By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, February 10, 2009; HE05
The symptoms are familiar: the pull in the stomach, the tingling in the arms and lips, the fluttering in the lungs. To meet, to touch, to hold! The obsessive longing -- the wild bouts of fantasy! Will you be my Valentine?
But this time, I was not 16 or 22 or even 30. I was inching toward 60. Falling in love is usually associated with the thunder of hormones and evolution's goal to produce the next generation -- with youth.
Until it happens again. You've got crow's feet around your eyes, an extra inch or two around your waist. Cupid's arrow finds its mark. How could this be? You are hardly a teenager. Yet you feel like one. This is what the French call a coup de foudre -- a bolt of lightning -- out of the blue: BAM! And at your age! History has a few names for you: dirty old man . . . merry widow. The social grapevine gets to work. Adult children get worried -- and protective. Has Mom lost it? Is Dad being taken for a ride?
Longevity is opening up a whole new culture of romantic adventures. There is more opportunity for older men and women to pursue different kinds of relationships and to rekindle the spark in a long marriage now that the kids are raised. There is time to review old loves, to fall in love anew. Coupled or single, you ponder the role of romance in your life. The classic coup is overpowering, ecstatic -- and temporary. It can metamorphose into attachment, stumble into friendship, turn into hate or simply dissipate. (My coup eventually faded.) According to studies by the late psychologist Dorothy Tennov at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, the high-wire infatuation phase usually lasts from about 18 months to three years. But whether the crush is over in a few months or launches a 50-year relationship, the experience stays with you forever.
The intensity of a coup is matched by its mystery: Why do you fall in love when you do?
For older men and women, the answer is found in the link between love and loss. People tend to fall in love after they experience loss or are separated from the familiar, researchers point out. Teenagers fall in love as they "lose" childhood and separate from their parents. Shipboard romances flourish, as do conference flirtations and travel trysts, because people are away from home: They have "lost" their moorings. Wartime love explodes in the urgent shadow of separation and loss of life.
Longevity creates another kind of urgent shadow. This period that promises vitality to many men and women is also a time of loss. Disability and death are constant realities. As you get older, there may be a reduction in hormonal drive but an increase in loss, which set the stage for connecting with others.
It feels so spontaneous.
A year had passed since the death of his wife when Robert N. Butler, physician, author and godfather of gerontology, had a two-hour lunch with a friend. She looked at him and said: "Do you think you'd be ready for dinner parties?" And he replied: "Yes, I think so."
And so began the transforming experience of falling in love. "I really had no interest," he said. "It was out of the blue." Falling in love at 80 is reminiscent of falling in love at 18. "There's excitement and admiration," he continued, and intense desire "to get to know the person." At the same time, there is the feeling that you already know the loved one -- that you are soul mates.
But the difference between having a coup at 80 and having one at 18 is the weight of the past. Butler's regeneration in new love is rooted in old love. His long marriage to psychotherapist and social worker Myrna Lewis "was made in heaven," he said; her diagnosis of cancer, cataclysmic. After her death, Butler, who is head of the International Longevity Center in New York, spent months working on his latest book, "The Longevity Revolution," (Public Affairs, 2008).
And then Cupid intervened.
It's glorious to know that you are never too old to fall in love. And wise to remember that you are never too old to fall apart in love.
Maybe you aren't thinking too straight right now. You live in the moment. Colors are sharper. You're more attractive; smarter, wittier. You don't eat. You wait for the phone to ring; you pick up the phone and call. You take the chance. The Nike ad speaks to the swelling generation of older lovers: Just do it!
But romantic adventures have a dark side, too. The potential for heartbreak is part of the coup's flaming intensity.
A woman tells me about the fatal affair she had when she was 62. She'd been divorced for a while and fell in love with a married man in a small town. "There was all this attraction between us, and I hadn't felt anything like that for a long time and I thought: Well, I'll just let him kiss me."
What was it? "His unavailability." But he was a really nice guy. "I was crazed." She remembered saying to herself, "This is so wonderful; I know I'm going to have to pay."
And she did. When the affair exploded and he recommitted to his wife, "it hurt me so badly. I had no idea how awful it would be."
At the same time, new love in old age often has a forbidden edge. Older lovers can be just as star-crossed as younger Romeos and Juliets. Yet, a situation that would have been untenable in younger years may be possible now.
A widow, 84, confided in her daughter: There's a man in her life. A friend from decades ago who is married and living in another city. He visits her and stays in her apartment, where they make love. As she said to her daughter: "I went to the moon and back. I never knew it could be like this before."
Her daughter, who is married with two children in high school, stared at her mother. To the moon and back! To experience that for the first time in your 80s! The lovers talk to each other every day. As the daughter quipped to me: "I think they are having phone sex."
Her mother has a glow in her cheek. Her father's photograph remains on the table in the living room, along with pictures of children and grandchildren. There are good reasons to keep the romance a secret, her mother explained.
The fact that the lovers cannot marry doesn't bother her mother the way it would if she were young and ready to start a family. That long chapter has been completed. She has paid her debt to society. Now she and her Romeo are reinterpreting old rules on forbidden love -- leaving the middle generation of adult children partly in shock, partly in awe.
You can love in many ways. The imperative of living longer is renewal, and for most people, love is an agent of transformation. You may be in a 30-plus-year marriage, or in a new relationship. You may be smiling at a distant romantic memory or staring into the face of newborn grandchild. Or entering a different phase of love with a grown child. Or rediscovering an old friend. Or going to church. True love is a spreading-out thing. The Valentine crush is just the beginning, an awakening or reawakening of the passionate self -- a reminder of the power of love and triumph of relationships, as time goes by.
This article is adapted from "As Time Goes By: Boomerang Marriages, Serial Spouses, Throwback Couples, and Other Romantic Adventures in an Age of Longevity" ( Basic Books, 2009). Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org.