In 2014, I read a column called “What You Learn in Your 40s” in the New York Times. Though I’m not yet in my 40s, I found the piece compelling. It felt like a collection of field notes from the future. Certain phrases especially made it into my thoughts often: “There are no grown-ups. We suspect this when we are younger, but can confirm it only once we are the ones writing books and attending parent-teacher conferences. Everyone is winging it, some just do it more confidently.” and “Forgive your exes, even the awful ones. They were just winging it, too.” among them. Since I first read it, I’ve gone back and re-read it often.
When I saw that the author Pamela Druckerman was coming out with a new book about midlife, I guessed that it was based on the kernel of that column, and I was right.
Although Pamela is married with children, I found her column especially encouraging to me as I thought about my love life (or the lack there-of). The same was true of her book, which also included some fascinating thoughts on how her friendships are different in her 40s (among other things).
The book itself is a sort of survival guide, albeit one seen through a very personal lens. Pamela’s experiences moving to Paris with her husband and raising her family there certainly shape the life she’s had. To temper that, she includes interviews with experts and other people in their 40s and beyond, and the result was a book that I found encouraging and interesting, and I suspect you will, too.
I caught up with Pamela to talk a bit about relationships, aging, and friendship.
Would you talk a bit about how your approach to friendship has changed?
I think, like a lot of people, when I was younger I was so focused on what people thought of me and how I was coming across that I didn’t take the time to really analyze what they were saying, and who they were. I collected a lot of very charismatic, attractive, exciting friends who weren’t necessarily very nice. As I got older, I think that neurotic chatter in my head, didn’t disappear unfortunately, but it’s gone from an 8 to a 3, and so that has improved my friend radar. I had less of this chatter in my head and so I could tune in to other people more. I became a better listener. I realized that people are constantly shedding lots of information about themselves; about who they are; about what they are interested in; about their character. I became better at receiving this.
I also had some history of failed friendships, so I knew what to watch out for more, what kind of behaviors I was allergic to. I realized I have certain criteria for friendship. One of them is that the person be nice, another is that the person have a sense of humor. They don’t have to be a stand-up comic—although that would be nice—but just that they have some distance from themselves— they can laugh at themselves, and at me. So I have a saner collection of people around me now then I did 15 or 20 years ago.
How have your ideas about love and romance changed as you have grown older?
I think it’s related to the changes in friendship, I think I’ve gotten better not just at listening to friends and potential friends but also listening to my partner and getting to know him. It’s funny to talk about getting to know someone that you’ve been together with for 14 or 15 years, but I think I wasn’t always taught to do that, partly as an American. Our model for relationships is this self-actualization model where you look for someone who makes you the best version of yourself— so what you’re thinking about is what they do for you, whereas living in France, I started to notice that there was a different model. People here very much want to self-actualize, to advance their careers, to grow as people, but they don’t think it’s the job of their partnership or their marriage to do that. There’s a subtle conceptual difference in the way that they think about partnerships.
I interviewed this one French woman and she said that she and her husband have very little in common. She loves the theater, she goes to the theater a couple of nights a week with a girlfriend. Her husband hates the theater, he likes to stay at home and fiddle with his computer, play video games, and watch movies. She said they rarely go out together they mostly see each other at home. She’s really organized. She does the taxes, she does everything. He’s kind of dreamy and has this kind of fantasy life that involves sci fi and animation. She doesn’t see this as a problem at all. She said it works really well because he has all these qualities that she lacks. Their children kind of get like the dreamier side plus the more right-brained, organized side. She sees them as kind of puzzle pieces that fit together rather than agents of each other’s self-actualization. They are both self-actualizing, but separately in a way. They don’t see their marriage as being critical to that.
For many members of our audience, finding a romantic partner is top of mind. What might you say to someone in this position?
I heard something many years ago which really stuck with me: “a man will tell you what he wants on the first date.” I thought ‘that’s so interesting because that implies that you’re not listening, that the information is there but you’re so nervous that you’re not picking it up.’ I realized I was doing that. I would say a good dating strategy is to really listen very hard. Don’t worry about planning your next remark. First dates are tense, dating is tense, and early relationships are tense, but just try to pay close attention. I learned this also in improvisational comedy: if you’re just present and you just listen really hard to what the person is saying, it will naturally evolve—the scene or the date will evolve naturally. You don’t have to worry about what comes next, you just have to be present for what’s happening now.
Is there anything that you’ve noticed about what it’s like to have single friends in your forties as opposed to earlier decades?
I have girlfriends who have said ‘you know what? The perfect guy is never going to come along.’ They’ve kind of consciously made a choice that they wouldn’t have made 10 years ago because they feel like they know more about what’s out there and they know themselves better.
I feel like in the early forties there was a lot of anxiety by my single friends to kind of make a decision or make a major life choice or freeze their eggs or get pregnant to get serious about finding a partner, and I think in the later 40s, I just feel like my friends are more settled, that they are more at peace with the decisions they’ve made or they’ve made big choices and they are enjoying the fruits of those choices.
The idea of growing older can be a daunting one. What are some of the gifts that you have discovered in your forties?
I found that I’ve actually managed to learn and grow a little bit. I know things now that I didn’t know 10 years ago. I feel like I probably see the world a bit more clearly, and that, to me, is a recipe for happiness and life satisfaction.
One thing about being single is that you have the joy of infinite options and you can imagine infinite possibilities for your life. I think when you get older there is a certain satisfaction to feeling like you’ve made choices, that all options are not possible. This doesn’t have to be just about your love life, it could be about your career, or your friendships. You’ve made some choices and you get to now enjoy those choices. The future that you’ve been, in theory, preparing yourself for is actually happening now. That’s a little bit scary because when you’re younger it’s all about building your resume and doing things for the future, saving for the future, and then in the forties there’s a feeling that the future has arrived.
As you send this book into the world, what are some of your hopes for your readers?
That they will identify with it. That they will laugh. That it will crystallize for them things that they’ve been experiencing and feeling but haven’t really necessarily put into words. I hope it will start a conversation about aging and midlife, because I think it’s something that everybody thinks about all the time but we don’t always share with other people.
Cara Strickland writes about food and drink, mental health, faith and being single from her home in the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys hot tea, good wine, and deep conversations. She will always want to play with your dog. Connect with her on Twitter @anxiouscook.
Image courtesy: Dmitry Kostyukov