I am in serious danger of becoming smug. There, I just caught sight of myself reflected in the clock face on my desk, a little self-satisfied smirk: I'm all right, Jack. And why? I have realized how wonderful it is to be married.
Now, before you run away with the idea that I have the perfect marriage - I don't – but I have had a taste of what it is like to be single and searching, and in your fifties. And it's not for sissies.
I have just spent six weeks with my friend, Laura, in Phoenix, Arizona. Laura's husband, Matt, died eighteen months ago from a massive heart attack. She was there when it happened at three in the morning, and she is still traumatized by the memory of his six-foot-two-inch frame crashing to the floor, his head striking the corner of the chest of drawers as he fell. She continues to live in the same house but she has refurbished the bedroom and sold the offending chest of drawers, and her home is now on the market. Laura loved Matt: he was a man of enormous charm, generosity and courage. He had his first heart attack within eleven months of their marriage and spent the subsequent seventeen years living on borrowed time and the the loving ministry of Laura.
You might think that the loss of a much loved husband would necessitate some time, 'a decent interlude', before seeking a replacement. But for Laura, the desire to regain the love and security she had lost was paramount. Plus, having had no rumpy-pumpy for seventeen years she was feeling a little frisky. Laura, by the way, is a beautiful woman – a strong resemblance to Sally Field with a sharp intelligence to match - so she approached the search for man-mark-two with considerable enthusiasm and plenty of confidence. Nearly two years later, that optimism is in danger of being swamped in cynicism.
With my solid gold band around the fourth finger of my left hand and an aura of deep disinterest, I am the perfect companion for a woman on the hunt. I was there when Laura met her first match. We had gone to East 56 – a chic bar-cum-restaurant in Phoenix's East Valley – and by the first Martini (hers an apple and mine a sour cherry) Sean had insinuated himself into our company. “I couldn't help hearing your English accent,” he oiled. “I've just come back from London. Love your country. It's awesome.” Perfect intro. Within half an hour I'd made my excuses and left them to it.
It was the start of a beautiful liaison. Laura was smitten and so it seemed was Sean. He was handsome, a snappy dresser, he could cook, he was a neat-nik, funny and sensitive. Nonetheless, some six weeks later he informed her that he would be spending Christmas and the New Year in California so would not be able to join her for 'the holidays'. Imagine her surprise, therefore, when she ran into him on New Year's Eve at the bar in which they'd first met. To his credit, Sean apologized – too-intense-too-soon sort of thing – and professed a desire to make it up to her. Three weeks into the new year, she received an email from him explaining that he had, in fact, found someone else.
And so followed several brief and disappointing encounters with commitment-shy men including a Republican candidate whose sparkling blue eyes and firm chin had gazed out at her from a twenty-foot high bill-board on the I-10 motor-way. (A big lesson learned there: the larger the photo, the bigger the ego.) Not unusually these days Laura had many friends in the same boat – all of them attractive, smart, forty or fifty-somethings looking for Mr Darcy. They shared a common experience: eventually the supply of single men known to friends and family is exhausted; the cattle market of the happy hour or the singles' evening is to be avoided to preserve dignity and sanity: the only option left, short of exploring the possibilities of a Sapphic relationship, is internet dating. It was at this juncture that once again I picked up the threads of Laura's search for the elusive butterfly of love.
The start of another New Year was celebrated by Laura's joining Match.com. On the journey from the airport to her home she talked excitedly of the new project. She had made connections on line with three potential candidates (not of the Republican kind) and was expecting to meet face to face soon. Her top pick was a man calling himself, Frog Prince. “You have to read his portrait, Pen, he's so sweet. He's looking for someone to awaken his deepest desires, someone to share this lonely path through life with. I think he's a Pisces.” Mmm. “Oh, and I really like this guy, Maui-Man. He's an astro-physicist, divorced and does therapeutic massage on the side. He's an atheist, but I'm sure we can get over that.” I wondered if the third might prove more the thing. “I think you'll like Ancient Mariner. He's not old, actually, just fifty-seven, and he looks terrific. He's never married, does sports and, obviously, loves sea-fishing. He has a home in San Diego.” “Isn't four hundred miles between you going to be a bit of a problem?” “Oh no. His mother lives in Phoenix and he's down here every weekend.”
Later that day I was initiated into the mysteries of Match.com. “Look at this!” exclaimed Laura as she drew me in front of her computer screen, “Five guys have winked at me today!” Winked? She showed me a little icon on her page and, sure enough, there were the nom-de-plumes of five men 'winking' their interest. She then took me to Ancient Mariner's page and urged me to read his portrait. About My Life And What I'm Looking For: The predisposition to champion those things that are harmonious and positive toward a creation centered around happiness in life versus self-absorbed types or things that are preoccupied in tendencies fostering utilitarian acquisition or material orientation.' “Laura, what does that mean?”
