Dating at 50+     
By Terrence Hoffman MFT

Does it come as a bit of a surprise to find yourself alone at this age?  Had you given much thought to the idea of dating in your 50’s?  And has it come to your attention that the ups and downs of your past may be what other people refer to as your “baggage?”  Extra pounds, baggage, dating...Hmmm...

Unlike redecorating or starting a new fitness program, the topic of dating at mid-life isn’t typically accompanied by feelings of inspiration, or the theme from the movie, Rocky.  Well, perhaps at first, since it takes guts and a certain amount of “psyching oneself up” to venture into the realms of dating services, mixers and the occasional blind date.  And if one has been in an agonizingly long and difficult relationship, breaking free and exploring new opportunities may be pretty exciting.  Yet even then, people are often dismayed when confronted with the realities of dating at mid-life.  This new project is usually more complicated than they had imagined.

For those who are able and willing to push the envelope into the unpredictable realm of romantic possibilities, new guidelines and ideas can be useful.  Here are three questions that arise when conversations turn to dating at 50+:

1.  How do I meet people?
We know that in order to meet new people we must venture out to places where the odds of finding available singles are greater than within the confines of our own home!  Smiling and saying, “hello,” to people at coffee shops, outdoor concerts and fundraisers, are ways to increase the odds, and the same holds true with dating services and singles’ events.  Yet this often means getting out of one’s comfort zone.  People express concerns about looking “single,” lonely, desperate, on the prowl, etc., when going to social events without an escort.  Such concerns can be the result of feelings of personal shame or guilt stemming from past losses.  Many people “internalize” losses and disappointments as personal failures, or as a sign they have offended the gods.  From there, it doesn’t take much to imagine others view us as “losers.”

Yet as baby boomers move into their fifties and sixties, singledom will begin to be seen as a more common and necessary stage of development, one which is likely to precede the beginnings of new friendships.  By mid-life, many of us have sustained big hits, like the death of a spouse, divorce and illnesses, which can take their toll on relational sensitivities.  Yet, I’ve noticed that once a person has come to accept being single as an honest, non-pathological condition, they lighten up on themselves a little.  Such self-acceptance can lend itself to venturing out of the comfort zone, and to a greater openness to new opportunities as they arise.  Greater self-acceptance enhances feelings of playfulness and spontaneity, which further increases the likelihood of really “connecting” when meeting new people.  Put simply, meeting new people is more likely to happen when we are open, curious, and willing to risk.  But...

2.  Am I just setting myself up for more hurt?
While the saying, “nothing ventured, nothing gained,” may be applied here, losses of a romantic nature do carry a bigger wallop as we get older.  We are not as resilient, and the cumulative effects of these experiences can make the pain seem unbearable.  Losses can result in the shattering of some of our most cherished beliefs.  Questions like, “Will I ever love again?” may be followed by more troubling questions like, “Did I ever know how to love in the first place?”  As is true for all mammals, relationship wounds go deep and are lasting, and for humans, they can distort our thinking about the past and future.

And yet the “urge to merge” remains one of the most fundamentally compelling and undeniable aspects of being human.  Why is that?  The obvious answer is that our species’ survival depends on it.  But then, what about those of us who have put their procreating days behind them?  There remain many other reasons for wanting a partner, but perhaps the one closest to the human heart is the desire to simply be known in a way that is special.  We like to have someone around who reflects our most unique and personal sense of ourselves back to us.  It greatly assists us in knowing who we are.  We are born with this need and I don’t think we ever outgrow it.  Believing that one’s need to be known is a good thing, a healthy thing, and something to be proud of, is different from what many have been taught.  Having faith in the legitimacy of such a need can help one maintain a positive expectation and belief in new possibilities.  The risk of being hurt remains, yet the deepening of one’s own capacity for self-understanding and intimacy is, for some, worth that risk.

3.  How can I know if a person is trustworthy?
One way of establishing a date’s trustworthiness is to ask him or her about their previous relationships, specifically as to whether they have noticed any patterns or similarities from one relationship to the next.  Listen carefully to what the person says in response to this question.  Everyone has a story or two.  By this age, he or she should have some understanding of the ways in which they contribute to and respond to relationship challenges when they arise.  Does the person have insight into their own shortcomings or do they describe previous relational setbacks as someone else’s fault?  The ability to assess one’s own relational strengths and weaknesses in a non-defensive manner gives some indication of whether or not this person is emotionally mature.  I think conversations on this topic should be “mandatory” before the third or fourth date.  Also, I also advise people that even if this person seems like, “The One,” to wait at least three or four months before becoming physically intimate.  Without going into detail about this, let me quote a women friend who speaks from her experience at age 53: EVERYTHING CHANGES! Sex adds cement.  This may be great if there is an enduring emotional compatibility, but not so great, otherwise.

Typically, those who choose to open themselves to the possibility of meeting someone new aren’t strangers to adversity.  They are more likely to be outgoing, curious about life, and willing to risk a little on behalf of their own needs for closeness.  I don’t think it is ever too late to develop these characteristics.  We would all do well to start reexamining our attitudes about needs for closeness, our need to know and be known in a way that is special, and our need to stay interested in the journey that remains before us.  As the ranks of those in their fifties continues to swell, we will find that the conversations about dating are just beginning. 
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