A single midlife man’s romantic quest and its alternatives
Whenever I begin to feel unread and unloved, writing my articles on philosophy of science and the like, I know there’s relief close at hand. I can always write an article about sex, love and romance. My readership usually skyrockets and I feel loved all over again, so loved that I can stand a little hate too.
A few months back I wrote about the tough romantic choices midlife single women face. Some loved it; some hated it. A few women readers said that I identified their predicament exactly. One woman started her correspondence with, “You ridiculous man, you’ve got your head so far up your butt…”
This woman was right in a figurative sense. I do look inward. My watchwords are:
Philosophers find their true perfection
knowing the follies of humankind
In response to the criticism, I promised I’d write an equally blunt article on what it’s like for us single midlife males. This is it.
Having not dated guys I don’t know what they’re really like in the dating world, so I’ll write shamelessly about my quest for a romantic solution. I’m guessing though that you’ll recognize in me traits common in many single midlife men and women. We midlife singles have a fair amount in common.
I’m 56. I was married for 16 years and have since been single with and without benefits for spells, and in five partnerships lasting on average two years. In my case, every one of these partnerships ended with my partner calling it off. I think they’d all agree it was more or less mutual. I just tended to be more tenacious and allowed it to end when they said. In two of them, six months in, my partner suffered a major setback but I stayed as long as she would let me.
I seem to be bimodal, OK doing friends with benefits, but when committed, deeply committed. I’m single now and am as close as I’ve ever been to giving up on finding a death-do-us-part partner, or even continuing my quest for one.
Somewhere around my age or sooner people seem to hit a fork in the road taking us down two very different paths. People who have been in a sustained partnership seem very likely to stay in it. People like me who have been in and out of partnerships several times seem very unlikely to end up in one.
The folks in sustained partnership have enviably efficient love lives, with love so secure and reliable that they can get on with the other aspects of their lives undistracted by love’s vicissitudes. They fell madly in love when they were young, romantically obsessed and energetic. They enjoyed a honeymoon period followed perhaps by some rough times during which they tried to change each other. They eventually gave up trying, and now live at least contentedly and in some cases joyously ever after. Reconciled to staying together, they learned how to tuck in their pointy elbows to make room for each other.
Getting partnership going is like getting a big wheel moving from a cold start. You pump in enormous amounts of energy at the beginning, but once it’s moving, it takes little energy to sustain its momentum. These stable partners pumped that energy in when they were young and now they’re cruising.
Romantic love is like a sequence of glues. A partner’s startling charisma is the first glue. The second glue might be a marriage pledge, buying a house or raising kids together, some kind of project that forces partners to stay together through thick and thin. The third glue is the ease of staying together compared to the alternative. Many long-bonded partners not only wouldn’t think of breaking up, they couldn’t think of it. It’s been so long since they were single it’s unimaginable.
Sustained partnership reminds me also of what sailors used to call getting shanghaied. You might remember the concept. A sailor walks into a bar and meets a stranger who plies him with free drinks. The sailor wakes from a drunken slumber trapped on a very long sea journey with no way to escape and return home.
If you fell in love when you were young, naïve and easily made drunk by a partner’s charms, you woke up on partnership’s long sea journey. Like many a shanghaied sailor you make the best of the situation. You become a successful shipmate contented enough that you can’t imagine an alternative.
For those of us who have been in and out of partnership, late-life shanghaiing isn’t as likely to work and that for four reasons:
- Now that you’re older, you don’t get as drunk. Your youthful looks and charms are watered down and with hormones tapered off you won’t get as drunk anyway.
- You’ve been shanghaied before and, self-protectively have cultivated your ability to spot red flags both at the bar and on deck. Sadder and wiser you’re warier, quicker to say, “This isn’t going to work for me long term.”
- You’ve jumped ship before and lived to tell the tale. If you’ve been divorced even once and come out OK, being single again is no longer unimaginable. So even if you’re shanghaied, you’ve always got your life vest with you. You’re freer to jump ship and swim to shore if life on deck doesn’t feel ship shape.
- You’ve got more to jump ship for. You’re like a sailor who has been on shore for long stretches and built a landlubbers life for yourself. When you were single before, you figured out ways to sustain yourself during times without a partner. You developed hobbies, got a pet dog, devoted yourself more to your work. These alternatives to partnership don’t just tide you over. They become their own commitments.
On this last point, I took up playing music as a way to stop pestering my wife when she was losing interest in me. My music has since taken on a life of its own. Now when I’m in partnership I don’t readily drop playing music to make more time for us. Likewise, if you bought a dog to keep you company when you were single, you can’t stay overnight at you partner’s place as often because you have to get home to walk the dog.
