• A relationship is a shared mental process.
  • A relationship has a presence, a personality and an emotional impact.  It can and will make demands on both partners. It shapes how partners see each other.  It is a lens through which partners understand each other.
  • It has a mind and a heart of its own but it doesn’t have a body. Instead of flesh and blood, a relationship is formed by the constant flow of the ten thousand messages, and reactions to those messages, that flow constantly between the two minds of the two partners.
  • In other words, a relationship is a spiritual entity.  Like an Angel?  Maybe Except its presence can be seen with scientific instruments. Brain imaging can observe how the neural activity in one partner is mirrored by similar neural activity in the same brain areas in the other partner, a visible marker of empathetic resonance. If it’s an angel, it is one that you can see on a computer monitor.
  • Despite the hard science evidence, a relationship doesn’t live in the concrete world. A relationship lives in the world of stories. Stories register in our brains and make us think and feel in various ways.  We humans are, maybe more than anything else, creatures who tell stories. We live stories and will even die for stories. The deeper, more intimate the relationship, further it sends its roots into both partners’ stories – into the heart of their lives.
  • Seeing a relationship as a semi-independent entity is a different way of looking at relationships. There is a “Me” and a “You” and there is also a “We.”  Sometimes, using this perspective, appreciating how things look to the “We,” the “You” and the “Me” can see opportunities and challenges we couldn’t see otherwise.


The ability to see the relationship as its own reality usually doesn’t develop in people until midlife.

Sometimes this increase in the scope of consciousness creates an inner crisis – people see themselves and their partners, and their partnerships – past, present, and future – in a new light, sometimes harsh, sometimes sympathetic, usually a bit of both.

Crisis or simple developmental process, once you’ve seen the “We” you will never again approach relationships quite the same way.


They started the session so pleased with each other and the promise of their relationship. They’d been through a lot and now it looked like they were in for a patch of fair weather. However, thanks to my careful questioning and comments I’d managed to bring her to the point of seething resentment and in response, he was on the cliff edge of committing himself to some way of expressing some kind of punitive and spiteful payback: He was suddenly more than willing to do exactly those very the things she feared, just make her eat her damn words and stew in her own fears until she choked. Based on that I figured the session was a success.

Perhaps you are wondering why? Let me give you some background and also let me see if I can persuade that this was a good exercise for both them. And also, perhaps I can persuade you that this exercise might be a good idea for you and your partner.

They’d had a hard ride, these two. It had been a difficult on-again-off-again relationship. Honeymoon became hell became break-up became make-up became honeymoon became hell and round and round. It had happened enough times that they knew and feared their routine. This in itself was great progress. Before this realization they seemed surprised to find themselves again and again in the same place.

Their routine reminded me of an old Bob Dylan song, “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” The last verse goes like this: “And here I sit so patiently, waiting to find out what price, you have to pay, to get out of, going through all these things twice.” Hah. Twice indeed! What youthful optimism! Most of us have to recycle several more times than twice before we realize we are going in circles. This is a midlife realization, and this couple had reached it.

Now, after a promising honeymoon, they were contemplating moving in together, again. “Can we do this without repeating the cycle?” they asked. They had asked the Dreaded But Necessary Question: “What can possibly go wrong?”

“What can possibly go wrong?”

My dad made a comedy routine out of this question by performing this line as a naïve and enthusiastic fool. The way he delivered seemed to mean, “Well of course nothing’s going to go wrong.” He was able to say it in a way that made sensible people shudder and say, “Don’t say that!” But say it he did, and like bats in a cave reacting to a gunshot, the ten thousand things that could go wrong suddenly swarmed around in your mind. It was his personal version of “Murphy’s Law.”

Murphy’s Law, like my Dad’s question, is the question you have to ask because it tells you about baggage. When we take a closer look at Murphy’s Law we see why.

In their article on Murphy’s Law, Wikipedia offers an American newspaper in verse printed in 1841:

I never had a slice of bread,
Particularly large and wide,
That did not fall upon the floor,
And always on the buttered side.

Wikipedia also quoted Alfred Holt at an 1877 meeting of an engineering society:

It is found that anything that can go wrong at sea generally does go wrong sooner or later.

The same is true of an intimate relationship because getting involved in a long term intimate relationship is like crossing the ocean in a two person boat: Sooner or later, anything that can go wrong between two people who loving and living together will.

Eventually there will be a bad day. Sooner or later, they will bring out the worst in each other. Nothing will be hidden. That is the nature of intimacy.

Do you want the relationship to last? Then my dad’s horrible question is the one you have to ask: What could possibly go wrong? Except it’s not a joke, it’s a conversational agenda. That was what I tried to accomplish for this dear couple. I wanted them to understand where in their nest the snakes were hidden.

Psychologist Gary Klein, who specializes in intuition (which he defines as your sense of what will probably happen next based on your experience of what’s happened in the past) calls the “What can possibly go wrong” exercise a “pre-mortum.”

