The kids are out of the house or at least mostly independent, your job and your life may be moving at a slower pace. Perhaps you and/or your spouse have even retired. For the first time since the early days of marriage the two of you may actually have time together, doing the things the two of you like to do. This is about the time of life I often hear women say, “I’m getting to know my husband again and I have discovered I DON’T like him.”

If you are in a second or subsequent marriage to a husband who entered your life after one or all of your children, this may be the first time in your relationship you have extended alone time.

For many couples the empty nest is a love nest. Couples that get past the usual conflicts that can arise long after exchanging vows tend to focus more on their common ground, and don’t sweat the differences. After decades of surviving through highs and lows, such as sickness, financial concerns, and family conflicts, a marriage built on mutual respect has a solid foundation to succeed a lifetime.

The benefits of staying together for a lifetime are immeasurable. Besides offering emotional support through life’s tragedies, including sickness and the death of loved ones, the lingering effects are less painful when shouldered with a spouse. Double-income families create double-income retirement and pension funds, which can translate into living upgrades and more frequent travels. (But don’t count on your husband’s pension to see you through retirement. We’ll talk more about financial planning in Chapter TK.)

By developing a watchdog approach for each other, longevity becomes a mutual goal. Develop new habits with a buddy-system approach that keeps you both on track for fitness and diet goals. Watch for early signs of disease that your spouse may not easily notice, such as sleep apnea or other sleep-related disorders, and become pro-active toward each other’s good health.

Having someone to share the aging process with can make it a little easier – and more interesting — for both of you. Foster communication by sharing quality time together. For instance, breakfast is the perfect setting to mark the day’s beginning, plan trips, discuss current events and offer upbeat, emotional support for personal issues, such as fading eyesight and receding hairlines.

Adjusting to Your Spouse’s Retirement

“Familiarity breeds contempt.”

Although you probably learned differently in high school Brit Lit, I am pretty sure the first person to say this was a woman whose husband had retired.

While many couples benefit from the increased alone-together-time that comes with one or both spouses’ retirement, for many women the retirement of a spouse requires a period of adjustment. You once looked forward to your time with your husband. Now there’s nothing to look forward to – he’s always there. Sure, he’s a great guy, but it’s possible to get too much of a good thing – like turkey. You look forward to your Thanksgiving dinner and it tastes great, but then come the turkey sandwiches, turkey soup, turkey salad, turkey sandwiches again, turkey soup again, a little freezer-burned turkey two months later. You get the picture.

This is also a time when conflicts tend to arise or escalate. You’re expecting some help with household chores, leisurely lunches at local eateries, or days spent sight-seeing or antiquing. He’s expecting more time by the TV, sleeping in and having a nice lunch prepared and delivered to his TV tray by you! Alternatively, he may want to go go go and you are happy to stay home and relax for a change.

You’ve got to plan and stand your ground to keep what could and should be a happy time for both of you from ending in disaster. Give your spouse and yourself the gift of space and time to adjust to a change as major as retirement. Greet him the first morning of retirement with a kiss – not with a to-do list. You’ve probably been waiting for some time to get some projects and household repairs completed, so waiting another month or two won’t hurt. His first days off work should not be filled with work.

If your husband has retired and you haven’t, or vice versa, use this transition time to test the waters and prepare for the journey ahead.

To avoid the onset of conflict that comes with spending endless days and nights under the same roof, make a plan to share the brunt of domestic chores. Evaluate the household duties, such as yard work, cooking and cleaning to re-distribute lopsided chores that were performed with habitual ease throughout active career schedules, and which may require a revamp to accommodate less-demanding lifestyles and less-nimble bodies.

Since retirement is supposed to be fun, take the calendar out once a month to plan activities that please each of you as well as activities you enjoy together. Also strive to include several family-centered events in the itinerary. Separate vacations once in a while may help ease the confinement of too many hours spent under the same roof together while giving the relationship breathing room to appreciate each other’s absence.

Divorce

Marriage, as you know, is all about give and take. But after years and years of giving, some women decide they just can’t take it anymore. That’s likely why two-thirds of divorces are initiated by women.

“I had been with a man I never really loved for 30 years,” one slender attractive 54-year-old told me after a presentation last week. “I finally said ‘enough already.’”

Many women have told me they knew the marriage was ending once the children had moved out. “As long as the kids were home Jeff and I always had something to talk about, something to focus on besides how unhappy we had become as a couple,” said Brenda, a longtime friend of mine who divorced her husband after 28 years of marriage.