Over the years, more than a few single women friends have told me they wonder what’s wrong with them that makes them keep picking lousy men. I’ve tried to comfort them with a concept actually from philosophy of science: How likely you are to pick bad apples depends mostly on the ratio of good to bad apples in the bag you’re picking from, in other words how the dating pool is segmented into good vs. bad apples. I even wrote this limerick to illustrate the problem.
A seven foot tall gal lamented
“See it seems that my psyche’s demented.
I keep picking guys
who are short for my size.”
She forgot how the date-pool’s segmented.
By mid-life most of the readily eligible guys are already in partnership. Of what’s left there are a lot more bad apples (for partnership) than good ones.
I was on OK Cupid briefly recently and stumbled into conversation with an ex partner who was also on there looking. She and I are now friends. She started complaining about the suitors she was encountering, illustrating her case against them by sending me examples of the pitifully weird courtship letters she was getting.
I had plenty to share too, letters from women who had a turrets-like tendency to insert harsh scrutiny of my partnership eligibility into letters otherwise perfumed with talk of true love and romance. It suddenly dawned on me that I had never applied my apple-ratio reasoning to my own situation. I had long recognized that single midlife females were going to encounter more bad than good apples, but hadn’t before recognized that we men would too.
Perhaps I didn’t notice because single women I knew tend to talk as though they are un-ambivalent champions of committed relationship. In my age bracket I find women on the cusp between two cultures, an old one in which women were all about family and commitment and a new one in which they’re in touch with their ambivalence. Several of the women I have been with talked a good game about staying together through thick and thin but left because they had the kind of intolerance of thin times they would normally attribute to men, in other words, they wanted to havest the rush at the beginning of love and then move on.
Sharing weird courtship correspondence, my ex and I were tilting toward the conclusion that both genders are a mess. But that didn’t gibe with my everyday experience of truly lovely men and women everywhere.
Then it hit me. If both men and women tend to be weird when dating in midlife maybe the problem isn’t gender and bad apples but the peculiar challenges of trying to get oneself shanghaied midlife. Midlife dating is bound to bring out the neurotic in any of us because it has us each working so damned hard, but on two opposite, mutually undermining campaigns.
By midlife we feel the urgency to get into sustainable partnership before it’s too late. We want a shot at redemption, a way to prove to ourselves and the world that we’re not losers, that we are capable of true committed love. We want something to wash down the mess that we swallowed in past relationships that ended bitterly. We crave one last chance to experience the kind of free-fall into total devotion that we experienced in our youth, and in the process to find, in love’s game of musical chairs, a lap to sit in lovingly, contentedly before the music dies.
At the same time, we’re sadder and wiser, very careful who we fall with, very eager to pick the right person this time after all the mistakes we’ve made before. We’re easily spooked.
It’s like we want to dive kiss-first into romantic bliss, and yet reflexively, after all we’ve been through, we can’t help but bring up our hands up to protect our faces and throw a few protective, defensive jabs.
My Psychology Today column is called “Ambigamy: Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical.” Dating midlife, the neurosis I find and probably exhibit, is extreme ambigamy. We’re deeply romantic, hyper-eager to fall; and deeply skeptical, analyzing a potential partner’s every word and gesture as though on an advance team recognizance mission, as though straining to identify every red flag before we surrender ourselves into love. It’s the natural response. I’ve poured huge amounts of energy into getting relationships rolling, only for the wheel to crumble apart after a few years, leaving me to start a new one from a standstill. Breakups sting long and hard. No wonder we’re afraid of love. With what we’ve weathered it’s rational to be wary.
Still, the problem is that every bit of recognizance scrutiny is buzz kill on falling and every bit of falling is risky for recognizance. No wonder we run hot and cold and then often just run away.
Being decidedly partnered is energy efficient. So is being decidedly single. Being in and out of campaigns to make partnership work is very inefficient because we’re engaged in two opposite campaigns at once, this effort to let go protectively, shop extra-carefully for the partner with whom to fall extra-carelessly. There are lots of fits and starts.
So what’s the alternative? Is there a lifestyle for those of us who aren’t ready for celibacy and aren’t well positioned for the full Nelson of death-do-us-part partnership? If there is an alternative, it would be useful to identify and even name it as a target to aim for. I have a much harder time abandoning any campaign if I don’t know what replaces it.
The name for this alternative lifestyle should address our quest for both love and sex. That’s a challenge. The problem with naming romantic lifestyles, at least in our prudish culture is that any name that alludes directly, indirectly or euphemistically to sex, becomes all about sex. Gay means having sex with people of your gender. Celibate means not having sex. Polyamory is not as being about loving many, but having sex with many. Friends with benefits is about having sex with friends.
