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Sep 24 2009

Single at Midlife and What That Means

Published by at 5:01 am under Advice,Articles,Knowing Relationships BLOG

By Philip Belove, Ed.D.

This is a site for midlife single adults. Their needs are different than those of younger people. Here is a short overview of the unique situation of the midlife single. If you are under 25 and single, you are single simply. If you are over 40 and single, you are single with an explanation. You have a story to tell about it.

There are two important points here. First, maturing means learning to live with your own story. Second, reconciling yourself to your story is easier when you see how it is also the story of your times. You are not alone, even in how you construct your private relationships you follow the social rules of your time – and those social rules are changing. I want to expand on both these points starting with the connection between your story and the story of your times.

We live in unusual times as far as intimate relationships are concerned. We live in a culture that supports leaving them.

According to 1995 census figures, of the adults between 45 and 65, roughly 30% are not married. Most are not married because of divorce. A significant portion has been divorced more than once.

Sometime during the 1970’s in the United States, divorce replaced death as the main reason marriages ended. It was the second decade after the Pill. Feminism was teaching women that their lives had validity, even without a relationship. Abraham Maslow, president of the American Psychological Association had given us the idea of “self-actualization”, and therapists, educators, and industrial trainers, were spreading its gospel. It had become certifiably honorable to make one’s own self-fulfillment more important than one’s relationship. All these changes indirectly encouraged divorce.

By 1980, starting with California, ending with New York State, every state in the Union had passed a no-fault divorce law. The reasons marriages ended became the private business of the parties involved. Adultery, abuse, or cruelty no longer had to be proven to a court. All you had to do to dissolve a marriage was to claim “irreconcilable differences” or an “irretrievable break down in communication.”

Today,in 2002, just this side of the bridge from the old twentieth century, we find ourselves in a world that is culturally de-regulated. All of the great cultural traditions that used to give us certitude have been made relative. In Fiddler on the Roof, which premiered on Broadway in 1964, the lead character, Tevyeh said, “Without our traditions, our lives would be as precarious as a fiddler on a roof.” What he warned us against in 1964 happened. Today, The orthodoxies that once gave so much comfort no longer reign unquestioned. Today, we may look to the ancient traditions, but for the most part; we have to put the package together according to our own best judgment.

If marriages have been strongly shaken by these new freedoms, it has been even more confusing for adult unmarried relationships. So much that was once taken for granted must be worked out one relationship at time. What are the implications of sex? How should money be handled? What are the moral obligations? What must be spoken? What can be simply understood? What is negotiable and what isn’t? What is expected of women? What is expected of men?

People don’t necessarily chose to be single at midlife, today. And yet, if you are single at midlife, it is for some reason. There is a story to tell. Every relationship you have entered and left is part of that story, your story.

Let’s move carefully on this point. What if you did all you could in your relationship, and the other person was the one who simply couldn’t deal with intimacy, etc.? What if you had the misfortune to fall for someone who was commitment-phobic? What if you are not the Leave-r. What if the other person is the one who left you? Was that your fault?

My answer is that it doesn’t matter. It is still your story. Leave-ee or Leave-er and most midlife singles have been in both roles the question you must and will ask yourself on those Saturday nights when you decide to stay home is the same: “What does the fact of my being single at midlife say about me and how I have approached relationships? Do I like the kind of person I have become?” It is not the kind of question a 20 year old is likely to ask, at least not with the same power and consciousness. It is a question that produces maturity.

This point about it being Your Story takes me to the second important idea about being single at midlife. Turning 40 is, for many people, a powerful psychological event. To many it means they have lived long enough as an adult to be able to confront who they are and what they’ve done with their lives. John Kennedy said, “When you are 40 you have the face you deserve.” You certainly have the resumé you have earned.

Coming into midlife means coming into a new layer of consciousness. It’s just there is the math. Forty years old compared to a life expectance of seventy to eighty means you’ve probably lived more than half your life. Was it the life you wanted to live? Do you wasn’t to keep going this way? Do you want to make changes? Turning 40 makes people want to come to grips with their story of their life. It makes a person want to take responsibility for his or her choices. For many of us, and I certainly speak for myself, this is not always an easy or pleasant task. But it is simply part of life.

Part of maturing as a midlife single is knowing which questions to ask yourself.

Part of the lore of mature midlife dating is the importance of figuring out, for oneself, in each new situation, “Why is this person single?” What was it in the way they lived that led to them being single now? The answer tells much about what you can expect from them.

Do they understand why they left previous relationships? Are they being honest with themselves? That will tell a lot about how honest they can be with you.

Finally, how honest are you being with yourself about why you are single. The better you understand yourself, the better you will be able to understand others. And this is very important as you search for a possible partner.

Let me summarize. People who date at midlife are caught in a cross current between two profound shifts in their world. The first is sociological; the second psychological. The sociological shifts are cultural shifts. Today, we live in a de-regulated culture. Today we must each find our own way. Couples really have to work out their own rules as well.

The psychological shift is a matter of becoming one’s own person. The older we get, the more important it becomes to us how we are living our precious remaining days. At the same time, people come to these relationships with wounds. For the most part women are angry or hurt and men are confused and hurt. Both want happiness.

It’s easy to be hard on yourself when you are a midlife single. Take another look at those two shifts. Let the implications sink in. It will help you lighten up. Part of being mature is knowing that there is knowledge, training and support available to help you deal with this and other challenges of modern living.

I want this web site, as well as my workshops, courses and articles, and my counseling and coaching practice, to a source of that knowledge, training and support for you. Here are some personal questions for you to consider as you think about these ideas:

1. How would you compare and contrast the relationship you are looking for now with the relationships you saw in your parents’ generation?

2. How have your relationships helped you achieve what you wanted and needed for your own fulfillment?

3. How have they hampered you?

4. When there was a conflict between your own needs and the needs of a relationship, how did you handle it?

Let me know what you think. Please write me at

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