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Love as a Force for Change

Amanda Smith Barusch, PhD, has been teaching and researching in the field of aging for over 25 years. Most of those were spent on the faculty of the College of Social Work at the University of Utah. She now serves as Professor and Head of Department of Social Work and Community Development at the University of Otago in New Zealand. Her most recent book, Love Stories of Later Life: A Narrative Approach to Understanding Romance, uses original research to question what love and romance mean in seniors’ lives. The book is both a glimpse into a world many people didn’t know existed, that of romantic love in later life, and an important tool designed to increase self-awareness and relationship-building. In the post below we excerpt from the beginning of Love Stories of Later Life.

Romantic experiences define character in ways that are so subtle that they might go undetected and so varied that they defy generalization. Love opens the door to our potential and helps shape the people we become. The work reported in this book describes four ways that love shapes our lives and ourselves.

First, the intense unsettling experiences that come with romantic love create opportunities for personal insight. Coupled with self-reflection, intense romantic experiences can teach us about ourselves, our needs, our vulnerabilities, and our demons. …these lessons can change a person’s approach to life and to love.

Second, love is a training ground for relationship skills. We inevitably learn from interactions with our partners. Usually, these lessons are adaptive, teaching the value of compromise and the importance of reciprocity. We learn how to communicate our love. Particularly in late life, we confront the boundaries of our personal control and we learn about letting go. But damaging lessons arise when romantic interactions are marked by abuse, neglect or manipulation, which can teach us to devalue our selves and retreat from engagement with others.

Third, love stretches us beyond our comfort zones, revealing capabilities we did not know we had. We see this in the uncharacteristic acts committed when we are deeply infatuated. Desperately in love, we discover personal capacities we never knew were there. Love can also stretch us by exposing us to different ways of being, as when we meet a person unlike anyone else we have ever loved and, in loving them, are transformed.

Finally, love changes the very course of our lives. Our choice of romantic partners can determine what jobs we pursue, where we will live, whether or not we have children. In midlife, people who have not experienced love as they have long imagined it may set out on a quest – some might call it a “midlife crisis” — to satisfy this burning need.

As a gerontologist, I have long felt the most interesting part of human development takes place in late life. Some changes are so gentle and slow that we do not notice them for decades. And most young people have too much on their plates to spend time in contemplation. Besides that their reminiscences are awfully short! Late life provides the opportunity and the perspective to observe changes that romantic love has made in our lives and our persons. Then one day we turn around and realize that even in life’s final decades some of us are still changing!

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