When companies go public it is never easy. Besides all the financial nonsense (investment banker types, structuring the IPO, stock market exchange red tape) there is the emotional toll it takes on the current owners. They feel as if they are selling their baby to a bunch of big bad stockholders who might make them rich and ruin their company at the same time. And if the owners are family members they sometimes forget that things have changed and that they can no longer make major decisions without getting approval from that pesky new board of directors who now must include people besides Uncle Fred and Aunt Susie.
It occurred to me this week that taking relationships public is not so very different. Against all odds I have met and fallen in love with yet another truly wonderful man. He is kind. He is thoughtful. He is smart. He does work that is important and improves peoples’ lives. He has a great group of long-term loyal friends. He is a little too handsome, but I have decided to let that one flaw go. He picked up my car last week and got the worn out windshield wipers replaced and while he was at it cleaned the filthy interior and filled it with gas. In short, he is a keeper. The fact that this is completely unexpected, that I was convinced I would never be happy again, much less love a man enough to want to plan a future with him is a topic for another day. For now, we will consider only the effects of going public.
It is sweet beyond measure when people fall in love. Surprisingly, this is every bit as true in one’s seventh decade as in the second or third. The initial attraction, the slow unfolding of histories, values, dreams and fears, the tentative embrace of deeper feelings. The realization that someone who was once a total stranger has now been knitted into your life in what feels like a permanent way. This is all mostly delicious. You wake up happy and go to sleep the same. You make plans, you text or call throughout the day, you miss each other with an ache that brings you up short. There are bumps as well—misunderstandings, triggers from past lives, even certain words that have deeply different associations for each of you—but if the fragile underpinning of feeling is tended with a little watering and weeding and lots and lots of long talks, even the rough spots can seem like important steps on the path to creating “we”.
But at some point you have to go out into the bigger world. I remember my therapist asking me in the early weeks of my relationship with Tom what we did together. I said “Mostly just hang out at his house.” She raised her eyebrows and said “You need to go OUT.” I now understand a little better what she meant. It is lovely to get to know someone in the small world that contains just the two of you, but unless you plan to buy your own island and recreate The Blue Lagoon movie it is not sustainable. Eventually you need to throw other people into the mix. People who love each of you and feel protective and a little suspicious. People who may be worried and judgmental and might even have their own agendas. Someone on my side of the ledger fears I will love John’s cottage and sell my own which she treasures. Someone in his camp wanted him to fall for a friend of theirs instead of me. It can be complicated.
Even if you tell yourself that the only thing that matters is how you feel about each other, those feelings may change when you go public. Old habits of snarky “teasing” may kick in. Somebody may talk too much or not enough. Too much attention might be paid to others. Someone important to one of you may find fault with the new love interest. It can all be tricky to navigate.
In our case, going public has already included dinner out with another couple, a small dinner party at a friend’s house, two weddings with entirely different guest lists and a birthday party for a long-term friend. This is a lot of socializing for a pretty new relationship and has mostly involved gatherings with his friends where I was cast in the role of the new girl. And I use the term girl on purpose as I can’t seem to get past the fact that I could have GIVEN BIRTH to his last girlfriend. I know, I know. Older men who date young women are just plain icky—except that this one really isn’t. He just wanted to find a partner and kept barking up the wrong trees. As someone with LOTS of experience in that area, I have to check my normally harsh judgments. My choices may have been age appropriate but they were wrong wrong wrong in every other way. All except for Tom, who was a lightning bolt of luck and wonder in the otherwise semi-tragic landscape of my romantic life. So maybe she who built and settled right into a giant glass house for half a lifetime is not in a great position to throw stones at a guy who had his head turned by some pretty young things.
And as it pertains to being less gorgeous arm-candy than his friends are accustomed to seeing him with, I have decided they will just have to suck it up. I am older, wiser, smarter and possibly more loving than any of them and he says I make him the happiest he has ever been. I addressed a recent email to him Dear Warren Beatty and signed it Annette, as in Benning, as in the woman who finally captured the heart of the notorious Hollywood playboy more with her heart, mind and spirit than with her perfect looks. And I’m guessing most of his friends were doing a happy dance.
So we will keep going public. Most of my nearest and dearest are not local so there may even be some road trips involved as we make the circuit of his and hers VIPs. And I will remind myself that absolutely everyone adored my first husband and I let myself be carried on that wave of approval all the way to the altar—which was a colossal mistake. So if my friends like John and his like me and they think we are a good match, great. But if they don’t we will have to make our own calls and listen to our own hearts. And that will be enough. Because unlike companies, after you go public in a relationship you always come home and go private again—and it’s what happens there that really counts.