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Apr 20 2009

Whadayacallit Relationships in Midlife Dating

Published by at 7:03 pm under Advice

Please help. I’m searching for a good, funny, accurate name for this relationship, so common in midlife dating. It is a relationship with a built in limitation – geography, marriage to someone else, not-enough compatibility beyond sexuality, whatever. Sometimes the limitation is named. Sometimes it’s implied. The relationship always includes sex.

It isn’t casual and yet it’s not a full relationship. It is always limited in some important way. It is always smaller than full out commitment.

Maybe it ought to be called a relation-ette, like dinette or raisonette. I don’t especially like STR, or Short Term Relationship which sounds about as passionate as a financial instrument. And besides, sometimes these relationships aren’t always short term. They can last for years. I’ve interviewed people who’ve had discrete affairs, which have lasted as long as ten years and which included monthly trysts and even “business trips” that were really erotic vacations.

There is a French phrase for a friendship with tenderness, safety, sex and love, Amitie Passion, but I want an English term. I thought about “Limited Partnerships” as a term, but again, the phrase sounds so Wall Street, even though I like it because it captures the idea of intentionally built-in limitations.

These are definitely not casual relationships. We’re not talking about casual sex although the fact that they include sex is central to what they are. If we are bound to be single for many years between 40 and 60 or more, we are still going to want to have a sex life. One woman, recently divorced said that despite it all, she and her husband had a good sex life. “I didn’t believe how hungry I got.”

For many of us, these Passionate Friendships Including Sex represent a compromise. The middle years are often a time of being more practical than idealistic. One of the jobs of a midlife coach is to remind people not to forget their highest goals. Here is how one woman described this highest goal and its benefits: I want sex, passionate, orgasmic, wild, joyful sex, as often as possible for as long as I am able. For me, this kind of sex is only and exclusively available in a committed monogamous relationship. Period. No question about it. I just can’t have really good sex unless I feel completely safe. As the feeling of safety grows, the sex gets better. I know that popular wisdom tells us that guys have good sex no matter what, but after seven months, I am just beginning to scratch the surface of understanding how my lover’s body works…how to take him to places of sexual ecstasy

And, of course, her personal experience is born out in research. The way it is said is so dry it’s easy to miss what they are talking about: “Sexual satisfaction for both men and women increases with commitment.” In other words, if you want ecstasy, you have to be deeply vulnerable and if you want to be deeply vulnerable you have to trust deeply. And if you want to trust deeply, you have to know that you and your partner are fully devoted. Otherwise, there’s a lot of performance and show business. I’ve always been fascinated by the way one woman described a short term lover, “He’s a great technical lover.”

This high goal of authentic, profoundly vulnerable sex is often put aside temporarily at midlife. One woman wrote, “I’m choosing not to have any long-term relationships because I don’t want to work that hard right now. I have no illusions about the amount of work required and the last time I put in all that work and it still didn’t work out, I guess you would call that seriously burned. I want companionship, but not if it comes with all that work.”

Another woman wrote, “Does his presence in my life add value? Or is he just another task-creating creature? “

Another wrote, “I have never had sex (or anything else for that matter) so good that it was worth all the extra domestic work that men in my generation sometimes represent. …For me, at 46, it is about keeping my independence and maintaining a particular lifestyle which makes room for a lover but doesn’t require me to change everything. “

And that way of thinking is what produces Amitie Passion, the STR, the Limited Partnerships, the Whatdayacallit. As one woman wrote, maybe what I’m doing is not casual sex. I’m looking for good friends, cuddle buddies and possible lovers – in that order…one nighters are no interest. None of the blessings and too much of a risk physically, emotionally and socially”

And again, I have very high standards for any kind of sexual relationship and since I’m in a protective phase and I’m not ready to play at all and am certainly not doing the long –term thing I can see having and hope to have lovers who are my beloveds for ever and that I am sexual with for years or as long as it works.”

Midlife dating is different. People who are single at midlife are single for a reason and often not a particularly happy reason. Whatever the reason is, it’s an irritant, a grain of sand in the soul. What else to do with it than try to make it into a pearl? The midlife single years are a transition time for many of us. There are things we have to learn about, not about the world, but about ourselves. To do this, we have to cut ourselves some slack. We need forgiveness and flexibility. Sometimes that means we cannot be in a complete relationship with someone else who often needs the same things.

