Wednesday 13 December 2017

Dating after 40

Library Image. Photo: Getty Images
Library Image. Photo: Getty Images

Suzanne Harrington

On July 2, an anonymous blogger calling herself The Plankton uploaded her first post. The blogger, a middle-aged woman, says its title refers to where she views herself on the sexual food chain. Here's how it begins:

"As a divorced woman the wrong side of 45 with a brace of kids, I am a plankton on the food chain of sexuality and the prospect of a relationship."

She believes that while divorced men have the world at their feet, divorced women of the same age are destined for a lifetime of loneliness, celibacy, being pityingly sat near SFAR men at dinner parties (SFAR stands for Single For A Reason, which generally translates as hideous) and generally being relegated to the status of social pariah/sympathy figure.

"Men have an odd notion of a woman's life post-divorce, that soon enough it will be all dinner parties and divorced men," she writes. "On the whole, people do not give dinner parties and ask divorced women of a certain age... What's the point? They are life's landfill, not recycling. As well as embarrassing and desperate."

Adding that she may well live for another 40-odd years without forming another romantic relationship, she equates this with living death: "Women die long before they actually die."

The blog was picked up by a host of newspapers for, as far as I can see, two reasons.

Not only is it extremely well-written (almost as if it were a professional project -- perhaps eventually aimed at a book deal), but, unlike other anonymous blogs such as, say, 'Belle de Jour', it is coruscatingly bleak and pessimistic.

Quoting a line from Hanif Kureishi's novel 'Intimacy' -- "A lone middle-aged woman with kids doesn't have much cachet" -- The Plankton is convinced, after two or three years of being single in middle age, that if you're a woman, you're toast.

Men, she says, can reignite relationships with women years or even decades younger, cherry picking more youthful, fresher partners from the even-abundant internet dating tree, while women in their 40s, 50s and 60s are left to wither, unplucked.

I read this a week before my 44th birthday, and two months after ending the most significant relationship I have had since my marriage, with a man whom I had one day hoped to make husband number two.

Mother of God, I think, I'm done for. I might as well just get measured up for my coffin right now.

I read another post from The Plankton, which confirms that yes, being single, middle aged and female does mean already being dead: "It's pitch black in my bedroom when I turn my light out, and completely silent," she writes.

"Sometimes, difficult nights, with no one beside me any more, and never again being a very real possibility, I feel I am already in my coffin."

Wow, I think. Am I dead too?

Luckily, within seconds, normal transmission resumes inside my head.

A quick pinch and glance in the mirror confirms that I am definitely not dead, the momentary chill of fear replaced by the rock-solid knowledge that this woman's experiences, while undoubtedly true for her, are very far indeed from universal. That it's all about perception -- starting with self-perception.

If in any doubt, below are two brief profiles. Which one are you more drawn to?

"Overweight widow, 44, recovering alcoholic, many dependents, no qualifications, erratic income, little interest in material possessions, likes being alone a lot, runs mildly chaotic household with expensive demanding kids and huge smelly dogs. Seeks Mr Perfect."

"Independent self-employed writer, 44, bohemian in outlook, loves kids, animals and nature, lives by the sea in blissful contentment. Seeks Mr Lovely."

Both of these are me. Both are completely true, apart from the Mr Perfect bit, because I know from long, hard, fortysomething experience that he does not exist.

But Mr Lovely does, in abundance. This is not meant as a profile-writing tutorial for internet dating -- at this stage, I think we all know how to do that, given that it's the second most common way of meeting potential partners after introductions by friends -- but as a way of showing how self-perception is all, and how you can project negatively or positively, depending on how you feel about yourself.

A friend of mine, Annabel, used to be rich and married to a pop star; now she's 52, on benefits and has a teenage son with special needs.

None of this has affected her ability to attract men: "It's all about what you exude," she says. "That's what it's about."

Having subscribed to The Plankton's blog, I read it with increasing impatience at her world view, even though I am programmed to empathise with other women. She is unwaveringly negative, hyper-analytic and convinced that she is worthless as a sexual partner, yet quick to dismiss anything that doesn't conform to her ideal.

The middle-aged men she considers eligible are rich Notting Hill types who fancy thin, dim 23-year-olds.

