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Becoming single at 50 after 23 years of marriage was the most disorienting experience of my life – more unsettling than any challenges I had shared with my then-husband, like navigating dirt tracks around Africa or bringing home a new baby.
But like any major transition, life after divorce meant I could open doors I’d never considered knocking on. I decided being single was not a problem to be fixed but an opportunity to be enjoyed, much like finding myself at an ice cream buffet with a spoon and no sampling limit.
I vowed to be curious. As I was entering menopause, I was suddenly less interested in appearances and more so on my own happiness. Midlife felt like puberty with wrinkles – I’d occasionally snarl at everyone in my orbit, but my life possibilities felt vast. Unlike puberty, with a seemingly infinite amount of time ahead, the other side of 40 lent new urgency and focus to my pursuits. I began doing work I loved and living more simply. I also began prioritising my sexual pleasure and discovered how much I didn’t know after decades with one partner.
“I gave myself permission to date without an agenda and chose men who were most unlike myself.”
I gave myself permission to date without an agenda and chose men who were most unlike myself. These men – foreign academics, a tantric therapist, unemployed artists – offered new insight into the pleasures of sex. Saying yes to those pleasures, saying yes to my sex life, quickly became a midlife mantra. With a variety of partners, I learned more about my body’s likes and dislikes: that spanking didn’t feel good though it did throw me into a fit of giggles; that sex with multiple people was more distracting than exciting (but still fascinating).
My libido surged for several years during the perimenopause, not uncommon as the end of a woman’s fertility approaches. But as I moved through menopause – and my frenetic dating agenda – I gradually lost my desire for casual sex. Three years after divorce, I wanted to cultivate a long-term partnership again. But this search did not resist moving quickly to the bedroom.
I think we can understand much about a person by the way they relate to us sexually. If a man was more interested in his own orgasm than in mine, I found him to be self-centred in many other ways. I looked for a lover to be generous and curious in bed, to laugh easily if our bodies made funny noises. These qualities usually extended to the way he approached life and relationships.
“Midlife sex and love is vastly different from what I was looking for as a young woman.”
I have also learned that timing is critical when looking for midlife love. Someone newly out of a long-term relationship is very often, as I was, ‘tapping the herd’ – that is, enjoying a variety of other partners, discovering how love might be different after first marriages flounder and the kids have been raised. The first few years of dating at midlife, I couldn’t offer a man monogamy, and when I tried it often ended in tears. When I myself dated newly-separated or divorced men at the point I was ready for a relationship, I was the one pounding my fists in frustration – until I accepted that these men also needed to go through their own post-divorce reckonings.
Midlife sex and love is vastly different from what I was looking for as a young woman. I’m a romantic realist now, more clear-eyed over the compromises required of a partnership. And the relationships I’ve had in middle age have been sexually thrilling and emotionally deep. I forgive more easily but also quickly walk away from bad behaviour. Sex reflects who we are as partners and I’m glad I’ve rejected feeling of shame around experimenting with many people.
And though I still haven’t found the person I want to grow (even) older with, the journey has become less disorienting and more valuable than I ever imagined. Rather like exploring dirt tracks in a foreign country – now with my own compass.
Karin Jones writes the monthly column, ‘Savvy Love’ for Erotic Review magazine, and is writing a memoir about menopause and midlife dating
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