by Nicole Crews

Mother: What was the age difference of your boyfriend in your twenties?

Me: He was almost 20 years older than I was.

Mother: So you’ve been working backwards ever since?

Me: I guess. I missed out on a lot.

I think most singles in America would agree (and there are about 102 million of us to ask) that dating in the 21st Century is the sanity-soaking equivalent to Chinese water torture.

Like the ancient coercion method, dating begins pleasantly enough: icy cocktails and titillating barbs tickling the senses that shanghai you into believing that refreshment — not pelting torment — lies ahead.

No one warns you that courtship brings with it the rhythmic monotony of vapid conversation, feigned smiles and stagnant silences and makes bamboo shoots under the nails feel like a mani-pedi by comparison.

And that’s just the first date.

Forget the agony of actually trying to develop a postmodern relationship in an era boobytrapped with all the sexting, performance-enhancing, filler-injecting, “Bachelor”-watching, ex-wiving, divorced-dadding, online-dating baggage of our era.

The whole debacle makes it intensely clear why a lot of 21st Century singles don’t want to get married: So they won’t have to date.

So what’s the solution for a society hell-bent on sex but a little fuzzy about the consequences? My friend Peter, a relationship expert, says that his answer is to only sleep with married women. (I call him a relationship expert only because at fiftysomething he’s always been able to avoid one.)

But what about the rest of us who possess even a modicum of respect for the sanctity of marriage?

“Date inappropriate men,” says Sally, a former therapist and longtime aficionado of dating down. “If I date men who aren’t as smart as I am or way too young for me it takes the pressure off and I can just have fun and so can they — at least for a while and as long as you don’t let the outside world judge you,” she says.

Indeed. There is a certain cinematic self consciousness that goes along with dating younger men — a Mrs. Robinson Complex, if you will.

You get the feeling that mothers everywhere who’ve heard about women like you are locking up their sons and advising their degree-bound progeny to stay in their dorms and praying nightly that their twentysomething offspring will find some nice young girl to bring home for Thanksgiving.

And you, in retaliation and excruciatingly obvious mid-life crisis, begin to do the strangest things. You actually pay attention during a Juvederm commercial. You get used to the waiter always bringing you the check. You modify your work hours to accommodate late nights. You forcibly restrain your vocabulary (I suggest a short marathon of ”Keeping Up with the Kardashians” — it’s like a reverse Rosetta Stone for the English language). Inevitably you consider a tattoo.

There is much new territory if you’re just parachuting in to a younger man’s world. You’ll encounter inch-thick futons riddled with hand me down mites that compete for floor space with Mesolithic-era dust wads and strewn sweat socks. His membranous walls will bring newfound appreciation for the privacy level of your office cubicle.

And then there is the bathroom. Writer Martin Amis once described car alarms and hangovers as having their own genres. The same holds true for bathrooms — and in the case of the younger man’s third-world hygiene methods that genre is decidedly horror.

His particular mode of transportation (be it street bike, longboard or biodiesel clunker) should also be established early on if only to avoid ruining your shoes on five-mile hikes to restaurants and bars.

Lastly, there is the lifestyle to be examined before taking the plunge into anything vaguely resembling a relationship with a younger man. If bong hits before noon are not part of your personal gestalt then make this clear from the get go. And if your idea of listening to music is sipping wine in an armchair with Pandora or Spotify in lieu of going out at 11 to hear bands then either embrace the disco nap or start dating someone your own age who is just as boring as you are.

It’s Valentine’s week. Anything could happen.

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