Oprah Magazine, November, 2007
My mother met the love of her life when she was 86. A widow for 11 years, she spotted Harold, a retired doctor, standing alone at a bridge club. She asked if he wanted to play with her, and they became inseparable.
“He’s a younger man,” she told me.
“How young?” I asked.
“Oh…” she said. “I think he’s 82.”
They’re still devoted to each other as they move into their 90s, which fills me with awe. But do I have to wait that long?
I’ve been unattached for several years and have become very good at it. I love my house, my work, my friends, and my kids, and every day I’m grateful for good health and what I see as a fortunate life. But sometimes there’s a moment when I ache for a partner to check in with, talk, snuggle and grow spiritually with. I’m afraid that such love may be behind me, as the pickings get slimmer every year. When I go to parties, there are 13 single women and one single guy, and he’s usually gay.
This depresses me, and I wonder if my mother’s experience was a fluke. But during the past month, I’ve talked to a dozen women, ranging from their late 40s to their 90s, who’ve found deep love–a soul mate–long after they thought that was possible. Ellen Burstyn was alone for 25 years before she fell in love, at 71, with the man with whom she now lives and who is 23 years younger. Jane Fonda, 69, recently started a relationship with Lynden Gillis, 72, a retired management consultant, and Jane now says she wants to make a “sexy erotic movie about people over 70.”
As I listened to these stories, I felt… hope. And I wanted to explore whether this kind of love happens because of luck, karma or accident, or if there are interior changes one can make or steps one can take to connect with a partner at any age.
What surprised me was that the women’s stories were remarkably similar. All had been afraid they were too old. They all relished their independence and had come to terms with the fact that they might never find another mate. At the same time, they’d done inner work that enabled them to feel worthy of love, ready to accept a man as he is and be accepted unconditionally by him. Most see their relationship as a spiritual practice, an opportunity to work on hurtful patterns and expand their capacity to forgive. There’s less drama, they report, and more peace. Each woman feels her current partner is her bashert–Yiddish for destined mate–and that all her experiences, past relationships and heartbreak were necessary to prepare her for this union.
Lesson 1: Make Friends With Solitude
For 25 years, Ellen Burstyn did not go out on a date.
“Nobody asked me,” she says.
I find that hard to believe, I say. “In 25 years, weren’t you attracted to a man, or pursued by one?”
“I was busy living my life,” she says. She worked constantly around the world, won an Oscar for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and was nominated for five other films. She enjoyed being with her son, Jefferson, her friends, and her animals. Every so often, she would look around and think, Where are all the men? “I thought it would be great to go home and curl up in someone’s lap after a job, but I didn’t sit around crying about it. I made a friend of solitude,” Ellen says.
But this ease took her decades to attain. In her 20s, she’d been “promiscuous,” she says. “I’d gone from man to man since puberty and had three marriages that were all painful and ended in divorce.” She knew she had to heal the wounds that kept her repeating the same pattern with men, “so that aspect of myself went into closed shop. I think I built an invisible shield that no one could penetrate.”
She worked with a therapist, studied Sufism, and reconnected with her Christian roots, which she describes in her book, Lessons in Becoming Myself. When she finally believed she knew how to do it right –“to attract a man who would treat me well and whom I could love,” she feared it was too late. On a whim, she asked a woman friend from the Actors Studio if she knew a man who might be suitable.
“I’ll have to think about that,” the woman said.
Shortly afterward, this same woman was approached by a Greek actor who had auditioned for Ellen at the Actors Studio when he was 25 and she was 48. He confessed to Ellen’s friend that he’d been in love with her for the 23 years since they’d met.
“What?!” Ellen said, when the message was relayed. The Greek kid? But he was 48 now, an attractive and successful acting teacher. (She won’t disclose his name.) He sent her an email, which she answered, guardedly. He wrote back, “I don’t see the word ‘no’ in this.”
