What You Can Learn About Dating From Older People

by Cathy Vandewater

Generation Y is pretty big on snap decisions. On Tinder, we use knee-jerk "X" or "<3" buttons in response to a picture on the internet that decides whether someone can contact us, or disappears from our radar forever. If we do swipe right, it's straight to a one-on-one date where we'll probably have to make a decision about physical intimacy that night, be it a kiss on the cheek or full sex. Speed in dating decisions is so expected now that 'needing time to get know someone before wanting to be naked with them' is now a qualifier for a sexual orientation (demisexuality). After talking to a few 55+ year-olds, I now realize just how new (and ludicrous) the way millennials date is. That's not to say that the one night stand is anything new (those haven't changed much). But the whole way we start and conduct our serious relationships seems mainly based on superficial criteria and decisions that we make so... fast.

The world of dating described to me by 50 and 60-somethings sounds totally different. They remember "pre-dates": group outings where you could get to know the friends of your friends before committing to alone time with them. Not only does this seem like a safer way to do things (vetting the person ahead of time via friends, and also being in a group setting in case they turned out to be creeps), it was also a low pressure way to see if you liked someone before having to worry about kissing them two hours after meeting. You could establish a friendship and let attraction develop naturally, if that was in the cards.

If attraction didn't develop, well, a slower pace took care of that too: uninterested parties could just gracefully pretend to be busy a few times from the safe distance of a landline. (My dad remembers girls un-ironically telling him they needed to wash their hair the second and third times he called to ask them out. Burn. Sorry, dad. But he was grateful to have gotten the message without unnecessary cruelty, like ghosting, or the agony of staring at unanswered texts. #moderndating).

Curious, I asked four different 50 and 60-somethings (two men and two women, all married for 30+ years) about dating to see if we could learn something about pre-internet courtship; what worked, what didn't work, and how they'd do things different now.

Here's what they had to say:

1. Don't Make Your Dating Decisions Based On Looks, Because Those Are The Least-Permanent Part of The Package

Rob*, 62, says his outlook on dating hasn't really changed except that "looks aren't the most important concern" anymore. "Education, personal outlook, psychology are all more important. "I don't think people change," he says.

And that advice goes for you too. "Don't ever think you can change someone to fit your idea of an acceptable partner," says Cheryl* (age 58), "and never feel you have to change who you are to "fit" into a relationship."

Jane* (also 58) agrees, noting that the characteristics that drew her to her spouse in college — "sense of humor, friendliness, [and] genuineness--have "not changed." Which leads us to believe that this rule is also probably true of less lovely traits like 'messiness' and 'serious gambling problem.' Choose carefully, kids.

2. Realize That It's "It's All Smoke And Mirrors" In The Beginning

Don't trust those initial impressions. "It takes a long time to know someone," says Rob, and "you can't trust everyone."

Everything feels personal on those first few dates, but remember: you're getting the version of the person they want you to see, warns Cheryl. "So many people have agendas and baggage," she says. She advises you to "exercise caution and common sense," especially when internet dating. "Even be somewhat cynical to stay safe and weed out the crazies."

Sean*, 61, supports a cautious approach. "In this day and age, it is not wrong to check the other person out a little bit." We'll take that as full permission to Facebook stalk. But if you do do some investigating, don't worry too much if you find out they like Nickelback. "What people think they should have in common are things that don't really matter anyway," says Jane. "Life philosophies, goals, moral values, and principles are what matters. Who cares about someone's hobbies? Each is entitled to his own."

3. But If You Do Feel You Can Trust Someone, That's A Good Sign

Cheryl met her husband of three decades through friends and kept talking to him despite living in different states for very simple reasons: he seemed sincere, and was easy to talk to. "He had a friendly personality. When he said he'd call me, I somehow knew he would. It wasn't just a line. We talked about a variety of interesting topics."

Rob had similar first impressions of his spouse, remembering that she was "friendly, positive, smiled a lot. 100 percent up front."

The basics truly are important, despite being less exciting than a flashy Instagram account.

4. Open Your Mind About Who's Right For You

"The older you get the more you realize it's just all toss of the coin," says Rob. He says that over the years he's seen tons of "perfect" matches go through messy divorces, and plenty of odd-couple pairings stand the test of time.

To improve your odds, he says, focus on the day-to-day compatibility. "You better enjoy each other's company and have a lot of things you like to do in common. If you're think it's all about romantic candlelit dinners it's going to be a disappointment."

As far as sussing out the right person in the first place, "Forget about Mr. [or Mrs.] Right," says Jane. "Get rid of preconceived notions and just enjoy being with other people." She suggests women make a lot of friends— and meet their friends — as a way to get to know lots of other people with no pressure.

And don't try to rule people out too early. Cheryl says, "Consider people with different backgrounds, personalities, and life experiences." She also suggests spending as much time on having experiences of your own: "Learn about yourself. Take your time and don't rush into serious relationships and don't commit for the wrong reasons."

5. Obey Gut Feelings

"A good relationship is never perfect—there is no such thing. But it must make you feel content and happy as the relationship develops," says Cheryl.

Jane says, "Go out with someone with whom you feel comfortable with and can your gut instincts. It if doesn't feel right, it probably isn't! I have been in a few scary situations I wish I could have avoided. The mistakes I made were not getting to know someone well enough before being alone together."

6. Take Your Sweet Time Putting A Ring On It

Not all people from earlier generations are bemoaning Gen Y's tendency to avoid commitment.

"Learn about yourself," advises Cheryl. "Take your time and don't rush into serious relationships, and don't commit for the wrong reasons."

Sean says "dating should be fun and only a little stressful." He advises you to take your time getting into relationships —especially physical ones — before you're actually ready. "I think too many people feel pressured, obligated, or socially coerced into having sex before they are prepared to commit to that person in a more meaningful way. People would enjoy their relationships more, gain real respect for the other person, and maintain more respect for themselves, if they took the time to know and understand the other person."

7. Be Patient

Jane remembers a time when dating was a slow-burn kind of thing. "I met my spouse in a dining hall... we ate many meals together in a group of friends before going out on a date." She thinks couples today tend to "skip all that," and that a time when couples "went for coffee, drinks, or movies" just to get to know each other and see there's chemistry is long over —with people fast-forwarding nowadays.

*Names have been changed

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