By Grace Cooper
IN MY LAST post I touched upon the potential bad and ugly aspects to online dating after age 50. Honestly, friends, we did not grow up using this newfangled method of introductions to future romantic partners, so the learning curve can be steep. There are unforeseen dangers inherent to online dating—that much is irrefutable. It always pays before you leap into any new adventure to do a bit of recon and homework ahead of time.
Yet here you are, reading a column on late-life romance, even though chances are the first few dating rodeos from your younger years didn’t go so well. Now, decades older, we endure cringeworthy commercials for male-enhancement drugs, and ads for blue-hair specials at Denny’s. The mainstream media rarely portrays mature people looking for a romantic restart in a glamorous way. Furthermore, our society tends to treat the thought of elder romance in a somewhat patronizing and condescending manner. “How sweet” we smile, whenever we pass a gray-haired couple walking hand in hand. Few of us allow ourselves to imagine these adorable duos sans clothes, doing the dirty between satin sheets.
There are a few delightful rom-coms, such as Something’s Gotta Give and It’s Complicated, in which romance between the heroine and hero are portrayed in a more empathetic and laudable way, but it’s still Hollywood’s version of reality depicted in upscale lifestyles. I mean Diane Keaton’s kitchen in Something’s Gotta Give is still swoon worthy. And who wouldn’t fall for Meryl Streep’s character—a woman who smokes dope with Alec Baldwin on their first date and then when the munchies kick in, bakes him the perfect pain de chocolat at 2am. Hardly relatable to how I live my life.
So, why not just throw in the towel and adopt a cat? After all, by now you’ve probably found a few fun girlfriends to hang with, and there is always the joy of babysitting grandchildren every weekend so their harried parents can experience a weekly “date night,” hopefully to rediscover why they ever took the leap into marriage, mortgages and the mayhem that comes with raising kids.
Most of us don’t live like movie stars in rom-coms, granted, but why not dream a little dream of your own? We Boomers aren’t obligated to play dead yet, and as unimaginable as this may seem to our youth and wealth-obsessed society, who is braver than an older woman who picks herself up, dusts herself off and enters another romantic rodeo?
We deserve to be happy at any age, especially those for whom most of life is in the rearview mirror. Research shows that the one thing that reliably makes us happier and healthier in our golden years is meaningful C.O.N.N.E.C.T.I.O.N. Not to be too geeky about it, but humans have evolved to be neurobiologically hard wired for connection to other human beings. We are pack animals, unlikely to function well on our own. Yet much of the way we live our lives in our society devolves eventually into this—far too many of us live as singles, often lonely and depressed, disconnected from all that brings them a sense of connectedness.
We’ve known for decades that prolonged solitary confinement is considered a cruel form of punishment in prisons, banned in most international tribunals, labeled a form of torture for the severe and often irreparable psychological and physical consequences of social exclusion. In the older population, as in prisoners, social isolation can lead to severe anxiety, depression, stress, cognitive impairment and even suicide. Metanalysis of more than 200 studies demonstrates significant health impacts of social isolation, including a 30% increase in the risk of premature death, as well as an increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
So, we know isolation in any form is unhealthy in the worst possible way. Yet, human beings also possess brains that are “prediction machines.” We learn from past experiences to avoid those dangerous situations that cause us harm or pain. These predictive triggers are stored in our subconscious brains, for a large part, where they control most of our reflexive behaviors. That’s why we in the USA automatically stop at every street corner and look left before stepping into the street. You do not even have to think about it consciously. Fear of being mowed down by a moving vehicle has been stored in your subconscious mind since you learned to cross a street as a child. Travelers unaccustomed to negotiating streets in Great Britain, though, must consciously think to look right to avoid stepping into oncoming traffic.
Likewise, you’d expect that social situations that led to bad outcomes during our lives we would have learned to avoid. Yet, it’s much more complicated than that. In childhood we learn patterns for how we form attachments to other human beings. In another post I will write about attachment theory and how it presents the key to how well we form meaningful connections in our most intimate relationships.
Here is one simple example of disordered attachment coupled with repetition compulsion and what some might experience in online dating:
You’ve been attracted since the seventh grade to the excitement of dating bad boys with blonde hair and blue eyes who ultimately break your heart every time. Deep in your subconscious mind, every blonde man with blue eyes is going to trigger excitement intermingled with fear. You may be simultaneously drawn to the BBB types and yet repelled. (If dad was a BBB, this one will be a slam-dunk for your therapist.)
What causes this? At a hormonal level, the thrill of chasing BBB’s releases feel-good neurotransmitters that stimulate the pleasure centers of your brain. Subconsciously, your brain begins to crave the predicted reward that comes from the thrill of the chase, yet deep in your subconscious, you are simultaneously afraid. If you had slept with a few BBB’s and experienced the big “O,” another set of bonding neurotransmitters secreted during good sex makes it especially hard to leave these no-good guys. You are now addicted in a neurochemically induced manner.
I know no one is likely to make a rom-com about how difficult it is to break neurochemical bonds, although the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in which Kate Winslet’s character undergoes a risky medical procedure to erase painful memories of her boyfriend, comes close.
So, if you hope to have an easier, less painful and more rewarding time of dating in the future, it pays to park the romantic to the side for a while and instead closely examine what you may discover in online dating. It is indeed possible to have lots of fun, a bit of excitement, some good conversation, companionship and even a few squirts of feel-good neurotransmitters as you date. But IMHO, it’s also a great way to untangle the mysteries of whom you attract, what attracts you, what triggers the unpleasant emotions of fear, anger and shame as you make your way along this new and unexamined path.
Whether our preferences or aversions were formed in childhood, or in later life, our partner preferences are based on our unique personal experiences, with cues that predict sexual rewards, love and happiness. And just as fingerprints are unique, each one of us has exclusive partner traits directly based on our own life experiences. But unlike fingerprints, with self-awareness and conscious intention, these patterns can be reworked, unlearned and replaced with new and healthier conscious decisions to guide our dating behaviors.
Yes, girlfriend, it is indeed possible to teach an old bitch how to become a new and different B.I.T.C.H. (Babe in Total Control of Herself).
Recommended reading that’s witty, wise, and laugh-out-loud funny:
Recommended listening: Strings That Tie to You by Jon Brion from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (soundtrack version)
—Grace Cooper (a nom de plume) left her long marriage a decade ago, and with it went all sense of her identity—but not for long. Now 67, she has begun chronicling her tales of looking for love in all the wrong places, and unexpectedly finding herself.