Potential Pitfalls for Seniors in Love

A while ago a semi-retired psychologist, a widower, came to see me. "I heard you were writing a book about senior love," he began.

"Yes," I told him. "I've been working on it for a year."

"I was going to write such a book. Most of my clients now are seniors."

"Why don't you?"

"I got involved, emotionally, sexually. It wasn't working out. I became my own patient, so to speak. I lost all objectivity."

Since his wife died, the psychologist has maintained a modest practice, seeing clients a couple of days a week. Most of his work is in bereavement therapy and aging, the latter because children didn't know what to do with aging parents or because aging clients didn't know how to accommodate to their advanced years. And there are seniors who need help with issues of love and sex.

"But I haven't come to ask about your book. Just wish you luck." He paused. "Strange, isn't it. We listen and give guidance to others; then when we need someone to listen to us and perhaps direct us, we've no one to talk with. That's why I'm here. I need someone to listen."

He told me I could write up his predicament, reserving his right to review it. I agreed, if I decided to use his problem, but, I assured him, I was a good listener, and if he had a concern which I might help ease, that was the only agenda item.

"I love a woman. She does not love me. We had a few months of sweet passion but it didn't last." It was a familiar situation.

"Here's my immediate problem. She wants to date casually; says she likes me; you know the bit. I want to--and I don't want to. It's the don't want to part that troubles me. When we're together, no matter the conversation, I have an insatiable desire to hold her, to hug her, to touch her. It isn't going to happen; I know that.

"Yet that's my single thought. I don't mean that I have to have intercourse with her. I think I can manage to get along without that. I've come to think if she offered I'd refuse. I don't think I could do it with someone who didn't love me or at least have great affection for me. It probably would be like making love to a pillow. I need the feeling a tender touch can give."

I wanted to say get over it, and I wanted to say something about obsessions, but here was a professional who in our conversation proved he knew the answers. He just hadn't been able to apply them to himself.

My tactic was to listen mostly, ask an occasional question, reflect back what I heard, and hope that in so doing he would hear himself. He didn't expect answers; his primary need was to tell his pain to someone who would listen. His was, in effect, a plea, not so much for help as it was for understanding and sympathy.

We continued to meet while he worked through his rejection. Learning to unlove, if there is such a concept, or falling out of love is much harder than falling in love. It's not just falling out of love; it's giving up the love one has created and nurtured while managing to keeping the heart intact.

It's not uncommon, although for seniors it seems more dramatic and traumatic. From my experience, I think seniors fall deeper in love and have a harder time of it when love fails. Some will say that's because seniors know they have few opportunities for love, but my thinking is that seniors, with all their years of experience, make a much greater emotional investment in love and therefore run a greater emotional risk, and with that they suffer more when a love affair doesn't work out.

Seniors generally seem to understand and appreciate what love demands, and most seniors are conscious of the efforts necessary to make a new love work. When love fails, they are defeated because they assume full blame for the failure.

* * *

I was told once, "I'd like to date 'Roger.' But if I do, I'm spoiling my chances of meeting someone to marry." I understood the statement; she was hunting. Unfortunately, poor Roger didn't fulfill her requirements. And that was fair enough, too, except the person who spoke never quite let Roger go. She held on to him just tightly enough to give him a taste of encouragement, and Roger, deeply in love, continued to work through the steps of love, not coming to grips with the fact that he was being used and that his illusionary highway of love was a blind dead end.

Finally, Roger reached the point where he knew--like experiencing a gorgeous Indian summer day in the autumn of his life; it was all so unexpected and beautiful--it couldn't last.

"I've seen love's secret place and for a brief moment looked into its infinitely deep soul," he told me in words something like these, "and now I see only from a distance. I ask myself, what is better than having loved?"

I shook my head, waiting for him to continue. "Having someone's love; that is better. While you have it, you're not a loser, not yet anyway."

Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? Most would say yes, weighing the joys of loving, transient as they might be, against never having experienced the high joys.

* * *

Years ago, a charming couple came to my office. They were going to be married, the second time for each. Their request was simple. Could they join the group for married couples I had put together a year or so earlier?

Originally, the group was for couples undergoing stressful adjustments in their lives, from parenting to career changes, illness to internal conflicts, who, because of the stress, had lost most or all social contact with others. The couple about to be married were without social contacts.

The group had been an immediate success. The format was simple: meet in a couple's home for after dinner dessert, play a few mixer parlor games, sit in a circle, drink coffee (nothing stronger was served) and exchange concerns. What I wanted to happen happened: the awareness that people are not alone in their misery, the knowledge that difficulties can be shared, that stress strikes everyone, that people care, and that a social group setting sometimes can be a proper setting for dealing with certain problems.

More than because of my role, people did find sympathetic understanding and support. Several couples became close friends, and to my knowledge, every couple reentered the larger social mix from which they had thought they had to hide.

Later, long after the group was left on its own, the woman I mentioned asked to see me. She had a problem of a personal kind. She had fallen in love with a co-worker. Because her husband was working out of town, she and her new love had been able to spend a week together.

She had worked through the adultery part of it, she said. Her problem was, she realized she had not been in love with the other man. In fact, she still loved her husband, dull as he was.

"Well, say something," she demanded after telling her story.

"Right now I'm a listener," I told her.

"And you think I'll solve my own problem?"

"As a matter of fact, yes."

"With your nudging?"

"Maybe."

My point here is that we know the answers to most of our questions--if we can manage to ask the right questions. We know what's right and what's wrong; we know how we feel and even why we feel as we do; we have a genetic sense of behavior as well as a learned sense of proper conduct. I'm happy to report that the wife worked very hard at her marriage and that the harder she worked the more attentive and open to new adventures her husband became. Sometimes you do win one.

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