What Does "Love" Mean When You're Old?

Love in shrinking horizons

Posted Oct 03, 2019

“One is never too old to yearn.” —Italian proverb

Contrary to popular belief, older people are often happier and more romantically attached than their younger counterparts. The nature of these romantic attachments, however, may differ.

Maturity and happiness

“Mature calmness is exciting. I am so thrilled by the calmness and acceptance of my older lovers who focus on the moment without calculating future prospects.” —A man in his 30s who loves dating women in their 50s

The belief has been that, along with a decay in physical and mental capacities, happiness and romantic love decline with age. We now know better. Older people are often happier and more satisfied with their lives and their marriages than younger people are.

Perhaps when we realize that our years are numbered, we change our perspective and focus on present positive experiences, which are more likely to consist of peacefulness and serenity rather than excitement and joy. Sonja Lyubomirsky (2013) summarizes these findings, reporting that for many people, the best years are in the second half of life. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of diversity here as well, and some older people become depressed and afraid of death.

Maturity seems to run counter to novelty and excitement. No wonder young people are considered more emotional than older people. This, of course, does not mean that exciting positive, as well as negative, experiences do not occur at all ages. Intense emotions are generated by change, while maturity involves growing accustomed to changes and perceiving them as less significant. Although at all ages, we enjoy both familiarity and novelty, the relative weight of familiarity increases in maturity.

The happiness associated with intense love is excitement; the happiness associated with profound, mature love can be described as peacefulness (calmness) and serenity (Mogilner et al., 2011). The transition from youth to older age includes a shift in close social relations, involving a change of emphasis from quantity to quality. It has been suggested that the main developmental task for younger couples is managing conflicts, while for older couples, it is maintaining mutual support (Carmichael et al., 2015).

Maturity and compromises

“You can't always get what you want / But if you try sometimes, well, you might find / You get what you need" —The Rolling Stones

In romantic compromises, we give up a romantic value, such as passionate love, in exchange for a nonromantic quality-of-life value. Such compromise stems from the awareness that we are limited creatures; we cannot always meet our standards or achieve our ideals. Survival sometimes depends on being flexible, settling for something less—or simply different—than we might have wanted.

Romantic compromises express a kind of maturity. As in maturity, compromises reflect an acceptance of our limitations and current situation. However, unlike maturity, the acceptance in compromises is mainly a behavioral acceptance rather than an attitudinal one. So long as the situation is still regarded as a compromise, deep down the individual does not actually accept it. The moment people wholeheartedly accept a compromise, it stops being a compromise.

Mature love

“Romantic horizons indeed shrink at an older age; certainly, there are fewer possibilities numerically and emotionally. This makes many people too willing to stay in their comfort zone and not engage in a relationship or expect a relationship to just happen to them without doing anything.” —Hara Estroff Marano

Mature love is often not what passionate romantic love is all about. Hence, many people say that they never want to become mature, because settling for what is possible while ignoring the desirable can be a sign of a decline in enthusiasm and spontaneity. However, this is precisely what people do when they compromise.

We want children to mature and learn to value long-term considerations, while we want older adults to worry less about long-term threats and to give greater expression to their emotions. We do not want to lose our positive, child-like aspects. We want to be optimistic and sincere and to love passionately. We want to adore each other despite our obvious flaws.

We want to understand each other well, but at the same time, we would like our views of each other to be somewhat rosy so that we can harbor some positive illusions. We want to maintain the buoyancy, naturalness, and ardor that we associate with children while being mature adults who stand by each other through the pain that inevitably arises during long-term romantic relationships. We want to overcome problems, not so much by changing each other, but by changing our perception of and attitude toward each other.

People who behave in an immature manner are exceedingly attractive: They are very lively, joyful, and youthful, living the moment as if there is no tomorrow. However, like children, they are often inconsistent and unstable, making you wonder whether they will love you tomorrow when meeting another exciting person enables them to fully embrace romantic life from another perspective.

