Finding Love After 50 Might Be Easier Than You Think

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People are living longer lives these days. And that could be one reason why the search for love and romance is going strong in the over 50 crowd. Host Michel Martin speaks with Abigail Trafford, the author of As Time Goes By: Boomerang Marriages, Serial Spouses, Throwback Couple and Other Romantic Adventures in an Age of Longevity. Trafford discusses finding love in the second-half of life, and the joys and disappointments that accompany it.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now with Valentines Day on the horizon. We want to talk about love and marriage. We have two conversations for you. In a few minutes well talk about matrimony in a different era. But first, we want to talk about modern love. Remember when you were a kid and the very sight of your parents kissing would make you squirm - thinking about that in that way just made you, I dont know, squeamish. Well, get over it. Now you might see grandma arm and arm with a younger man or your divorced father's profile on an Internet dating site, its a fact.

People are living longer and thus having active romantic lives for longer, and that means more marriages, divorces and relationships of many different kinds taking place later in life. Abigail Trafford has written a book chronically in the range of romantic activities and challenges among the over 50 crowd. The title is As Time Goes By: Boomerang Marriages, Serial Spouses, Throwback Couples and Other Romantic Adventures in an Age of Longevity. The book has just come out in paperback and she joins us now on the phone from a still snowed-in Washington, D.C. Abigail, thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. ABIGAIL TRAFFORD (Author): Oh, its good to be with you.

MARTIN: Now, Im little struck by the title, of course, which is long. But the main title is As Time Goes By, which of course a lot of people will remember from the movie Casablanca. Its a bittersweet song. Is that which you intend? Do you think thats the message of the book?

Ms. TRAFFORD: The message of the book is really hopeful. Its a way to say that, you know, we continue to love. Theres no stopping point. And I think bittersweet - I think we all know those of us who have loved and loved hard, we know there's also losses in life. And by the time you get to the second half of life, you've experienced some losses, and what I found in the book is often loss and love are combined. But mostly what Im trying to say is that we love better as we get older.

MARTIN: Well, that was an interesting point from the book, and I think this is something that a lot of people will have seen in their own lives. In fact, there was a Doonesbury strip about it, where sometimes they will find a senior relative who then becomes involved with somebody that the children consider wildly inappropriate. And you say that part of it is that at a later stage of life people are more forgiving, they are more tolerant in many ways. Its interesting because that kind of goes contrary to the stereotype a lot of people have of the senior years.

Ms. TRAFFORD: Absolutely. Well, we, you know, we can talk about ageism; we have stereotypes of people who are older. And it just doesnt apply anymore. We're a quiet social revolution. We have changed the definition of life. Weve added this new stage sort of after midlife but before we think of as tradition old age, and it's a very creative phase, creative in many ways, but especially in love. And why do we get better at love? Well, its true - developmental psychiatrists will tell us that as we get older, we get much more attuned to emotions and relationships. The first part of life, were very much in a can-do phase and is more cognitive and achievement oriented.

And then, you know, been there, done that, and so we turn much more to relationships, and thats going to make us better, it's going to make us more attuned to other people and how theyre feeling. Were also going to put a priority on relationships.

MARTIN: You also point out though that many of the people who are seniors now came up during the 60s where there was a lot of questioning about the norms of relationships and norms of personal behavior. In the first chapter, "The Big Churn," you write: The responsible generation, parents between the ages of 35 and 50, now faces the rebellious generation of people over 60. How does the adult child respond when grandpa and his girlfriend or granny and her lover are coming to visit? Where do they sleep, in the pullout double sofa bed or in separate cots in the unheated space over the garage?

And what do you tell young children about sex and morals and commitment when the Medicare set is out for romantic adventure? Did you find in your reporting that there was a lot of intergenerational conflict over these relationship issues that

Ms. TRAFFORD: I wouldnt say it was conflict, but its kind of sort of a little bit shock and awe. I think that adult children who see their parents, you know, after a divorce or after the death, then re - sort of get remade, and bring their new friends to the family. Its a new kind of transition. And once you get into it, I think that the responsible generation says, hey, wow, I hope I can be as lively and vital when I get to that stage. But at first its a bit of a shock.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break but when we come back well continue our conversation with Abigail Trafford. Were talking about romance for those over 50. Her new book is called, As Time Goes By. Thats just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Im Michel Martin.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Im Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, a writer gets stuck in the snow, her thoughts about that in just a few minutes, and a conversation about marriage among African-Americans just after slavery. Thats in just a few minutes. But first, we continue our conversation with writer Abigail Trafford about relationships for those over 50. Shes written about it. Its called, As Time Goes By, talking about the bitter aspect of this. You write about the retired spouse syndrome. And you cite a study that says that the first two years after leaving a job are a common time of marital strife for both men and women. Why is that?

