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Apr 25 2009

The Stages of Midlife Dating

Published by at 3:48 am under Advice

Dating at midlife is one of those topics where everyone who has done it has a strong, opinion. But there is a difference between having an opinions and having a point of view.

After years of academic and clinical research, after a couple hundred of interviews and thousands of pages of outlines and notes, (I started the Dating at Midlife (DML) research project in 1995, seven years ago) I have developed a point of view and the web site and this newsletter reflect it.

Here then is the model which I’ve evolved for helping Midlife Singles get what they want for themselves.

Being single at midlife is a form of midlife crisis. It doesn’t matter whether you are the leave-r or leave-ee. The crisis may not hit you at divorce and may wait until your second divorce. The crisis might hold off until the break-up of your first big post-divorce love affair, the one you thought would save you. Or the crisis may hit you when you realize you are over 40 and never married ever.

What is a crisis?

There are doors in life that only go one way. You walk through them, click!, and there is no going back. You are not in Kansas anymore. The only way out is forward into the unknown. That’s a crisis.

In the single-at-midlife crisis, you find yourself at 40 or 50-something years old with energy, sexuality and time to spare, and single. What are you going to do with the rest of your life? Another relationship? Never another relationship? What?

There are recognizable stages in this crisis … or transition… or awakening. There’s good literature on the topic and lots of names for the event. A lot of the academic research of the DML project has been to synthesize psychological research on the maturity process and see where it applies to the living experience of midlife singles.

Each stage or phase has its own characteristic challenges. Each has its own special lessons and gifts.

Here are the stages:

1. Rebounding

People at this stage are just reacting, just becoming aware that they are in a new situation. For the most part they are still reacting to whatever just happened. It’s like waking up from a dream with the dream lingering. You don’t quite grasp the implications of your situation. You tend to jump into other relationships, not because there is something you want, but rather because there is something you want to avoid. People say, “I don’t want to be without sex.” “I don’t want to feel like I did in that last relationship.” “I don’t want to be alone.” They are often hurt, angry, lonely and tantrum-y or numb. They act like they really, really, really want a relationship and yet they aren’t at all ready for one. They are in stormy limbo, early crisis, unclear, unreliable as far as intimacy is concerned, and also needy. For some people this period lasts weeks; for others, years.

2. Retreat.

You can’t rebound forever. People do calm down. Then, often, they want to stay out of relationships. And it’s different in this phase. Instead of wanting to avoid relationships, they want to develop a relationship with themselves. Often they are celibate. They spend time looking in the mirror, discovering both good and bad about themselves and learning to be fearlessly honest with themselves. They learn to be charitable. They learn how to say “no.” They develop integrity. They start to have a sense of themselves as a separate individual. As one person put it, “I am who I am, regardless of who loves me or who doesn’t.”

3. Maybe Time

Once people figure out how to say “no,” they experiment with saying “yes.” But it is an experiment. It is the time of the Dance of Maybe. They try out their newly developed integrity in different relationships. They are learning again. Another term for this stage is “Remedial Dating.” They are testing themselves, learning what they didn’t learn as kids, and clarifying what it is they really want. Sometimes they are healing from some old wounds. They are open to committed relationships, but cautious.

4. Co-creation.

The challenge of this stage is finally creating that enduring relationship with another person. Not everyone goes to this stage or needs to. But it’s surprising how many really want to. At this stage people have learned to think in a new way that is fairly complex and demanding and often out of reach of younger, less mature people. They learn how to think in three dimensions. They learn to think about both, the “Me” and the “You,” and when they can hold those very different thoughts in their mind, they are able to see the “We.” It’s hard but those who can do it can co-create a relationship that is more than, smarter than, more complex than, and wiser than either one of the parties taken individually. It’s like jazz and improvisation. The collaborators bring out the best in each other and create something neither could have imagined singly.

The advantage of this way of thinking about midlife dating in four stages.

It helps you fine-tune your decisions. Each stage has it’s own skills that need to be learned. Each stage seems to have it’s own gifts, challenges and lessons. You can think about people you know or are considering dating, and you can see what the person is capable of, what are reasonable expectations, and what are the short term possibilities. You can also see that about yourself.

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