They’ve been together for three years, living in her house on the Hudson River in New York. She says it’s been an easy fit, “which is startling because he’s from a different culture and a different generation.” One reason for that may be her new approach. “Most of my life, if a man did something totally other than the way I thought it should be done, I would try to correct him. Now I say, ‘Oh, isn’t that interesting? You do that differently than I do.’ It’s the biggest thing I’ve learned. It allows for a stress-free relationship.”
Ellen’s greatest challenge has been working with her fear of abandonment. “I had so much anxiety in my former relationships–I was scared of losing men, all of them.” She believes there are patterns we can only work on in a relationship, and this is one. “Right now, he’s in Greece, teaching, and that brings up anxiety. ‘He’s away–what will happen? Somebody else will grab him!’ I have to see that and keep releasing those thoughts.”
Lesson 2: Go to Reunions
As I get older, I hear more frequently about people who fall in love again with boyfriends from the past. This strikes me as auspicious: You already know the person, and presumably you’ve attained more wisdom and skills to make the relationship work.
Marta Vago, an executive coach in Santa Monica, CA, was 63 when she received an e-mail from her first love, Stephen Manes, whom she’d started dating the summer she was 14, at a master piano class in Vermont. She and Stephen were a couple for three years, parting when she was 17 and he was 21.
Forty-six years later, Robert wrote to Marta saying that his wife of 43 years had died of cancer, he was coming to L.A. to rehearse with his chamber music trio, and could he take her out to lunch? Curious and amused, Marta suggested that he come to her house and she’d order in sushi: “I want to hear you play.”
Small and elegant, with a deep voice and full-bodied laugh, Marta lives in a cottage filled with art and antiques. Her piano is in her bedroom, so after lunch, Robert played a Beethoven Sonata while she sat on the bed. “It was exactly how it had been when I would visit him at his apartment near Julliard,” she says. “He would play, and I would sit on the bed.” Did it feel comfortable to be with him again? I ask.
“Yes and no. In some ways it felt as if no time had passed, and in some ways I was with a stranger.”
They’d been apart all their working lives and had followed radically different courses. Robert had pursued one calling–performing and teaching music–and he’d loved only two women: Marta and his wife. Marta had left music, earned a PhD in psychology, and lived with different men, sometimes marrying them and sometimes not.
In 2006, she’d been alone for five years when she traveled to Budapest and found the city alive with culture and vibrant people. “I thought, if I’m not married or engaged by my next birthday, I’m going to retire in Budapest,” she recalls. “That statement told me that I really wanted to be married, and if I wasn’t, I would make a big change in my life.”
She hired a matchmaker, who arranged a few dates that fizzled. Then the matchmaker leveled with her: “My dear, you look too old. You have gray hair, and that’s not gonna fly in L.A.'”
Marta protested that all her friends admired her beautiful gray hair.
“They were women,” the matchmaker said.
Marta called her hair stylist, who dyed her hair a warm honey with red overtones, and told her to let it grow out natural–curly. Because Marta was coaching high-powered executives, she’d always worn her hair short and severe and dressed in “scary-looking suits.” By the time Robert’s email arrived, she’d ditched the short gray hair and scary suit. Five months after their reunion, she and Robert were engaged.
I ask if she thinks the makeover did the trick, or if the vow she’d taken in Budapest was the inner preparation that led to her hookup with Robert.
“It could have been that, and it could have been pure chance,” she says. “I like to leave it as a mystery. What I’m clear about is that this is going to be my last relationship.”
While Marta’s teenage love had made the first move, Sally Grounds, 72, set things in motion at her 50th high school reunion. Sally had run with the most popular girls and football players at University High in Los Angeles. At the reunion, Sally, who’s 5’1″, spotted a man who was 6’5″, trim, strong and tanned as a surfer–Gene Grounds. He was a surfer, and also a banker, who had flown in from Hawaii.
Sally went up to him and asked, “Do you remember me?”
“Of course,” Gene said. He’d asked her out once, for grad night, and had been nervous she’d say no because he didn’t belong to her crowd. Sally remembers Gene as “kind of intellectual, and he wore braces.” But at the reunion, Gene, at 71, was a standout. “All the other men had pot bellies,” Sally says.
