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Ellen Burstyn -- Love at 71?

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Part 5 of a serial, "Sex Love Enlightenment." Click here to read previous installments.

We interrupt the story of Billy the Bad to ask: As we grow older, can we find and keep love and sex in a committed relationship? Are we too set in our ways? I mean, every one of us is weird! (I met a divorced doctor recently whose house is full of electric trains!) Or does experience make us wiser and more able to compromise?

Not long ago I was asked by Oprah magazine to write about people who find deep love and lust after 40. I put out the word and interviewed dozens, who ranged from their 40s to their 90s and who'd found a soul mate long after they thought that was possible.

Ellen Burstyn was one of the first I spoke with. For 25 years, she did not go out on a date.

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Why? I wondered.

"Nobody asked me," she said.

"I find that hard to believe," I said. "In 25 years, weren't you attracted to a man, or pursued by one?"

"I was busy living my life." She was working constantly around the world, won an Oscar for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and was nominated for five other films. She enjoyed being with her son, her friends, and her animals. Every so often, she would look around and think, Where are all the men? "I thought it would be great to go home and curl up in someone's lap, but I didn't sit around crying about it. I made a friend of solitude," Ellen says.

But this ease took her decades to attain. In her 20s, she said, she'd been "promiscuous. Since puberty, I'd gone from man to man, and I had three marriages that were all painful and ended in divorce." She knew she had to heal the wounds that kept her repeating the same pattern with men, "so that aspect of myself went into closed shop. I think I built an invisible shield that no one could penetrate."

She worked with a therapist, studied Sufism and reconnected with her Christian roots, which she describes in her book, Lessons in Becoming Myself. When she finally believed she knew how to do it right --"to attract a man who would treat me well and whom I could love," she feared it was too late. "The healing had taken too long." On a whim, she asked a woman friend from the Actors Studio if she knew a man who might be suitable.

"I'll have to think about that," the woman said.

Shortly afterward, this same woman was approached by a Greek actor who had auditioned for Ellen at the Actors Studio when he was 25 and she was 48. He confessed to Ellen's friend that he'd been in love with her for the 23 years since they'd met.

"What?!" Ellen said, when the message was relayed. "The Greek kid?" But he was 48 now, an attractive and successful acting teacher. He sent her an email, which she answered, guardedly. He wrote back, "I don't see the word 'no' in there."

When she continued resisting, he said, "Ellen, this is Eros knocking at your door." (I would repeat this line later to Billy, and not get the same results.) The Greek actor added, "I don't know. Maybe Eros knocks at your door every day?"

She stammered, "No."

"I have a gift with your name on it. Won't you accept it from me?"

Ellen has now been living with the Greek man for five years, in her house on the Hudson River in New York. She says it's been an easy fit, "which is startling because he's from a different culture and a different generation." One reason may be her enlightened approach. "Most of my life, if a man did something totally other than the way I thought it should be done, I would try to correct him. Now I say, 'Oh, isn't that interesting? You do that differently than I do.' It's the biggest thing I've learned," she says. "It allows for a stress-free relationship."

Ellen's challenge has been working with fear of abandonment. "I had so much anxiety in my former relationships -- I was scared of losing men, all of them." She believes there are patterns we can only work on in a relationship, and this is one. "Right now, he's in Greece, teaching, and that brings up anxiety. 'He's away -- what will happen? Somebody else will grab him!' I have to see that and keep releasing those thoughts."

She talks about how age can make love more poignant. "Around 65, I experienced my mortality. Not like 'Oh yeah, I'm gonna die,' but it's a possibility that's there all the time. And once that happens, everything becomes more precious.

"And to be in love!" she says. "To experience the joy of intimacy in the presence of death -- that is delicious. When you're in love you feel so young, and at the same time, you're summing life up. So it's beautiful and rich, and you have to be aware that it's impermanent."

She says that she and her partner joke all the time about funerals and ashes. He told her recently that he was driving home and a song on the radio threw him into a terrible dark place.

"Oh, was I dead again?" Ellen said with a laugh. "Will you stop already?"

She says they don't plan to marry. "We have being in love right now. We know that life is short. Death is certain. And love is real. We're going to enjoy every moment of it."

Please Leave a Comment -- Have you made friends with solitude? How has love -- your experience and understanding of it -- changed with age?

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