For many, the STR is a phase, a solution to a problem. But temporary solutions to problems have a way of becoming problems themselves. As John Lennon wrote, in the year before he was shot, “Life is what happens while you are making other plans.” Sex mixed with affection, tenderness and safety is bonding. That is why these relationships create a lot of confusion in midlife dating.

“When it’s Love, you don’t have to think about how it will end.” In Amitie Passion, there is always the understanding, a sad, sweet understanding, which is sometimes held by one partner and sometimes by both, an understanding that things can only go so far and can eventually end.

As I’ve said, all relationships are negotiated. How do partners let each other know that this relationship is only going so far and no farther? A lot of these negotiations are conducted non-verbally, in action. In relationships, actions speak the truth, but not all that clearly. Also it is no single action, but the pattern of actions over time that reveals the limits and possibilities of the relationship.

As a psychologist I am, of course, fascinated by the many ways people communicate the fact of limits.

Here is a small list:

1. One partner is married. One of the convenient myths of extra-marital affairs is that the spouse will divorce and then marry the new partner. A successful marriage between former affair partners rarely happens and never without difficulty. For one thing, it is difficult to trust someone who is a known liar. Usually, at some level, both parties understand that the marriage, which exists “over there,” helps them limit their secret relationship. At the very least, it keeps it a secret and that’s a big limit. On the other hand, it’s quite common for partners to be happy with a secret, limited and fond relationship. Partners see each other once a month or so, meet in distant cities and even manage to rendezvous (another French word) on business trips.

2. Geographical limits. One woman I interviewed told me about how she established one with a man who lived just a bit too far away. The drive between them was a few too many hours for them to maintain it and so they agreed to have a few magnificent weekends and then end it. The advantage for them was that finally the impersonal distance would pull them apart and they could separate without having to reject or be rejected.

3. Post Divorce. In Paul Simon’s semi-autobiographical movie about his divorce, his character and his soon-to-be ex, played by Blair Brown, come back to his apartment after the conference with their lawyers and make love. In the afterglow he says, “You know post-separation agreement sex is even better than pre-marital sex.” There are many divorced couples who turn back to each other in a dry time and become temporary lovers. Some re-unite, but many simply re-encounter each other. The divorce serves as a limiter.

4. An all-consuming job. The “all consuming job” doesn’t necessarily exclude a committed relationship, but it serves as an impersonal reason for not going further. Sometimes it is difficult for couples to acknowledge explicitly to each other that for the long haul they don’t see a fit, but for the short haul they could make an exception.

5. The explicit negotiation. In Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, the hero finds himself in a bar late at night and a woman approaches him and says, “Hi there.” He immediate says, “I’m not interested.” I remember this bland exchange because I fell in love with the next sentence. Vonnegut says, “But it turns out that they both underestimated their lack of interest but not by much.” On the other hand, there are many people who drop hints to some selected possible partners that they are interested in short term relationships and the deal is made.

6. The Male Fade. Credit for this term goes to my friend, JJ, who used to talk about the way men would show up in her life, make a lot of noise about being interested and then, without warning or explanation, suddenly stop calling. And then they would show up again, sometimes weeks, as if nothing had happened. This is another way people communicate that a relationship’s possibilities are limited. Women do this, too, of course, but not so lightly or obliviously as men. When women do this, they can usually name reasons and the reasons are personal.

7. The Ten Thousand Small Things. This is the most common way it is done. We are constantly adjusting closeness and distance in relationships. As one woman said, “If it’s my committed lover, I’ll hang up and take the call. If it’s someone I’m just dating, I’ll call by the day’s end. If it’s someone I’m backing off, I may way a day or two.” These messages are sent non-verbally. People who are closer touch each other more and in more sensitive places. A hand on the shoulder is different than a hand on the upper arm, or the neck, or the butt. But partners who are going to be apart have other ways of communicating that the relationship has built in distance.

Advice? It’s always the same advice with me. When all else fails, be brave and tell the truth. How do you to that? How do you talk about the tough stuff. That’s a topic for another time. – PB.

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