Pre-mortem. Post-mortem. You know what a post-mortem is. That’s the inquiry you do after something has died. It’s an inquiry that asks, “What went wrong?” and “What, if anything, could we have done to stop it?” It’s the sort of thing you want doctors, military people, and anyone with a position of responsibility to know how to do. A pre-mortem is like a post-mortem, except it relies on your intuition and asks you to imagine it’s several years from now and you are looking back at a failure, searching for lessons and early warning signs. Then you set yourself up to notice those early signs. It’s a form of prevention. And that’s what I did for this couple. I took them through the procedure.

When we were almost finished I wasn’t sure I’d done them a favor. She was, as I’d said, “seething.” She’d tapped a deep vein of resentment. How many times in her life had she given and given and given and yet what she got in return was so little compared to what she’d given. And here it was again. She’d been there. She could see it coming. She retreated into attacking sarcasm. “Go ahead. Treat me like shit again. You’re good at it.”

Her response was intuitive, from the gut, something she didn’t have to think about. She’d had her natural generosity exploited so many times in her life that she was on high alert for yet another rip off. He had an equivalent resentment. Partners in a stable partnership usually do. “Look at you rolling your eyes at me. There’s no way to make you happy. It’s never enough. You always fear the worst so what the hell, if I’m going to be blamed anyway, I might as well be guilty.” He expected to be misjudged. That’s where he was quick on the trigger.

All I could say at that point was, “I guess the counseling was a success. You wanted to know what could possibly go wrong and I showed you. It’s there lurking for you all the time. If you want your relationship to last, you’ll have to plan on dealing with just this particular kind of trouble. This is how your relationship tends to get nasty.”

We all sat in the stew for a bit. Then he said, “Okay. All right. We can deal with this. I’ll take care of you. We can talk about this.” They’d managed to get outside their own little game, to get a little perspective, to develop a little patience and forgiveness toward each other, to see the danger coming before it really got dangerous.

Here is a story from another relationship. They have a cartoon on the refrigerator: two birds on a sidewalk having an argument. The cartoon is from the New Yorker and done by Bruce Eric Kaplan. The black bird says to the white dove: “I can’t believe you symbolize peace when you’re such a bitch.” They’ve made the cartoon a private joke because she tends to have a temper. She always apologizes later. He always tells her she doesn’t have to apologize because he accepts that she gets very irritated with him and sometimes he deserves it. But they both know that her apologies really do matter. They’ve taken the “what can possibly go wrong?” issue and established a way of dealing with the inevitable.

Relationship problems are like weeds. You can’t prevent them. You have to manage them. To manage them well, you have to anticipate them. “Manage” is a kind of housekeeping. It’s related to the word, “manual,” and it means, you have to put your hands on it. It’s like hygiene, just something you have to do from time to time. It’s also the sort of thing where a little early attention to the trouble spots can save a lot of work later.

The premise of the Dating at Midlife research project is that as people go through a midlife transformation, they change the way they create intimate relationships.

It’s hard to catalogue all the changes. One of the big changes is that people become more honest with themselves. When I was younger, in a moment of supremely naïve arrogance I complained that I couldn’t understand why people found it so difficult to be honest with themselves. That was before I began my own midlife project.

Lying is a strange business. Many animals use deception for survival. A momma bird will pretend to have a broken wing to draw predators away from a nest. Many predators use camouflage to capture prey. Wild female birds will mate with one male but bond with another for child rearing. Among humans, there is no necessary connection between what is said and what is done. To deceive is natural.

And then there is television. Almost everyone you see on television including news people are actors. The more hours you watch television the fewer hours you are interacting with real people, people who aren’t always performing for you. Our infotainment culture has dulled our talent for truth detecting.

When we get honesty and fearless self-disclosure, we often aren’t sure how to handle it. We aren’t even sure we want it.

Most relationships are a cocktail of truth and lies. For example, less mature, and less honest people often perform a strange mental trick with their intimate relationships. They divide them into two opposing categories. Category one: predictable, but maybe dull. Category two: fascinating and romantic, but dangerous.

What’s dishonest about that? I’ll get to that question further on.

For now, I want to point out the contrast: a relationship that is both dependable and also slightly dangerous. It takes a lot of honesty to make one of those. It’s a true improvisation: passion and safety at the same time, in the same relationship. To do this you must take certain risks. Obviously, not everyone has a taste for searching and fearless (to use Bill W.’s phrase) conversations with their partners.

Here is an excerpt from a new play, Intrigue with Faye, which explores those themes. This was in the New York Times Sunday, June 08, 2003, Theater section, page 6.

Kean and Lissa have a problem. They live together but don’t trust each other. In Kate Robbin’s play, “Intrigue with Faye,” the couple decide to videotape their every word and move as a way of cultivating trust and intimacy. The MCC Theater production stars Benjamin Bratt and Julianna Margulies. Directed by Jim Simpson, it opens on Wednesday at the Acorn Theater on Theater Row. Appearing in the video cameos are Gretchen Mol (as the title character) and Swoosie Kurtz along others. In this scene, Kean and Lissa draw up a contract.