In January of this year, Sally closed up her home in Palm Desert, California, and flew to Honolulu, carrying two suitcases. “I felt like a war bride,” she recalls. Gene was barefoot when he picked her up at the airport and placed a lei around her neck. They’d spent a few months getting to know each other, sailing on his trimaran and visiting each other’s homes, before he proposed. They were married at the Honolulu Elks’ Club.
Unlike Marta and Robert, Sally and Gene hadn’t been in love before. But they had much in common now: both had lost their spouses to illness, and they shared a zest for adventure and hunger for spiritual fulfillment.
When Sally moved into Gene’s house, where his 39-year-old son and new wife (who happens to be my niece, Summer), live in an upstairs suite, Sally started to cry. She’d known the house was a bachelor surfers’ pad, but now she had to learn to live in it. Gene and his son, Daniel, surf ten-foot waves, sail, and do long-distance swims between the islands. They had surfboards on the walls and a boat in the garage, along with mountains of boxes filled with junk, Sally says. The paint was peeling, the bathrooms were moldy, and cockroaches were on parade. As Daniel put it, “We had a roof over our heads. A dead gecko in the closet? Whatever. My Dad said he’d rather live with dirt than use chemical cleaning products.”
Sally put on rubber gloves and went through the house with Clorox. Slowly, she’s been sorting and discarding boxes, painting walls and, with Gene’s help, picking out fabrics to reupholster the furniture. “I gave up my perfect little house in the desert, my friends, my style of living,” she says. “But I would do anything to be with Gene. I’ve never loved anybody like this and never thought I could. I feel such a bond because we went to school together, and we can really communicate. You know how very few men can communicate? This one tells you everything.”
Sally’s life passion has been dancing, but she’s always been afraid of the water. Now she’s learning to swim, and Gene is learning to dance. They pray together daily and attend church meetings. “Are we soul mates?” Sally asks. Gene answers: “Yes.”
Lesson 3: Say Your Prayers
Well, what is a soul mate? Not someone who’s identical to you, I’ve found, but a partner with whom you share values and a commitment to bring out the highest good in each other. As Ellen Burstyn puts it, “There’s a coupling of two people’s development into one path–so his development is as important to me as my own.”
Two of the women I met prayed for such a partner. Verlean Holland, 66, who lives in the Bronx, New York, lay down on her bed one night and said out loud: “Lord, I am sooo lonely. Please send me someone who will love me just for me, and I will love him for himself.” She prayed for a husband who shared her faith and “could go to church with me. That’s what I wanted most.”
The answer to her prayers was under her nose. Verlean had been alone for 15 years after her husband died, but she was always busy with her work for the Board of Education, her church, and her grandchildren. In 2003, because of budget cuts, she lost her job testing children in special ed. That’s when she began to feel lonely.
Around the same time, a man in her extended circle, Rodney Holland, called “Pop” by friends and family, lost his son in a car crash. Pop had befriended Verlean’s youngest son, Tyrone, when her oldest son was killed in a shooting. Pop, a retired postal worker, came to Verlean’s house on Thanksgiving and New Year’s, but she paid him no attention. “He was a friend of my baby,” she explains. Her friends teased her: “That man likes you.” Verlean would say, “No, he don’t.”
On New Year’s Eve of 2004, Pop came to dinner at Verlean’s, as he had for several years, and everyone went to church and then a party. Verlean couldn’t stand the loud rap music, so Pop escorted her home. Then he started calling and taking her to movies. After a few weeks, he said, “We’re too old to be datin’. I want a wife, not a girlfriend.”
Did you accept right away? I ask.
“Oh, yes. I wasn’t going to let him get away.” They already knew and loved each other’s children and grandkids. “Looking back,” Verlean says, “it was like a cake that had to be baked up. The man knew me, and I knew who he was. I liked his gentleness, and he treated me with high respect.”
