950s. It’s exhausting.

My pretty good marriage hit those marks early on, yet ran out of steam when parenthood overwhelmed our good intentions. I know of plenty of marriages, with and without kids, firsthand and through sitcoms, where the husband hasn’t come close since courtship ended.

Two of my relationships since widowhood never ran on all four cylinders, but I stuck around awhile for the gentlemen’s non-Scout-like qualities. A summer-long spree with a Scout, however, demonstrated recently that a man can treat upright behavior as natural, even enjoyable, and this performance has set a standard for future involvements.

Meanwhile, pity me not. Like most women, I have a batch of solid relationships that are dependable, communicative, attentive, and both trusting and trustworthy.

Where do we find them? Our girlfriends.

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Online lying is sort of OK, some of the time

Online lying is a big factor in online dating, so let’s take an honest look at it. I’m not talking about criminal intent, just everyday prevarication—almost everybody does it, and almost everybody gets away with it to some extent.

Lies lie on a spectrum

As all good Catholics know, there are sins of omission and sins of commission. Say you commit the sin of checking off the “single” box when setting up your online profile, although you are still technically married. But if you’ve been legally separated for nearly a year and are well on the way to a no-fault divorce, are you truly sinful? (Assuming you’re not a practicing Catholic.)

Say you omit information about your six personal bankruptcies, or conviction for domestic abuse, because the website asks no questions about credit score or criminal record when you set up your profile. But don’t these omitted facts constitute dealbreakers for most online daters?

So don’t assume committing a lie is worse than withholding information, in the eyes of your beholders.

Personal ethics aside, there are practical reasons to limit your online lying. In the Age of Google, mounds of personal information are available for free to a halfway-competent searcher, and even more gets served up to anyone willing to invest in an account at a snoop site.

But there are even better reasons for honesty. Lies about your appearance blow up when you show up for the first date. Lies about your personal status—a few dates down the line when the truth emerges—blow up your new friend’s trust. So why waste your time?

Practical truth-telling

Nevertheless, no one tells the whole truth no matter how honest online—at the very least, you’re withholding your full name. So let’s not be persnickety, let’s be practical and categorize online untruths at three levels: white lies (OK by me), lies that push boundaries (and can push away relationships), and liar liar pants on fire mendacity.

Photographs. This is one of the most commonsectors of falsehood, yet the most easily exposed. No matter how handsome the photographic prince, does anyone feel merciful when a frog walks in the door? You’re swimming upstream if you set outrageous expectations with your online image.

White Lie: Posting a professional headshot that softens your facial lineage while sharpening your jawline.

Boundary-Pusher: Posting a lot of flattering older photos, albeit with captions that say “Bridesmaid at Susie’s wedding a few years ago” or “I used to be such a Madonna fan” or “At my son’s Kindergarten graduation; he graduates Yale next spring.”

Pants on Fire: Posting the 15-years-old, 50-pounds-less full-body photo (subset: skimpy swimsuit), a common rookie mistake. No matter what you put on in the way of clothes and makeup for Date 1, it will be clear that photo is not who you are now, and this makes for a short Date 1. I’m not saying lose the 50, let alone the 15; I’m saying put it out there and find people who think you’re fine as you are.

Income. Granted, this is a bigger issue for men. Even in this day and age, making money is not generally considered part of the arsenal of attributes women must present—appearing too wealthy can intimidate some worthy men and draw others of the wrong sort. If you’re in the arts but not famous, the lower-middle income slot for your geography is acceptable. But looking poverty-stricken has its own problems.

White Lie: Making a salary in the $35,000-$50,000 range because you’re underpaid, but claiming you’re in the $50k-$75k or $75k-$100k range because you want to hit the middle-manager income zone in your metro area. (Except in New York City or San Francisco, where that’s a nanny pay grade.)

Boundary Pusher: Making lower-middle-class money but claiming a six-figure income because you want to attract a date who does. You’re setting yourself up to do quite a mysterious-lady dance while reeling him in—no hosting intimate dinners at your two-room condo. Unless, of course, it’s a Tribeca loft.

Pants on Fire: Making no money but claiming a six-figure income because you lost your mistress gig and you need a new source of support. Something like this happened to a man I know. The relationship went on longer than it should have because each person thought the other had more money than he/she actually did, and it ended miserably for both.

Education. Statistics show there’s a correlation between income and education (until you get to the upper levels of the latter, because most Ph.D.s don’t make millions). Social experience shows there’s also a high correlation between snob appeal and two vectors of education: advanced degrees like M.B.A., J.D. and M.D., and snooty schools like the Ivy League, the remaining shreds of the Seven Sisters, and brainy sports powerhouses like Stamford and Duke.

White Lie: Casually referring to your business studies at Wharton, and you did indeed take classes there while getting your undergraduate degree from UPenn. But you’re no Wharton M.B.A.

Boundary-Pusher: Casually referring to your days at Harvard, and you did indeed have about 40 of them in summer school.

Pants on Fire: Casually referring to “when I was at Princeton,” and indeed you were, working in the cafeteria.

Age. The age-gap disparity in romantic relationships is a persistent discriminatory hangover in women’s lives. Many men still like to date down in years. Women, in turn, tend to avoid crossing decade lines upward. This is why online daters may—and may have to—lie about their age.

White Lie: Saying you’re 49 when you’re 52. There’s a reason why retailers price detergent at $4.99 and landlords set the rent at $995—the magic of nines clouds our bargaining brains. Up to three years usually works if your functionality beats your chronology, but you must correct the record long before things get serious with your new friend. I can testify firsthand about receiving frequent absolution from this little sin.