KEAN: You stop lying to yourself and I’ll stop lying to you.
LISSA: How do you suggest we effect that program?
KEAN: We just…stop.
LISSA: Your part seems a little bit easier, don’t you think? Since it’s conscious. I mean, what am I supposed to do?
KEAN: Be willing to accept that things are not always exactly how you want them.
LISSA: So what? Just accept the fact that you lie to me?
KEAN: No, because I’m going to try not to lie. You just have to…be open. Try not to sit in judgment.
LISSA: For how long?
KEAN: I don’t know. Until we change.
LISSA: Let’s give it a time frame. I’m not agreeing to be stupid for the rest of my life.
KEAN: That’s not a very open thing to say.
LISSA: We haven’t started yet. How long?
KEAN: Hey, let’s do it for Lent. Let’s give up lying for Lent.
LISSA: How long is Lent?
KEAN: Well, it already started, but it’s now until Easter.
LISSA: Who’s the judge?…I mean, with Lent, presumably, God is watching, right? Who’ll be watching us?
KEAN: We’ll have to watch each other.
LISSA: One another. It’s one another. When you’re only talking about two people. Each other is for groups.
KEAN: Whatever.
LISSA: What about when we’re apart?
KEAN: Maybe we should just give up lying at home.
LISSA: No, I think we should try to give up lying all day, and just be judged at home.
KEAN: Not judged. Supported.
LISSA: Whatever. Let’s sign a contract.
KEAN: Do you think that’s necessary? (She takes out a piece of paper and starts drawing up a contract.)
LISSA: I, the undersigned, do hereby swear to give up lying to others and/or myself for the remaining what is it? Thirty whatever days of Lent. After which time it will be determined whether or not I am capable of change.
(Kean starts to sign.)
KEAN: Wait. We need a witness.
LISSA: That’s a very dangerous attitude.
KEAN: I live on the edge.
KEAN: I’ll be your witness. You be mine.
LISSA: No, we need an objective party. Let’s put it on tape.
(She speaks into the tape recorder, while signing.)
Melissa Feld, in sound mind, signing the Lent Agreement. (He signs.)
KEAN: O.K. Go.
LISSA: It’s almost 12. Let’s wait for midnight.
KEAN: Six minutes. Maybe I should make a few phone calls before we start.

* * * * * *

Honesty is work, but so is lying. When you tell a lie to someone else, you have to keep two sets of books, one for the lie and another for the truth. It is the strain of doing this that makes lie-detection devices possible. A lie detector measures the small signs of the stress of lying, the slight sweat on your skin, and the tiny changes in pulse rate and breathing. A lie detector does mechanically what many of us do biologically when we are lie-detecting, we tune in and listen for the strain.

There is one good way to lie and avoid lie-strain; believe your own lie. Throw away the good set of books and keep the false ones. Pretend that the false story is the true one. Some say this is more dangerous than lying. I suspect it is more common.

Remember I mentioned earlier that less mature people tend to create two categories of relationship? I said that there were the “safe but dull ones” and the “passionate, but dangerous ones.” Which of the two types of relationship do you suppose is the more likely to be maintained by lies?

I would guess it is most often the dull one. And often the dullness of a relationship is a shared lie. Just under the surface of a dull, predictable relationship you will often find cold anger, seething resignation and shark-mouthed resentment with three rows of teeth.

When a lie surfaces in a safe relationship, it’s like a sea monster breaking surface. It scares all parties. When a lie comes out, suddenly the meaning of many little events has to be revised. Your whole sense of what this relationship was about needs to be revised.

But what should be done once the monster breaks the surface? End the relationship? What are the choices?

The bad choices are to deny you didn’t notice anything to minimize He’ll get over it; it’s an exception, she didn’t mean it or to kill the messenger.

All these are examples of colluding. Homer Simpson said, “It takes two to tell a lie, Marge; one to tell it and one to believe it.”

When a big truth comes out in a private relationship, what do you do?

Build on it. The main skill you need here (aside from the ability to get a grip on yourself) is the skill of self-disclosure.

Notice the difference between these two sentences:

A: “You are dishonest. You have lied.”

B: “I don’t know what to believe.”

Which is stronger?

Some would say statement A.

Statement A is an accusation. It can be argued with or defended against. It is an invitation to obscure the truth with smoke. Statement B is much stronger. Statement B is a self-disclosure. There is no arguing with it.

When truth surfaces, add to it. You never know where it will lead. You can see that there is great danger in doing this. It takes skill and maturity to do this well.

A conversation in which truth unfolds moves very slowly. Reactions are quick: “Oh yeah? Well, so are you!” Responses take time. To form a judgment based on your deepest feelings, to know what they are, to think about them and to state it all as your own personal response that takes some patience, self-knowledge and basic good will.

