On Seeking a Mate in Mid-Life, and Grandma’s Lamp

My mother’s mother had refined and firm tastes. When I was a boy she took me with her to a Pittsburgh department store to buy a lamp for her artfully decorated apartment. I would say “This one works” and she would respond that it didn’t go with her sofa. I would ask “How about that one?” and she would say that a shade of its colour wouldn’t look right next to the wallpaper. Another was too tall and would obscure the view from one of her windows for people seated at the dinner table. Yet another was too short to serve as a good source of light on her favorite end table, which was low to the ground.

Even if I hadn’t been an impatient 8 year old, I would have been exasperated by her pickiness. But she did eventually find, after looking at countless non-suitable models, a lamp that matched everything in her carefully laid out apartment. And even I could see that it was indeed perfect, accentuating everything, distracting from nothing, and not requiring any other item in her apartment to be moved even an inch.

I think about Grandma’s lamp when I listen to never-married middle aged people talk about how hard it is for them to find a suitable spouse. A lawyer acquaintance in Boston is pushing 40. He has dated many women but can’t seem to find the life partner he seeks. “All I want is a woman who looks reasonably nice, acts reasonably nice and who likes me. Why is that so hard?”, he complains.

But when I ask him if he would move to Miami or Reno or Dubuque to marry such a woman, he says no, his life is in Boston. And when I ask him if he would change his career in a significant way to marry such a woman he says oh no, he is doing well at the firm and he would have to start over somewhere else. And when I ask if he would be willing to marry such a woman if she wanted more children than he does (He wants one or at most two) he says no, he’s almost 40, and he has only so much time and many other things he wants to do in life. And if the woman couldn’t get along with his current friends? A big problem, his friends are life-long sources of support and meaning for him. And if she had children from a prior marriage? No way, don’t want to be a step-parent. And so on.

Like my grandmother, he isn’t really looking for just any good lamp, although unlike her, he doesn’t realize it. He has his life’s apartment, the wallpaper, the carpet and the furnishings and wants that perfect lamp that will accentuate everything in its current form, detract from nothing, and require nothing to be moved even an inch. And he is dating women who are on the same quest, but apparently looking for an equally particular but different lamp. Good luck to him and the many other people like him that I have met. They need it more than they may recognize.

This observation isn’t intended to romanticize getting married young, as used to be the fashion. Many people who marry young get divorced. After all, when you are young, you have the disadvantages of not really knowing who you are, where you will live, or what you will do in life. On the other hand, you have the advantages of not really knowing who you are, where you will live, or what you will do in life. If you determine all these things in alliance with another person at an age when life is more flexible for both of you, you won’t get forced into the choice between getting married and having to undo decisions you have made on your own over many years in which you are now understandably deeply invested.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

30 thoughts on “On Seeking a Mate in Mid-Life, and Grandma’s Lamp”

  1. Hmm. I don’t know. I think if your friend met the right person, all that stuff might go out the window. And by “right person,” I just mean someone who makes him feel a certain way. (Whether she will be of good character and so forth is just a matter of chance.) I think we are all run by our subconscious, and I think “Dubuque” is just an idea to him now. If he loved someone who lived there, it would be another place entirely.

    But I could be wrong.

    Otoh, your grandma did find a lamp.

  2. You didn’t imply it in any way, but, a person is not a lamp; and your relationship with another person — any person, let alone someone so intimate as a spouse — isn’t like your relationship with a lamp.

    Which is to say, your friend’s issue isn’t that he’s too picky.

  3. Agree wholeheartedly with this. I met my wife at 18, but we didn’t marry until I was 26. We both became completely different people over that time period and continued to change immensely to this day. But we both feel strongly that doing all of that changing and growing together has been to the benefit of our relationship. I could most certainly see it going the other way, but it worked out for the best for us. And having witnessed the growth of each other over nearly 20 years we are much closer for it.

    Not to say this is a “recommended course of action.” I was lucky to find her when i did, to recognize that i did find her, and to somehow fool her into agreeing with me! and that’s that.

  4. Sure, if the Boston lawyer loved someone who lived in Dubuque, it would make a difference. But love at first sight is more myth than reality. If he meets someone charming from Dubuque, someone he would ask out if she lived in Boston, he won’t ask her out, because he’s sure they don’t have a future.

    I absolutely recognize this mindset in myself. I’m just not sure what, if anything, I should do about it. I don’t think I’ve passed up any opportunities, but it’s possible I didn’t look closely enough at opportunities to realize they were opportunities. It would be nice if the perfect person waltzed into my life (and I’m not fixated on that, a conga or fox trot into my life would do just as well), but the odds are looking slimmer and slimmer.

    1. I think the question is, how often does one meet people one finds attractive? If it happens a lot, then it wouldn’t make sense to go out of your way.

