For women over 40, strong sense of identity to modern dating game

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In 1986, Newsweek ran an infamous cover story saying that the odds of a college-educated woman who was still single at age 40 getting married were the same as being killed by a terrorist.

Not only was the statistic wrong, but it obscured two other important aspects of modern life.

First, most college-educated women over 40 are married -- 86 percent in the United States, at last count. And second, for those who aren't, marriage often isn't as big an issue for them as how to navigate the world of dating.

That was the subject Saturday at one session of the Society for Humanistic Psychology national conference at Point Park University.

Marjorie Scott, a psychologist and faculty member at the Michigan School of Professional Psychology near Detroit, discussed an in-depth study she and a fellow professor had carried out with a dozen women in their 40s who were either widowed or divorced.

The women ranged from a teacher and a psychologist to a real estate agent and business owner, she said, and for nearly all of them, the biggest challenge in dating was maintaining a strong sense of their own identities even when they strongly desired a relationship with a man.

Their ability to do that varied widely, Ms. Scott said.

One woman who felt she caved in to the men she dated said, 'I must have gone to doormat therapy school.'

Another had the opposite problem: 'I'm used to telling other people what to do,' she said.

And even though all of the women were highly accomplished, many of them were struck by how dating could emotionally propel them back to their teenage years.

As one woman at the session said, "you think, wait a minute, I'm this confident, competent person in all other areas of my life, so why do I feel like a little girl again?"

A woman in the study told Ms. Scott, "It's not hearing from him that puts me in overdrive and keeps me awake at night," while another said, "I realized it was when I was not in relationships that I felt sane."

One therapist who works with middle-aged women who are dating said she often tells them, "OK, I want you to go into the ladies' room and look in the mirror and see that you're not 14 or 17, and remember that you're actually an adult."

Another woman attending the session said she is 48 and newly engaged. Thinking back to her dating life in recent years, she concluded it wasn't wrong to be strongly attracted to a man, "but the problem was, if I was attracted, I would idealize him, and that screwed everything up. Once you idealize someone, you give away everything -- they have it all."

Still, said another woman in her 30s who is the only single woman in her graduate program, there is deep value in a good relationship.

"I hear this a lot, where the other women say to me: 'Oh, you don't need a man in your life; just focus on your own life.'

"But my philosophy as a relationship therapist is that you can only do so much alone, because it's only through relationships that we can evolve," she said.

Is there a risk of an unhealthy relationship? Of course, she said.

"If it's Renee Zellweger looking for Tom Cruise to complete her, it's kind of like, 'Oh yeah, you're in trouble,' but if it's more a case that 'You complete me because you make me better and I get to transcend myself with a lot of me and little bit of you,' then you can have something that's beautiful and magical."

Ms. Scott said that if there was one lesson she learned in doing the study of middle-aged daters, it was this:

"I think it's all about figuring out what you want and going for it, knowing that it's not always going to work out."

lifestyle

Mark Roth: mroth@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1130.


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