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Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

A love for the ages

It turns out the rules of engagement aren’t that different for older v. younger singles

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Sometimes, before a date, Christina Thomas flutters like she’s headed to the prom. “You still cry over love songs, just like you do when you’re 16,” she says. “It truly is almost like being 16.”

Yes, like a teenager, she’ll scour her closet for the perfect dress and slip on her treasured ring, which features a pair of calla lilies bedazzled with diamonds. She might recurl her hair if she’s headed out after work or spritz on some “Pretty,” by Elizabeth Arden — her longtime favorite perfume.

Tonight, however, is not such a night.

Tonight, it’s Monday, and she’s just finished a day’s work as an insurance agent. She’s headed out, but it’s no big thing. She doesn’t change out of the flats, black slacks and silky royal-blue blouse she wore to the office, nor does she worry about the liner around her frost-blue eyes. The 54-year-old puts on some lip gloss, runs a brush through her blond locks and heads into a St. George Cafe Sabor to meet her date for tacos. 

She doesn’t think he’s her type, but he earned his shot by doing something as rare among older singles as it is for 20-somethings on Tinder, Bumble and Hinge: Rather than text her with “Are you busy Friday?” or the infamous “U up?” he called her. “I was wondering if you would like to go to dinner on Saturday night at 6 p.m.?” he asked. 

“Dude,” she thought to herself, “that’s the way you do it!” She barely knew the guy — they’d chatted briefly on Facebook Messenger, and a quick appraisal of his profile told her they probably weren’t a match, but, “Sure,” she told him, because such bluntness is rare and appreciated. “Yes?” he said. “No one ever says yes.” 

Thomas is a believer in love. She’s twice divorced, so she isn’t willing to rush into anything — not even for Valentine’s Day, which for her is just another day to be “loving and kind.” But this February and every February, she nevertheless refused to stop looking. The “twitterpation,” as she calls it, of new romance is just as intense as ever, despite one friend who tells her it’ll never be the same.

“That’s really sad,” she tells me. “I believe that I can have a passionate love affair until the day I die. So I haven’t given up on that.” Which is why she sits down with an open mind beside a man she already doubts will make it to a second date.

Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and senior research fellow at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute who doubles as the chief scientific officer for Match.com, says such an attitude is very normal. An appetite for companionship doesn’t have to diminish with age. “You can be scared at any age, you can be happy at any age, be fearful at any age, be angry at any age,” she says, “and you can be in love at any age.” 

Statistically speaking, though, older singles are less likely to date than their younger counterparts. Data published by the Pew Research Center in 2020 found that 50% of single Americans ages 50 to 64 aren’t looking for a relationship or casual dates, while the same is true for 75% of single Americans over 65.

Yet for those who do continue to venture into the romantic wilderness, the ecosystem they find is often similar to the one inhabited by the young: a place where online dating dominates, where desires are varied and multifaceted. Sure, some things — like what makes a person attractive — change, but many more stay the same. And older singles are less likely to get married, for a cornucopia of reasons — financial, societal, familial. But, Fisher observes, “that doesn’t mean that older people don’t want to love and don’t want to be loved.”

A great place to understand this dynamic is Utah’s own St. George — one of America’s best places to retire. That’s where I found 58-year-old Tina Jasper, who’s been single for 26 years. She’s caught between oscillating mental forces of wanting to meet someone but feeling like she isn’t “worthy.” Her experience has conditioned the latter attitude. One guy recently got her number and never called. “Guys just don’t seem like they’re interested in me,” she says. “I’m not ugly! I’m five foot three, I’m tiny, I’m super bubbly — guys like that, I thought.” But she holds onto hope because of her mother, who herself found a rejuvenating romance later in life. “It was like she was 16 again,” Jasper says, which is why she keeps herself open to aching and elation alike. “Love is always there. Love will always be there.” 

Like any large group, older singles are not a monolith. James Rowe, an investment banker who goes by Jim, is 62 and has never been married. A devout Latter-day Saint, he actively looked for someone until his late 30s. He saw friends rushing into ill-advised marriages as if running from a ticking clock, and he resolved never to settle. “I’m better off alone than with somebody and miserable,” he says.