One time I did a computer search on the Bible and collected all the times someone was told “Fear not.” It was about 42 times and often these were the first words said by an Angel or some other manifestation of God. Apparently, when truth emerges, the most common initial reaction to it is fear. I’m old, but I suspect that one never gets over this initial fear. For me, that explains the paradox of how the search for truth can create both danger and safety in a relationship.

I have a friend, 72, who said, last week, “I’ve just realized that I’m going to die. I always pretended it was only something that happened to others.” At seventy-two he finally could handle the full impact of the challenge that drives us all through the midlife transformation.

Some of us never get that strong. For most of us, it takes years. I remember when the beginning edge of that awareness struck me. I was thirty five. I had been living a life designed more to make other people happy than to make me happy. Somewhere in my inner shadows I was sustaining myself on the thought that next time I would live life for me. I began to understand that depending on my next life to give spiritual justification to this one was a poor strategy, but I wasn’t sure of the alternative.

What was a better idea? I didn’t know and then I had a dream. In the dream I was in an office in an advertising agency visiting an important person, who I referred to in my dream as “the person in the advertising business I admired most.” In the dream I realized that that person was me. Even in the dream I felt sheepish about giving myself such importance. I had a lot to learn.

In my waking life I was not yet a psychologist. I was an associate creative director making television commercials for shampoo, soap, cereal, frozen pizza and dog food. In my dream I walked into my office and found this important person, “me,” on the window ledge about to jump.

The “me” on the ledge said to the “me” in the office, “In there it is only the 36th floor, but out here it is the whole world!” (Thirty-sixth floor! I was thirty five.) Then the “me” on the ledge jumped backwards, out, away from the building, and into the air. When I saw him/me jump, I was startled and terrified. He saw my reaction and laughed. He hung in the air for a moment, immune to the laws of gravity, and then, as if he has wings, he flew away. Out here it is the whole world!

When I woke up I said, “What was that?” Apparently, I was living a life much too small for my Soul. The following Fall, shortly before my 36th birthday, I entered graduate school to become a Psychologist.

Midlife like the third quarter in a basketball or football game. You’ve seen how the first half of the game has gone and you have a chance to step back and review your strategy and approach. Psychologically speaking, you develop a different way of seeing, thinking and experiencing the world. It’s as if you gathered enough experience of yourself as an adult that you can think about who you’ve become. It is the time when you realize that it is your life and you can do with it as you wish. So what are you going to do? Strengthen and clarify your approach? Or make changes?

Sometimes the simple numbers wake you up. Thirty-five is half seventy and seventy is, well, seventy. Other times, the wake up comes as a powerfully provocative event a dream, a loss, a crisis, a divorce, a break-up of an important post-divorce affair, or even a success. A friend of mine has a story about his midlife awakening at 50. He was chairman of the board of a local institution and he was given a party in honor of his birthday. He looked around the room at the tuxedos and realized that there wasn’t a single person there that he considered to be a true friend. Time to change. He bought a motorcycle and leathers, and he did much more.

Whatever the wake-up call is, you suddenly realize that your life is, in large part, your creation. This is the core realization. It will be what you chose it to be and you can continue to make your old choices, or you can unmake them and make new ones.

Working out the implications of this wake-up call changing careers, creating a second marriage, or restoring your first marriage can take five to ten years. This is the midlife transformation, a life transition as meaningful and challenging, in its own way, as adolescence, college, or graduate school.

Maybe the best analogy is graduate school because in the process of maturing you acquire capacities, abilities, strength, which you then rely on to create quality and satisfaction in your life for the rest of your life.

The first capacity you acquire is an understanding of what it means to write your own life story. Similarly, you learn to be both more imaginative and more deliberate in the way you manage and creating relationships.

You become capable of genuine self-examination. You have some ability to see yourself as others see you, and also as they don’t! You become open to coaching and more capable of self-coaching. You become open to learning how you are both a better and a worse person than you thought you were.

As you become capable of seeing yourself somewhat objectively, you become aware that you have a unique personal style, (a psychology) which shapes how you think, feel, judge and decide and which makes you very much an individual, a character. (Mature adults are always real characters. It’s a good thing.) Being able to see your style means you become able to refine your style. You become your own work of art.

As you become more aware of how unique and quirky you are, you also become aware of the unique quirkiness of others. Your sense of humor becomes generous. You become solid in your ability to forgive and be charitable.

Notice the key phrase in this ancient observation about maturity:
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity I Cor 13:11

All this maturing amounts to a spiritual awakening. You become aware of how strongly who you are influences life around you. You become able to see the next generation of adults moving onto the main stage of life and, with grace, how you can help them. You are also able to see how, in all your intimate relationships, you are the co-creator.

This is the central fact of dating at midlife: if you are single at 20, you are just single. If you are single at 40, you have a story about it.

