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 ask Barusch some of our most pressing questions about love. Be sure to check back later today for an excerpt from the book.
OUP: Why study love by talking to older adults? Why not talk to love-obsessed 20-somethings?
Amanda Smith Barusch: Well, most researchers who study love do talk to 20-somethings. But I find older adults more interesting and more reflective. They’ve had a lot more experiences and a lot more time to draw lessons from their adventures.
OUP: Is love still possible for older singles?
Barusch: Love, and even infatuation are possible at advanced ages. The oldest person I met who was seriously infatuated was in her early 80s. The physiological aspects of infatuation (loss of appetite, sleep disturbances) may be less common in later years, but the intensity of the experience is undeniable.
OUP: Is it different?
Barusch: Oh yes, in many ways. Mainly it is more complicated – older adults experience or worry about complications related to health – worries about caregiving or bereavement. They often have adult children who are key factors in their decision-making. And, because of their longer histories, older adults are themselves more complex.
That said, older adults consistently reported that love improved with age. Their reasons varied, but tended to reflect emotional and cognitive maturation. That, and the leisure time that allows romance to be a priority.
Sex is different too, benefiting from more time and fewer distractions. That and a lifetime of practice.
OUP: How do older adults find romantic partners?
Barusch: We found two approaches, “go out and look, “ and “let love find you.” Both can work and both can fail.
The challenge of the “go out and look” approach is the market mentality that often comes with. Trying to “sell” yourself can be alienating, and looking at someone as a list of pros and cons can be antithetical to roman ice. That said, older adults are using the Internet – perhaps not in the numbers of the young, but we are seeing a proliferation of dating sites for seniors. And, of course, many meet prospective lovers through their churches, organizations, family, and friends.
Letting love find you is less threatening, and can be every bit as effective. But this method does require that you maintain an active social life and that you notice the opportunities that come your way.
OUP: People get uncomfortable about sexuality among older people. Why is that?
Barusch: I think mature sexuality challenges our stereotypes about age, and about sex. Billions of dollars are spent trying to persuade us that only young and unwrinkled people are attractive and lovable. The notion that a lovely, grandmother can enjoy intense passion goes against ageist notions of what old age is supposed to be like.
OUP: Should someone who has betrayed a lover confess?
Barusch: That’s a tough call. If your goal is to be forgiven it is much better to confess than for your loved one to learn about the transgression from someone else. Besides that, if you’re tortured by guilt confession may be the only option.
OUP: What determines whether a romantic betrayal will be forgiven?
Barusch: On one hand, factors that can’t be controlled at the time, such as your partner’s commitment to and interest in the relationship. On the other hand, the loss of face that comes with betrayal can be addressed by a sincere apology and offers of restitution. Another important factor is the likelihood of a repeat of the betrayal. First offenses are more likely to be forgiven, and anything that will persuade the betrayed lover that the offense won’t recur increases the chance of forgiveness.
OUP: Does willingness to forgive become more pronounced as we grow older?
Barusch: The dynamics of forgiveness are very complex, but I think so. Researchers have demonstrated that the more committed we are to a relationship the more willing we are to forgive. And, as we get older our commitment usually goes up. Of course, there’s always the “last straw.”
OUP: Do we ever get over unrequited love? Betrayal?
Barusch: These are life’s most agonizing experiences, but most people do get over them and most eventually feel that they were better people as a result.
OUP: What is love?
Barusch: Love is many things, but my favorite definition came from a man in his mid-60s who said, “Love is more than fondness or liking or sexual attraction. For me, it’s a connection that endures. I think that one of the reasons love is so hard to define is that love fully reveals that it’s love only after a long time.”