By Lisa Firestone, Ph.D.
On Dec. 31, 2009, one day before the baby boomer generation turned 65, a New York Timesarticle reported, “79 million baby boomers, about 26 percent of this country’s population, will be redefining what it means to be older.”
Today, in 2013, this statement may be proving to be true. The healthier, harder working and simply younger-seeming face of middle age and senior men and women is something worth acknowledging. And a generation that refuses to take on the stigmas of old age and give up vital aspects of themselves in the process? Well, that’s something worth celebrating.
One of the worst of these stigmas is that a person can be “too old to fall in love.” The 2009 censusshowed that of the 96 million Americans who are single, 17 percent of them are over 65. Imagine these 16.2 million people writing off the possibility of spending the rest of their days with someone they love. Then picture the millions more 40- and 50-something men and women who are buying into the belief that it’s just too late for them to be in a happy, fulfilling romantic relationship.
When it comes to dating later in life, the scene is far from hopeless. A 2003 AARP survey of 3,501 single men and women aged 40-69 showed that 63 percent were dating. An additional 13 percent wanted to find a date, while 14 percent were interested “if the right person happens to come along.” Almost half of those surveyed stated that their main reason for dating was “to have someone to talk to or do things with.” Companionship is incredibly important at every age. The better we know ourselves, the better able we are to choose partners who complement us and enhance our daily lives. Thus, there are certain real advantages of dating after 40, 50, or any age in which you are able and willing to reflect on your years of experience and genuinely learn from your past.
One benefit of dating after 40 is that by this age, most of us have had a variety of experiences in at least one serious relationship. This gives us the opportunity to reflect on our patterns. We can think about the people we have chosen and question the traits we are looking for. We often wind up with the same kind of partner in the same kind of relationship — without even realizing how we got there. An important concept to keep in mind when dating is that we aren’t always attracted for the right reasons. Relationships tend to fail when we seek out and pair up with people whose defenses and negative characteristics perfectly complement our own.
When it comes to pursuing a romantic relationship, we don’t have to act automatically or get stuck in old patterns. We can resist falling into a relationship based on form or familiar dynamics, choosing a real connection over what my father psychologist and author Robert Firestone refers to as a fantasy bond, an illusion of fusion in which two people seek a feeling of safety and familiarity by choosing people who fit with old identities. Couples in a fantasy bond tend to merge their identities, relating as a unit instead of two independent individuals
By understanding our history, we can make a conscious effort to make different choices, to look for new kinds of partners, and to challenge destructive tendencies in ourselves. It’s no wonder that in the same AARP survey both men and women listed their biggest romantic frustration as “dating people with a lot of baggage.” The more we are willing to look into our own emotional baggage and uncover our real selves, the more successful we will be in our intimate relationships.