Over 60 and Looking for Love: Why Not?

The desire for intimate love never dies

Posted Nov 17, 2011

I'm old by the standards of today's youth culture: I am over 60. And the love of my life, my husband and best friend of 26 years, has lost his mind as a result of early-onset Alzheimer's. At 63, he lives in a serene and comfortable residential care center about an hour away. I live alone—with a big dog—in the Vermont countryside. Ed and I are divorced for financial and psychological reasons, but I go out to see him twice a week, a drive that takes me through the mountains at night, sometimes in the snow or rain. And yes, he recognizes me and reaches out with warmth and need. We are affectionate. He's a lovely soul, but our relationship is not fulfilling in any other way—except that I am happy for his happiness. Ironically, Ed is happier now than he has ever been in his life. He feels secure, his needs are taken care of, nothing is demanded of him, and he is busy with the daily activities of the center. But that is another story. My own story is much more distressing and complex.

I wouldn't say that I am lonely; my life is full. I have lots of fascinating things to do (largely because I still need to earn a living and my work is interesting) and two wonderfully feisty grown children and a grandchild. I travel a lot and have a busy schedule. I am vital and healthy and full of ideas about life and love. But I would like to see the world through someone else's eyes again. I would like to fall in love again.

I recently read an interview with author Joan Didion, whose memoir about her husband's death, The Year of Magical Thinking, was hugely successful and a National Book Award winner in 2005. The interviewer asked her directly, "Do you want to marry again?" And Joan, in her 70s, said "Oh, no, not marry, but I would love to fall in love again!" Wouldn't we all? Remarkably, seniors (adults over 55) are the fastest growing segment in online dating, with one site reporting more than 1,000 new memberships per day and annual growth in revenue of more than 100%. Where does all of that traffic come from? Apparently, when it comes to the desire to fall in love, Joan and I are not alone.

To be as clear as possible about the differences between falling love and loving another: "falling in love" is largely unconscious and by its very nature involves a considerable amount of idealization and projection. When we fall in love, we look upon the object of our desire as someone who will complete us or provide what we imagine we have always wanted or needed. For that reason, as I explained in an earlier post, idealization always leads to disillusionment because another person cannot be a product of your imagination; he or she is always a separate, real person. Coming to know and accept an other for who they really are is the practice of true love: becoming knowledgeable, witnessing, holding in mind, and repeatedly turning to the beloved with interest and willingness to enter into and resolve conflict, these are the components of true love. Often, love begins with a strong emotional attachment—a magnetic attraction, a "falling in love"—but not always. It can also begin in friendship. Over time, you feel fascinated that you can be close and trusting and different, all at the same time. This is the nature of love: the beloved is both mysterious (fascinating) and familiar (comfortable); we begin to see the world through someone else's eyes.

It goes without saying that in many ways "falling in love" is different after 55. For one thing, most but not all seniors are a long way away from college, where there are plenty of long- and short-term partners to choose from. After 55, there is more pressure to take the initiative in seeking out a long-term relationship. For another, like me, many seniors are still engaged in careers that may limit their options for personal involvement. And finally, there is the time-consuming and always bedeviling task of coming to know ourselves before we can truly know someone else, a task which, in spite of all of our efforts and the increasing wisdom of age, seems to get more difficult and complex rather than easier as time passes.

Acting on my desire to meet someone with whom I could fall in love and eventually establish a long-term relationship, I first wrote to a man I knew professionally, whose wife had died and whom I had first met in another country. He seemed an intelligent and kind person. He lived 8,000 (!) miles away. We began a telephone relationship and eventually met again, but the geographical separation was impossible to manage. I tried again with another man who lived 3,000 miles away with the same result. "I do not want to meet someone locally," I told myself. "I am a psychoanalyst and psychologist and a local relationship could compromise my clinical work." In fact, I can see now that I was in a transitional time and ambivalent about entering into a new relationship, although ostensibly I wanted one.

When my outreach to long-distance lovers failed, I turned briefly to another strategy: asking friends to fix me up with single men my age who might be good candidates for long-term relationships. If anything, that experience was even more difficult to manage than geographical separation. Talking with men who were friends of my friends, meant not only adjusting to the awkwardness of meeting total strangers with a predetermined personal agenda, but the additional distraction of thinking as much about the friend as the person on the other side of the table. If I rejected a candidate, would the friend who recommended him feel insulted? And if so, would the rejection—which in the nature of things happened more often than not—become the parting of ways with not one but two people, the candidate and the friend? That quandary—and the wear-and-tear of expectations raised only to be repeatedly lowered again—wore me out, and my experiment with friends' matchmaking came to a close after only a few weeks. Which left me face-to-face with the last refuge of those in search of new partners: online matchmaking, also known as Internet dating.

I had never been a fan of Internet dating. I had encouraged therapy patients who wanted to try it, but I couldn't imagine trying it myself. Eventually, however, I turned to the Internet for all the wrong reasons: because, not in spite of the fact that, it was impersonal; and because I could choose sites that had little coverage in my immediate geographical area. Once again I could reach out to men far away from where I live and work. I still wanted the anonymity.

I didn't think the "hunt" would be fun or easy, and the prospect of posting an "ad" for myself was as unappealing to me as it would be to any other introvert. I detested having to write and post a description of my physical appearance, my reading habits, an ideal relationship and a perfect Sunday morning with my new partner. And then, having done that, to sift through the men's ads and, even more forbidding, reach out to a virtual stranger who wasn't even a friend of a friend. As with most online dating sites, I needed a pseudonym for this one and imagined whatever term I chose to be a sort of "branding." My misgivings notwithstanding, I supplied the required information, paid the fees, and so joined the overly commercial world of 21st century love and desire—in which personal ads, pornography, social networking and personal promos are more common and consume more time than face-to-face conversation. In doing so, I felt vulnerable, awkward and more than a little stupid. The only thing that kept me going was my adult daughter and a close friend, who nagged me to "stop moping around and get out there and meet someone." (For the record, when I offered to pay the fees for my adult daughter to conduct her own search online, she accepted only reluctantly and never followed up on any of the candidates who emerged; she has recently begun a relationship with a man she has known for years.)

