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Later life dating is becoming more common as the number of single Canadians above age 55 grows - photo by Martin Dee
Later life dating is becoming more common as the number of single Canadians above age 55 grows - photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 52 | No. 2 | Feb. 2, 2006

UBC Expert Insight

The Changing Face of Romance in 2006

Are Valentines Just for the Young?

By Dan Perman, Professor of Family Studies

While the human need for love has not changed, social trends are influencing relationships in new ways, for young and old. In this month of romance, three UBC professors illuminate some of these changes: youth no longer have the monopoly on dating; children of divorced parents aren’t less happy; and the Internet makes relationships more vulnerable to deception.

When you think of dating couples, what sorts of romantic partners come to mind? Attractive couples like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in late adolescence or young adulthood, perhaps? Certainly many people associate dating with youth. But, should you? More mid-life Canadians are living alone and more are getting divorced. Added to this, Canadians are living longer. In the past 20 years, these trends have collectively contributed to the proportion of married Canadians shrinking and there being a lot of single individuals in our country. Indeed, today there are over 2.5 million unmarried Canadians aged 55 and up. Given the prevalence of single seniors and the needs that all humans have for enduring, close relationships, it is not surprising that later life dating is becoming more common.

Although it may be less so among the recently widowed and the very old, most single older adults are interested in dating. When asked why, they are likely to answer in terms of companionship, saying they would like to have someone with whom to do things, to talk/confide, and to have fun. Sex is of some interest, especially for men, but is no where near as likely to be mentioned as a reason for dating as is companionship. When it comes to the ideal date, both men and women are looking for partners with a pleasing personality (e.g., a sense of humour), common interests, and a person with appropriate moral, religious and/or personal values. The tendencies of younger females to seek partners offering financial security and men to want physically attractive partner lingers into later life.

Friends, relatives, and work (for those still in the labour force) are still good ways at this point in the lifecycle to find dates. Social groups including singles clubs, matchmaking services, and the Internet are also helping older adults get together. Given that there are 2.4 women for every man aged 55+ in Canada, it is not surprising that men in this age group find it easier than women to locate dating partners.

Men and women also differ in how quickly they establish new relationships after the death of a spouse. Men are three times as likely as women to do this within two years. Demographics play a part here but recent widows’ attitudes are different than recent widowers’. Women who are recently widowed express more reservations about forming new romantic relationships than widowed men and are more apt to see it as a sign of disloyalty to their former spouse. Establishing new unions may, however, be adaptive: Greater psychological well-being has been demonstrated to be correlated with being remarried or in a new romance 25 months after the spouse’s death.

Many older adults are happy to simply date without necessarily wanting to remarry. What is called Living Apart Together (LAT) is a form of relationship first noted in the Netherlands over 25 years ago that is now finding its way to Canada. In LAT relationships such as that of Simone de Beauvoir and John Paul Sartre, partners define themselves as a couple, see each other often, but maintain separate residences. For some, creating this form of relationship stems from external constraints (job demands, responsibilities to family members, etc.) but for others it is the preferred way of relating. For them, it provides sufficient intimacy but also provides a time “to lead their own lives” in terms of friends, finances, and activities that they enjoy. It also gives greater freedom in how they bequeath their estate. For women, maintaining their own home constitutes a resource base from which to avoid the asymmetrical distribution of household labour that remains common in Canadian society.

To conclude, the basic processes of dating extend into old age. Throughout their lives, most humans have a need to belong, to form close relationships with others. Dating helps fulfill those needs. But there are also subtle differences between the dating experiences of younger and older adult. For example, the reproductive goals of young adult courtship are no longer central; and for older adults the romantic experiences of youth may be icing on the cake but they give way to more pragmatic concerns. Older daters seek partners for companionship and enjoyment. Some older adults find it hard to get back into the dating loop after years of being partnered. Once they do so, however, they typically find a comfort in the wisdom of age and experience that was missing from their earlier life dating activities. For all Canadians, young and old alike, dating can add vitality and enjoyment to their lives. The next time you think of dating, remember to include couples like 80-year-old Nelson Mandela and Graca Machel, the widow of the former president of Mozambique, who married late in life.

Married or Single: Who is Happier? And What About their Children?

By Mark Holder, Assistant Professor of Psychology, UBC Okanagan

Scientists have extensively researched negative emotions (e.g. depression, and anxiety) but not positive emotions (e.g. happiness and joy). For example, a search of 1,700 psychology journals identified over 100,000 articles on depression, and fewer than 5,000 articles on happiness. My research focuses on happiness in children -- particularly aged nine to twelve.

Relationships are important to happiness. Family and friends contribute strongly to happiness in adults and children. For example, researchers have found that married people are typically happier than single people, and single people are happier than divorced people.

However, we found that children’s happiness does not differ with their parents’ marital status. We found no difference in the happiness levels of children whose mother and father were married and living together, and those children whose parents were separated or divorced.

Happiness is associated with many aspects of our lifestyle. For adults, watching a lot of television is associated with lower levels of happiness (an interesting exception is watching soap operas). We found the same for children.

Our preliminary evidence suggests that children who report higher levels of spirituality are happier. Although people report that they think they would be happier with more money, money does not actually predict happiness for adults or children (at least once you are above the poverty line).

Does the Internet Enhance or Trivialize Relationships?

By Richard S. Rosenberg, Professor Emeritus of Computer Science

We live in interesting times. It is possible to establish “relationships” with people around the world, in a variety of contexts and for a variety of purposes. I use the term relationship advisedly because in most cases the participants will never meet in person but will nevertheless often claim to have established deep and meaningful connections. My students vociferously argue that they have acquired real buddies all over the world. I raise my objections that never having met face to face must limit the depth of these encounters, given that human evolution has resulted in social animals, which need to touch, feel, see, and smell one another. They respond with rolling eyes, that I must be really out of touch.

Now the Internet does provide a variety of modalities to meet various needs of individuals and groups, such as email, listservs, chat rooms, instant messaging, online games, wikis, with more to come. To varying degrees people make connections, establish relations for social, political, economic, and other reasons. Are they deep, are they meaningful, can they evolve or are they doomed to be superficial? If text is the most common medium of communication, then deception and lying are the coin of the realm.

While most of the communication over the Internet is innocent, probably silly, and surely wasteful of time and energy, there are some harmful and dangerous encounters. The seduction of children by predators, which moves from online interactions to real world encounters with occasional horrible results, cannot be ignored. Leaving children unattended on the Internet is somewhat equivalent to leaving them unattended in the evening, downtown, in large cities. Aside from the potential dangers to children, the Internet, as is the case for most technologies offers benefits and harms; it depends on an educated and experienced clientele to realize those benefits and to avoid the possible harms.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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