Middle-aged women are among the most educated, confident, and self-sufficient today. So why is it so hard to find a healthy, enduring romantic relationship?
I was lying naked on the floor of my living room less than seven months after leaving my marriage when a man told me he was in love with me. My divorce papers were far from final, and I hadn’t planned on this happening so soon. But there I was, feeling that old familiar flame ignite inside me. I told him I loved him too, and I did, then I surrendered to this passion. After years in a cold, contemptuous marriage, I’d all but forgotten the rapture that was falling in love. I’d forgotten because that sort of intensity of emotion is fleeting and the last time I’d felt it was over a decade prior. And as it turned out, the passion I had with this man lasted for nine glorious months until we parted as friends. I also learned that jumping into relationships right after a divorce isn’t always the best idea for anyone. But finding the first love had been so easy, that I didn’t imagine five years later I’d be 41 and still not have another.
In the 18th century, there were dance cards. In the 1990s I left voicemail messages on a singles hotline with a pin number attached to a personal ad I found in The Pitch Weekly. As technology progressed, we were given websites like Match.com and apps like Tinder. People have been trying to connect with potential partners since time immemorial which is why its puzzling that the marriage rate is in decline.
Today, it is perfectly socially acceptable to have met your spouse online. According to a 2013 study whose findings were presented in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, between 2005 and 2012, 35 percent of marriages began online. That was before Tinder was even a thing. It’s not hard to imagine that number has grown. And yet, the marriage rate has been declining steadily since the 1960s when 72 percent of Americans over the age of 15 were married. Now, that number is just 48 percent. A 2014 Pew Research study estimates that by the time the young adults of today reach 50, one in four will have never been married. This doesn’t make sense when the same research says that only 13 percent of never-married adults say they never want to marry. That number rises to 45 percent for people who have already been married, and still, second marriages make up one in four of all marriages. This begs the question: Even though most people say they either want to get married, or are open to marriage, why are marriage rates in decline? Are long-term, committed relationships getting harder to achieve? Have we become a society full of thrill-seeking, instant-gratification junkies with an aversion toward hard work and sacrifice? Could this be a matter of supply and demand? Or, as a middle-aged women, are the odds stacked against me?
Many would like to blame the same technology that makes dating more convenient. When you have an endless list of potential mates at your fingertips, it’s easy to keep moving right along swiping on one piece of eye-candy after the next. I will admit to having this mentality when I first became single at thirty-six. After spending so many years doing the hard work of trying to sustain a marriage, I was a glutton for the no-strings-attached sugar. And I was very honest with all my partners about my intentions. But candy only tastes good for a little while before it makes you ill. After a couple of years of sampling from the dessert menu, and figuring out what I really needed in a long-term partner, I began to crave the relationship equivalent of eating my vegetables. But that was three years ago, and no matter how hard I try, all I keep coming up with are appetizers.
I’m not alone. In five years of being an eligible, heterosexual bachelorette, I have cultivated many friendships with other middle-aged, single women. Many of us are in the same discouraging buffet line going on all the same kinds of dates with all the same kinds of men and we’re looking around at each other wondering how we got here. I am not the first one to ponder what is more problematic: My standards, or men?
The decline in marriage rates have been attributed in the media to everything from women’s rights, sexual liberation, the normalization of divorce, and an increase in cohabitation. Financial insecurity is now the No. 1 reason cited for choosing not to marry, while the opposite appears to predict marriage longevity. And higher education correlates with higher earning potential and financial security. Statistically, the least likely people to divorce are college-educated couples with children. As it would happen, the decline in marriage rates correlates with the rise of women in higher education which began in the early 1970s, when women outpaced men for the first time in achieving associate’s degrees. By the mid-1990s, women outpaced men in college enrollment and completion. By 2006, women dominated men in all degree levels from associate to doctorate, and according to last year’s U.S. Department of Education statistics, 35 percent more women than men graduated from college. Journalist Jon Birger wrote a whole book on this subject called Date-onomics: How Dating Became a Lopsided Numbers Game. He writes more for a millennial crowd, but Generation X set this trend in motion. We are on the forefront of this cultural shift.
For centuries women have married for security purposes—financial, physical, family lineage—often at the expense of their personal freedoms. That isn’t the case anymore. Women, particularly educated women, can and do support themselves without relying on a partner. Out of the three serious partners I’ve had in the past five years, only one had a four-year college degree and none of them had more financial security than me. Birger calls these “mixed collar relationships.” What this means is: if you are college-educated, and desire a college-educated partner for the long-haul, you may be looking longer because they simply are statistically in shorter supply. And if you’re a college-educated African-American woman wishing to date a college-educated, African-American man, you may be (once again) at the greatest statistical disadvantage. According to the Department of Education in 2006, women made up 64 percent of all African-American college graduates.