At their church wedding, all their offspring and siblings walked down the aisle. Pop moved into Verlean’s apartment, “and that was the worst part,” she says. “That first year was haaaard. I’m used to doing things my way. I’m used to cleanin’ and pickin’ up; he doesn’t clean and pick up. He likes to watch TV; I don’t,” she says. “Then I realized: I love him a lot, and he loves me a lot. Let me accept him the way he is -that’s what I asked for. Stop screamin’ about little things and just adapt.”
They set up a day room for Pop with his TV, “and I have my own room where I can pray and listen to gospel music,” Verlean says. She’s grateful to have someone “to grow old with. I escort him to the doctor and he escorts me. We go to church together. I like to dress up, but at first he was casual. I told him, ‘A man needs to be in a suit on Sunday.'”
Donna Zerner, who lives in Boulder, Colorado, also prayed for a spiritual partner. In 2003 when I met Donna, an editor in her 40s, she said she’d never been in love and “didn’t think it was possible.” She had dated men but never felt she could be all she was or give herself completely to the relationship. She thought she might be “perpetually single” because she felt flawed. She also suspected that what other people call “being in love” was an illusion and that eventually, they’d get their hearts broken. Despite these thoughts, she still was trying to find a “beautiful, healthy relationship.”
On New Year’s Eve of 2005, Donna and I made a list of the qualities we desired in a mate. “Jewish” was at the top of her list. She’s a leader in the Jewish Renewal community and founded the Kosher Hams, a Jewish comedy improv troupe that performs at services and conferences. Donna had only dated men who were Jewish and couldn’t imagine sharing life with someone who wasn’t.
Not long after drawing up the list, Donna went to a multi-faith conference of spiritual teachers. She sat down beside David, whom she thought was the “cutest guy in the room.” During the three-day conference, they sat together, talked and took walks. David invited her to a movie, and “by the second date, we realized something amazing was going on,” Donna says. They seemed a perfect match: They made each other laugh, they liked the same books and films, they both craved solitude, neither drank alcohol and they ate the same way–both are gluten intolerant. It was perfect, except… David wasn’t Jewish! He was a Christian spiritual counselor who’d lived like a monk for 12 years. It was his intense spiritual devotion that made their union possible.
“He was much more interested in and open to Judaism than any of the Jewish guys I’d dated,” Donna says. She brought him to Jewish renewal services, which he loved. “And I became interested in his path of mystical Christianity,” she says. They found they could meet “in that place beyond religion. For both of us, religion is a path to God, and our commitment to God goes beyond any organized structure. That’s what really bonds us.”
They waited a year to have sex. “We don’t do things the conventional way,” Donna jokes. “We wanted to be sure the first time we made love, it was an expression of deep intimacy instead of a means to get to intimacy.” Unlike the other couples I talked with, they haven’t had any tension or conflict. “Not even a moment of irritation–in two years,” Donna says.
That defies credulity, for me. Neither had been married, lived with a partner or had children. What are the odds they could connect in their 40s and not have a single argument?
“No one will believe it,” Donna says. “I don’t believe it. It’s like grace.”
They haven’t lived together yet and don’t wish to marry, but this past August, they invited their friends to a “commitzvah” ceremony to celebrate their interdependence. “We wanted to publicly express our gratitude for this relationship, and set intentions for our future,” Donna says. “We both know this is it–we’re done looking.”
Lesson 4: Try, Try Again
What about people who’ve been married multiple times? Do they see this as failure and throw in the towel? Do they privately fear, as I do, I’m just not good at relationships–I lack the gene? Or do they acquire knowledge and skills that make later relationships more fulfilling?
I explored this and other questions about love after people turn fifty in my book, Leap! What Will We Do With the Rest of Our Lives? I wrote about my friend, Joan Borysenko, the spiritual teacher and author of Minding the Body, Mending the Mind, who was in the process of divorcing her third husband when we met. Shortly after, she began telling friends that she was getting married for the fourth time to Gordon Dveirin, an organizational psychologist who’d also been married three times before.
