Commentary: Newly single baby boomers will find a changed landscape
As Valentine’s Day approaches, we thought it might be a good time to look at how finding love in one’s 50s and 60s differs from the search when one is younger.
What we see repeatedly in our clinical practices is that because single boomers have been out of the dating world for so long, they are unfamiliar with the new rules of the game.
Many are ill-prepared to jump into the digital dating scene, since it makes them feel like commodities to be sold on the open market. They are unsure of how to go about finding and initiating dates. Some turn to “matchmakers” because they find it too daunting to find someone themselves.
And even when they try, they too often lack the skills and good judgment in building and sustaining relationships in ways that increase their chances of finding a suitable partner. Others just keep making the same, impulsive, shortsighted mistakes.
Boomers share the usually unconscious belief that dating is no different at this age than it was when they were in their 20s. And with this belief, they then respond with the same lack of emotional maturity as they did when young. This is exacerbated by whatever anger and resentment they’re carrying as a result of death, divorce and child custody or visitation problems.
Boomers came of age sexually with the pill and weren’t as concerned about sexually transmitted diseases. Now we are finding an epidemic of STDs among middle-aged and senior adults and a basic lack of education about protection and safe-sex practices.
Boomers may feel self-conscious and insecure about their appearance and the aging process. They are quick to compare how they look today versus how they looked when younger.
And men worry about their ability to perform sexually and whether their net worth will help or hinder their desirability. But what men are finding is that a good number of boomer women are self-sufficient financially and don’t need a man just to be taken care of. In fact many women have the freedom to pursue a younger man, if they wish, and many do.
Another dynamic at this stage of life is to consciously and unconsciously be attracted to the polar opposite of previous significant relationships. For example, a woman who was married to a shy, conservative, non-social man finds herself wanting to date highly social, risk-taking and liberal-thinking men in an attempt to get it right.
It’s easy for boomers looking for love to either under- or over-emphasize the place of sexual attraction. For men, one form of emotional immaturity is over-emphasizing a woman’s physical attractiveness and sexual allure and under-emphasizing the qualities that would land a compatible partner for the rest of their lives. This tendency leads them to seek much younger women who don’t share the same history, interests or preferences.
Some women under-emphasize the role of sexual compatibility, having given up on sex in their lives. They’re quite comfortable with the thought that all they want is companionship and that sex really doesn’t matter. They are baffled when they find that the men they are meeting consider sex an important part of the relationship.
For many men, the strong impulse for sex early in the dating process becomes an end in itself, and they lose touch with the longer term. In other words, they repeat the same thinking as when they were young. To be fair, often these men are lonely, depressed, confused and coping with the loss of their long-term marriage. They view sex as the exciting temporary cocktail that will help them forget the ugly past and reaffirm their physical desirability to women.
Savvy single women who’ve been in the dating scene for some time understand this and deal with it by being wary of any guy who says he’s recently divorced. They know he’s not going to be emotionally available, will spend a lot of time talking about his marriage and will probably want to use sex to fill his emotional emptiness.
Finding the right partner takes time, self-awareness, an updating of skills, experimentation and the ability to stay focused on your goal of finding love and companionship for the rest of your life.
Drs. STEVEN and DEBORAH HENDLIN are clinical psychologists in private practice in Newport Beach.