No one gets to be forty years old without having been hurt or having hurt. How a person deals with this unfortunate truth shapes their expectations about new relationships, and the way someone tells you their story tells you what they are expecting from you in the coming relationship.

There is a lot you can learn by listening to how they tell their stories. But you have to know what you are listening for. One of the things I listen for is how they deal with the fact that they have been hurt, or that they’ve hurt someone.

In my experience, if you have not reconciled yourself to this dark side of life, you will put certain specific and unreasonable pressures on your next relationship. In this short article, I want you to think about how this works.

I am going to start with the story of the Troubles Tree, an old Jewish folk tale.

One day in a small town in rural Poland an angel appeared and told everyone that, because of the piety of certain people the town’s people would be given a gift. For one day, everyone could walk around freed from the burden of their life’s troubles. A tree would appear in the center of the town and each person could hang their troubles on it.

Since these were very ordinary people, their troubles fell into the two ordinary categories. There was the suffering they had to bear because it was inflicted on them and there was the suffering they had to bear because they had caused suffering in others.

The first kind of trouble came from being betrayed, cheated, lied to, and taken advantage of. This trouble caused people to be resentful, suspicious and expecting some kind of compensation for the damages they had suffered. These feelings led them to be in a constant sad and complaining mood, always feeling entitled to better.

The other kind of trouble was the trouble of being guilty. Many people couldn’t stand facing the fact that they had cheated, betrayed, lied and taken advantage of others. This trouble caused them to justify and excuse themselves and accuse others of being even worse. It led them to be afraid of simply enjoying their lives, always worried that what they had would be taken from them.

To be free of these troubles, both groups had to write down their troubles on a piece of paper and pin it to the tree. Those who felt sorry for themselves had to write down the injuries they’d suffered. Those who felt guilty had to write down what they had done to others.

The Day of Relief was sunny and clear and people relaxed. At sundown, they gathered in front of the tree. First, the angel pointed out that every single person in the town had pinned something to the tree. Everyone had troubles. Second, the Angel said that anyone who wished could take anyone else’s troubles instead of their own.

The people began to read the pieces of parchment. In the end everyone chose to take back his or her own trouble.

But from this time forward, they bore them willingly. It made a great difference.

It makes all the difference in the world whether you bear your troubles willingly or you bear them with fear, denial, or resentment. And this becomes oh so clear as you try to create a new relationship for yourself at midlife.

If you have been hurt and haven’t come to grips with it, you will expect someone else to make special allowances for you. And as a listener to a story of unfairness you will be tempted to say something like, “Oh, that’s okay. I’ll shelter you. I’ll do better than the others. You may not have been able to trust them, but you can trust me.”

If you have hurt others, and haven’t accepted that, you will want to get off the hook. You may want to warn the other people away: “I’m too dangerous. I have too much baggage. I’ll hurt you.” Or you may want to be excused, “She made me be mean to her.” And if you are listening to someone who doesn’t want to be carrying their guilt, you will be tempted to lighten their load: “That’s okay. I forgive you. I understand that you were just reacting. I can handle it. I’m strong.”

So many people enter into new relationships expecting to do better than the previous girlfriend or boyfriend only to end up being rather sympathetic and curious about the previous lover. People who can’t carry their own troubles will make demands in a relationship that will eventually wear it down.

Most counseling involves convincing people that they can carry their own luggage. That, and showing them how to do it.

Clearly, the past can not be undone. If you have hurt someone, you have. If you have been hurt, it really happened. The message from the Buddha is that Life is Suffering. The message from Jesus is that we each must carry our cross.

These are the tests of maturity: Can we carry our baggage without resentment? Can we carry it without trying to find some way to get out of carrying it? Can we accept the emotional facts of our lives and live well any way? Those who have learned to answer, “Yes,” (and I don’t think you are born with this capacity) live differently and love differently.

Now I return to my initial premise, if you are single at midlife, you are single, with a story about it. How you tell that story foreshadows how you will tend to create the next relationship you get in to. This is true for you, and also for the person you are dating.


The personals specify STR or LTR, (short term relationship or long term) as if those were the only choices. I’m not so sure. I think that there is a growing hybrid, the MTR, the mid-term relationship.

As one very smart and very attractive 50 year old woman explained to me, the problem is how to be “looking for long term relationships and dealing with the libido in the meanwhile.”

I think it is The Central Issue in dating at midlife. It is the thing that everyone struggles with.

I think the problem of how to have a sex life when single at midlife is equally vexing to both men and women. Midlife adults are sexually active and want to be. But how?

The best answer is a good long term committed relationship. It’s the best sex, the easiest sex, the most emotionally satisfying sex and the richest, most textured sex. Far and away, most of the people who report having the best and most frequent and most satisfying sex at midlife are people who are married or settled into in long term relationships. Then sex simply becomes part of pleasant domestic tranquility.

