Men & Women at Midlife: Looking for Adult Love in the ’90s

Judy is a successful and attractive businesswoman toward the far end of her “thirtysomething” decade. Yet she feels frustrated, alone and angry about her failed relationships with men.

“Love and romance are really for younger people,” she said, “and the fact is I’m headed into middle age, where my prospects diminish – where everything diminishes, really.”

Tom, a tall, bearded lawyer, speaks wistfully of finding that “quality woman”-one who has the right combination of traits, interests, and physical attributes. And, needless to say, one who will devote herself to him. Not surprisingly, he changes women almost as often as his shirts. He inevitably discovers that whomever he is involved with fails to meet one of the criteria on his checklist.

There are many men and women like Judy and Tom in our culture today. People whose careers stand in sharp contrast to their private lives. Hard-working, successful, and savvy at work, their intimate relationships are marked by failures, disasters or plain unhappiness, regardless of whether they are single or have a partner. They suffer because the way we think of love is flawed to begin with. It is almost guaranteed to lead to failure and heartache.

As adults, we all want love. But what we practice is really a version of adolescent romance. We lack a vision of what adult love is and what its building blocks are. We believe that the only alternative to the endless cycle of yearning, infatuation, and power struggles is dullness, lack of excitement and boredom. And no one wants that.

We think of love as something, like Judy expressed, that is bound to fade in adulthood. If we are lucky, it will settle into a kind of tranquilized fondness. But this is a belief that is a product of equating excitement and connection with struggles for control and domination. This is what we redefine as romance. Therefore, many relationships that seem so promising at first end up in scenes of betrayal, conflict, and misunderstanding.

Because they are alarmed by the high rate of divorce and its impact on children, the emptiness of affairs, and the pain of loneliness, men and women typically resign themselves to relationships that are often a kind of living death. Some speak of making “realistic” compromises and settling into “mature” partnerships-new code words for the fear of ending up in scenes like in the movie, “War of the Roses.” Yet, inside, they know they aren’t happy, and they feel entrapped.

But there is hope. The decade of the ’90s is an era in which the baby boomers and yuppies will have moved fully into midlife. The life experiences of these new midlifers and the latent idealism many are now trying to put into practical form are pushing many to rethink and redefine the kinds of relationships they have accepted as desirable or inevitable. This offers people in midlife – roughly from the mid-thirties to the mid-sixties -a new opportunity to create a vision of adult love that integrates passion and maturity.

The model of love people have grown up with in this culture is basically adolescent: feelings of possessiveness, of intense longing, a chronic desire for newness; excitement that can only be experienced over anticipation and infatuation. Novelist Graham Greene described this in “The Heart of the Matter” about a character who  “… listened with the intense interest one feels in a stranger’s life, the interest the young mistake for love.”

These are the feelings that are aroused in the young, when hormonal changes combine with a gradual moving away from parents and toward peers; when attraction to the opposite sex is new and subject to the tumultuous shifts of their own emerging passions.

At those times they can change from feelings of intense love to hatred in a matter of moments. Yet this has become the model for people as adults, and it gets repeatedly portrayed and reinforced by themes in popular movies, music, and fiction.

The extension of adolescent romance into adulthood also means ongoing struggles over domination and submission. These arise from how men and women are raised to define themselves and relate to each other from childhood.

Despite this, the capacity for mutual recognition and intimate connection-basic elements of adult love-is always present. Its roots are found in the earliest years of life, before people become socialized into their masculine and feminine roles.

Adult love, in contrast, is a blending together of erotic passion, friendship, respect and support of each other as independent human beings. It means a giving up of desire to control or dominate, because both men and women are harmed by it. But all this requires cultivation of very different attitudes and values than men and women now bring to relationships.

Above all, it requires shattering a powerful mythology: that adulthood is a period of decline or diminishing of powers; a time of coming to terms with “necessary losses.” The opposite is true: Youth is the period of diminished human capacities.

Love, creativity, passion, wisdom, and other powers can only develop, within our culture, during midlife-past about 35. But since most people don’t realize that, they don’t do the kinds of things that build the foundation for love as an adult. Within a relationship, people don’t really talk with each other; they cease to enjoy sex when it’s no longer new, and rationalize that as due to a lack of time.

For many, the portrayal of relationships on most television sitcoms-filled with sarcasm, belittling, and lack of mutual respect-is only a slight caricature of real-life relationships.

Both men and women contribute to this in different ways. Some men fear recognizing the woman as a separate, independent person. They have difficulty affirming and respecting her as a person who is both different from them and yet the same. She isn’t valued as a mutual partner, one whose self-sufficiency is recognized and supported.