Others have told me about finally getting the strength to leave abusive marriages or of having a husband up and leave them. “I woke up one morning and Andy announced he was leaving. Just like that,” says Martha, a 60-year-old accountant who continued to fight back tears three years after her ex-husband’s announcement. Her husband, she said, had met a woman half his age on line and decided rather quickly he had to be with her. Martha was blindsided and crushed by his announcement.

While celebrating a silver or golden wedding anniversary once meant you’d likely be together for life, increasingly couples are divorcing after these important milestones. This goes to show if you want to preserve your marriage, you can never stop working on it, and if you want out, it’s not too late.

Finding Love in Unexpected Places

If you’re not still married to your first true love – or married at all for that matter – you are far from alone. Half of marriages in America end in divorce, and even for couples who remain together for life, life often ends sooner for the husband, leaving the wife alone.

The Population Bureau reports in its 2011 bulletin that “Although older women today are more likely to be married than they were 50 years ago, they are still much less likely to be married than their male counterparts. Among the population ages 65 and older, about three quarters of men, but less than half (44 percent) of women were married in 2010.” This trend will likely continue.

With fewer men than women to start with and many men in our age group choosing to be with younger women – or other men — it may seem that our chances of finding love at this stage of life are nil. But many women do find love at 50, 60, 70 and beyond. Some women tell me they actually have more options than they did when they were younger, because they are looking for different qualities or feel less bound to what they consider to be conventional relationships. As you grow in age and maturity you are more likely to seek out or become involved with someone who interests and excites you than someone who would be a good breadwinner, a good father or an acceptable son-in-law to your parents. Factors like age, race, religion and even gender may become less important than when you were in your 20s or 30s.

For example, Gina, a divorced friend of mine who was in her mid 40s, dated and married a younger man –28 – she met on her morning commute on the subway. Had she dated him the first time around he would have been like eight (eew!). But as she approached 50, the combination worked great for them. When I heard from her last, they had built a dream home in the mountains. She had retired. He had begun a consulting firm that he ran from their home. They had just celebrated their 15th wedding anniversary and gave every indication that there would be many more to come.

Another friend, Jamie, who is Jewish, told me she had recently reconnected with her high school sweetheart, Mike, a devout Southern Baptist. As a younger woman she said it was important to her that the man she married was Jewish or willing to convert. His unwillingness to do so as well as interference from both of their families led to their breakup. But two divorces and a class reunion later they rekindled their love and their religious differences no longer mattered. While she spends her Sunday mornings teaching a third-grade Sunday school class at her temple Mike is singing Christian hymns from the choir loft of a church two miles down the road. The rest of the weekend – and much of the week – the two are inseparable.

Abby, a petite blond woman, who met her husband in college and raised three girls with him, fell in love with an African-American man she met in a grief support group after her husband was killed in an accident. The man’s wife had recently lost a long battle with breast cancer. Initially they shared grief experience, but in doing so grew to discover they shared much more. Three years later they married.

Other women have discovered it was not a man they want at all. Another friend, Fran, a-stay-at-home mom, whose youngest was a senior in high school, was devastated when her husband, a middle school principal, left her for one of the young teachers at his school. In order to make ends meet and relieve loneliness after her daughter left for college, she sold the house and moved in with a friend who had plenty of space to share in her home because her husband had also left her. While the two spent many evenings man bashing at first, they soon discovered that they hated men less than they loved each other. Today they introduce themselves as a couple, and they seem very happy. It’s not unusual for women who have married and raised children to discover later in life that they are interested in women. For example, after three failed marriages that produced five children, actress Meredith Baxter Birney announced in 2009 that she was a lesbian. “I am a lesbian and it was a later-in-life recognition,” she told Matt Lauer on TODAY. “Some people would say, well, you’re living a lie and, you know, the truth is — not at all. This has only been for the past seven years.”

I’m not suggesting that anyone should —or even could at will – change their sexual orientation. Nor do I think you should compromise religious beliefs or other values that are important to you. But for women who are open to relationships with people that they might not have considered or accepted when they were younger, there are many opportunities to find love.

Where Not to Look

While we are talking about unconventional romantic partners, I would like to stress one type of partner you should not choose: a married man. I know that should be pretty obvious, but I am surprised by the number of women my age who tell me they have become involved with a married man – often an old boyfriend they have become reacquainted with at a class reunion or through Facebook. The story is often the same: He is no longer in love with his wife. The spark has gone out of their relationship. They have nothing in common. He only stayed with her because of the kids, and now they are grown. He is planning to leave her. You were the one he should have married the first time around. Sound familiar? Don’t fall for it! You’re only setting yourself up for heartache and hurting another woman and her family. If he wants to leave his wife, let him do it (I’m guessing he won’t), but at the very least don’t become involved with him until he does.

