The romantic renaissance
We mentioned above the phases that Sheehy uses to describe the passage in midlife: the first is the romantic renaissance. It’s a recapitulation of the excitement of the heady days of adolescent romance, an exciting, passionate phase where obsession with the new love object or your new purpose in life precedes the passage into a more reflective, quieter phase of incorporation and integration.
Of course new romantic love can strike at any time in life — it’s just that our cynicism from the wounds that life often inflicts on us as we age may make us feel it’s not going to happen to us.
But it can happen: it can happen to a woman who is divorced, or a woman who is not looking for love, just as easily as it can happen to woman in a long-term relationship who rediscovers her passion and excitement for her husband or partner when they go out on a date after the last child has left home.
It’s been called a “sweet sickness”, but I think that is too negative for a vital part of our human existence — the energy and passion of romantic love or infatuation that drives us on to seek new connection, to explore relationship further, and to grow as an individual.
Dr. Helen Fisher has researched love and sex extensively, and she believes that love is one of the most powerful forces in the human being — certainly more powerful than the drive to have sex.
What makes romantic love so different at the age of 50 or 60 than when you’re 15 or 20 is the fact that you have more options open to you, more wisdom and knowledge, and you can do so many more interesting things.
You bring a rounder, more mature, more informed self to the relationship, and if your partner brings the same qualities, then the potential for more meaningful interaction is much greater than it was when you experienced romantic love during your adolescence.
Sheehy puts it like this: a woman without a partner in middle life must be both hungry enough and bold enough to put effort into seeking a partner — or at least hungry enough or bold enough to put out signals that she is available.
One of the more striking and positive observations that Sheehy found repeated again and again amongst happy mature couples is that the departure of children from the family home can cause a resurgence of romantic love and lead to a truly passionate relationship once again.
No matter that couples move in and out of love as they go through life: the potential for truly exciting romantic love is always there. You may have noticed how the fires of passion are rekindled in your relationship when you go on a vacation, and have more time to devote to your partner.
When you’re passionate about something or someone, sex tends to resurge; equally, passion may provide a couple with enough fuel to go out together and seek new interests. If you remember the feelings that you experienced the first time you fell passionately in love, you’ll recall how dramatically the power of romantic love, of passion, can transform you! Indeed, romantic love can create the energy and impetus to begin new passages in life and undertake new endeavors.
Psychologist Judith Wallerstein asserts that a richly rewarding and stable sex life is not just a fringe benefit of a relationship — she says it’s a central task in a relationship. She maintains that sex serves a very serious purpose in maintaining both the quality and stability of your relationship, serving to replenish emotional reserves and strengthening the bond between the couple.
Revitalizing your sex life, is essential for stability and joy in the marriages or relationships of those who are approaching midlife; indeed, she claims that the greatest contrast between those who are happily together and those who are splitting up may well lie in the sexual arena. What shows this more clearly than anything else is that couples who are splitting up have usually not had sex for several years.
So when you undergo a romantic renaissance you can expect to be happy, you can expect to be energized, and you can expect to go through the feelings of an adolescent in love for the first time. You can make a real connection with a person who understands you and who wants to be with you, a person who thinks you’re the brightest thing on the planet’s surface….. and if lust sweeps over you in this phase of romance, then so much the better!
Lust is a natural human desire for physical connection and sexual satisfaction. Within a woman it can remain dormant for a long long time — many decades in fact — but it is always there to be revived and renewed when the right circumstances unfold.
Many older women now feel free to date younger, sometimes much younger, men. In a way this is a rebalancing of the equation that has existed for decades whereby it’s been quite acceptable for older men to date younger women, while those women who were seeking younger male partners were criticized. Women looking for younger men are often divorced women who’ve lived a life with no emotional intimacy.
They are now looking for fun, for flirtation, for somebody to actually appreciate or even idealize them; they may want somebody who shares their interests or they may want somebody who isn’t threatened by their achievements and isn’t dependent on them. Being able to use online dating services has enabled women to achieve this unexpected new freedom, and allowed them to find excitement, passion and often rejuvenation.
And while these romances may not be permanent, they can be transformative: in my work with both men and women I’ve known many individuals who have said that a single relationship, whether short-term or long-term — sometimes only for an evening or a night — has actually acted as a catalyst for the release of a whole series of transformative experiences, often sexual in nature. For those over 50 who have been part of a long-term relationship, sex may have become routine and boring.
There are few things more exciting than a young passionate lover, one whose adeptness at making love both gives you great pleasure and teaches you new techniques. But while the possibility of finding true love exists in such a relationship, it’s much more likely that relationships like this serve as catalysts for personal development.