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Single and smiling: The extinction of the spinster

40 percent of Americans over the age of 45 are single. They are active, independent and they are NOT alone.  

By Amber McKenna, Emerita
February, 2012 

A spinster is defined as a woman who is unmarried beyond the usual age of marriage. Spinster used to go hand in hand with the term “old maid.” A negative connotation was always associated with this term.

Yet, today there are 36.2 million Americans over the age of 45 who are single. They are traveling, acquiring education, thriving in their careers and pursuing their passions.

These women, though, are also open to partnership—with the right person. It seems with life experience comes some hard-earned lessons in how to date and what to look for in your match.

Woman walking alone 

Reality for one

Magazines and self-help books are chock-full of dating tips like “5 ways to flirt without being obvious” or “Hairstyles that will guarantee a second date,” plus there are entire TV shows built around watching others hunt for love in idyllic settings, like “The Bachelorette” and “Millionaire Matchmaker.”

The online dating industry constantly pulls in millions of hopeful singles and mountains of profit—$957 million in 2008. The number of matchmaking sites continue to grow, as do their users.

And it’s no wonder why. It is estimated that 40 percent of marriages in the United States end in divorce and 49 percent of marriages involve a remarriage for one or both spouses. One in 20 Americans have been married three times or more.

To top it off, out of the 97 million Americans over the age of 45, 36.2 million, or 40 percent, of them are single. It can seem overwhelming.

Real-time women

Meet Nancy Wurtzel. At 56, Nancy has much in common with other women her age. She has a daughter in college and a mother with Alzheimer’s. 

Nancy is on her own, and after being divorced for a year and a half from a 21-year marriage, is ready to start dating again.

“After living in California for 33 years I recently relocated back to my hometown in Minnesota to take care of my 91-year-old mother who has moderate dementia,” Nancy said. “I came from Los Angeles to a town of 4,300 people.”

With decades of public relations work under her belt, Nancy decided to start a blog and titled it Dating Dementia: Single woman making big changes in midlife. She said the point of her blog was not to focus specifically on divorce but about exploring the humor and happenings in this transitional time of her life.

And then there’s the blogger know as TAE. She turns 30 this month and took a new job in therapy in Oregon. TAE pens the blog SPINstir: For every girl hunting her unicorn. She was a self-described serial monogamist from a young age, but has spent the better part of the past seven years in various “pseudo relationships.”

TAE said that, when talking to her friends about the ups and downs of dating, she heard similar stories from many of them—even happy couples and same-sex couples—everyone had similar drama.

“There’s something about trying to blend one identity with another at this age that, for one reason or another, seems like an insurmountable task,” TAE said.

Dating Dementia Banner 

The singledom sisterhood

These two bloggers don’t know each other and have starkly different lives, but share one trait: They are both single and enjoying it. They haven’t given up hope of finding love again, but they have shifted their priorities to focus on themselves.

Nancy is starting fresh at a time when most of her peers are celebrating 30 years of marriage, and TAE is going through a period where most friends are getting swept up in the wave of constant weddings and baby showers.

Another element these women have in common is their outlook on dating. Both say their standards and expectations have drastically changed in comparison to past potential suitors.

“When you’re younger, looks are more important,” Nancy said, “The man I married is very handsome, 10-years older, great career, charming—all that meant a lot for me.”

Nancy said in the future she hopes to find someone with a similar world view and pleasing personality, who can takes care of them self.

“I’m looking for somebody who’s in my corner and thinks I’m a really neat person…someone who likes to do the same things I do, but not all of the same things,” Nancy said. “Now it’s less of the external and more of the internal.”

Most of all Nancy said when she does start dating, she doesn’t want to waste her time with someone who isn’t willing to make a commitment.

“Back in the ’80s that happened a lot,” she said. “If we’re going to have a relationship, they are going to have to make a commitment to it.”

For TAE, the past few years of dating during her twenties have served as a lesson that has taught her a lot about what she wants and doesn’t want.

“I am more clear about who I am and what I want out of a partnership,” she said. “I know what I’ll just ‘hang out’ with and what I’ll invite into my life.”

TAE said her dealmakers and deal breakers have changed quite a bit.

“Five years ago it would have been like ‘you’re a barista? OK!’ but now he has to have a real job, or be in active pursuit,” she said.

She said emotional availability, maturity, communication and compatibility are the things she now requires in a relationship.

“We define ourselves by our relationships and I didn’t realize the value in holding my life independently,” TAE said. “Nobody is going to stop me from living my life the way I want to now, because I’ve put up with a lot of bullshit.”

Spinstir Banner 

Open mind, different this time

How does one get back on the proverbial saddle that is the dating game? Nancy’s plan is to put herself out there by traveling and meeting new people.

“I have a friend who lives outside New York City, she said I could come and live there for a while—I love NYC,” she said. “Then, I plan on going to either Italy or France to do some volunteering on organic farms.”

Nancy said she’s not against online dating, but isn’t sure if that is the method that makes sense for her right now—especially after relocating to a small, rural community. At present she’s focusing on writing and spending time with her mother.

“I have to be as open as I can,” she said. “I may go online next year and focus on the Twin Cities area; I think I could probably connect with someone.”

TAE said she recently relocated from a busy metropolitan area to a mid-sized college town to take a step forward in her career. She sees this change as a chance to go into dating with a different mindset. She said before it felt like the dating scene always circulated around meeting friends of friends at a bar or a party.

 “I think I’ll have more traction by pursuing the things that are interesting and important to me,” TAE said. “Literature events, taking classes—those are the settings where your people are and you already know you have something in common, something to build on.”

For a while, TAE said she’s giving online dating a shot, but sees those meetings more as “practice” dates.

“Just practicing the act of thinking about an exchange in and of itself—like, we’re just having a conversation—because usually I start thinking too hard after five minutes,” TAE said. “It has been a really good exercise of experiencing people and letting them go.”

Advice from the non-spinsters

TAE said she plans to spend this time in life pursuing her values.

“There are so many other things I’m fulfilled from now, rather than dealing with someone who, frankly, isn’t worth it,” TAE said. “My attention and intention is to cultivate myself right now and if someone comes along, someone comes along.”

She hopes to focus on her career and other interests for now and take dating opportunities as they present themselves.

“I don’t want to die alone for sure, but I think love is inevitable,” TAE said.

Nancy said she thinks people who date a lot are doing the right thing. This time around she plans to concentrate on seeking out someone who makes her laugh and who she can rely on day-to-day.

“Passion does fade because you can only keep it up so long,” she said. “Being supportive and being friends really counts a lot.”

Nancy said she’s going to do her best to be open to ideas and opportunities, yet still plans to make smart decisions. She said she knows herself better now and is not one to waste time dating someone if it’s not going anywhere.

“I have a long-time friend who has been married 37 years and she told me ‘Nancy, you’re at the dating buffet and you want to sample—take a little plate and try a couple things here and a couple things there, sample,’” she said. “You want to think wisely before you make a commitment, and I want to choose wisely the second time.”

One-size doesn’t fit all

So, this is what the new spinster looks like. She’s happily independent, empowered and bravely taking on new opportunities as they come. Table for one? No problem.

all the single ladies All the single ladies...like Beyonce sings it.