Well, duh. Why would any grown-up woman worth her salt want to be with a man like that in the first place? And what's with the dinner party obsession?

We are not all trapped inside a Richard Curtis movie, are we?

But don't take my word for it. Here's a male response to one of her posts: "As an eligible single man of 50, I have to say I completely empathise with you. You should also consider it from our side. Even if we do get invited to a dinner party, there are rarely single women there for the reasons you've stated!

"Young women, whilst physically attractive, have little conversation, appalling taste in music, want to go out clubbing and have kids," he explains.

"I already have two grown-up ones who, apart from still being registered with the bank of dad, are pretty independent. I'm not thinking of going back to nappies and sleepless nights. I am fortunate in that I enjoy a varied and interesting lifestyle, due mainly to having a successful business and a wide range of interests.

"However, I rarely meet single women in their 40s at social events. It's always young 20 and thirtysomethings with their biological clocks ticking and a penchant for guys who drive expensive cars," he continues.

"So, apart from internet dating, which I have tried with some success and which I advocate, how and where else can we expect to meet single women like yourself? Where are you all hiding?"

We're not. We're online. What's more, any one of the men I've had relationships with in recent years could have written that response -- men who date 40-plus women tend to be delighted that we have got the child-bearing out of the way, that we are not cornering them with that intent, biological-clock driven gaze as time for baby-making comes close to running out.

Nor do we generally need anything else from a relationship other than the pleasure of the relationship itself. By the time you get to our age, the other stuff -- work, home, kids, social life -- tends to be sorted. We rarely seek a rescue package.

And because older women are a self-contained proposition, this makes us extremely attractive to men who can see beyond our less than dewy collagen.

Many men are not as short-sighted as the ones who get blinded by youth; the pay-off with older women is that we rarely, if ever, want (or are still young enough) to go off down the baby-making path again.

Been there, done that, and now it's time to enjoy our kids growing up, rather than starting from scratch again. My last boyfriend wanted a woman who was already a mother, who understood what it was like to be a parent; it was one of his crucial criteria.

According to The Plankton, there are no men at all out there if you are older and separated or divorced, apart from the SFARs.

Admittedly, I am a few years younger than her yet, since my marriage ended almost seven years ago, I have found this to be quite the opposite, and have had several very nice relationships which began online.

What's more, if they don't work out, I know for a fact that there are many others out there waiting to be tried out -- thanks to internet dating, it really is like a supermarket; just make sure you keep your receipt.

There is no hurry, because there are hordes of men out there, all keen to hook up with a lovely woman like you. Meanwhile, note how super-confident men are when advertising themselves, describing themselves as 'youthful 75' or 'fit handsome late 60s' with complete self-belief. Plankton, take note.

My most recent relationship, which began over a year ago, was with Mr Ideal. We had loads in common -- kids the same age, a shared world view, both self-employed doing work we love, shared interests, the lot.

For the first time in a long time, I begin to think long-term. I really loved him. But after a year, it became apparent that despite being a truly good egg, this man was not ever going to give me what I needed emotionally -- that is, buckets of love.

He was fantastic at flowers and dinners and all the external stuff, but I never felt as if I had his full attention. This was not what I wanted. As a plankton, I would have counted my blessings and stuck with it, but as someone with reasonable self-esteem, I walked. It was hard, but staying would have been harder long-term.

And that's what separates so-called plankton from ordinary women who feel okay about themselves -- not egoistic monsters, just normal and good-enough.

"It is remarkable how many people have told me over the past two or three years: 'You are not ready. You need to be happy in yourself before you can get into a relationship with a new person,'" writes The Plankton, adding: "Bugger that."

But her friends are right. If you have had your life changed drastically by divorce, then taking time out to readjust before slipping back into the dating slipstream is not only sensible, it's essential.

You don't need to be a psychologist to realise that nobody but yourself is ever going to make you happy.

Here's the thing. If you have been married forever, as The Plankton says she has, suddenly being single is probably quite daunting.

Apart from the cataclysm of splitting up, the external world of dating has changed unrecognisably in the past 20 years, so even though people are divorcing earlier than ever -- on average, it's 41 for women, 43 for men -- it's still a whole new dating playground from when they met their partners all those years ago.

