Love me do: reinventing partnership in later years

The pop songs of the sixties gave us one ideal of love – a boy and a girl, together forever. Now, the possibilities are endless. In this chapter, we’ll explore four main ones:

  • Long play: a partnership which has lasted for much of your adult life, probably more than 30 years.
  • Re-release: people in a second or third long-term committed relationship.
  • Single singles: those who are not in a partnership, and are not looking for one.
  • Seeking singles: people wanting another relationship, possibly through online dating sites and blind dates.

Long-term partnerships: the art of the possible

My first marriage lasted a creditable 25 years, but I slightly envy the couples I’ve met who are still together after 30, 40 or even 50 years. There’s no one answer to how to do this, so forgive some generalisations.

Unless both partners are emotionally dead, it’s likely that sustaining a really long-term partnership will need a lot of tolerance and creativity. As one man in a 41-year marriage told me: “We’ve had to drop the big and small resentments that build up. If you can’t focus on positives, love each other as you are, you’ll be living in an acid bath.”

The level of tolerance you need can vary widely. It might mean living through a partner having an affair, or both of you having a six-month sabbatical. It might just mean accepting that you spend less time together, because your interests are diverging.

As a long-term couple move into their late sixties and beyond, finding a new shared interest seems important. You need to renew the togetherness alongside giving each other more space.

Re-release: the second (or third) time around

Divorce statistics show that the fifties and sixties are now high-risk ages for marriages to end, and the average age at divorce is getting steadily older. Many people in their later years are in a second or third, long-term committed relationship. This can add new positives and new complications.

Having one major relationship fail seems to give people a strong motivation to make it work next time. Understanding habits and patterns which caused the original breakup is crucial: we’ve probably all seen new couples unhappily repeating old stories. There are a lot of good books and therapists who can help you to avoid repeating history: see Resources below.

The potential complications may include how each of you relate to your own ex and your partner’s, and how to navigate the extended family around you. Hopefully as you get older, you can focus on the good history not the old pain, and on happiness in the present.

One benefit of being a newer long-term couple may be scope for more dialogue, more give-and- take, in how you want the relationship to be, now and in the future. This should preferably include how to handle things if one partner has major health problems (see more on this in Chapter 10).

Single singles: the happy one

I meet quite a few people in their late sixties or older who are happily single, and expect to stay that way. I believe the secret to this is understanding what kinds of connection you do want, and setting up your life to provide them. Here are some examples:

  • –  A good circle of friends with shared interests
  • –  Having a companion: a friend who’s sometimes an intimate partner too
  • –  Being part of a faith group or other network who give you whatever qualities of community 
you need.

Seeking singles: silver dating?

I still recall how tough it was to find myself single at 50, plunging into soulmates ads and blind dates. Now, you’ll find plenty of soulmates ads from people in their sixties and seventies. There’s an extensive guide to mature dating and relationship skills in my book Out of the Woods. 
My top tip is to get yourself to a position where a relationship is a nice-to-have, not an urgent necessity. Learn to look after yourself, build up your friendships, and see every date as an adventure not an ordeal. And don’t pour out all your troubles on a first date!

Here’s looking at you, kid

A big adjustment for any relationship at this age is about looks. Neither you nor your partner will look young: if you struggle to find attraction when you look at a face with lines and wrinkles, realise the other person is looking at your face too. If you can find the humour in this situation, you’re doing well. 
My advice is, focus on touch and emotion to deepen intimacy, more than looks. If you can both find real love and compassion, for yourself and the other, as you are, you won’t mind the wrinkles.

Breakin’ up is hard to do

Major separations rarely happen by complete mutual agreement. More often, one partner is pushing for it, and the other resisting. Sometimes one partner looks obviously to blame, by an affair, addictions and so on. Probably neither of you will have any precedent for this crisis, and your emotional and negotiating skills will be overwhelmed. Whatever part you’re playing in the drama, find as much compassion as you can for both of you, and go many extra miles to maintain some goodwill in your separation. 
One reason this is traumatic is that you’re probably facing a deep emotional crisis at the same time as negotiating on a mass of financial, legal and other matters, ranging from who keeps the house to equally massive questions like how you share the DVD collection. You need good support on all fronts.