January 7, 2012

Intimacy Intensifies in Women’s ‘Second Adulthood’

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(WOMENSENEWS)–Being in love knows no age limits. The kinds of love we can experience in a lifetime are limited only by our imagination and our circumstances.

Every love, whenever and however often it strikes, is unique and mysterious. Yet for too many women the notion of experiencing that unique and mysterious intimacy at midlife seems preposterous; they have bought into the conventional wisdom that menopause is the last stop on the road to loneliness and decline.

An increasing number of other women know different; they are living–and defining–a totally new love narrative. Love as they are experiencing it is not a replay of earlier relationships; there is something fresh and surprising about it. At the same time that her aging body is continuing its lifelong production of dopamine, the hormonal reward of feeling love, a woman in this convention-defying group is not experiencing love in the ways she did earlier in her life. Her wants and needs are different, and she is fulfilling those unfamiliar desires–in both flesh and spirit. Not only are women still lusting and loving as they age, they are enjoying it more than ever.

Love is never easy, and each stage of life brings its own versions of heartbreak and ecstasy. The landscape of love we are entering at midlife is not without stumbling blocks and dark shadows. We all see long-term relationships foundering around us and widows who are lost and alone for the first time in decades. We know and certainly hear all too much about how hard it is for older women to find companionship, sex, respect.

‘How Good Love Is’

What we don’t know enough about, however, is how good love is for those who are enjoying it. This may be because the women who are revitalizing a long-standing relationship or finding a new one are afraid of jinxing the miracle by talking about it, or they may be afraid to "gloat" when their friends are complaining of loneliness and anemic sex lives.

If conventional wisdom focused less on loneliness and reflected more on how love is pursued, found and sustained by women 50 and beyond, it would tell an entirely different story. We would learn that the universe of loving experiences includes a wider range of potential intimates than it did before, even though the absolute number may be more limited. We would learn that what we call love in our 50s, 60s and 70s is not as narrowly defined as it was at earlier stages. Nor is it as single-minded and all-consuming.

Many women don’t even realize how widely and deeply they are experiencing love until they take inventory of the intimate connections that are enriching their lives now. So the first thing to ask ourselves and each other is how these new kinds of love–loves, really–feel.

There are many people to whom I regularly say "I love you"–and mean it–but as my outlook, priorities and relationships have been reconsidered in recent years, I have noticed that in each case the feeling has recalibrated.

Recalibrated Love

I love my husband with more tolerance. I love my children with less need to make everything work out for them. I love my mother with more understanding. I love my friends with more–everything, especially trust and gratitude. And, oh, yes, I love me–sort of; which is to say I give myself a little more appreciation and a lot more slack. I don’t love everyone in the whole world, nor do I want to be loved by all of them.

We are continuing to invent our lives as we go along. We are rewriting the rules of the game, in the game of love as much as anywhere else. No other generation of women has had such an open field to play in–the prospect of more healthy years ahead than our mothers and grandmothers. Moreover, those additional years are a midlife gift, not an add-on at the end.

Gerontologist Laura Carstensen suggests that it is more accurate to see the newfound block of time coming at the middle–from roughly age 50 to age 75. That is the dynamic, rich and rewarding stage I call Second Adulthood. It is a time of self-discovery and adventure as well as confusion and fear, but as we review and revise the many aspects of our lives, we find that, among other things we are capable of now, we are finally old enough to know what love is–or can be.

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Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from "How We Love Now." Copyright  Suzanne Braun Levine, 2011.

Suzanne Braun Levine was the first editor of Ms. Magazine and the editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. Her previous books include "Inventing The Rest of Our Lives," "50 Is The New Fifty" and an oral history of Bella Abzug (with Mary Thom).

For more information:

Buy the book, "How We Love Now: Sex and the New Intimacy in Second Adulthood":

Suzanne Braun Levine’s site:

  • nadinehack

    Suzanne – as always, you hit it spot on! Smack in the middle of my “second adulthood” I relate so strongly to everything you write about the new depths and dimensions of my capacity for love and intimacy. – Nadine