      For someone like me (female, and this may be relevant), it is a rare thing to meet someone attractive. I meet many, many nice and intelligent people. But attraction? That doesn’t come around that often. So, I’d be willing to entertain geographical complications.

      And it is possible to over-think these things, too. I think the thing to do is pay attention to feelings, and not to a list of desired traits. I think usually if we observe our bodies and our emotions, we can learn a lot. I know several people who ended up happy with people they’d never have expected.

  5. Jonathan is writing here about never-married middle aged people. I went through this two years ago as a widower, and that difference changes a lot. Not only do you have a better idea than at 20 of who you are and what you are looking for, you also know from experience about the accommodations needed for a partnership to work. If nothing can change in your sitting-room, you will never find the new lamp of your life, as I have done.

    1. Okay, but just to speak up for the design lovers, we might be getting confused here.

      Wanting the perfect sized and shaped lamp could be more akin to wanting a kind and generous lover, rather than akin to wanting a lover of X height, financial status, and so forth.

      There is good picky, and bad picky. (Sort of like the good and bad naked from … Seinfeld, my alternate reality.)

  6. I married first in my mid 30’s, lasted only until I’d paid off her credit cards by refinancing my house, then she dumped me. A few years later I married again, and this time it’s working in my 50’s, with a son and a happy marriage.

    How come? Well, aside from the whole “Don’t marry a madwoman who’s looking for a way out of her debts” thing, I’ve decided that she’s the most important thing in my life, everything else comes second. And she made the same determination.

  7. This guy sounds very old-fashioned. Hasn’t the Internet been a game changer in this search? You don’t actually have to go to Kaufman’s or Horne’s to shop for that lamp. You can browse through thousands of lamp listings online, and you can get more information about the ones that seem suitable for your apartment. Then you can go see in person whether it matches your expectations.

    1. The crucial thing here is filters. Meeting someone in a bar, both see immediately if there’s an attraction. But you find later on about common deal-breakers: language, smoking, alcohol, religion, money, children. On the Internet, if you have strong views on any of these, use them as a filter. This prevents a lot of avoidable pain.

      Character is a different matter and you need to meet to confirm what you can discover from a website profile and contact emails.

      My advice to people starting out on a serious Internet search for a partner is that your profile is like a CV. You can and should present yourself in a favourable light, but you must not lie about facts.

      1. That’s excellent advice. My problem is, I look at all this online stuff, and it leaves me cold. It all feels like a grocery list. It’s very hard to get myself off the dime, even if they have a cute picture. I wish I had an interfering auntie or two.

        1. This is one of the advantages of being a female computer scientists, i.e. where the gender imbalance in the field actually works in your favor. The downside is, of course, that you also have a fair amount of men interested in you even if you aren’t interested. Not that I ever had to actually physically fend them off (heck, I had to encourage my husband a bit when we first met), but even just knowing that a guy is interested in you, no matter how polite and unobtrusive he is about it, can get in the way of getting work done. Luckily, this is not a problem at the moment, since everyone at my department knows that I’m happily married. (Though, at a conference last year, I had to politely decline when a guy tried to ask me out who either didn’t see my ring or didn’t consider it an impediment.)

          1. Doug: The odds were often good, but the goods were often odd.

            Well, if you’re a geekgirl yourself, you may not necessarily be interested in a jock type of guy. 🙂

            I mean, what good is a man who couldn’t even compile a LaTeX document to save his life?

          2. Katja, I too like geeks! And I could use some new skills. What corner of the computer world do you think is most accessible/interesting for someone who is willing to learn, and not so willing to take on new debt?

            Two birds with one stone.

          3. I wish I could give you some advice there, NCG, but not only am I an academic, but I’ve also been living in the UK for over six years now. So I’m very much out of the loop when it comes to current IT trends in America.

            I also did get a very traditional college education myself (with the usual advantage that the skills you learn in college last longer — modern IT technologies have a pretty high turnover), but that was in the 90s, when attending a state university didn’t necessarily bankrupt you.

            These days, I know very little about what’s “hot” in IT outside of what everyone else can read in the press, too; myself, I work in an area that, while critically important in some regards, doesn’t exactly have broad applicability (let’s just say that the last couple of papers I wrote had sections starting with the word “Theorem”).

    2. In my experience, this tends to make many people *more* picky, not less, because they get into this mindset where they just *know* that the perfect person is out there, and they aren’t willing to bend on their requirements at all. I’ve had lots of first dates that felt more like job interviews, with quizzes and cross examination, rather than an honest attempt to have a pleasant evening and get to know someone.

      Of course, that’s to say nothing of the leveling effect of internet dating sites. Everyone presents themselves on the same metrics: love going out but just as happy to stay in, love books and music but just as happy to watch a baseball or football or basketball game, etc… Read enough of these and you begin to realize that there is a checklist that everyone is following based on what the service, and the other people on the service, suggest you should be writing. A real checklist, I think, or else a mad-libs style form letter out there. You get a lot of bland agreeableness (“look at me, I like everything!”) but no real sense of who one is until you meet for the Inquisition, and then left not very surprised not to get a follow-up call or email.