But he’s recently decided to start looking again. The call of companionship, he admits, is a serious one. He’s still not going to settle, acknowledging that his life is wonderful and fulfilling already, and that even as he ages, he doesn’t fear dying alone. “You’d be surprised how many people die alone,” he says. “(It’s) most people. I have a great life. And if I found somebody that added to that, wonderful! If not, I’m fine.” 

Now, let’s consider Brenda. She told me her maiden name, her first married name and her second married name, and said I could use them. But, “None of those names belong to me. The only name that belongs to me is Brenda.” Which is why she goes by Brenda and Brenda alone in her day-to-day life, and why (among other reasons) I choose to call her only Brenda in these pages.

Brenda grew up as the oldest of seven children and was married at 17 to a man who had groomed her from the time she first babysat his kids as a 10-year-old. He was 20 years her senior, and she immediately became a teenage mother to five stepchildren. By 19, she’d added two children of her own. “I was exhausted,” she admits.

Her first husband died from blood poisoning when she was 45. Therapy helped her unpack and acknowledge the trauma he’d caused, but she still wasn’t looking to date. Until she met Mike. “He just kind of came into my life and made me fall in love. I’d never fallen in love with anyone be- fore,” she says. “He kind of — cherished me. And I never knew what that felt like.” 

They married in 2016, which wasn’t an easy decision. The government was sending her deceased husband’s Social Security payments to her — payments that would stop if she remarried. She decided to do it anyway. “I really felt like I was supposed to marry him,” she says. “I grew to love him.”

But Mike, it turned out, had some past demons Brenda didn’t know about. In 2018, he died by suicide. So now, at 56, Brenda is done looking — first and foremost because of simple, devastating correlation. “I feel like a black widow,” she says. “Like if I get married again, that person will die, too.” She knows, on some level, that such fear is irrational. But even when she employs a more rational approach, she still isn’t interested. “I have never been in a house with no children, even to this day,” she explains.

Indeed, her 23-year-old son and 20-year-old daughter live with her. Though staying single means doing more chores by herself or paying bills by herself, she’s enjoying the inhibition. In the past few years, she spent a month in Texas with her sister, just because she could. She drove to Iowa to visit a friend, just because she wanted to. She’s a musician whose YouTube channel has grown to 450 subscribers, she’s proud to say, and she’s done all of it — for the first time in her life — without needing anyone’s permission. “I’m so grateful,” she says, “for this opportunity to have freedom.” 

David Foster Wallace once observed that “there are all different kinds of freedom,” and that “the kind that is most precious ... involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” What is love if not exactly that? Just ask Christina Thomas. She wants nothing more than to care about someone. That someone is just hard to find.

Her date goes wrong right away. He makes judgmental remarks about young people with tattoos, then invites her on an “adventure” that involves getting into his scuffed and dented ’89 Honda Civic, by Thomas’ estimation. She refuses but still follows him to a family fun center for an evening of hitting in the batting cages. “If you ever see anybody run into me and call me Red,” he tells her, “those are people I knew in prison.” And with that, she pretends to head to the bathroom and sneaks out to her car. She’s so scarred that she doesn’t date again for several months, though she eventually gives it another shot. She always gives it another shot. 

Because there’s nothing like the feeling of being 16 again, talking about what’s ahead rather than behind. Staying upbeat, she admits, remains a constant struggle. She cries frequently, believing that the chances of finding the right person are “pretty minimal.” The weight of that knowledge gnaws and pokes.

But whether it’s Rowe refusing to settle, or Brenda realizing she’s settled enough already, attitudes about love later in life are all about finding the most meaningful path forward. And for Thomas, and others like her, that means hope. “What makes it worth it is making those connections and, hopefully, love comes out of it, even if it doesn’t last forever,” she says. “Love is a gift no matter what form it comes in, or how long it stays.” 

This story appears in the February issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.