Gerontologist, Amanda Smith Barusch (2008), observed that romantic love in the later years (as opposed to early years) is “a force for change: romantic experiences define character in subtle ways; love opens doors to our potential, shapes who we become.” (p.4) Nevertheless, media depictions of love perpetuate “the myth that only the young and unwrinkled can enjoy romance” and, worse, that, “late-life romance is either comic or disgusting.” (Barusch, 2008, p.3) Baby-boomers, that statistically elephantine cohort born post-World War II, however, have re-defined each stage of life in ways that counter the status quo. This group is unlikely to adhere to social stereotypes of romance as a youth-only experience. In fact, older dating is a rising trend, likely related to the growing ranks of older singles in the U.S. For example, according to the data for 2012, one-third of baby-boomers were unmarried (Brown & Shinohara, 2013). Later-life love stories are not only possible but are common. In a national sample of older adults (ages 57 to 85), Brown & Shinohara reported the following statistics:
- Approximately 14% of older unmarried adults were in dating relationships
- More older men were in dating relationships (nearly 25%) than older women (10%)
- Older daters had more economic resources, were in better health,
- Men and women alike with greater social ties were more likely to date
Later life romance represents opportunities for growth, not just for baby-boomers in their mid-fifties to seventies, but also for those in their 80’s and beyond. Just as the first brush of puppy love awakens one’s possibilities through the electrified force of attraction to another, so too does it cast it’s magic on the gray (and white)-haired. Later life romances, unlike youth love, are based on a foundation of experience—past loves that can help successful navigation of current love. Later life romance offers an opportunity to realize what Markus and Nurius (1986) defined as “possible selves.” Possible selves encompass the ideas of one’s self and are driven by two core questions: “What would I like to become?” and “What am I afraid of becoming?” In late middle-age and onward, unlike early adulthood, a process of life-review and self-reflection through the questions of possible selves can become more pressing. Time is, after all, short, and this realization can be a great impetus for change.
When one examines past romances through the lens of possible selves, the self-reflection can reveal much about how one chose and maintained past romantic relationships. One’s prior romantic experiences may have been positive, such as a spouse who was a soul mate; or, negative, such as intimate unions that ended badly, in bitterness or betrayal. These romances may have been driven consciously or unconsciously by youthful idealized versions of one’s partner; such as, soul mate (Romeo and Juliet), romantic hero (knight in shining armor), vulnerable heroine (damsel in distress), a desire for intimacy and unconditional love that was not present in childhood (Daddy or Mommy figures), or social status (marrying for wealth/social prestige). Moreover, they may have been promoted by psycho-development drives; such as, a desire for a family (“biological clock-ticking”), or a wish to be like others in one’s age group (“married with children”). These drives may have led to romantic choices based on possible selves of what one was afraid of becoming (alone, childless, out of step with our peers). Later life romances allow for a “re-set” of possible selves guided by what one would like to become, and not driven by fear but by possibility. Unlike romances in youth, the idealized needs are unlikely to have potency as one has “been there, done that.”
As with all relationships, late-life romances may force one to look at one’s self in new way and thereby create intrapsychic and interpersonal turbulence. Barush suggests that later life love can stretch our comfort zone. Consequently, later life romances are likely to provoke change that is uncomfortable in some of the following ways:
- By moving one out of a comfort zone that upsets routines and friendships (e.g., life-style established while divorced and living alone)
- Through complications with adult children who may oppose their parent’s romantic involvement (e.g., for financial reasons; allegiance to the other parent, if alive, or memory if deceased)
- May result in guilt (e.g., self-imposed punitive superego directives that love in widowhood disrespects the memory of the departed spouse)
- May result in shame regarding sexual intimacy (e.g., related to stereotypes and negative myths that promote sexual dormancy as that which is “normal” for older people)
Conversely, such romances can foster positive self-growth through an awakening of feelings/experiences that are new and exhilarating. Just as in youth, romantic love in later life can be intense; although, it may also be more emotionally complex and subtle in its notes.
The winter dreams of later-life romances can offer the opportunity to connect with another person in a fulfilling and loving way. Later life romances can prompt one to look inward and ask, "How can I grow with this person?" Later life romance may well awaken one’s best possible self.
Barusch, A. S. (2008). Love stories of later life: A narrative approach to understanding romance. New York: Oxford University Press.
Brown, S. L. & Shinohara, S. K. (2013). Dating relationships in older adulthood: A national portrait. Journal of Marriage and Family, 75, 1194-1202. doi.org/10.1111/jomf.12065
Markus, H. & Nurius, P. (1986). Possible selves. American Psychologist,41, 954-969. doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.41.9.954