Pro relationship or pro single? Which side of the fence do you fall on? This is a big question for many people in later life. These years are supposed to be some of our best. More freedom to do the things we want to do. More time to chase our dreams and spend more time with the ones we love. Yet, it’s also the time when many of us find ourselves alone.

Divorce is common at midlife. The loss of a spouse or significant other increases around this time. Or, maybe you’ve already been there and done that with relationships that just didn’t make it and you’re feeling done. Do you even want to find “the one”?

The Pressure to Be A Couple

Social norms exert a heck of a lot of pressure on us to be a couple. They also give us an impossible double standard – do what you want to do but, oh wait, you “have” to be in a relationship. You don’t want to find yourself alone. Seriously?

The fact is, not everyone wants or needs to be in a romantic, committed relationship much less married. But, it is the norm and honestly, most people choose to be coupled. However, lots of people decide that being “single and ready to mingle” is their jam. Are they wrong? Do they know something the others don’t? Or is there more than one path to happiness?

Meet Frank. Frank is a 56-year-old man, recently divorced after 20+ years of marriage. He says he is struggling with getting back into the dating game and not sure he really wants to. Dating sites, changes in the dating rules and a rather contentious divorce have left him wary of starting a new relationship. Sometimes he misses being a husband. Sometimes he’s lonely. He’s had a few dates but felt like his dates were looking for more than he wants to give.

One, in particular, was way too curious about his financial status. Another was already hinting at marriage on the second date. While these might be perfectly good questions in context, Frank was left feeling suspicious.  “Does everyone my age have an agenda? Will they only date me if I’m a good financial catch?” Pressure is also coming from Frank’s friends to get back out there and find a new partner. They say they don’t want him to be alone. Frank says he’s kind of liking being single. He’s seeking counseling because he’s feeling torn between what he is told he “should” do and trying to figure out what he “wants” to do. Frank is not alone in this struggle.

So what’s the right answer? That depends on your perspective.

Perception Is Everything

single vs relationship

Why people choose to stay single or choose to be in a committed relationship is kind of complicated. Life experiences leave us with life lessons. And assumptions. Those feelings run deep. Very deep. Whether the reasons for a choice are logical or not are one thing. What we believe about the choices is what actually drives our decisions.

Let’s look at some of the real-life reasons people give for choosing committed or single. You’ve probably heard a lot of them, but some of them might surprise you. Hint: It isn’t always about love.

Pro-relationship

  • Love
  • Companionship – someone to do things with, share adventures with
  • Financial security – one partner may be in a much more secure financial position and able to provide a lifestyle not available as a single person
  • Fear of being alone especially in later years – the idea of spending late-life alone is daunting
  • A committed sex partner – not having to deal with dating and casual sex is appealing to many
  • Someone to care for us in later years – no one wants to think they will find themselves alone and needing help to care for themselves
  • Not dying alone – having someone by your side at the end. Not a pleasant subject but a reality none the less.

Pro-Single

  • Relationships are complicated and too emotionally messy
  • Fear of intimacy – the very idea of a new sex partner at midlife can be scary.
  • No commitments – no strings attached
  • Relationships require you to be accountable to a partner
  • Financial issues – co-mingling funds in later life can become real messy real quick especially if there are heirs to be considered. Not wanting to be someone’s ATM
  • Control – not wanting anyone to tell you what to do. Maintaining freedom to do as you please.
  • “Gold diggers” – This is a common fear and yes, it does happen. This has the potential of leaving someone broke and alone with little chance of recouping the older they are.

It’s tempting to blow some of these off as myths. Are these reasons all true? In one way or another, probably. For every single reason, the fact is, you can probably find someone who it has happened to. You might even find yourself saying no to a relationship when you really do want one or vice versa. Sometimes we just don’t know what we want and we let ourselves fall into the “shoulds”. 