Midlife singles, by definition, are people who experience long sexual dry spells. These are people who, for one reason or another have backed away from long-term committed relationships. By 35 or 40 they’d tried for the Big One and they’ve either left or been left or have avoided it altogether.

Young people are single because they were born that way; midlife singles are single for a reason. Often they aren’t too sure what the reason is. Something happened. They carry some baggage, usually in the form of suspicions about themselves or about their potential partners, and they have explanations which do not bring peace.

Trying to be a midlife single while you sort things out or regroup or continue to avoid a long term relationships and also have a sex life is fundamentally troublesome.

This is because sex brings people together and invites them to stay together.

Take the question of female orgasm. Women don’t need to orgasm to get pregnant. Why then should human females have evolved this behavior? The best theory is that the purpose of female orgasm is to make sex more bonding.

Men tend to have dual strategies. Men like bonding but they also like variety. One survey showed that in long term relationships men found their partners even better looking after sex than before but in short term relationships, they said they found their partner less attractive and wanted to get away.

(This is related to another bit of research that showed that, in a bar, men really did rate the women as more and more attractive at closing time. This is not a matter of character, but biology. Character is what allows you to make choices despite biological impulses. But back to the story. )

What do midlife singles who do not want to be joined with anyone in particular, right now, think one should do about their sex lives? Here is the answer: in addition to finding ways to have sex with each other, they also have to work hard to find ways to make sure the sex isn’t bonding.

Midlife singles have risen to the challenge. Here are some answers I have collected in my interviews. If you have additional ideas or observations, please write me.

One is the Circumstantial Cutoff. This is the “strangers on a train” strategy. Or maybe it’s the Club Med plan. You agree to meet someone from far away in a far away place and then trust the circumstances to pry you apart.

“We agreed that the relationship was impossible because of the distance. Maybe it was maybe it wasn’t. The important thing is that we agreed it was. And then we threw ourselves at each other with complete abandon. We agreed that in our limited time we would do everything to make it totally wonderful. And we did. And then we had to stop. We cried. But there was no choice. We had to stop. It wasn’t personal. The plan worked perfectly. “

Mind you, none of these plans are conscious and deliberate. They are just arrangements people seem to work out and only see in retrospect.

A less romantic form of the Club Med plan is Life on the Road. People who travel for business sometimes have a code that “what happens on the road stays on the road.”

You’ll notice that this stuff is completely amoral. Some would say it’s immoral. Where my morals get involved is when there is lying and deceit. Any sex that has to be lied about is probably a very bad idea for lots of reasons.

Another form sexual outlet is former lovers. The relationship is over and never to be regained. If we are both in between, Well…. what’s the harm of a little sex between friends?

Again, it’s not the best answer. It’s not satisfying; it’s not secure; it can feel like being the second choice; any port in the storm and it’s often riddled with a fear of starting it up again.

All these answers have a downside. I’m not recommending them. I am just saying that being single at midlife leads to these kinds of behaviors and creates a world in which many of the normal rules of community living seem to be suspended.

There are also circumstances where friends have sex and stay friends. But that really requires a lot of honesty. The people who do it successfully seem to do it on a one-at-time basis. The basic rule people come to is that doing it once never ever implies that you will do it the next time you are together. One way this is suspicious is that these encounters often feature liberal use of substances. A little wine to soften one’s judgment. But, as I say over and over, all these answers seem to the people involved and never mind the moral judgments for the moment basically stop-gap and unsatisfactory.

One final use of circumstances to place limits on a relationship is that people pick partners they would never be in a long term relationship with. Women have more flexibility in this than men. Sometimes they can go for someone of higher status knowing that sometimes men will lower their standards for short term sex. A lot of women will, if given the chance, use their sexuality as a way to get close to someone interesting to them, especially if the man is pleasing and charming anyway.

Another way women do it is use their higher status to win them the short term attentions of an attractive and easy to manipulate younger man of lower status.

When circumstances don’t end a short term relationship, then the people have to end them.

Here is one woman’s report: I was with a man who was retired with good income and he wanted to travel and he would be in a relationship with a woman for a few months or a few years and then he would say, it’s not quite what I wanted and he would end it and, if you wanted to be in relationship with him, those were the rules. So I accepted his rules. Men’s rules.

Easy Endings is one of the reasons men pay for prostitution. The money is not for sex but so the person will go away afterwards.

Similarly, easy ending is one of the advantages of Self-love. I have a friend who ran a workshop on self love and he called it “sex with the best.” He said an advantage of it is that once it is over, it is over. One woman told me that she’d purchased a new vibrator and she realized that the old one was actually older than any of her children.

If men commonly end relationships because they are curious about the next opportunity, midlife women often end them because the men are too much work for too little return. Midlife women generally achieve a great deal of independence. They have good jobs and own houses. The really don’t need a man for his resources, only for his company. And a lot of midlife men haven’t yet figured out how to be good company for a woman.

