Suzanne Reynolds- divorced with two grown daughters- met Lars Peterson at a dinner party in Washington, D.C. They started talking about Sudoku, and he offered to help her work through the puzzle. She called him the next day, something she would never would have felt comfortable doing when younger. But now? "We are two human beings-why not call him?" she says matter-of-factly. One thing led to another, and over the next year, Suzanne and Lars became a couple. How different this relationship was from Suzanne's marriage of 30 years. She was young and quite shy when she married. She'd picked a man who was outgoing- the life of the party. "I thought he'd balance me," she says. But over the decades the couple grew apart as she came into her own and realized she and her partner had less and less in common.
Psychologists identify the youthful attraction to an "opposite" as a search for someone to complete oneself. But as we get older, we gain a stronger sense of self. We begin to search for a relationship based on equality, trust, connection. "You realize you can do it on your own," continues Suzanne. "You're not looking for someone who is going to make up for what you don't have. You're looking for someone who has qualities you admire."
Welcome to the new rules of love for men and women in the second half of life. No longer are people looking to "fill in" for personal deficiencies. No longer are they seeking a relationship as a framework for raising children or establishing a work identity or conforming to society's (or parents') expectations. Rather, they look to a relationship as an opportunity for mutual enjoyment and personal growth. Shared interests and values are the glue, freedom and flexibility the norm.
Longevity is playing a role in changing the dating game as well. At 50, you can look forward to several more decades of vitality, a biological bonus unknown to previous generations. What are you going to do with this new stage of life that comes after middle age, but before traditional old age? Who will you love? More time means more options, particularly in the era of Internet connectivity. It is now more socially acceptable for singles in their 50s and beyond to seek partners online through dating services. Another common connecting link is the class reunionwhere new fires are sometimes lit under old flames. Still another is the more classic meeting ground of affinity groups, online and off, which bring people with shared interests together- whether that interest is collecting, music, art history, or religious practice.
There's more emphasis on fun among older couples. Younger couples must devote ample energies to learning how to get along. Resolving conflict is their challenge. For older couples who are truly mature, there is less conflict, more peace. Couples that do well truly enjoy each other's company, points out famed marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman of the Gottman Relationship Institute in Seattle. "You value small positive acts of kindness and generosity and consideration," he says, adding, "Older couples are much more like courting couples."
If the trend in older couples is toward shared values and mutual respect, the variety of possible ways they choose to be together is stunning. While some take the marital path, others devise less- traditional arrangements. They may go on Habitat for Humanity builds together- or on weekly movie dates. They may live together, close by, or quite far apart. They may be constant companions or intermittent ones.
Here are some common shared-lifestyle choices:
Married, but not like the first time around
Susan Leonard of Philadelphia had been single for almost a decade after her divorce. She had two grown sons and a successful career in the federal government. But in her late 50s, she decided to find Mr. Right. She drew up a battle plan, listing 43 desirable characteristics in a mate, ranging from personality traits to lifestyle choices. Examples included "likes to have fun" ... "willing to challenge me" ... "does not smoke." When introduced through friends to widower Ed Thornton of Philadelphia, he scored 83 percent on her checklist.
By midlife, you know yourself- or you should. You know what you enjoy on vacation and how you respond to conflict or a messy bathroom. Susan and Ed had a lot in common: They'd both had long marriages, been single, and gone through a period of self- reflection. They were also both movie lovers (each one separately adored A Beautiful Mind) and both loved to read. After a whirlwind courtship, they married in a bookstore. "The focus is on the relationship," says Ed. "It's all directed toward us- what we can do to help each other."
Researchers call this trend companionate mating- with "like" seeking out "like" and each one bringing similar kinds of resources to the union: similar background, similar education, similar experiences, similar interests.
While many follow the marital path, at this stage in life the argument against marriage can be substantial. You're not thinking about starting a family; you're not looking for approval from society; and you may not want to mingle assets and responsibilities from earlier chapters in your life.
Dr. Naomi Kline, a psychotherapist in Stanford, California, and engineer Gordon Knight met online. Naomi loved his sense of humor. Soon they were spending a lot of time together. They had both been married before and both had young family members who were dependent on them. Marriage loomed; they wanted the world to know they were a couple.
