‘Gray Love’: Yes, Older People Have Desires

(Rutgers University Press)

It’s rare, says Nan Bauer-Maglin, co-editor of Gray Love: Stories About Dating and New Relationships After 60, for books about love—let alone sexual intimacy, hookups and the desire for companionship—to intertwine with aging. There are, of course, dozens of titles about growing older, losing a partner to illness or getting divorced, and recent titles are increasingly concerned with offering how-to advice to older people.

Gray Love, which Bauer-Maglin co-edited with Daniel E. Hood, is unique in showcasing men and women’s own voices in this adventure: the nitty-gritty headiness of first dates, the joy of getting to know someone’s history, politics and quirks, and the inevitability of decline.

Gray Love is an ambitious effort and includes 45 voices, 32 of them female and 13 male. Forty-two essays cover a range of topics, from dating while mourning the loss of a partner, to what to write on an online profile. Not surprisingly, there’s both comedy and tragedy here.

Bauer-Maglin spoke to Ms. reporter Eleanor J. Bader about the book late last year.


Eleanor J. Bader: Gray Love includes diverse voices, with people of all races and sexual identities weighing in. It also reflects geographic diversity. How did you achieve this?

Bauer-Maglin: We let the internet do its work. People saw the call for contributors and sent it to other people who sent it to more people. 

Dan and I are dating, and one of the reasons I wanted him to co-edit the book with me was because he could reach out to men in a way that I could not. Although we are both white and straight, we did reach out to people of color and the LGBTQ+ community to ensure that the book reflected a range of diverse and varied perspectives. 

Unfortunately, the book is not as diverse in terms of class. The contributors are all middle- or upper-middle class college-educated professionals, most now retired. Some of their essays describe the desire to maintain two homes, one for each partner—which you can’t do if you don’t have money and need to economize.

“Even though many of the women writers had been on multiple dates that led nowhere, they were not bitter. Many did not see dating as a waste of time. They felt each encounter was an adventure,” said Nan Bauer-Maglin. “After my husband died, I went on Match and one of the men in his 60s wrote that he was looking for a woman his age. It was so refreshing.” (Courtesy)

Bader: Did you have an explicit set of topics that you wanted the essays to explore? Were they any unexpected revelations?

Bauer-Maglin: I’ve co-edited eight previous collections—about step-parenting, death, widowhood, feminism and retirement—and I never know what I’m going to get or if the essays I receive will work as a book. I always worry that the work will be too repetitive and become tedious. 

This effort could have failed but, overall, I am really happy with the amount of variation in the collection. People do tell somewhat similar stories but I’ve found that the individual voices and perspectives add various flavors so each story reveals a freshness that keeps readers engaged as well as informed.

In addition, I wanted the anthology to ensure balance. The first part of the book looks at the search for relationships, and the second focuses on what we call “the complications and pleasures” of new liaisons. I worried about this section because I did not want happy stories to dominate. After all, most people don’t find new partners.

As for surprises, well, I was surprised that several men wrote that they did not want a new partner because they still felt attached to their late wives. I did not expect that. It may just be this particular cohort of men—straight guys who were open to writing—but they seemed more attached to the memory of their wives than most of the women contributors. 

Another thing that surprised me is that even though many of the women writers had been on multiple dates that led nowhere, they were not bitter. Many did not see dating as a waste of time. They felt each encounter was an adventure.

Finally, I was surprised that some contributors opted to use pseudonyms. Maybe they did not want their children or grandchildren to know about their feelings or maybe they were afraid of being judged. I did not probe this.

The first part of the book looks at the search for relationships, and the second focuses on what we call ‘the complications and pleasures’ of new liaisons.

Bader: Did you and Daniel see eye-to-eye on the collection? Were there any conflicts over how the book unfolded?

Bauer-Maglin: Dan is a sociologist and author. He is a fabulous editor. He’s a smart guy, who I called on to edit pieces when I felt I could not do what was needed. In some tough cases, he had more patience than me. We’re great collaborators but this was largely my project.

