01/16/2013 12:47 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2013

Are You Old Enough to Know What Love Is?

I am making a new friend.... I think; you never know about such things until you are actually there, at intimacy. But this friendship is already taking a surprising turn.

I find myself going at it in a very different way from relationship-building in the past. I am still looking for trust, humor, empathy, curiosity -- the same old things I've always looked for -- but the stages I find myself going through to get there are new. Instead of expecting an exchange of life stories, I am enjoying our conversation about our current lives; instead of periodically checking out how she is doing on my Internal checklist of desirable traits, I am suspending judgment in favor of attentiveness; instead of getting impatient after an hour, I am uncharacteristically going with the flow. Time together seems easier and more real than I am used to at this stage of getting to know someone.

For my book How We Love Now: Women Talk about Intimacy after Fifty, I interviewed literally hundreds of women in person and online, and they reported a similar shift in their expectations for all their intimate relationships -- from grandchildren to lovers to friends to long-term partners.

Why is this happening, and why is it happening now -- after 50?

Recalibrating our relationships is part of a much larger adjustment; our whole world view is changing in response to the many opportunities and challenges that come with a totally new stage of life for women. Because we are emerging from the broadened horizons of our adult years healthier, more independent, more confident and more daring than our mothers' generation, we are poised to explore a second adulthood. As we do, we find ourselves shedding some of the trappings of the roles we have played so well -- trying to do it all, trying to please and care for everyone (except ourselves) at once, trying to "measure up."

Instead, we are going for -- as so many women told me -- authenticity:

  • We are learning to say what we think and take the consequences;
  • We are learning to check in with ourselves before committing to something;
  • We are learning to stop being so hard on ourselves, so stressed by so much, to "let it go."

This emerging combination of confidence and mellowness is affecting our intimate relationships.

In the interviews I conducted, I heard over and over again from women who were becoming more forthright, less judgmental of themselves and others, more relaxed about everything and more appreciative of what they had. As they are letting go of regrets and Great Expectations, many other past preoccupations seem trivial. What matters now is the big picture and personal commitments.

The magnitude of this shift is especially dramatic in the stories of new-found love I heard. Instead of rejecting a man who didn't fill the criteria we grew up with -- he had to be taller, older, smarter than we were -- women are exploring an enlarged pool that includes younger or differently educated ("I may have a Ph.D." one woman told me, "but he has a Ph.D. in life") or less flashy candidates. The Bad Boy has lost his charm. Devotion, respect, emotional consistency -- qualities we often associated with a "jerk" in the past -- are to be cherished now (Why did we ever think "playing hard to get" had anything to do with intimacy?).

We don't want to be swept off our feet; we are very happy, thank you, standing on our own two. We don't expect either party to be looking for perfection; it is very lonely on a pedestal and what's more, plaster is not authentic. We aren't looking for a Noah's Ark lifestyle; we know that differences are not a threat to a relationship but an investment in it. We aren't necessarily looking for romance; it would be nice to find that kind of intimacy, but we are discovering so many more equally meaningful and nurturing connections in our lives than we paid attention to in the past -- friends, for sure, grandchildren, work and our own company.

This turn of events goes a long way toward explaining a finding that has mystified social scientists - that we are getting happier as we age, that people in their fifties and sixties are happier than those in their thirties. We are finally old enough to know what love is.