Ms. TRAFFORD: Well, you know, retirement, and I think to use that word, but when you stop working at a job where which has been your prime job, this is a huge transition. And people dont tell you that this going to be a transition where it takes some time, it takes some thought, it takes some planning. We made do some financial planning. But thats just one piece of how do you construct a future. What are your dreams? What are you going to do? Do you realize that you have another maybe 20 or 30 years of a lifespan? That's a whole new life in times past.

And so people are caught, suddenly they're out of the workforce, they dont have the structure of work, relationships, and theyre kind of at a loss. And our society says, well, youre a has-been, youre an old geezer. You know, we dont value you. This is really, really hard. And so where do people bring their problems? They bring their problems home. And so, you know, youre going to have some kind of conflict. Part of it is around what are we going to do in these years, and what happens when one spouse is still working, really hard and so doesnt understand this?

MARTIN: Well, in fact, you write about that; there are couple really poignant portraits that you draw in the book about people where the spouses did not have the same vision for how they wanted to spend those years. And there were some tremendous and some really heartbreaking conflicts. And not the kind of things that people often make movies about, you know, plates being thrown and that sort of thing. But just kind of the day nipping at each other that just becomes really depressing to think about.

Ms. TRAFFORD: Depressing about emptiness. I think when you dont have sort of a shared vision of the future, and you know, the main thing is companionship. I mean, why are you married? When youre young, you know, its to have a family, its to be a part of the community, you know, its a to-do list. But when you get to this stage, this is all uncharted territory. And the reason to be together is that you want to be together and that you know each other and you love each other. But if you come together and you find that you dont have a lot in common, you know, usually youre nipping at each other or you dont know what it is, thats a real problem. And I think that couples go through a real transition phase when it comes to retirement.

MARTIN: Was there a couple that - a lot of the scenarios that you describe in your book will be ones that are familiar to people for a variety of reasons, either because theyve seen, you know, books about it or movies about it or they know somebody who is in that situation. You know, the classic Hollywood scenario where, you know, older man decides he's bored, goes, you know, younger woman. And you also have in your book the opposite situation, where, you know, women decide that they want to do something different with their lives and get out of the identity that theyve carried for however many years. But was there a scenario in the book that you reported that just surprised you, that you thought, wow, you know, I never thought about that?

Ms. TRAFFORD: Well, you know, certainly a good surprise, and it wasnt so much a surprise but what is a good thing is that this is a renaissance; a lot of couples then get to a renaissance. A lot of married couples will say, this is the best period of our lives. And, you know, if there is something there, if there's a spark there and it's rekindled and you really come together, these are wonderful years. And people often will find new purpose together. In other word, they'll both works for Habitat for Humanity or they will both do creative pursuits or work for their communities. And so you read in the book, a lot of couples who have through hard times, but once they through it sort of say they've come to that place in the hill, you know, where the sun shines and they look at each other and they just are overwhelmed with how good their relationship is.

MARTIN: One of the things I couldn't tell from your book, though, was whether race and ethnicity were factors in any of these conversations. I mean, you didn't really - you didn't identify the race or ethnicity...

Ms. TRAFFORD: I did - I...

MARTIN: ...of any of the people that you interviewed. So I couldn't tell. And as we know, marriage has different prevalences along different parts of the population. And a lot of people are struggling with how to construct their relationships in different ways and, of course, the social pressures of being in different positions in society have weighed differently upon people. And I just wondered if you found - even though you didn't spend a lot of time on it in the book, that race and ethnicity played any role in how people went through these passages?

Ms. TRAFFORD: There are examples of, you know, a diversity of people of race and ethnicity in the book, but the main issues are universal. I mean, of course, it's going to make a difference. It makes a difference through all of our lives. But when it comes to the basics of how you relate to a partner, how you create your circle of friendship, I think that crosses all kinds of lines.

MARTIN: Abigail Trafford is an award-winning former columnist and editor at The Washington Post. She's the author of "As Time Goes By: Boomerang Marriages, Serial Spouses, Throwback Couples, and Other Romantic Adventures in an Age of Longevity." Thanks so much for being with us. And even though it's a little early, Happy Valentine's Day to you.

Ms. TRAFFORD: Happy Valentine's Day to you. It's been wonderful. I love talking about this.

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