Often, because of the economic policies of the last 20 years, good jobs for men have disappeared. More and more women are doing much better than the men. The sex isn’t worth the effort. As one woman said, A humpa humpa zit! And that’s it. No thanks.

Most women, however, still want sex. More and more the ideal is a man who can be very independent yet still pleasant to get together with from time to time.

I’m retired. I like to go to the tropics during the winter. I like to travel. It’s very hard to find a man with that kind of freedom who also wants to follow my agenda. When I was younger I’d follow his agenda. It’s different. I’m my own person. So we make a different kind of relationship with each other.

Apparently, the older you get, the more idiosyncratic and particular and practical the arrangements. I do think this requires strong communication skills to accomplish smoothly. But mainly it requires great confidence, which older people tend to have.

I think this is the most important finding in my interviews and I’ll say it again: The older people get, and especially this for women, the more idiosyncratic and particular and practical they are about how they take care of themselves. And this includes how and whether they have a sex life.

I recently consulted on a real Hollywood film script and I was asked to contribute ideas for the key speech in which the heroine, a midlife single, realizes something important about her dating behavior. I suggested that she declare that all the people she met while dating at midlife didn’t seem to believe in marriage and she does believe in marriage. I believe in marriage! I do. Those were her words. With that realization she changes how she conducts herself and becomes more confident.

In a very good book, called Why Men Marry Some Women And Not Others, John T. Molloy produces research that says that one of the key reasons women get married is that they believe in marriage. It’s that simple.

It looks like the older people get, the more they prefer these new kinds of relationships. Not short-term, not long term. Mid term? Midlife singles are not sure they believe in marriage. That’s the point. It takes some soul searching and personal work to have confidence in marriage. We live in a society that supports choice.

Given all this, what does someone do who is looking for a long term relationship? The first priority is to keep your mind clear. Do your soul searching. Know who you are. The world is really very responsive to our creativity and if you know who you are and what you want, you can usually get it.

It isn’t always easy to know what will work long term unless sex is put on hold. So an irony is that people who are looking for longer term relationships often take much, much longer studying each other before they sexualize the relationship.


The top three dating complaints of single men in their 50s:

· Dating partners who have a lot of “baggage” (42 percent)

· Women who “become difficult to get along with” after the first few dates (28 percent)

·Women who want to get too serious too fast (18 percent)

The top three complaints of women:

· That baggage thing (35 percent)

· Not having a clue where to meet men, and meeting too few new men (23 percent)

· Overeager guys who want to get real serious real fast (21 percent)

· Have not had a date in the last year. (43 percent)

The other figures are interesting but we’re talking about baggage. You’ll notice that all the men’s complaints come down to baggage and the first and third of the women’s complaints are about baggage.

(I don’t know about you, but I also noticed that 70% of men complain about baggage and 35% of women. Twice as many. What’s that about? Let’s bookmark that question.)

“Baggage” is not really a technical term and so it’s one of those things that we all know what it is when we see it but are hard pressed to say exactly what it is.

I’m not going to do a survey of literature, but I do want to acknowledge that what I’m going to say here is only one position in discussion, a discussion in which soothing voices of healing professionals can become quite sharp.

I like the position I’m going to put forward. It comes from one of my favorite psychologists, Alfred Adler. His term for baggage was Protest. Protest is a technical term and in every day speech it means more less the same thing as “a chip on the shoulder.” Someone with a “chip on their shoulder” is someone who is always ready to argue about something. And that’s what baggage is about.

Very precisely if you are protesting, it means that you are against one thing because you are for something else. It means you are taking a side in an argument. It also means that you know both sides of the argument very well.

One of the things that protesters do is they take one side of the argument so intensely that they can force otherwise neutral people to take the other side.

There is a Monty Python skit called “The Argument Clinic,” A man pays to go have an argument with someone. (Looking for a particular argument is a form of protest and a form of baggage.) He goes into the Argument Room and asks the man at the desk, “Is this the right room for an argument?” And the man at the desk says, “I told you once.” And the other man answers, ”No you didn’t.”

“Yes, I did.”

“No you didn’t.”

It happens so fast, you don’t even see how it starts. The man at the desk says, “I told you once” as if he were responding to something that already happened. That’s how baggage and protests work. They are habits and habits are unconscious. What is unconscious always feels like it has always existed; timeless.

When I first started studying this, I used to think that things which were unconscious were vague and murky. Not so. Unconscious knowledge is very precise and complex. When a concert pianist plays Beethoven she is mainly conscious of the music. But the mechanics of making the music are all so well mastered that they are unconscious. Most people drive their cars unconsciously. In fact, the most dangerous driver is one who has to think about how quickly to take the foot off the accelerator while pushing in the clutch, and slowly pressing the brake while steering gradually over to the slower lane. The one who does this best does it so smoothly because the individual parts are integrated into unconscious knowledge. And it’s the same thing with these interpersonal protests and arguments that we call baggage.

Let’s look at a real example.