Love in old age

“Love is the word used to label the sexual excitement of the young, the habituation of the middle-aged, and the mutual dependence of the old.” —John Ciardi

“Extramarital affairs express the determined refusal to grow older gracefully.” —Catherine Hakim

A common view considers old people to be incapable of experiencing strong love, as their sexual desire and physical abilities are expected to have declined with age. This is a simplistic and distorted idea. It is often the case that love at old age is deeper than that at a young age.

Laura Carstensen (2006) informs us that although chronological age is an excellent (albeit imperfect) predictor of cognitive abilities and behavior, it is a poorer predictor in later age. An additional temporal aspect that becomes more important than the time since our birth is the subjective sense of our remaining time until death.

The temporal extent of our horizons plays a key role in motivation. Carstensen argues that as people age and increasingly experience time as finite and their horizons as being gradually narrowed, they change their priorities. For example, they attach less importance to goals that expand their horizons and greater importance to goals from which they derive present emotional meaning.

Older people have smaller social networks, are less drawn to novelty than younger people, and reduce their spheres of interest. Nevertheless, they appear as happy as (if not happier than) younger people. This makes sense, as in a situation of decreasing horizons, people prioritize deepening existing relationships and developing expertise in already satisfying areas of life (Carstensen, 2006).

Elderly couples seem to take the attitude of being happy with their lot more readily. Consider the following confession of a single mother in her 50s:

“I am looking for perfection, and I have been mistaken in my choices. I turn down opportunities to be with men because I judge these men as far from perfect. As I get older, I seem to be softening, but I also seem to be getting clearer on what I like and want. I don’t want superficiality—but for the first time in my life, I am considering having sex with someone I don’t see as partner material!”

Older individuals often experience their spouses as affectionate, both when disagreeing and when performing joint tasks. Older married couples may have fewer marital conflicts than their younger counterparts do, although they report that erotic bonds are less central in their lives. Companionate love, which is based on friendship, appears to be the cardinal feature of their interactions. Intimate relationships in old age are relatively harmonious and satisfying (Charles & Carstensen, 2002).

Romantic compromises become less of an issue as we age. Over time, people become used to their spouse’s negative traits. They learn to live with them while minimizing their negative impact. When we realize that our time is running out and that our alternatives are decreasing, we are more likely to accept our limitations and not feel compromised by not pursuing an attractive option.

Moreover, as older people are more dependent on each other, marital chains tend to turn into helping hands. Despite feeling as much negativity as younger people, older individuals may be more resilient in the face of tensions in their closest relationships. Older adults are better able to place the conflict in perspective (Charles & Carstensen, 2010).

Concluding remarks

“This is the first time that I am getting old. I have no experience in being old.” —Naomi Polani

It seems that in old age when cognitive and physical capacities tend to decline, the ability to be satisfied with one’s own lot increases; this reduces marital conflicts as well as the experience of romantic compromise. Older people are more likely to adopt the constructive attitude of making the most of what they already (or still) have. Their concern is not with having more, but with losing less.

Old people are not too old to love.

This post is part of my new book, The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change over Time (2019). 

References

Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change Over Time. University of Chicago Press.

Carmichael, C. L., Reis, H. T., & Duberstein, P. R. (2015). In your 20s it’s quantity, in your 30s it’s quality: The prognostic value of social activity across 30 years of adulthood. Psychology and aging30, 95-105.

Carstensen, L. L. (2006). The influence of a sense of time on human development. Science, 312 (5782), 1913-1915.

Charles, S. T., & Carstensen, L. L. (2002). Marriage in old age. In M. Yalom, L. L. Carstensen, E. Freedman, & B. Gelpi (eds.), American Couple. University of California Press, 236-254.

Charles, S. T. & Carstensen, L. L. (2010). Social and emotional aging. Annual Review of Psychology, 61, 383–409.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2013). The myths of happiness.  Penguin.

Mogilner, C., Kamvar, S., D., & Aaker, J. (2011). The shifting meaning of happiness. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2, 395-402.