Dating after 50

If your attire for your last date included culottes or parachute pants, you may find things have changed since your last awkward goodnight kiss at the door. For starters, thanks to cell phones, there’s texting, and sexting and no need to wait by the phone for him to call. (Not that that was ever a good idea, but face it, we’ve all done it – waiting by the phone, that is.) There are also diseases (namely HIV) that were non-existent back when we watched those VD films in junior high and our most pressing question was whether we could get herpes or syphilis from a public toilet seat.

With the Internet and almost unlimited dating sites — some targeted to the 50-plus crowd — we have access to a range of dating partners (which unfortunately carries some dangers) we could not have imagined when we were younger. Yet TODAY’s “This is 50” survey found that about 80 percent of 50-somethings find partners the old fashioned way – through friends and family.

Regardless of how you meet a date, most of the same dating rules apply. Here’s a quick refresher of my six rules for dating, a few of which were adapted from a popular 2013 Huffington Post blog.

  1. Let your date do the talking. It’s in our DNA – we women love to talk. If we live alone or are feeling lonely, we are pretty much willing to talk to anyone who will listen. But just this once try being the listener. By asking questions and listening more than talking, you show that you are interested in him (guys really like that). It also helps you steer the conversation. If he can’t stop talking about hunting or fishing, ask him about favorite movies he’s seen. If he can’t stop talking about how much beer he can put away, or how many decibels his burps or farts are, ask him politely to take you home. Better yet, excuse yourself and take Uber!
  2. Flirt. Keep it tasteful, of course, but let him know you are interested. Touch his arm, twirl your hair, laugh at his jokes and compliment him. Guys love it and it’s fun.
  3. Don’t call him. Sorry, but this advice hasn’t changed since the invention of the landline. Guys still like to be the aggressor and if you take the initiative to call him after a date or two – or worse yet question why he hasn’t called you — you risk looking needy and pathetic. Who wants needy and pathetic?
  4. Don’t rush into a relationship. If you’re recently widowed or divorced, don’t jump into a relationship too quickly. While most counselors recommend waiting at least a year to remarry after a divorce or death of a spouse, you may feel an urgency to connect too soon if you think you have found “the one.” Try to remind yourself that while loneliness is not fun, spending the rest of your life with the wrong person can be hell.
  5. Wait for sex. No, you’re probably not saving your virginity for your one true love – or then maybe you still are. How would I know? – but sex should still be special if you care about the guy and imagine a future with him. (Remember the old saying about getting the milk for free?) If he wants a one-night stand let him hire a prostitute. Hold yourself to a higher standard than that. He’ll respect you for it.
  6. Use protection. OK, if you’re ready for an intimate relationship or you have ignored number 5 – and particularly if you have ignored number 5 — and are going home with a guy you barely know, bring along a condom. According to the CDC, in 2013, 27 percent of the new AIDS diagnoses in the U.S. were in people 50 and older. Percentages of other STDs among older daters have increased too. (More about that to come.) Don’t up the percentages. Be prepared!

Use caution when meeting online dates

In the 2010 documentary film Catfish, the young star Nev Schulman discovered that the “attractive young dancer” with whom he had an online relationship was actually a middle-age mother of four. The great “guy” you meet online could also be a middle-age mother of four — seriously, you never know who you are talking to until you meet them. More serious than a date who lies about his age, occupation or even gender is one who is a threat to your safety. If you’re going to be speaking with prospective dates by phone, purchase a burn phone. It can’t be tracked to your address and if a guy gets creepy and won’t stop calling you, you can cancel your number or simply throw the phone away.

Sex – Benefits and Beware

Whether it is with your lifelong love or you’re ready to take the step with a new one, physical has many benefits and can come in many different forms, including spooning beneath the blanket and giving each other massages and back rubs. Scientists have long known that the oxytocin our bodies produce during intimacy promotes bonding. It turns out that it also helps us sleep better, withstand stress better and generally feel better about ourselves. The act of sex itself has the added benefits of cardiovascular exercise, burning calories, improving bladder control, and easing pain.

If it’s been a while don’t expect sex to be exactly like it was when you were younger. Sure, you’ll hear sex is great when you’re not concerned about pregnancy (see warning below) or you’re sharing it with an experienced partner or lifelong love or whatever, but don’t be fooled. Without proper lubrication – which you’re not likely to produce yourself at this point – it can feel like your man’s member is covered in sand paper. Ouch! So a word of warning: Stock up on the KY Jelly and be prepared to take it slow.