Genevieve had an over bearing mom. When she grew up she married an over bearing man. And then she got a divorce and it seemed that she was “attracted to overbearing men. Nice guys never showed up. This is an example of baggage and here is how it works.

First, you have to look at her protest. What was her protest? It started out with her mom. The way she handled mom’s nagging, demanding, insisting, snooping and punishing was to protest in her head. The protest was a like a poster only she could see. It went like this, “F U. I will do anything I damned well please.” Down with Oppression! Up with Personal freedom!

“We fill our lives with proceedings which at first seem reasonable until they later become a habit.” Samuel Beckett

Genevieve, for her sanity and survival as a child, developed the habit of being super-alert to possible demands and super-prepared to challenge them. If you were going to deal with someone as over bearing as Mom, you didn’t want to defy her in big ways. That would be like Iraq trying to stand up to the U.S. Military, or like Apache’s trying to stop the US Calvary. A losing proposition. You wanted to handle it like guerilla war and defy her in millions of small ways. And so Genevieve became very good at taking millions of small stands.

Baggage, in this case, was the difference between saying, “F— you, I will do anything I damned well please,” and the simple, quiet, non-combative and direct approach — “I do what I please.” The simple way, which is the mature way, leaves out the protest part, leaves out the FU and the damn well.

Adler called this extra attitude, the Protest. Another pioneering psychologist, Karen Horney, called it the “Constant Attitude.” I like that phrase, too, because it is a kind of attitude that people carry constantly, regardless of the situation, something they impose on the situation.

There is a famous joke by Henny Youngman about that. “A man walks into a therapist’s office and says, “Hey @$$hole. How come people don’t like me?” A constant, yet invisible attitude.

One of the strange things about Baggage is that it attracts baggage. There are men in this world who carry matching pieces for Genevieve’s set. She has baggage that says, “F U & D W” on it and there are guys out there who have the attitude, “F this, I’ll Damn Well decide who is going to the boss.”

If I understand Harville Hendricks correctly, he seems to be saying that matches like this are matches made in heaven. That’s because the two people challenge each other on their baggage and, if they really love one another, they will have to give up their baggage in order to make the relationship work. Therefore, it is the force of love that heals them of their protest attitudes. (He describes the dynamics a little differently, but I think we are talking about the same stuff.)

For a while, one of my teachers was collecting phrases that summarized such matched sets of luggage. “He worshiped the ground she walked on and she treated him like dirt.” “He was a man who claimed to know best the difference between right and wrong and she helped him by reminding him of how wrong he could be.”

Genevieve had carried her baggage so long that she’d gotten used to it. The proceedings which at first seemed reasonable, had become a habit. However, she’d read my “Souvenir Memories” article on the web site and the first memory her soul handed her (she spontaneously produced it) was about an encounter with her Mom in which she responded with her brave FU stand. Even then she wasn’t sure what to make of the memory.

Why did I remember that?

And this is where I think it helps to talk to someone else about this stuff. I could hear the protest in the story and draw her attention to it and to its implications. She’s smart and it didn’t take much more than that for her to make a lot of connections.

So what do you do with baggage?

First you unpack it and that probably is work best done in a conversation with someone else. You don’t always notice your own constant attitude. Usually, because it’s so constant. Second, because it’s hard to look at the unattractive side of your personality. It just is.

Second, you don’t try to change it quickly. I know this is counter-intuitive. There are a couple reasons for not trying to change it quickly. First of all, when you first a habitual protest that you’ve taken for granted for many years, you don’t know where it’s been. And you don’t know where it goes. So the first thing to do is watch how it works in you.

Third, once you’ve watched it work for a while, then you’ll have all sorts of ideas about how to drop it. It really is an unnecessary add-on to your social skills and, as you get better at anything, including getting along with others, you learn to succeed with less work. You’ll find ways to drop it. Again, it really helps to talk about this with someone who knows what they are listening to. Real change is a kind of lightening up. It isn’t that dramatic.

Here is Robert Bly’s translation of Rilke’s poem about the Swan. It is about the difference between the way the swan walks on land and the way it moves in water. I think about this when I think about the difference between carrying baggage and letting baggage drop. If you read it aloud you can feel the deliberate clumsiness of the first two verses and the grace of the third.

The Swan

This clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.

And to die, which is a letting go
of the ground we stand on and cling to every day,
is like the swan when he nervously lets himself down

into the water, which receives him gaily
and which flows joyfully under
and after him, wave after wave,
while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm,
is pleased to be carried, each minute more fully grown
more like a king, composed, farther and farther on.

And then I also think about another Paul Simon song, This one about mastery, a quality of people who’ve made it through their midlife transformation.

“He makes it look so easy, look so clean,
He moves like God’s Immaculate Machine
He makes me think about all these extra moves I make
And the bag of tricks it takes
To get me through my working day,
That One Trick Pony.”
From One Trick Pony by Paul Simon