Sexual Wellness Resource Center
For Adults over 50.

What can we expect from heterosexual online dating in middle and older age?

Older Dating Couple
By Michael Bates, M.D.

Becoming single again, through divorce or widowhood, is an emotionally life changing experience. As research shows, men and women live this transition in different ways. Although both genders face higher rates of late life divorce now than previous generations, widowhood still affects more women than men. In contrast to women, men experience, in general, higher levels of depression going through divorce or widowhood, but they recover at a faster pace.

Although timetables may differ, the fact is that many men and women eventually start contemplating the possibility of dating again. Finding a partner, however, is not an easy task. Our social networks, as middle and older adults, are likely to be smaller than younger adults. Middle-aged adults, for instance, probably find that many of their acquaintances are married, thus limiting their chances of partnering. The more traditional ways of meeting someone do not appeal to many of us. Faced with limited dating markets, we are more willing to use online dating

The stereotype of aging adults is that we lack interest in intimate, sexual relationships. Contrary to this extended belief, research shows that many unmarried middle-aged and older adults aspire to date again and have the desire of companionship. In fact, reports from the industry show that online dating has become the most common way for middle and older adults to meet marital partners. Match.com, for instance, acknowledges that the age group of those who are 50 and over is the fastest growing demographic. Little is still known, however, about how our generation engages in online dating, our hopes, expectations and overall experience of searching for a partner in the virtual world.

According to researchers, middle-aged and older adults play by different norms, expectations and dynamics about gender when dating, compared to the younger generations. What is interesting, though, is that the new modes of interaction developed online can help us to challenge, overcome or modify those more traditional gendered rules. Women, according to research, feel more in control over the process when using online dating, and initiate contact with men more often than in the offline world. 

These changes in social behavior open new venues for more egalitarian interactions with men, and set a different, less conservative ground for future relationships. Relatedly, many widows, feeling free from the more traditional responsibility of taking care of their husbands, report that they are ready to explore their own desires, and are reluctant to be tied again to a man in a conventional marriage arrangement. Online dating services can help women to develop new forms of relationship with the other sex, challenging stereotypes and prejudices about gender and age.

In contrast to women, men, as they age, tend to seek a partner who can replicate gender relations that mirror past relationships, particularly for those with more traditional views of marriage. Besides, many widowers are prone to remarry to find emotional support and stability. Women, in general, have wider social support than men, and desire companionship without the obligation of taking care of the other person.

Research on online dating also reveals that men emphasize physical attractiveness. Older online daters prefer women 10 years younger. Women, in contrast, value intelligence and socioeconomic status over attractiveness in men. They prefer men their own age or older. There is, however, a limit in the age gap between men and women. Late in life, women seek younger males, probably to still enjoy an active lifestyle.

Online daters are also very concerned about their self-presentation, particularly regarding age. Actually, age is one of the main features to select potential mates in online dating services. Daters understand that others will look for cues in their pictures and descriptions to assess whether or not they are desirable partners.

The devaluation of age forces people to consider the dilemma of being authentic and disclosing the real age or concealing it to attract potential daters. For many online daters in middle and later life the option is clear: underreport their age. One reason may be to increase the chances of getting a date. Another reason, however, may be our self-perception of feeling younger than we really are.

We can also play with age in online dating profiles, by constructing a more youthful identity, with descriptions and pictures of different activities.

Besides portraying age in more social acceptable ways, heterosexual men and women also play normative gender roles in the online dating scenario. Women try to show a youthful femininity to attract men, and men emphasize their masculine power through manhood acts (such as showing their financial and professional successes).

All these facts point to the different motivations that lead heterosexual men and women over fifty to resort to online dating services. Men regard online dating as a setting to expand their options to meet someone, and make a smoother transition to a new relationship.

Women deal with different limitations than men in the online dating scenario. In the offline world, women do not have many available male partners in their social networks, so the online world seems more appealing to find a mate. In the cyberworld, women enjoy more freedom to control the relationship: the pace, the goals and when and how to terminate the interaction. Online dating is, thus, an interesting setting to explore new aspects of the self for women.

It is certainly difficult to meet a long-term companion online, taking into consideration the stereotypes about age and physical beauty. However, I think it is worth to try online dating in a more playful way, not taking the experience too seriously, and being aware of the limitations of selecting people, not face to face, but only on the basis of their own self-descriptions.

Sources

McWilliams, S. & Barrett, A.E. (2014). Online dating in middle and later Life: Gendered Expectations and Experiences. Journal of Family Issues, 35(3) 411–436.

 

About the Author

Michael Bates, M.D.

Dr Bates practiced obstetrics and gynecology for 34 years in Wichita, Kansas, until his retirement in 2011.

You might also enjoy...