What Does the Research Say?

single vs relationship

In short, the research says there’s a lot of single mature adults out there who want to stay that way! It is estimated that about one-third of “Baby Boomers” are currently unmarried.1 A majority of adults over 65 are unmarried and there’s no sign of things changing.2 Dating is fairly common though. A national survey of adults aged 57-85 found that about 14% were dating. Interestingly, dating was more common for men than for women.3

Not surprisingly, there’s a growing trend among older adults to partner in ways other than marriage. Casual dating, sometimes co-habitation, are the preferred choice for many adults.

Men seem to be much more inclined to want to be in a marriage or committed relationship. Women seem to prefer the autonomy and companionship that comes with dating as opposed to the responsibilities of marriage.4 In fact, women’s interest in marriage declines with age.5  Women tend to approach dating more as a social event. Older adults see relationships as a way to combat loneliness. This is especially true for men who lack a social support network. Women, on the other hand, tend to have a wider social network and somewhat less inclined to date.

Are there some benefits to a marriage? Sure. Those benefits seem to be linked to the quality of the marriage. Those in a happy marriage report better health and quality of life than those in a strained marriage. The negative health impacts of a poor marriage are particularly severe for older adults.7

Are any of these reasons to be in a relationship or get married? Who can say? It depends on what you want and need. So how do you figure that out?

How To Figure Out What You Want…Or Don’t

single vs relationship

The best way to figure out what you want is to ask yourself the hard questions. Instead of listening to the “shoulds”, listen to what you know. Start here:

  • Be clear about what you want and don’t want. What is your truth about choosing to love again?
  • Are you comfortable with having a committed partner or spouse?
  • What about marriage or cohabitation?
  • What does your choice mean for you and how you live day-to-day?
  • What does your choice mean socially? Are you a loner or do you prefer doing things as a couple?
  • What does your choice mean financially?
  • What about intimacy? Some people’s need for emotional connection is strong.
  • What about sex? Don’t kid yourself. This is a big deal. And let’s be honest, as we get older, the opportunities for casual sex diminish.
  • Can you be honest with others about your decisions?

These are not the only things to consider but they are a place to start. You’ll know you’ve made the right choice when you can feel at peace with it AND you can tell others upfront and confidently, without fear or apology.

So what happened to Frank? Frank couldn’t decide what to do and after a bunch of failed attempts at relationships, he went to counseling. With the help of a therapist, Frank sorted through his feelings about relationships and what he really wanted. He decided he didn’t want to remarry after all but he wanted a companion. Once he started being honest with his dates and not thinking he “should” remarry, things got easier. He stopped choosing women who had different goals. And guess what? He started traveling with a singles group and met the lady who became his partner. She wanted the same things he did. At last check, they were together and happily unmarried. It works for them. 

So whether you’re Pro Relationship or Pro Single is up to you. Happiness comes from being honest with yourself and living your life authentically. If you’re not ready to make a choice, that’s OK! Take your time. Just be honest with the people you may date.

“But they may stop seeing me if I tell the truth.” Well, yeah. That’s the idea. If your ideas don’t match theirs, wouldn’t you want to know before you get into something you don’t really want? That old saying, “There’s plenty of fish in the sea” applies here.

References

1. Lin, I. F., & Brown, S. L. (2012). Unmarried Boomers confront old age: a national portrait. The Gerontologist52(2), 153–165.

2. Manning WD, Brown SL. The demography of unions among older Americans, 1980-present: A family change approach. In: Settersten RA, Angel JL, editors. Handbook of sociology of aging. Springer; New York: 2011. pp. 193–212.

3. Brown, S. L., & Shinohara, S. K. (2013). Dating Relationships in Older Adulthood: A National Portrait. Journal of marriage and the family75(5), 1194–1202.

4. McWilliams, S., & Barrett, A. E. (2012). Online Dating in Middle and Later Life. Journal of Family Issues35(3), 411-436.

5. Moorman SM, Booth A, Fingerman KL. (2006). Women’s romantic relationships after widowhood. Journal of Family Issues, 27(9), 1281–1304.

6. Carr, D. (2004), The desire to date and remarry among older widows and widowers. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66(4),1051-1068.

7. Umberson D., Williams K., Powers D. A., Liu H., & Needham B. (2006). You make me sick: Marital quality and health over the life course. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 47, 1–16. 

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