But instead of a wedding, they chose a commitment ceremony. Out went the invitations to friends and family. There in Naomi's garden, blooming with April flowers, they pledged to love and cherish each other forever. Before their community, Gordon plighted his troth: "Naomi, I want to tell you how much I love you. I am committed to you for the rest of my life."
They went on a honeymoon and took a river trip up the Volga in Russia. After one year of dating and seven years of a relationship that is not a marriage but feels just as committed, Naomi is happier than she's ever been. "It's the most wonderful relationship," she says.
Living apart, loving together
A rising phenomenon is for older couples to maintain separate residences. While committed to sharing their lives, they also want to maintain their personal spaces as they attempt to balance intimacy with independence. "My girlfriend lives two miles away," says writer John Lang of Chestertown, Maryland. "She lived in her house for 25 years. She doesn't want to move. And I love my house. I look out on the river. I don't want to move either. But we're as close as a married couple can be."
Couples who live together may wonder if this kind of arrangement can truly work. John believes he and his partner share all the benefits of marriage, plus one additional bonus: "If we get on each other nerves, we can pull off from each other and then come back together. This safety valve is part of the reason why we've been together for 10 years."
Even for couples who do live together, maintaining the intimacy- independence balance is critical to the success of the relationship, the experts say. Ed and Susan, for example, have some distinct areas of leisure-time activities that go well beyond the young-married's notion of "girls' (or boys') night out." Ed is deeply involved with a men's group; Susan has a book club and a quilting group with her women friends. "We check our calendars and say- I'm going to be out of town these dates," says Ed. "We allow each other that space."
"I think it's vital," says Susan, who feels that their independent activities enliven the relationship.
Another part of the equation is the integration of one's partner with one's deepest, truest friends. Single or coupled, everyone should have an intimate circle of eight to 10 people they can't imagine being without, according to research by psychologist Dr. Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. As one gets older, that network of family and friends becomes essential to health and well-being. Dating in this stage can be about finding a partner to sit next to you in the circle; it is also about bringing new players into your circle.
Meanwhile, Cupid never sleeps. Men and women fall in love- at 16 and at 60. It's glorious to know that you are never too old for the magic to take place. For the young, physical attraction is paramount. In later years, many believe the appeal goes deeper. "There's excitement and admiration ... an intense desire to get to know the person," explained Dr. Robert N. Butler, godfather of gerontology and founding director of the National Institute on Aging, when he fell in love again at 80, adding: "It was out of the blue."
Many couples experience what the French call a coup de foudre- a lightning bolt of infatuation- after having experienced the loss of love through divorce or death. Butler himself had lost his wife to cancer. He spent months grieving and writing a book on the longevity revolution as a way to transform his loss. Then he met a woman who sparked his renewal.
While the young seek novelty, the wise seek commonality. Bob fell in love with a lively woman similar in age, similar in social values, similar in political views. As they spent time together, they developed a bond of shared memories. They remembered the words to "My Fair Lady." They reminisced about where they were when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. "This is shared memory. It's historical. It's cultural. It's shared experience, shared people, shared music," said Bob. "Shared memory holds the significance of life." It's all about getting to know someone deeply- and allowing that person access to your true self. As Stanford's Carstensen says: "In old age, you really want to be known."
Older couples may make decisions quickly, whether to partner or to break things off. They have more time left than those in previous generations, but they have less time to waste than younger folks do. Gray divorce makes news: Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell and his wife, Marjorie, separated earlier this year after 40 years of marriage. The thinking is, if a relationship is not right, why continue? Heartbreak is raw. "It hurt so much," says a friend after the end of a relationship. By now, however, you are more resilient. You are better able to put the loss of love in perspective. You turn to your circle of friends and seek out other meaningful relationships. The sense of urgency also leads to a new boldness- an attitude of If not now, when?
As a result, family occasions may take on a new flavor. A friend calls me in a panic over Thanksgiving dinner. Her divorced mother- in-law is bringing her new boyfriend. "Here's this other guy ... Is he going to carve the turkey?" she exclaims. "They are like teenagers in the throes of passion. It's all kind of overwhelming."
It used to be that the young shocked the old. Now, as older folks are asserting the right to love in any way they see fit, the generations have been turned upside down.