In my many years of marriage and friendship with my husband, I thought I had gained valuable experience with loving, communicating, desiring and being desired. But, as it turned out, I had become an expert not in loving, but in loving a particular person. I knew what he loved and appreciated and wanted. He knew what I loved and appreciated and wanted. We knew one another very well. I had learned to accept him deeply and to pay close attention to his particular ways of being. He had tried to do the same for me. Now I found that moving on to a new love is different from bonding to a new puppy when you are a confirmed dog lover and your favorite dog has died. It's more like bonding with your second child after you've fallen totally in love with your first.

And even though I knew a lot about love and loving, I eventually came to realize, I had little experience with dating. As a young adult, I had developed intimate relationships with men I already knew. Now, in the last chapter of my life, having found that the former approach no longer worked, I was trying to do something completely the opposite: seeking out strangers in the hope of finding the grounds for friendship and a deeply personal relationship.

My acquaintance with a love-candidate would always begin with a telephone conversation. Quite quickly, I could tell if I liked the energy and intelligence of the speaker on the other end. If I liked what I heard, I would try to find a way to meet him in person, something that required elaborate arrangements because all of them were (still) coming from far distant places. When we would finally meet—and in spite of our often extensive time on the phone—I always had the same first impression: This is a very OLD man.

None of us feels old inside; we have within us a vein of youth that never dies. In spite of those wrinkles I see in the mirror, I never picture myself as old. Thus, faced with a man my age (or somewhat older), he'd seem really old to me. I would have to slow down and remind myself that I also am in "later life." I would caution myself about the "chemistry" thing, tell myself not to judge too quickly, and remember that conversation adds the real spice to life. I would settle into getting to know the guy.

My first job in this process, as I saw it, was to interrogate him. I proceeded, as a therapist would, to take a family history. What was his original family like? How did the siblings turn out? (Anyone in jail?) What were his mom and dad like and how did he treat his mom as she was failing in her last years? (Typically she was not alive.) How about the ex-wives? (There was always more than one.) Did he primarily blame them for the failure of the marriage? And his children? Families of their own?

Of course, the man was also interviewing me in his own way, often trying to find out what my past had been like and what my current life was like. My interlocutors often said, "You are really easy to talk to," and I imagined it was because I was doing pretty much what I do in my work—asking questions, listening and trying to find meaning. Perversely, though, I was often simultaneously imagining my conversational partner in bed with me. Would he be expressive and warm? Commanding or passive? Would he feel good against my body? How does he move his hands as he talks? How does he smell, focus his eyes? Which direction? Does he recall what I have said? Is he listening? This exhaustive investigation seemed necessary before taking a step toward that first kiss, because, as one of the men said to me, "At this stage in life, we all have a lot of baggage, so it's important to find out if our baggage matches."

Paradoxically and unexpectedly, what I discovered in this comprehensive inquiry into the lives of strangers was less about them than about me. When all is said and done, I value generosity, kindness, humor and optimism more than anything else. No matter a man's age or appearance, I found him attractive if he had the above traits, especially a charming humor or wit. On the other hand, I also came to note the importance of education, earnings, success and competence. I wish I could say those didn't matter so much, but in this painful and annoying process of getting to know men for personal rather than professional reasons, I too often found that those with less education or significantly less success than I quickly came to regard me as "dominant, controlling, too busy" or some other variety of "too much." Blinded by the passion I put into my work, they failed to see my potential as a generous and kind partner. Instead, they "worried" about my "availability" and fretted about my professional duties.

All this effort late in life gives rise to an interesting insight, perhaps best expressed—if unconsciously and with no obvious sense of irony—by a 67-year-old Wisconsin man. A semi-retired wildlife biologist, he refers to himself as a "veteran of [the Internet dating] wars," having prowled the major Internet dating sites for six years in search of new love. Previously married for 32 years, divorced for almost 10, and looking for a woman aged 55 to 66 within 90 miles of his hometown, he averages one date a week, but none of his dates have developed into relationships. "I've met a lot of nice people, had a lot of dates" he says. "I just haven't found that right one yet," But he's not discouraged. (Can I learn something from him?) "All it takes is one, you know. So I keep plugging away at it with the idea that it's very possible. When I find somebody it's going to be for the long-term. That's why I'm so fussy." For the long term? At 67?

Seeing the world through his eyes for a moment, I find myself appreciating my research into love-candidates in a different way. I can now see more clearly than ever what I value in a man. I have also learned something deeply touching about men: they are vulnerable, caring and want pretty much what I want, at least the ones who make it through the initial interview. "They" aren't really "they," but are truly "we" —and I have come to embrace that in a new way. In our aging bodies we really know how precious life is and how remarkable it is to meet a stranger who becomes an intimate friend. And it also becomes clear that falling in love is something we feel as keenly as ever. There is a vein of agelessness that runs through our being that refuses to feel "old" in relation to a new love. Fluttering hearts, sweaty palms, laughing too hard and worries about being misunderstood or unattractive don't go away with age. But neither does the desire to be truly known and seen and accepted as we are, just as we are. Even Internet dating, as awkward and commercial as it can seem to be and often is, shows us that the desire for intimate love never dies, and that knowing and being known as a particular individual is an everlasting miracle.