Your confidence may not be what it was, and this, I think, is the crux of the problem. Confidence is all. The most attractive quality, more than a fresh face or a pert ass, is a woman who is comfortable and at ease in her own skin, who is happy with herself and the world. This is the essence of attractiveness.

Of course, what The Plankton says about men wanting to date younger women is entirely true -- in every culture, men are attracted to younger women (traditionally because they are more fertile), which leads her to write things such as: "Women form queues for wankers."

By this she means that older women are so grateful to hook up with someone, anyone, that they will beat a path to the door of a man they would possibly not have entertained in their youth.

However, I disagree. Only women who feel bad about themselves would form such a queue. Women who may have recently been through the trauma of divorce, for instance.

Nobody, male or female, need ever date a wanker, unless that is what they feel they deserve.

"Divorce reconfigures identity," writes Ashton Applewhite in 'Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriage Do So Well'.

"It requires that women come up with new ways of seeing themselves and road-test them under gruelling circumstances."

And anyway, is age really still such a big deal these days? We are fitter, healthier and younger in outlook and appearance than any other generation before us.

It's just that we can get hung up on calendar years, which is why people lie about their age all the time when meeting new partners, especially online.

Knocking five years off seems to be standard practice. I've never done it myself, but my former Mr Ideal did, making himself fortysomething instead of early 50s, as did my sister's partner, who advertised himself as 37 while in fact he was 47 -- when they first met, she assumed he'd been having some very late nights.

If you are 45, calling yourself 39 seems to be standard practice for both sexes, initially, at least. I once dated a man who said he was 45 when he was 57; for me, that was a deal breaker -- not the actual age, but the mentality behind such a leap.

Julia Macmillan is a 49-year-old artist. Around 2006, she began internet dating and was dismayed to find herself being directed at older men in golfing sweaters.

Youthful, creative and full of joie de vivre, she wasn't attracted to the older set, so she set up her own dating website, Toyboy Warehouse, "where smart meets sexy".

With a membership of 26,000 -- with around 400 existing Irish members, and plans to open an Irish site later this year -- she says that 70pc of members are men.

Julia has read some of the newspaper articles generated by The Plankton blog, which seemed to affirm that older women are second-class citizens on the dating scene, and dismisses the idea as "pathetic".

"Come on," she says. "It's simply not true."

I decide to have a go, to see for myself. I post a short, honest profile -- 44, "voluptuous" (my favourite word for 'fat'), have kids, the usual -- and in a week have received dozens of communications with men aged from their early 20s upwards.

The age difference can be just one year younger --in other words, the same age as you, give or take a few months, which is hardly a toyboy -- but then we live in a culture where actresses the same age as leading men get cast to play their mothers.

I am amazed at the amount of interest I receive. However, unlike Madonna, I have no interest in dating someone aged 23 because, well, let's just say I prefer steak to chicken. Nevertheless, the interest I generate seems to prove that not all men are interested in dating younger women.

I do not, however, think of myself as a 'cougar' or any of those stupid sexist terms used to denote 'older' women; it is this very labelling (tongue-in-cheek toyboy warehouse stuff aside) which keeps us pigeon-holed, afraid to break out.

The mind does free itself eventually, however. In her book 'The Woman's Second Guide To Adulthood', former 'Ms Magazine' editor Suzanne Braun Levine writes about the brain changes that occur in people past 50.

Post-50 brains undergo a growth spurt in the medial temporal lobe, the area associated with emotional learning. This growth, present at no other time apart from during adolescence, was discovered by accident.

Dr Francine Bene was researching schizophrenia at Harvard Medical School when she discovered two significant increases in myelin growth (the fatty nerve fibre coating that speeds up connection between nerve cells): the first 100pc leap happens during teenagehood, and the second 50pc ("a huge leap") increase occurs during middle age.

Experience becomes wisdom. "This augmented brain activity... enhances our ability to make considered judgment calls, writes Braun Levine.

Which can be applied to forming new romantic relationships. Because you are never too old, never too unattractive.

As a woman, you are far more likely to be judged on your looks, but not entirely. What really matters is how bright your light is shining. If you think you are plankton, then that's what you'll be.

Far more fun to perceive yourself a bit higher up. Me, I'm a sperm whale.

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