Bader: Almost all of the contributors sought new partners on Match.com or OKCupid and expressed trepidation about online dating. Do you think these sites can do more to cater to older users?

Bauer-Maglin: One of the things I appreciated people writing about was the fact that many of us can be taken in by scammers. Several of the essays caution that when someone says, ‘I love you,’ you need to be aware of your own delusions and heightened expectations.

Another caution I appreciated highlighted the seduction of good writing. People can think they’ve fallen in love because a correspondent writes cleverly or well. It’s good advice not to have too much written back-and-forth with a potential partner. Instead, move quickly to meet in person or over Zoom to see if you’re attracted to each other and if there’s chemistry.

Dr. Helen Fisher, the chief science advisor at Match.com, advises people not to look at more than nine profiles at any one time. From there, she says, it’s important to narrow down your choices and focus. Otherwise, it’s like being in an alluring candy store, where someone else who is potentially better suited to you is always right around the corner.

People can think they’ve fallen in love because a correspondent writes cleverly or well. … Move quickly to meet in person or over Zoom to see if you’re attracted to each other and if there’s chemistry.

Bader: I was surprised that no one mentioned Viagra or sexual difficulties.

Bauer-Maglin: That’s true. But several of the women said that they were having the best sex of their lives now that they’re older. It makes sense. You usually don’t have little children running around the house when you’re a senior. You’re typically retired and don’t have work responsibilities. You can relax more.

Bader: Many of the women did, however, talk about their aging bodies and their fears about being seen by someone new.

Bauer-Maglin: Many men want younger women, and I think one of the strengths of ‘Gray Love‘ is that it describes the way women feel about their bodies. We need more of this openness.

After my husband died, I went on Match and one of the men in his 60s wrote that he was looking for a woman his age. It was so refreshing! Although we were not a match, we’ve become friends. 

Nonetheless, ageism is complicated and both women and men have internalized a bunch of harmful ideas. I have a friend, for example, who does not use her reduced-fare senior MetroCard for the New York City subway when she’s on a date because she does not want to admit her age.

At the same time, we can’t minimize the real issues that arise when you hook up with an aging partner. You have to be willing to own your own aging, as well as accept the aging of someone else. This means addressing illness, decline and eventual death. It can be pretty overwhelming.

Bader: Dating while mourning the loss of a long-term partner due to death or divorce also seems fraught. Some of the essays about this are so poignant.

Bauer-Maglin: One of the pieces I wrote, ‘A Cozy, Crowded Bed,’ talks about the fact that you bring your past relationships into every new one. For me, as long as you can talk about your former partner[s], it’s all good. You can’t shrug off a 20- or 30-year relationship. 

After losing a partner, some people feel unloved and having someone desire them is necessary to their sense of self and helps elevate their self-esteem. Other people feel differently, like a new relationship can’t possibly fill the void of what was lost. It is not one size fits all experience.

One of the lessons of the book, I think, is that after a long relationship ends, nothing can replace it. You simply have to learn to enjoy what you can and appreciate the things that give you pleasure and not try to remake a new partner.  

You usually don’t have little children running around the house when you’re a senior. You’re typically retired and don’t have work responsibilities. You can relax more.

Bader: Are there other lessons you’re hoping Gray Love will impart?

Bauer-Maglin: I hope that younger readers will learn that older people have desires and still want to date and have romantic relationships. I hope that they will see that older people do not want to spend the rest of their lives longing for a person who is no longer there.

I also hope that the book helps older people figure out how to deal with online dating and decide whether or not to continue down this road. 

Then there’s the issue of living arrangements. While some people in the book got married again or simply moved in with a new partner, many opted for intimate relationships with separate living arrangements. This seems like a necessary recognition that, at some point, we’re all going to be alone.

Up next:

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.

About

Eleanor J. Bader is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y., who writes for Truthout, Lilith Magazine and Blog, the LA Review of Books, Fiction Writers Review, The Indypendent, and The Progressive. She tweets at @eleanorjbader1 .