The women’s posse mobilized. They cornered her and said, “What the hell are you doing? I’m sure he’s terrific, but you said good things about your other husbands at the beginning.” None of them had met Gordon, but that was irrelevant; they were upset at what they considered the delusion of taking vows she’d already broken three times.
Joan and Gordon, who were 57 and 59, had to ask the question themselves: Why is this wedding different from all our other weddings? They’d both felt instant sparks–physically, mentally and spiritually–when they met at the general store near their homes in Gold Hill, Colorado, a town of 210. They seemed well matched–both are psychologists, unusually warm and playful. They began teaching together and collaborated on a book, Your Soul’s Compass, which was just published.
After much reflection, they decided that what would be different about a fourth wedding was them. “We’re mature individuals who’ve learned a lot and know who we are,” Joan says. “When I was in my twenties, I couldn’t have articulated the vows I want to take. This time, I will vow with my whole heart: I will walk the rest of the way with you. I will walk into the mystery with you. I know there will be difficult times, and I vow to see them as grist for the mill.”
Joan knows-as do the other women–that infatuation burns out and deeper affinities must rise. “At first, it’s like you’re drugged,” she says. “You have seen the promised land. You can’t sustain that bliss forever, but after four years, we’re still in it a lot of the time.” She says they’ve cultivated ways to return to that state.
How? I ask.
“Being in nature together, sharing spiritual practice, creating together–like writing or designing a garden, when all of a sudden ideas are flowing and you’re in that magical space.”
She says what’s different about love when you’re older “is that we’re so damned grateful. I’m grateful for my previous marriages–I don’t consider any of them failures–because you get honed in the process. They readied me for this.”
Lesson 5: Open Your Mind
What’s liberating about late love is that you don’t have to follow convention or anyone else’s ideas; you can design what works for you. Marry, or not. Live together, or not. Have sex or not.
Peggy Hilliard, 81, met John, 83, through an Internet dating service in 2006. They lived in different cities and after a year, Peggy left her house in Oregon and moved in with John at a retirement village in Washington state. “We aren’t going to marry,” she says, adding that 50 years ago, “I would never have lived with a man without being married. At 81, you have more freedom.”
I tell her some of the women I’ve met are having glorious sex, but others say erotic desire lessens as you get older.
“Wrong!” Peggy says. “We have a wonderful sexual life–very fulfilling.” She admits that they have physical challenges, “but that doesn’t stop us. You just have to relax and be creative.”
Lesson 6: Gather Ye Rosebuds
I take heart from these stories, even if some seem a bit mushy. They offer evidence that love can come to people at all ages and stations. They inspire me to let go of my tendency to be pessimistic and think, They’re writing songs of love, but not for me. What good are such thoughts? Donna Zerner had never been in love before, and the joy and sacredness at her commitzvah ceremony with David were so palpable, people couldn’t stop smiling. Those who were single felt there was still a chance for them, and those who had a partner were inspired to strengthen their bond.
Donna and David set the bar high, vowing they would always see challenges between them as an opportunity to deepen their love and their relationship to God. When I heard them voice this, I thought, That’s the reason I want to be in a relationship again. Not for sex (alone) or even companionship, but for the opportunity to go deeper with another and draw closer to the light–especially at this age, when time seems to be speeding up.
Ellen Burstyn talks about how, around age 65, “I experienced my mortality. Not like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m gonna die,’ but it’s a possibility that’s there all the time. And once that happens, everything becomes more precious.
“And to be in love!” she says. “To experience the joy of intimacy in the presence of death–that is delicious. When you’re in love you feel so young, and at the same time, you’re summing life up. So it’s beautiful and rich, and you have to be aware that it’s impermanent.” She says that she and her partner joke all the time about funerals and ashes. He told her recently that he was driving home and a song on the radio threw him into a terrible dark place…
“Oh, was I dead again?” Ellen said with a laugh. “Will you stop already?”
She says they don’t plan to marry. “We have being in love right now. We know that life is short. Death is certain. And love is real. We’re going to enjoy every moment of it.”