Women of a certain age holding out for happily ever after



A script I’ve played out several times with men concerns ambivalence: unhappy and feeling trapped, I threaten to leave, only to suffer months if not years of agony when the relationship collapses. This last time, my early radar warned me that I shouldn’t get involved, but I jumped in anyway. We hung on for about five years before things deteriorated into open warfare. I was thrilled to move out, thinking it would end the ambivalence and acrimony. I welcomed my freedom with open arms and expected a quick and thorough recovery.

Instead, I fell into depression, flip-flopping between the hope we could work it out and the sinking-pit-in-the-stomach recognition that he was too unskilled in relationships to care properly for anyone, including himself, and that maybe, just maybe, some of the problems were mine.

Every cloud has a silver lining, and my discomfort was so intense that even when I was still living with him I embarked on a path of self-discovery, exploring all means available from 12-step programs to pop psychology, Buddhism, Christianity and lastly, traditional therapy, to figure out why I made the wrong decisions over and over – both in my choice of mates and the behaviors I permitted myself within the relationships.

There’s the generational, and then there’s the personal.

One school of thought holds that by the time men reach their fifties, they too have faced their demons, however reluctantly, and have started the process of healing. The other point of view is that by then, all the good ones really are taken. Or, as Joyce Wadler puts it, “When I was in my 20s and saw older women in … ugly shoes, I wondered what made them buy them. Now I understand that it was the same thing that made them go out with unsuitable men: availability. You search and search and there’s nothing out there. After a while you say: “I can’t take it. Just let me find something I can make do with.” ”

That said, what’s true for the gander is true for the goose, which leads me to the personal.

My parents were low on empathy, so I feel right at home with men who don’t know how to love. They both engaged in shaming, so men who belittle and bully feel familiar. They never articulated their emotions, so I easily accept men who can’t talk about feelings. My mother was a physician who self-prescribed her way into addiction, and my father was an alcoholic, so it’s no surprise I’m attracted to lovers who may appear outwardly functional but who display crazy-making behavior with intimates.

But a closer look at my side of the street revealed that not only do I tolerate these faults in men, I tolerate them in myself as well. We copy the behavior that is modeled for us, so no wonder I escalate conflicts instead of staying calm, because that’s what my shouting parents did. No wonder I don’t know how to elicit or show empathy, because neither did my parents. Butting their heads against a stone wall, they tried to tell each other what to do, how to be. I recognize this behavior in myself as well.

Researching this blog has introduced me to the wealth of neurobiological research about relationships from the past few decades, as well as tenets of psychology that have gained widespread acceptance, such as the application of infant attachment theory to adult relationships. Of all the men I’ve loved, only one was truly emotionally healthy — a very insightful European from a nation with a reputation for strong family ties. I snapped at him once that he couldn’t handle my independent streak. He calmly replied, “No, you’re not independent.” Four decades later, I finally get that the science of attachment theory backs up with concrete evidence the insight of my long-ago partner.

After him, my relationships became more problematic, proving that not only our early childhood experiences but also the success or failure of love affairs in adulthood build on one another to spiral us upwards, or in my case, downwards.

The most important men in my life for the past few decades have been substance abusers. These are the ones left over after the healthier ones pair off, and their relationships tend to flame out as a result of addiction, so they frequently cycle back onto the market. If you’re picturing a junkie nodding out in filth-strewn alleys, think again. The pharmaceutical industry has insinuated itself into virtually every American family, creating legions of addicts who may look okay from the outside but whose personal lives are shambolic. Looking forward, I cringe to think how the lives of the ADHD misdiagnosed and drugged younger generations will pan out, rippling ill effects onto their children and beyond.

Many of us who grew up with addiction or dysfunction were “parentified” at an early age, and we may not recognize the depth of the insult to our future relationships. If you’re fed up with a lifetime of difficult love affairs, the right groups and therapy exist where you can learn to:

  • prioritize relationship constancy and conscientiousness
  • elicit and offer the empathy that some consider the “royal road” to intimacy
  • set healthy boundaries and respect the boundaries of others
  • seek out people rich in the above skill sets and limit interaction with those who are not

What if the available men are scarred? The key is open-mindedness, as well as the willingness to put time and effort into finding a better way. It’s never too late to change, thanks to the remarkable neuroplasticity of our nervous system. We are hard-wired to love, and our human need to connect can trump our learned bad behaviors. The unfortunate memories that reside in our “implicit,” aka pre-conscious, memory may remain, but we can alter the reactions that they trigger.


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