The alternative that interests me is not primarily about having sex, though it has to address sex or else we’re just kidding ourselves. I talk to both men and women who are ready to quit dating. They tell me that they’ll hang out with friends more, spend more time on their vocations and avocations. I ask them what they’re going to do about sex and they just don’t know.
There’s an old Jewish joke. An old man is walking down the street when a little frog shouts out to him. “Hey, mister. I’m beautiful princess. Kiss me and I’ll be yours forever.” The man pockets the frog and walks a few blocks. The frog shouts up from the pocket, “Aren’t you going to kiss me?”
The old man says “Lady, by my age a talking frog is more interesting.”
I’m not that old, but by my age, a talking woman is interesting enough. My inner wolves– the one that hunts for committed partnership and the one that hunts for sex–are at least for now on sabbatical. They may even be retired. I still swoon over charisma and beauty. I still experience the wolves’ impulse to pounce, a voice inside me that says, “She’s wonderful! Quick, do something,” but by now I don’t have to spring to action. I can hear the wolf whistle inside me without responding. By now I’ve noticed that the best part of the encounter is the gaze. What follows when I take the gaze too seriously is usually more complicated than it’s worth.
I love deep intimate conversation and while we hold romantic love as the place where we’ll find that, I no longer assume that its sustainably there. I find more sustainable intimacy with friends. It’s a saner, less stressful, less strained category than falling in love. In love the stakes get very high. We bring our delicate, load-bearing furniture into the love nest, the furniture that supports our sense of self-worth. Lots of topics become too sensitive to discuss. Ranging about conversationally, we knock into, or over our partner’s sensitive furniture. There are sensitivities in friendship also, but far fewer.
In another article, I’ll say more about what an energy-efficient, rewarding alternative lifestyle looks like to me. In the meantime I’ll give it a name, a double entendre befitting an older guy who is tired of being seen as the wolf he no longer is. I’d call it Not being fresh.
Vital stats: Berkeley, 57, partnered, three children (M34, M28, F24), married once for 17 years. Educationally: Ph.D. in evolutionary theory, masters in public policy Vocationally: MBA professor of strategic foresight, business consultant and communications trainer, academic researcher. Historically: I've taught over 250k college-student/hours in psychology, sociology, rhetoric, philosophy, advertising, economics, history, English, cultural studies, marketing and strategy. I founded a non-profit environmental lobbying organization in DC, worked as a business consultant and public affairs director for large companies, ran a foundation, designed and implemented water projects in Guatemala. For seven years I lived on the world's largest hippie commune, and was an elected elder there at 24. Authority: None. I never refer to myself as an expert in anything, but rather a specialist in those questions that interest me (see below). I write with no authority. I read lots but cite rarely in my articles which should be read as opinion pieces, not declaration of scientifically proven fact. I will not pull rank on readers: My ideas are only worth considering only if they're based on good reasoning. I change my ideas over time. Caveat emptor. They say "don't believe everything you think. I'll go one further: I don't believe everything I write, in that for every argument I make, I aim to be able to express convincingly the counterargument. I try to live by the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote: "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." Self-expressively: I've written over 600 articles for Psychology Today, coined over 400 psychology neologisms. I write songs and limericks. I play bass and sing in jazz, Latin, funk, and Nigerian groups three nights a week. Intellectually, yet intimately, my middle-age spread spans several life-sized questions. * Most cosmically, how did mattering emerge from matter?, life from non-life? mind from chemistry? economics from physics? information from energy, questions I address as a member of a 16 year research project with UC Berkeley scientist Terrence Deacon. * More practically, though not unrelated, how do and how should we shop among interpretations, deciding what's significant and how to respond to what life deals us? * Also practically and related, what is a butthead other than someone we butt heads with? since in a free society we should define morals negatively--not what you should, but what you shouldn't do. We say "don't be a butthead," but define buttheads subjectively as people we butt heads with. I seek a more objective distinction between what's morally in and out of bounds. * How do and should we balance the ambigamist's tensions and what is the underlying structure of such tensions? For this I use the Serenity Prayer as a template, and think about levels of analysis (going meta). I've written five books, only one published but the rest out soon one way or another. Negotiate with yourself and win: Doubt management for people who can hear themselves think. Purpose: A natural history Doubt: A user's guide; a natural history Mind readers dictionary: Terms for reading between the lines with greater comprehension. Executive UFO: A field guide to unidentified flying objectives in the workplace.