Why Some Seniors Are Giving Up on Romance

Joy Lorton, 80, has been married and divorced four times.

“I grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, when everybody was supposed to get married and have kids, so I did that,” said Ms. Lorton, who lives in Olympia, Wash., and has three daughters, seven grandchildren and a gaggle of great-grandchildren.

But each of her marriages was marred by a different flavor of dysfunction, and since her last divorce in 2001, she has been devoutly and joyfully single. “It all goes back to the same word: freedom,” Ms. Lorton said.

Now, she chooses whom she wants to spend time with. And that could mean no one at all: “I really like my own company,” Ms. Lorton said.

Around 30 percent of adults in the United States over the age of 50 are single, according to a 2022 Pew survey, and despite the stigma that tends to surround both singleness and advanced age, many relish being on their own. Older singles were less likely than their younger counterparts to say they wanted to date or find a romantic relationship, and research suggests people’s satisfaction with being single tends to jump in middle age.

“People in their 60s and beyond who are single and flourishing is an untold story,” said Bella DePaulo, a social scientist who studies single life (and is a single 70-year-old herself). “And it’s a feel good story that shatters all of our stereotypes.”

Dr. DePaulo said that one major difference between being single in one’s 60s or beyond and being single when younger is the self-awareness and self-assurance that come with age. There is research to suggest that self-confidence peaks between the ages of 60 and 70.

“When you’re older, there’s a real sense of: I need to live my best life now,” said Jenny Taitz, a clinical psychologist and the author of “How to be Single and Happy.” People who have been single for any length of time have the benefit of experience and hindsight to show them that it is just as possible to experience joy and peace even without a partner, she added.

Experience has certainly been a teacher for Kamran Afary, 66, who grew up in Iran and moved to the United States when he was 16. He spent much of his early life pushing back against what he saw as rigidity all around him — first, the patriarchal society he was raised in, and then “oppressive” relationship expectations. He bristled at the idea that if you and your partner couldn’t meet 100 percent of each other’s needs, “you were a failure.”

Still, Mr. Afary dabbled in monogamous relationships for years. But as he got to know himself better, his sense of what he wanted shifted. In his late 50s, he came out as queer. Mr. Afary, who is a professor of communications studies and lives in Los Angeles, also began to read more cultural criticism and research about singleness, such as Dr. DePaulo’s.

“I think identifying as queer kind of opened up the door for me to be more open, to explore more,” Mr. Afary said. In hindsight, he believes he has been drawn to the single life “for many decades, but I just didn’t have the language, and I was still pressured by all of these social expectations that maybe I should be open to coupledom. But I don’t feel that way anymore.”

Dr. DePaulo said that this is a theme that comes up often in her work: People feel much freer to embrace single life when there is less outside pressure to settle down — particularly once parenthood is off the table.

“All those people who may have hassled you about not being married or who act like there is something wrong with you for being single have mostly zipped it by the time you get to your later years,” she said.

Though he has embraced his singleness wholeheartedly, Mr. Afary is not naïve about the practical challenges he might face down the road without a partner. He is a primary caregiver to his mother, who is in her 90s, and he knows there might not be anyone to look out for him as he ages. (He noted how fortunate he feels to have a pension that makes a senior care facility financially feasible.)

But he does not fear the loneliness or isolation that affects so many older Americans, as he has learned to develop “very loving, intimate” platonic relationships with several friends and colleagues.

These relationships, Dr. DePaulo believes, are another untold story of singleness later in life: “They put more into their friendships, and they get more out of their friendships,” she said. Though singleness in general tends to be understudied, there is some research to support the idea. A small 2021 study that focused on university students found that those who were single tended to invest more in their friendships.

Jettie McCollough, 68, was married for 28 years but now lives “an incredibly joyful single life.” She has dabbled in online dating, but she recently deleted her accounts with eHarmony and Green Singles after asking herself, “Why am I on this stupid dating site?” (Her experience is not unique. Women over 50 are the demographic most likely to describe their online dating experiences as somewhat or very negative, a Pew survey found.)

Rather than feeling lonely, she has realized that “there is so much connection available in the greater world,” said Ms. McCollough, who lives in Ludlow, Mass. When winter storms hit, her neighbors text to see if she needs anything. She volunteers at a local school. She is in a running club and has a YouTube channel of herself jumping rope to Taylor Swift songs.

But she also relishes the quiet moments when they arise. And after decades of being married and raising four sons, “I love my alone time,” she said. “I cherish it.”

So does Ms. Lorton, who enrolled in college and earned her bachelor’s degree at 51. She retired in 2010 after three decades working as a legal assistant, and now spends much of her time driving grandchildren to and from school and various extracurricular activities.

Occasionally, she feels a pang of loneliness, coming home to her silent house after a family get-together. But Ms. Lorton has “absolutely, positively no interest” in looking for love again.

“Not only does being single allow me the freedom to make my own life choices,” she said, “it also gives me the peace I believe that I’ve always craved.”

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