The Freemale: Single and Happy

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Daily Express, 23 August 2012

The second long-term relationship of my life has drawn to a close and I find I’m part of a social phenomenon – the growing number of women who are single in their, ahem, older years. There’s a name for us: the freemales. Nearly a third of women are living alone by the time they reach retirement age, according to the Office for National Statistics – a huge rise from a generation ago.

In earlier times they were alone mainly due to bereavement – as women tend to outlive men – but now it’s because of the rising rate of divorce and relationship breakdown amongst older people. This boom in ‘silver separations’ is powered by the realisation that, with most of us living so much longer these days, there’s a big chunk of active life left after entering our sixties. Why spend it with the wrong person?

Having been around the block a few times, I admit I’m a little jaded where men are concerned. Are they more trouble than they’re worth? Discuss.

Sure, they have their uses in your life. Lifting heavy furniture. Car maintenance. Removing spiders from the bath. Not to mention the old slap and tickle. But as a reliable long-term prospect, a worthy recipient of your devotion and commitment? I wonder. I’ve no idea whether there will be a Mr. Number Three for me. I hope so. But of one thing I’m certain: the rules of the game will have to change. Because ‘what women want’ – as the title of that Mel Gibson romcom has it – can be very different at 50 or 60, to what it is at 30.

Relationship psychologist Susan Quilliam puts it this way: ‘Older women are less idealistic than younger women. They don’t necessarily want romance and marriage, but rather someone they get on with, who is trustworthy and loyal and will honour their existing support network – children, grandchildren, friends.’ Exactly.

My neighbour Marion is 63 and has been hoping to find a man who fits Quilliam’s description since she was widowed a decade ago. She’s been on dates with a variety of men but none of them appealed. ‘Maybe I’ve just become too demanding,’ she mused recently. ‘I’m set in my ways after so many years on my own and not prepared to compromise. I don’t know if I could live with a man again and put up with his irritating habits.’

According to Quilliam, her attitude is characteristic of the older single woman, because the hormonal balance alters after menopause and women become less malleable. But there is a dilemma: ‘These women are less willing to give way, but at the same time there are many more single women than single men in the older age groups, so they may fear they’re in a buyer’s market and can’t afford to be too fussy. This pull between wanting a better companion than the last one and believing that the odds are stacked against finding him can be distressing.’

Tell me about it. My last prolonged stint as a single woman, following my divorce at the age of 40, was proof enough that the world is full of unsuitable men. But the difference between then and now is that, being older and wiser, I can spot a frog at fifty paces – I don’t even have to pucker up. And unlike my younger self, I don’t feel an underlying urge to have an ‘other half’. Better to be alone than lumbered with another wrong ‘un.

Quilliam agrees. ‘At the end of a long-term relationship the older woman is often relieved to be single again and glad to get her life back. The last thing she wants is another partner.’

But what of older men? What do they want on their return to a single life and the dreaded dating scene? It seems to me that, as long as they are nominally sane, post-divorce men get snapped up very quickly – even the bald, paunchy ones with debts. There are single women so eager to be part of a couple that they will take whatever’s going.

My friend James, single since separating from his second wife several years ago, has been enjoying liaisons with a couple of much younger women. ‘I needed light relief after my last wife,’ he says.’ Not serious commitment.’

But he’s unusual. It’s clear that most older men prefer to be married or in a live-in relationship to being the proverbial man-about-town playing the field. Apart from anything else, he might wish to start another family – clearly not an option for an older woman – or just want someone to step into his ex-wife’s shoes, look after him and be his ‘best friend’.

Perhaps some women don’t mind being the replacement for an ex. But others are looking for a partnership of equals. We are, after all, the women of the baby boomer generation. Back in the Sixties and Seventies, in our mould-breaking, mini-skirt-wearing youth, our determination and aspirations set the stage for female emancipation. We knew decades ago that we don’t need a man to give us purpose and validity. And it’s a truth we have not forgotten.

So, as I join my freemale sisters, I’m feeling fairly upbeat. Men? They come and they go. Whatever the future holds, bring it on.

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