Many men are raised from childhood to see women as objects to possess, control, and dominate. To experience need or emotional connection with them threatens their own feelings of independence and strength. So they end up seeking to possess the woman, yet fearing her power to get them “under her spell.”

Many women are socialized through childhood to seek affirmation of themselves through passive subordination to men, and to embody the human needs for connection, nurturance, support – all the emotions that men are taught to find frightening. Many women realize that affirmation of their independence and self-sufficiency is a prerequisite for a good relationship, yet they are taught to deny it. They often are drawn to men who seem to embody strength, power, autonomy, and independence, but who have cut themselves off from the capacity for emotional connection.

Under the illusion that she, alone, can elicit this emotional connection from the man she is drawn to, the woman becomes disappointed and angry when she discovers that he ends up ignoring, betraying, or abusing her. Or, if she is drawn to men who seem to be “in touch” with their emotions, she finds them wimpy, because such men seem unable to connect to her emotional reality.

All this is played out in different ways. Lisa, a stockbroker, has “semi-relationships” with a few men, each of whom fulfills some of her “needs,” but she has come to believe that no one man could fulfill them all.

The suggestion that anyone should fulfill any “needs” at all; that perhaps an adult relationship required each party having no “needs” to begin with, did not sit well with her.

“What’s the point of a relationship at all,” she said, “if the person isn’t going to fulfill my needs?”

Yet this is part of the problem. The adolescent and young person feels that love is a state of desperation regarding “needs.” But this is because the person is not yet able to be sufficiently self-affirming to be able to meet and enjoy the prospective partner as an equal, independent person, without “needing” anything from that person.

Susan, who has had a long string of tumultuous relationships with men, said that if she reached 40 without “finding someone” she would kill herself. She said she could not imagine living without having a man. This is frightening. But so are the dilemmas some men create.

For example, John, a writer in his mid-forties, has had a couple of failed marriages and several relationships. Like many men, he fears losing his autonomy and control if he becomes too intimate. But he also is drawn to women who torment him; women who verbally abuse him, deride him about his inadequacy as a male. They hit and bite him when angered.

He feels tormented by this, yet locked into it. He doesn’t fight back – which is not a solution in any case – but constantly seeks to gain their favor through some form of submission that he ends up resenting.

Of course, some people’s problems with love are more deeply rooted in personal conflicts. But most are rooted in shared views about love that are not only flawed but also are part of a larger problem: Most of the accepted notions about maturity, fulfillment and adulthood in general are wrong. They don’t fit with what people actually experience and struggle with in the middle years of adulthood.

People have been taught to assume-without much real evidence-that the adult years are ones of decline, loss and diminished capacity, compared with youth. The “mature” person learns to artfully resign himself to diminished capacity for passion, excitement and growth, particularly in love.

In contrast, people idealize youth as the peak of their lives, physically and romantically. But this is a cultural mythology, based on the failed visions of adult lives in their careerist culture. It is youth that is the period of diminished capacity for the adult powers, which are within the child, though in elementary form.

For example, research on infant and childhood development shows that capacities for empathy and mutuality, which are the roots of adult love, are present from almost day one. But they can be stifled by the time people reach adulthood unless they recognize and work against the shared attitudes that undermine them.

The life experiences of men and women today are helping do just that. The presence and success of women in the career world, for example, is forcing greater acceptance and mutuality from men, in their ongoing relationships. And in personal lives there is growing interest among men and women to incorporate and integrate a sense of meaning and purpose into their lives, including greater mutuality with a partner.

It is only after people are into their thirties, because of their patterns of child rearing, prolonged education, and economic necessity of establishing their careers, that they can really grow up in this culture. In the middle years there is a new possibility to forge a mature love that integrates passion with mutuality, and excitement with self-sufficiency; a fuller integration of the pleasures of body, mind and spirit in a partner.

Adult love means relating in ways that distinguish control of the other from controlling oneself; a blend of friendship, erotic desire, respect, and interest in each other’s growth and development.

The capacity for both fusion and independence can only emerge when one relinquishes the desire to control the other. One has to first respect and affirm oneself as a self-sufficient individual.

Similar to the way that a new substance can arise from the merger of two separate elements, like water coming from hydrogen and oxygen, love can only emerge from the coming together of two self-sufficient people, who are “non-needy” adults themselves. Adult love is a spirit, an art to be practiced and cultivated, not a set of techniques acquired from a how-to book.

And ultimately, it is the pleasure and fun of engaging the partner as a real person, not as a fantasized object; a knowing that one can have more fun with reality than one can with illusion.