Along with many of my friends, our desires for a partner are less quantifiable and rely heavily on the way the person makes us feel and not how much they have in their 401(K). We’d prefer that our interests match up, the quality of communication be high, and personal accountability is a non-negotiable. If we’re going to commit to the long-haul, we need to know that someone is going to show up through the rough parts, which by middle-age, we know all too well are a part of life. As I have aged, my attraction has veered further away from the physical qualities, and more toward quality of character and I’m not alone. In a 2016 study from the journal Evolutionary Psychology, showed that many women prefered altruism over physical attraction when choosing a long-term mate. Personally, I find utilitarianism hella sexy. Nothing gets me hotter than a partner who offers to clean out my gutters, cook me dinner or watch my dog while I’m out of town.
One of the most important factors in the likelihood of finding a long-term partner could be based on the basic economics of supply and demand in your geographic area. If we take our cues from research into the animal kingdom by psychologist Marcia Guttentag as well as heavily gendered college campuses like Sarah Lawrence, it would appear that when women are in high supply, promiscuity, or the “hookup culture” is prevalent. Conversely, Birger states in Date-onomics that Silicon Valley boasts some of the highest marriage and lowest divorce rates because college educated men are plentiful. My city of Seattle has a ratio of 2:1 single men to women. You would think my odds are pretty good, and yet, here I am, still unable to find a partner.
Three years ago I got really excited about a guy who was newly single, a college-educated professional with artistic sensibilities. On our first date, we compared our time-steps in the middle of a posh restaurant. He studied winemaking at a Berkeley extension program and often traveled to Italy. On our second date, he pulled a massage table from his closet and gave me a sexy rub down I’ve never forgotten. He was worldly, open-minded and self-aware in many ways. He was also six years my senior. Within a few weeks I was beginning to get those euphoric feelings again. But after a month, he said he no longer wanted to see me because he’d found someone who was a “better match” that he wanted to date her exclusively. She was a struggling visual artist, childless (unlike me), and ten years his junior. When that relationship ended within six months, he tried to rekindle things with me because I was “one of the smartest women [he’d] ever met.” He even told me that he was now “more open to dating women with children.” But by then I was so turned off I couldn’t muster the attraction.
I hardly need to point to statistics to conclude that many men prefer younger, less burdened women. But if you want statistics, they do exist. In another 2014 Pew Research study, some 20 percent of men who are newly remarried have a wife who is at least 10 years their junior, and another 18 percent married a woman who is six to nine years younger. And that’s if they remarry at all, which many do not. It would seem that in this world, if you are a man with a lot to offer, the dating sea is your oyster because let’s face it, the world is your oyster. At least more so than it is mine as an aging female.
The same year as the tap-dancing masseuse, I matched with an educated, widowed father of two young kids with a lot of great qualities. On our first date he confessed that he was actually four years older than his stated age on the app which was already a few years older than me. He said he purposefully lied about his age because he was having a hard time connecting with younger women, whom he preferred. He’d also just gotten out of a tumultuous relationship with a woman more than ten years his younger. He couldn’t understand why this was a problem for me. Now, I don’t set my dating parameters for men more than ten years older because I can’t help but feel that my age is objectified. Because being objectified is how I got to be single in the first place. Many men seem to like their sweets sweet, and their steaks tender, no matter how incompatible with their constitutions.
So not only are educated and financially secure men my age in shorter supply, but they are also choosing to date and marry women six to ten years younger.
And still, many middle-aged women like me still want the opportunity to build something solid and lasting with a partner in spite of the statistics. But we are too smart and have worked too hard to settle for less than what we deserve, (whatever we feel that might be) and our experience has made us wise to the consequences of power imbalances in relationships. Our standards may seem narrowly set, but that’s just because life has been an effective teacher.
But I still have faith in men. I believe they have also been damaged and alienated by cultural perceptions of relationships and masculinity, and I think we should persist in modeling what it is we need them to be as partners by standing firm in our own values. I believe men are more than capable of being quality partners (with and without means and education), because after five years of being single, I now call many good men, my good friends.
Middle age is a time when women are stepping into their own. We are brimming with passion and confidence. We also have enough years behind us to have wizened perspectives and we are all too aware that our daughters, sons, nieces, nephews, and students are watching us just as we watched our matriarchs. My female generation, and many before us, were raised on self-sacrifice and persistence. We had no choice but to become ninjas of delayed gratification in a world where we had to work twice as hard for half as much. And if we have to sacrifice our own relationship sustenance so that the next generation may feast, then that is what the best of us are prepared to do. We will teach our boys and girls by example that if you can’t find a quality partner, one worthy of all that you have to offer, then you can still be happy with no partner at all. And we will stand firm as examples of what we need our partners to be: People who nourish, support and protect the health of the whole, in spite of their personal fleeting appetites for another sweet treat.
I don’t know if I’ll ever get married again—statistically, the odds aren’t in my favor—but I do know I won’t stop trying. Falling in love and having a partner is a human experience I’m not prepared to live without. Same goes for sex! But after five years, I also know this is an Ironman triathlon, not a sprint, which is always easier when I get enough sleep, eat my veggies and have the occasional treat.
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