A week later, Frog Prince had called but failed to make a firm date, Ancient Mariner would not be able to meet up as planned that weekend due to a family gathering. However, a lively email debate with Maui-Man over the existence of God had been struck up. Five weeks later, many winks later, the status-quo remained unchanged. Disappointment hung heavy in the air.
As she dropped me off for my return flight to London, I urged her not to give up on Match.Com. It was still early days. Onward and upward. But on the long journey home I thought about Laura's quest and worried about her.
The desire to love and be loved does not dim with age. I know the young cannot bear to contemplate the thought of two middle-aged people thrashing about on a bed, or anywhere else come to that, but no matter how old you get the need for emotional, spiritual and physical intimacy can be as strong as it was in your teens. It's just a little more complicated and a lot more difficult to find. Women who come out of a long relationship, whether via divorce or bereavement, simply aren't prepared for the new politics of dating. The template they're working from doesn't fit today's mating game. Men in their late forties, fifties and sixties are not cut out of the Spencer Tracy mould. They have spirit of the Sixties in their veins – love without commitment – and they've had to adapt to a world in which women have become increasingly empowered, which in turn somehow disenfranchises them. They figure if women have fought so hard for equality the old rules are blown: open your own doors, pay your own bills and don't come running to me when you've pranged the car and the washing machine's sprung a leak! Men also have plenty of choice. I know I'm going to invite universal condemnation here by suggesting that men are more visually inclined – they care less about the attractions of the inner-woman and more about how the outer wrapping looks – but it is a factor. And the volume of single women in their thirties and early forties narrows the field for the older woman seeking to meet her match. It's not impossible, of course, just more difficult. To add to the conundrum, it seems that more and more women entering their fifties and sixties look and feel years younger - they take care of themselves and what they may have lost in skin luminosity they've gained in wisdom and poise – while men in the same age bracket have invariably gone to pot! Thus, the chance of finding a man who matches their expectations also decreases in time, and while internet dating has become a way forward it can still be a long and painful path.
According to Match.com's publicity over 200,000 people met that special person last year, and although the company did attract some adverse publicity in 2005 when it was disclosed that some of their workers had allegedly arranged bogus dates with subscribers, some fifteen million are enrolled at the current time: the ratio of women to men being 40-60. Nevertheless, judging by all the women I met in the Phoenix area who had joined the service, that special person must still be out there. All of them had similar stories about men with whom warm e-mails and phone calls had been exchanged but who cancelled out before the first date. And despite some matches that showed a 21 point score as far as mutual likes and dislikes were concerned, when they actually dated there was no meeting of minds or hearts. I began to wonder whether to some men on-line dating was akin to a spectator sport. They were just filling in time; playing with possibilities. And considering the advantages men have when it comes to initiating a date in the real world, a large percentage of those who opt for on-line dating will not be putting Harrison Ford in the shade, and even if they have looks and serious financial assets, there's sure to be emotional baggage.
Of course it's easy for me to stand on the sidelines and profess that even if I was to suddenly find myself single again the last thing I'd be doing would be seeking man-mark-four. However, I do have single girl-friends in their fifties and sixties who are relishing their independence and choice. We who espoused free love and flower power and shocked a generation still clinging to Victorian values continue to break down barriers: we, the Baby-boomers, are redefining middle-age. There are over a trillion of us with disposable incomes and it is we to whom advertizers and the shapers of trends are beginning to come in shoals. And I believe that when we recognize our value and embrace what we have become, we release ourselves from the imprisoning belief that our worth can only be confirmed by being in a relationship, and preferably by a ring on our finger.
None of this makes a difference to my dear friend, Laura, however. She cannot bear waking up in an empty bed, hates having no one to care for and is positively paralysed at the prospect of entering a lonely old age. But like all good fairy stories she may be on her way to a happy ending.
Shortly after my return to England, she was winked at by Arizona-flyer. He turned out to be an ex-pilot now in the property business, divorced and seeking that special someone. He had only been on Match.com for three weeks and was about to end his membership when he caught sight of her photo. They met for coffee at eleven one February morning and parted at five in the afternoon, each of them breathless with anticipation. “I think this is it, Pen. He's the One.” And she could be right. I certainly hope so. Match.com may well be on the way to its 200,001st satisfied customer.
Original article: 2007
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