  8. Yes, some people arrange their lives in such a way that adding a permanent closely-committed partner would be disruptive, and then complain about it. But I doubt that’s about age, because life is never flexible for people unless they want it to be. Especially in today’s rotten economy, a younger two-worker partnership is pretty much up the creek, because both of them need to be able to go where the jobs are, and the jobs are so very seldom in the same place. (I think of one friend whose promising career was destroyed when the med student she fell head-over-heels for got a residency in another city where her job specialty didn’t exist, or of my own case, where I had to choose between dream job and significant other with a new tenured appointment halfway across the country.) And that’s even before the excessive hours that younger adults have to put in to establish their career paths and social niches.

    Meanwhile, the internet as infinite department store seems like the wrong metaphor to me. The internet as infinite series of long-running cocktail parties is more like it (at least for the people I’ve known). Instead of browsing profiles, you can watch people interact with others in the context of shared interests and (sometimes) get a very good idea of their character well before having to do with them directly. I would bet, for example, that all the hangers-on of the RBC know exactly which others they’d want to have a beer with.

  9. Dating takes time and persistence. A 40-year-old lawyer works too much for that to happen. (I should know.)

    It was only through sheer cussedness and determination that I pushed through the dating game long enough to find my right mate. You have to spend a damned lot of hours for a damned lot of calendar years. It’s a numbers game until you meet the right one. Then you don’t like to describe it as a numbers game. But that’s what it will be for most people.

  10. This really isn’t nearly as hard as people make it out to be.

    (a) Make YOURSELF be a desirable person. If you are a decent male human being, and are willing to compromise on a bunch of small issues, you’ll find that there are plenty of people out there who are willing to compromise on what matters to you. But this requires you bringing something to the party. The issue is not the pickiness of your 40 yr old lawyer — it is why should any woman choose him over the many many other people in the world? The very fact that he thinks (I am projecting here, I obviously know nothing about the guy) that having some money, a career, and an Ivy League education are enough is part of the problem.

    (b) Meet a huge number of very different people. Go on a date every Friday and Saturday night for years. Don’t waste time — if things don’t feel right during that date, move on, don’t take three months to decide that your initial impulse was correct. And don’t reject people just because you are sure that you could never find an accountant interesting, or that an Indian woman is just too much of cultural chasm.

    (a) following these two rules takes effort, and most people are uninterested in effort — cf the way they will follow sports statistics obsessively, but not take five hours to read a book on personal finance.
    (b) everyone would rather go along with the folk psychology and sociology in their heads than believe what social science has shown us about how humanity really works.

      1. (a) When you bring something to the table, having made yourself highly desirable, you will *eventually* meet that rare person who has done the same, with the same idea in mind.

        There’s your guy (or gal).

        (b) Getting to that person is, quite simply, a numbers game. Absolutely. Meet, greet, move on. Keep seeing the ones that are real possibilities. But be selective — the faster you weed out the non-possibilities, the sooner you can meet the others who are out there.

        your second point (a) — Just like a job search. Effort. Mind-numbing, heart-numbing effort. Don’t waste time fretting over a bad date, or being angry at the ridiculousness of the dates you have from time to time. DON’T take it personally. DON’T conclude that you’ll never meet someone or that there are no good guys (gals) out there. KEEP GOING. On to the next one.

  11. Honest question: Why should I trust a public policy blog on this issue?

    (Sorry, I sound like a jerk.)

    1. Maybe because public policy enthusiasts are also people who have personal lives and have the intelligence and perspective to have something interesting to say. From my own experience, which included a number of years in the singles market (at an age when I was largely playing the secondary market, i.e. formerly marrieds), I think the comments on this post are very perceptive. Whether the post is off-topic for the blog is one thing, but whether the comments on the topic are trustworthy is a different one. I vote yes (to both questions, though I don’t mind. Afte all, we get Keith’s old movie reviews here too. Why not? The blogging collective of RBC can go where it wants, and readers can cease reading if it’s not interesting.)

  12. As we get oldert, it seems EVERY day is a (subconscious) step further into our Life; our set ways. Everym day is another step towards our wonderful uniqueness – which is also another step away from everyone else, We must recognize that and dilute it greatly. How can two 50-60 y/os match is they’ve got decades of possible restrictions on the scope of their field of vision?

  13. I resonated with a few of the comments above; but the post itself and most of the comments seem very disconnected from not just my own experience but what I can see walking down the street every day. Life isn’t just about self-actualization; or rather, for most people, self-actualization includes their commitment to building a family in some form, whether or not that involves children.

    Although again, from what I can see walking down the street, children remain very popular.

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