Boundary-Pusher: Saying you’re 49 when you’re 56. Even if all your friends say you look it, when the time comes to share your passport scan with your 52-year-old boyfriend as he assembles paperwork for that cruise he’s taking you on, you’re going to have a lot of ‘splainin’ to do. Especially if you don’t otherwise partake in Lucy-like giddiness.

Pants on Fire: Anything over nine years, no matter how great you look. Because you don’t look so great that anyone, male or female, will not wonder about your self-image and sanity when they learn the truth. Mind the gap.

Ready for online dating? Not if you see any of these traits in yourself

All’s fair in love and online dating? Not quite. While there are those who see the semi-anonymity of dating sites as a chance to get away with something, this arena won’t work in the long run if it’s rife with cheating, lying, and generally immature behavior.

Accordingly, be honest with yourself first. You may not be eligible yet for online dating if you see any of these traits in the mirror.

1. You’re not over your previous relationship

Are you truly ready to treat the people you’re about to meet as humans unto themselves? Or are you going to view them through spectacles tinted by remnants of your previous lover?

Those lenses may be rose-colored, if you’re widowed, or aviator blue, if you’re recovering from a breakup. Either way, you’re lugging a steamer trunk of distortion to every encounter.

Most people you meet don’t really want to hear about your ex on the first three or more dates. But even if you keep your mouth shut, the ghost of a still-vivid relationship will cast a pall on any new one.

All that said, relationship hangover can serve as a useful variation on “It’s not you, it’s me” when you want to end things with someone who doesn’t do it for you. I first encountered this on the receiving end, after a pleasantly bouncy dinner with a widower. We parted with mutual vows to dine again, but the next day he called to say that meeting me had made him realize he still wasn’t over his wife’s death. (Mind you, it had been five years, and though he was new to JDate, he’d told me the ladies from his synagogue had been fixing him up for most of the interim.)

I believe this was actually a rejection, but it’s one of the most considerate I’ve ever received. I began using variations of it, too.

But don’t use it if you really mean it, because that means you’re not ready to dive into the dating pool. Give yourself a few more months, years, therapy sessions, whatever you need.

2. You’re in a seemingly committed long-term liaison

Granted, certain dating sites accommodate those seeking plural relationships (a.k.a. cheating). They let you announce your status as “married” or “in a relationship.” Some of them even let you announce more frankly that you are looking for a sex-only sideline to your main squeeze.

This is all fine if a) your main squeeze knows this and maybe even squeezes someone else on the side, and b) you are honest from the get-go with your online self-declaration.

Otherwise, you’re a stinker. I won’t get into the impact on your primary relationship; that’s none of my business (which doesn’t mean I don’t have an opinion). My scold here is, it’s unfair to others in the online pool.

If you present yourself as free of entanglements and available for a new relationship, people who read your profile will set their expectations accordingly. Like, hey, she looks interesting, I might like to meet her, date her, maybe even marry her someday. Please don’t waste their time.

I think men do more outright online cheating than women. A male friend of mine, on his first date with a woman he met on Match.com, learned enough about one of her recent online encounters to realize she was talking about his currently married former boss. Yuck.

I myself was contacted by a married man on OKCupid who was overtly seeking a mistress, and because his profile foolishly revealed bits of career, bits of facial hair in a fuzzy photo, and enough bits about his situation—he loved his wife but her health had ended their sex life—I suspected he was the husband of a close acquaintance of mine. He himself seemed to realize this, too, when he bumped into me at a public event and his usual bonhomie turned stilted—since my photo on OKC was not fuzzy. Oops.

Now, what if you are entangled but the end is in sight? And you want to make yourself feel better with the reminder there are other fish in the sea? Indeed, your decision to try to keep your relationship going or call it quits depends in part on how your partner stacks up against the online inventory?

I’ve done it, more than once. There’s a fine line between intention to cheat actively, and self-assurance of personal or partner worth (or lack thereof). Tread carefully.

3. You hate men (or women)

I’m talking here about a temporary attitude, probably held for good reason. My friend Roberta is Exhibit A. She assumed she had an OK, if no longer great, bond with her husband of 20 years, a man of inflating body and declining physical and fiscal health. This assumption turned out to be wrong on several counts.

Her husband suddenly moved in with a young woman he’d met through his contracting business, which was actually doing well on an unreported cash basis. Her pre-teen daughter already had a nicely furnished room at the new woman’s house, where the supposed father-daughter weekend camping trips were actually taking place. All sorts of ugliness ensued.

Roberta decided that dating well was the best revenge. Her pretty profile picture drew men like flies, but messaging with them rarely progressed to dates. Her occasional first dates didn’t lead to seconds.

I read her message exchanges and listened to her reports of date conversations, and immediately saw her problem. She was seething. Her anger infused her interactions, even if she didn’t go on at length about her specific troubles, and male antennae quivered in fear.

It’s not easy being a man. Many American men of ripened generations feel like they’ve had the rug pulled out from under them. As a feminist, I think it’s about bloody time that possession of a penis no longer makes you automatically eligible for more power, responsibility, and pay. But these guys had a set of expectations drilled into them while young, then had them yanked away in the decades that followed.

So they’re stuck with the worst of both worlds: old-fashioned muscle-bound isolation combined with undermined societal status. Father no longer knows best; he doesn’t know shit. Nor does he have supportive girlfriends he can complain to and rely on to talk him through blue spells.

Men like this do not need you to make them feel any worse than they already do from over-and-done-with relationships. Women who are escaping lonely or crappy marriages do not need you to go on and on about what’s wrong with American women.

Be kind, rewind, if you’re still in hate-mode from a lousy partner. The good men and women deserve better.

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