The Rewards of Midlife Marriage
One of my dearest friends from my teenage years stunned us all recently when she decided -- quite suddenly and quite happily -- to marry her first love from 40 years ago. They had reconnected after he sent her a condolence note when her father passed away, and they reignited the spark. But he lived in the Midwest and she was in San Francisco, with neither one interested in moving. So why marry?
"We just wanted to," says Michele Bondi, a public health nurse. "We were aligned in what we wanted in our relationship, both today and in the future. Companionship was a consideration, along with finances, health-care benefits and career support. As for moving, we both have careers we had worked hard for and didn't want to abandon because we were married."
What are the benefits of being married, now that she's pushing 60 years old? How is it different than her first marriage in her 20s? "There is such comfort in not having to constantly report on what you are doing and why or where you are going," she says. "There is such a high level of respect we have for each other. Most important is the fact that we trust each other and respect each other's decisions."
This is marriage, grown-up style -- something I admit I never experienced via marriage number one (hot Swedish jock from college in my 20s) or marriage number two (hot bad-boy photographer in my 30s).
I have always assumed that once a single person reaches that stage of independence and autonomy, marriage becomes like the proverbial bicycle for a fish. But after talking to relationship coaches, I've discovered it's not as unusual as we might think for singles to walk down the aisle at a ripe age. Perhaps the main difference is that midlife marriages are not entered into lightly: At this age, singles need to work harder at finding a mate, and at the same time, they need to work at being flexible -- something that's not always easy for longtime singletons.
"The over-50 clients that I've had really want to settle down and have a committed relationship. I guess that's why they hired a coach," says Amy Schoen, a professional life and dating coach. "They really want serious companionship and to have an intimate relationship -- they're over dating for fun."
And they have clear-cut goals, she says. "One of my male clients wanted to have a family, but also wanted to marry someone near his age, so he married a single mom." Problem solved.
Bobbi Palmer, a dating coach who specializes in women over 40 and founder of Date Like a Grownup, is well-acquainted with the rigors of midlife singledom: She married for the first time at age 47. She pooh-poohs the notion that we get too old (or set in our ways) to marry after a certain age.
"This is the very best time in our lives to take this plunge," she says. "People who marry at this age usually do it after creating great lives for themselves, learning a lot and finally realizing that loving partnership is an important part of life that they are missing. It takes some courage to make this admission and to actually take the risk to go after it."
One of the challenges is relaxing a bit on our checklists.
"We do become more picky as we age," says Palmer. "A lot of my work as a coach is helping people realize that their 'lists' contain a lot of nonsense they have picked up over the years, and these have little to do with what will truly make them happy for the rest of their lives. Picky is good, but only for the few must-haves. The rest should be negotiable."
Patricia Drury Sidman, also a relationship coach, says many people who seek marriage after many years of solo living do so for reasons of personal growth. She, too, married for the first time after age 50.
"My life goals started changing around 50, and a committed relationship felt like the next step on the path of personal growth," she says. "I believed, and still do, that some emotional and spiritual things can only be learned in relationship to another. Not everybody has to go there, but if one wants to, being in a relationship is the way."
Sidman says the drawbacks of waiting until middle age to get serious about marriage are fairly obvious. "Most singles over 50 have a closet full of baggage: habits, prejudices from a former marriage, and inflexible preferences in everything from movies to food to politics. Plus, there are family complications, troublesome exes, or even a deceased former spouse held to have achieved an impossible standard of perfection. And there is aging with all its body-image issues, which can inhibit intimacy at first."
But, she adds, the benefits of midlife love are huge. "At middle age, there is more life experience so each person has more to give to the other. Attraction is based on more than instant hormones. At this age, we know how to make a commitment, and how to honor commitments once made. Marriage at this point in life is clearly for keeps; there are no illusions about there being some grass on the other side of some fence that's greener. Plus, the question of having more children is simply off the table."
As we age, we get less picky about certain things and pickier about others. Says Sidman, "We hopefully get less picky about the superficial stuff: looks, style, status, charisma, charm. And we get pickier about the important stuff: kindness, humor, generosity, character and values. Those are the things that lead to true, deeply rooted, slow-developing chemistry -- the kind that will sustain you for many years to come."