When Pia Arrendell’s marriage of 24 years ended two years ago, the therapist had three confused and hurting teenage children and a lot of personal grief to process. Dating was not top of mind.
“Their father and I were sweet to each other; we held hands and were affectionate,” she says. “They knew we had gone to couples counseling, but they did not believe their family would break apart, so they were blown away. As teenagers, they were in that exploration process of creating their own romantic relationships. It was a bit of a train wreck.”
Arrendell purchased the family home. For the first year post-split, she had primary custody of her children and a full private practice. “That’s kind of a natural blocker when it comes to dating,” she remembers with a laugh.
Are the kids all right?
That’s an assessment offered frequently by people transitioning out of a partner relationship but with children still at home. Henry, 67, recently retired from a career in large construction projects, divorced over 20 years ago when his daughter was just 14; he had custody. “My daughter was going through enough at that time, and I didn’t want to bring anyone else into the picture,” he explains. “My priority was creating a healthy environment for her.”
Peter, who asked Xpress to use a pseudonym so he could speak freely, shared custody of his then-14-year-old son when his marriage of 14 years broke up four years ago. “I didn’t want another person around my son,” says the 53-year-old entrepreneur. “My ex felt the same, and we kind of had an agreement that we wouldn’t work someone else in or get into anything serious. Many things changed with our divorce — professionally as well since we had been in business together — and dating was not on the front burner. Survival was at the top of my priority list.”
With or without children, dealing with the loss of a partner to divorce or death is an emotional roller coaster of grief, anger and anxiety, a struggle to reset course and regain control after becoming unmoored. Rather than looking for a new partner, most people take a dating sabbatical to look inward, seek therapy or both.
Cathy Sherman left north Florida and a 19-year marriage four years ago and moved to Asheville. “I had to work through my divorce and how the marriage ended,” says the 64-year-old contract corporate meeting planner. “What didn’t work? I did not want to repeat the mistakes I had made or find myself anywhere close to that same situation again. I didn’t trust myself to make healthy choices.”
“A divorce or breakup often inspires people to seek counseling,” says Eric J. Davis, a licensed professional counselor who often works with members of the LGBT community. “In addition to the loss, there can be a lot of anxiety about dating again, particularly in people who are older and have not dated in many years.”
In addition to anxiety about dating experienced by every age, gender and sexual inclination, there are challenges that are unique to people who are closing in on 50 and beyond. Within the smaller pool of available older singles, frequently there is less interest in end goals of marriage, cohabitation and children, having already been there and done that.
And then there’s the world of online dating that did not exist when a newly single 60-year-old was 30.
“It took a few years after my divorce before I felt ready to date again,” says Sherman, whose career requires frequent travel all over the country and the world, keeping her away for blocks of time. “It can be hard for me to meet people nearby, so I got online. It was terrifying. You don’t know these people — you don’t know anything about them. They might lie about their career, age or status. You don’t even know if the photo is theirs. I was a lurker for a long time on one site, just looking without joining. Another that I tried that sought people nearby to wherever I was for work turned out to be more of a hookup site, and I was not into that. So that didn’t work out for me.”
Linda Newman, a licensed clinical social worker who frequently sees people experiencing significant personal transitions, recommends clients interested in online dating familiarize themselves with the different sites and their focus and demographic. “There are so many to choose from. I suggest people do their homework before jumping in,” she advises. “Are you looking for a meaningful connection, a deeper relationship or something simply sexual? Do you want to be on sites with people of the same background or age groups as you? Sites with people who are looking for similar things as you? Even then you can’t be sure. I say be open but cautious.”
“Loneliness can be pretty profound for elder LGBT folks,” Davis points out. “They’re more likely to be unmarried, live alone and not have children. Asheville is fairly LGBT-friendly as far as small, Southern towns go, but it’s still a small town. There’s not a big community numbers-wise. Many older LGBT folks are not comfortable going to bars, traditionally safe social spaces for gay and queer people. With the growth of internet options, the use of that or apps has increased, but the technology can be challenging or not appealing to them. It can be intimidating for anyone.”
Make me a match
But 48-year-old tech-friendly Arrendell wasn’t intimidated; once the custody arrangement with her ex changed to 50-50, and she had worked through post-break trauma, she was ready to jump into the dating pool again, starting with the internet. “I told myself I was going to have some fun, enjoy life and be a queen,” she recalls.
She signed up with Match.com, one of the oldest and most popular of dating sites.
“I was not really impressed with what was coming my way through Match,” she notes. “I wanted more control as far as communicating, so I went on Bumble, which requires women to make the first move. I’ve also done the Tinder dating app, and those have been some of my favorite dates.”
She has a screening system she uses before agreeing to meet face to face. “I have a lot going on, so I don’t want to waste my time on someone not worth it.
“I’ll text first, and we’ll text a little bit, and if I want to know more, I ask him to call me. If we can hold a conversation for 30 minutes or an hour, I’ll know by the end of the call if I want to meet in person. If not, I’m done. If so, at the least we’ll go out and have some fun. If it doesn’t work, it’s a lesson.”
The old-fashioned way
The technology did not scare off Henry; he just wasn’t interested. “I have no interest in the online dating thing,” he says. “Maybe it’s my age, but it just doesn’t appeal to me.”
He tried a speed-dating type of event, but once was enough to let him know that also wasn’t his jam. Instead, Henry relies on friends and acquaintances to introduce him to women they think might interest him. That has resulted in some enjoyable dates, though he has not gotten serious with anyone since he has been single.
Nor has Peter, who looks for Facebook events that appeal to him, has a house on a lake with a community there and is active with LEAF, all of which engage him with like-minded people. “I’m kind of picky,” he admits. “I raised kids for a long time, so I don’t want to date anyone with young kids. I am very fit and health-conscious, so I want that in the women I date. I like to play, go to festivals, go dancing, stay up late. I have a lot of energy and I tend to date women younger than me.”
So does Henry, who while not seeking it, says he is typically introduced to women 10 or more years younger. Which contributes to one of the biggest challenges facing women of a certain age: dating age-desirable men.
“Men I know or know of who are my age are not dating women our age,” says Sherman. “If they’re 65, they’re dating 55 and if they’re 55, they’re dating 45. I have a very busy career I have no intent of leaving. I am active and healthy and frankly, I don’t want to date a man 10 years older than me. Dating at my age is challenging. I wish I could skip the dating and have someone whose company I enjoy that I could call and say, ‘Let’s go to dinner or come over for dinner’; sex and affection are nice, too. But I am very independent, I’d rather go to dinner alone than with someone who bores me. I don’t want to marry again. I don’t know if I could even live with anyone again.”
On that point, Sherman and Henry agree. “I have lots of friends and a full life,” Henry says. “I have no interest in marrying again. The longer I stay single, the more comfortable I am with it. I think older, longtime single people value their space. If you’re in a relationship, and one of you has an apartment downtown and one has a house in West Asheville, that sounds pretty perfect to me.”