The new rules of dating after 50: Less pressure and more picky
People often think that older adults fall in love less intensely, without the giddiness and sheen of youthful infatuation. But falling in love as an older person involves the same group of neurons in our brain as it does in younger adults, researchers say.
That, however, may be where the similarity between young and older dating ends.
Dating over 50 certainly has its challenges — the pool of potential dates is smaller than in our younger years, and many older adults struggle to find connection. But relationship experts and over-50 daters say there are surprising benefits.
There’s no pressure to procreate or find the perfect future parent. Many people in the pool are divorced or widowed, bringing with them hard-won lessons about how not to behave in a relationship. And older daters tend to know what they want — and understand the dealbreakers — allowing them to be more selective.
“People at 50 know there’s a good chance that they will live another 30 years,” said Francine Russo, author of “Love After 50: How to Find It, Enjoy It, and Keep It.” “And if they’re in a relationship which is not satisfying, they think, ‘I don’t want this, I want something better for myself.’”
About 30 percent of adults over 50 are single, according to a Pew Research Center survey in the United States in 2022. The numbers may partly be explained by the climbing divorce rate among older Americans.
Many of these older singles are dating; 1 in 6 Americans 50 and older have used a dating site or app, according to Pew.
Even pop culture is getting into the older dating game. ABC recently debuted “The Golden Bachelor,” featuring Gerry Turner, a 72-year-old widower from Indiana. Several women over 60 are competing for his affection, and enthusiasts say they hope the show will break social barriers around dating for older adults.
Older, single and dating
Carol Kramer found herself on the dating scene — this time in her 70s — after her husband of 32 years died.
The couples therapist, based in New York, had little experience dating. She had been married twice — first at 21 to a man she met in Europe (“I wasn’t looking for him, and there he was,” she said) and then in her early 30s to a man she met at work.
Still, she was certain that she wanted to meet someone. “I knew what it was like to be loved and to love,” she said. “I was missing that experience and that kind of special frisson that one has in a relationship that is romantic and sensual and companionate.”
About two years after her husband’s death, Kramer decided to try dating apps.
“I went into online dating more as a kind of research, to see who’s out there and what they are about,” Kramer, now 77, said. “I find people interesting. It wasn’t out of desperation, I just wanted to see who there was to meet.”
Love at any age activates similar brain regions
The physiological experience of falling in love when doesn’t change as we age, said biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, who has conducted several studies about romantic love.
The love system is a “brain system like the anger system or the fear system or the surprise system,” she said, noting that just like you experience anger at, say, 14 and 74, you can fall in love at any age. “This is a basic drive, and it doesn’t really change.”
When people fall in love, a group of neurons in the ventral tegmental area of the brain gets activated and releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in feelings of elation, focus, motivation, optimism and energy that can characterize love, to several brain regions, Fisher said.
In one 2007 study, Fisher and her co-researchers scanned the brains of 17 people in their 50s and 60s. All the participants were in long-term marriages and reported that they were still madly in love with their partners.
“Sure enough, the basic brain region and pathways linked with feelings of intense romantic love were just as active in people over 50 as they were among the people that we put in the machine who were in their 20s,” Fisher said.
Humans have evolved three brain systems for mating and reproduction — sex drive, feelings of intense romantic love and feelings of deep attachment — Fisher said. As people age, their sex drive begins to reduce, but the intense romantic love and attachment apparently do not, she said.
Searching for ‘emotional qualities’
People who date at older ages often are looking for different qualities than when they were younger.
“When people are in their 20s, they are looking for a life partner, in most cases a parent for their children and a person with whom to make their fortune,” Russo said. “Younger people might seek out partners with certain educational backgrounds, social class, religion or income level, in hopes of building long-term wealth and family. They may want to date people with qualities that meet expectations set for them by the parents or their peers.”
When you’re older, have an income and lifetime of experience, and are no longer intending or able to have children, those qualities don’t necessarily matter as much.
“Those boxes people tick off on dating websites, this religion, this level of education, this kind of income, most of that does not matter,” said Russo, a journalist who interviewed dozens of couples and experts while researching her book.
As an older person, “you are looking for certain emotional qualities, a certain kind of chemistry,” Russo said. “Really, what you’re looking for is a companion, a lover and a friend.”
Older daters are more sure of themselves
Twice widowed herself, Russo tried to date again in her 60s. “None of my friends knew anyone to set me up with,” she said. “But then I went online and there were all these people announcing they were available.”
Older people tend to know themselves better and can more easily suss out when something may not feel right. Russo met her partner of seven years when she was 68.
“I knew what I was looking for; I knew what I didn’t want,” she said. “When I told him the story about the deaths of my husbands, tears formed in his eyes, and he touched my hand. It just clicked.”
Kramer, who has been with her partner since last September, primarily met people over video chat before seeing them in person.
“I did not want to waste my time sitting and having meaningless conversations with people,” she said. “I wanted to get a sense of, ‘can I laugh with this person, do we get each other, was there chemistry, an emotional chemistry that resonated with this person.’ I wanted to see, ‘could I imagine kissing this person?’”
“If I couldn’t imagine it, well, it was nice talking to you,” Kramer said.
Less likely to compromise
Older daters are pickier than younger ones, Fisher said, even though the dating pool gets smaller with age. In a 2011 study she did for Match, she found that younger men were more likely than older men to choose a partner they weren’t sexually attracted to or madly in love with, a phenomenon she attributes to the reproductive drive.
“My hypothesis is that the young have to reproduce. They have to have babies, and so they’re going to be more likely to compromise,” she said. “After your reproductive years are over, you’re less likely to compromise.”
Older daters also say there’s less pressure in dating. Joe Miksch, a 51-year-old Pittsburgh resident who got back into dating after his second divorce in 2019, said it’s a lot easier to weather rejection now than when he was younger.
“I think at a certain age, if you have a date and you think it’s good or okay, but the other person doesn’t want to go out again, it’s not a problem. It’s not a blow to the ego,” he said.
“If someone agrees to go on a date with me, we try to have a pleasant time, and if it turns into more dates, that’s good,” he added. “If it doesn’t, I still have all the streaming services on my TV and my cat.”
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