If you are considering intimacy with someone new, practice safe sex, preferably waiting until the two of you are monogamous. If you are not certain you have gone through menopause, pregnancy is extremely rare, but not an impossibility – even at 50. The far greater risk among 50-plus women, however, is sexually transmitted diseases, and the CDC reports that their incidence is increasing — particularly in the over-65 group.

Between 2010 and 2014 among those 65 and older, chlamydia infections increased by about 52 percent, syphilis infections rose by about 65 percent, and gonorrhea cases increased by more than 90 percent.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 2.2 million Medicare beneficiaries received STD screenings and counseling in 2011 and 2012. That is roughly the same number who had colonoscopies.

What gives? Experts offer a number of explanations, including the use of drugs like Viagra and Cialis that make sex possible for more older couples and the fact that baby boomers, who came of age in the era of the pill, don’t generally use condoms. According to the 2010 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, the largest nationally representative and comprehensive study on sexual behavior ever conducted in the United States, older adults have the lowest rate of condom use of all age groups.

This can be a particular problem for women because the vaginal lining thins after menopause, making us even more vulnerable to infections than when we were young.

The take-home message: If you’ll be taking a man home with you or going home with him, have a condom handy (and make sure your lubricant is safe for use with condoms). Don’t expect him to. The responsibility for your safety is you.

Living Alone Without Being Lonely

Whether it’s from choice and planned or comes unwelcomed and unexpectedly due to death or divorce, many of us will find ourselves alone at some point. Depending on the circumstances and your personality, living alone can be a welcome change from the bustle of a busy home or endless days and nights with an abusive – or just boring – husband, or it can be a great source of unhappiness and stress.

Research has shown that people who live alone are more likely to suffer from depression than those who live with a significant others. In a study of some 3,500 men and women published in the journal BMC Public Health, those who lived alone were 81 percent more likely to have filled at least one prescription for an antidepressant over the course of the study.

The study’s participants ranged in age from 30 to 65. Research suggests the risk of depression is even higher for older people who live alone and may feel isolated and fearful. For these adults, solo living can lead to chronic stress, and research is beginning to show that chronic stress can lead to changes in your genes, says Steve Cole, professor of medicine and behavioral sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Cole’s research, labeled, “Social Genomics,” examines how psychological experiences influence immune systems and human health. He is mapping the biological pathways through which social conditions change the expression of traits or tendencies encoded in genetic material.

Researchers in this growing field of social genomics are finding that social activities today may influence our bodies for the next few months or for the rest of our lives. They are also finding that even after exposure to adverse social conditions that cause health to decline, people placed in a more favorable environment may see their health rebound. That means that even if you are in your 50s or beyond there is still room to change your world for the better to have that filter down through your body into the genome.

If you are planning to be alone or unexpectedly find yourself that way, my first piece of advice is to do what it takes for you to feel safe. Take a personal defense class. Get a security system — or a big dog – or move to a building with good security or to a home in the suburbs.

My second piece of advice is to avoid isolation. Meet friends or co-workers for lunch or dinner, plan frequent get-togethers with your family if they are close by, and if not, visit them (or invite them to visit you) when possible. Get involved in clubs or activities, attend concerts or art shows, scour flea markets or antique malls and take time to chat with those you meet. Explore the benefits of online friendships. “Friend” old acquaintances on Facebook, or look for new ones with common interests. Consider starting your own blog to document your green thumb or culinary creations and send the link to your family, friends and online buddies.

My third piece of advice is to surround yourself with the vitality of other living things. Begin each day surrounded by a variety of plants. Consider the benefits of cultivating an assortment of planters filled with fragrant and practical varieties of herbs, or plant a small vegetable garden, if space allows.

If you don’t already have a pet, consider getting one. Who can succumb to loneliness and depression when an adoring pooch is begging for a belly rub and a walk? Who can feel stressed when stroking a cat’s soft fur?

Research shows that pet ownership can do more than relieve loneliness – it can increase longevity. Research by the American Heart Association has found that owning a dog lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease and speeds recovery from heart attacks. Other research suggests that petting a dog can lower blood pressure and that taking a long gaze into your dog’s eyes can increase the release of oxytocin, a hormone that relieves stress and promotes a sense of well-being.

Finally, owning a dog can lead to contact and interactions with people. If you don’t believe me, try it out with a friend’s dog first. Take a walk through your neighborhood or a busy park and see how many people stop to pet your dog, ask about your dog or tell you about their dog. A dog or even an exotic pet – a friend of mine met a lot of people while walking her pet ferret! – is an instant conversation starter, and you never know where the conversation may lead!

 

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