Thinking About Passion (or how Ed Sheeran Ruined my Middle-Aged Zen)
I have been thinking a great deal lately about passion. Both sexual passion and emotional passion. I turned 50 in March of this year, which started this contemplative period, which has only grown in intensity since my oldest child left for college in August. Turning 50 has felt a lot more profound as a life transition than turning 40 did. At 40, my kids were 9 and 5 and I was two years into a relatively new relationship. Life was hectic with family responsibilities and work, the kids and I had only been living for about a year with my now-second husband in a new-to-us home and I was developing a deep connection with the community of families and teachers at my kids’ small Quaker school. I simply didn’t have the time or the energy for existential angst.
50 though. . . 50 just feels different.
My oldest is away from home, my youngest is now 15 and relatively self-contained, my husband and I have now been together for 12 years and I have been at my current job for 4 ½ years. Leaving the tight-knit community of my children’s elementary school has left me with a multitude of lovely Facebook contacts but very little face-to-face time with close friends, all of whom seem to suffer as much as I do with the condition of “busyness.” Long work hours has made it harder and harder for me to find time for my art and the local arts community, which used to bring a certain amount of balance to my life. I have started questioning everything in my life and missing something I hadn’t longed for in decades—my early 20s.
Watching my oldest child enter my favorite years of life has been bittersweet. I want him to love his college years as much as I did. That glorious four year period where the world feels like a giant candy store, you are surrounded by new people to explore and connect with and where most of us experience our first real taste of freedom and independence. College also provide many of us with the opportunity to truly invent ourselves. But my son and I are different people and it is a different time. He is quiet and reserved and growing up in an age where electronics have started to replace human connection. I find myself a little sad for him that he does not want to be up until 2 am talking with his floor mates about their hopes and dreams or what music they are listening to, nor does he seem to have any real desire to fall head over heels in love or even lust. He describes love and sex as possible items for his sophomore year to-do list with same (and at times, even less) enthusiasm as he does which classes he hopes to take next year. Right now, love and sex all just seem to sound exhausting and, well, “messy” to him.
I miss messy. I miss feeling young and sexy and reckless with a multitude of choices and possibilities ahead of me. I miss intense late night talks with friends who could maybe become more than friends, I miss dancing until 2 am, flirting, impulsive and spontaneous decisions and that feeling that although “adult” responsibilities were looming out there somewhere, they could still be held at bay just a little bit longer. Most of all, I miss passion.
I miss, with a longing that is almost physical some days, the passion of my own feelings at that age, as well as feeling like I was the object of someone else’s passion. I distinctly remember those feelings of passion about lovers, about my politics, about my plans for the future, about the world. I remember that emotional intensity, that almost crazy, obsessive quality to love that you only really get to experience in your 20s because your relationships are relatively short and your primary romantic relationships have not started to revolve around the relentless and mundane tasks of laundry, grocery shopping and child-care. You aren’t yet worried about mortgages or the rising cost of college or whether you have enough put away for retirement. I start to understand why affairs are so attractive to some people—they get to connect with someone else emotionally and/or sexually and not have to ask for the 8,543rd time, “So what do you want to have for dinner tonight?”
Just at the edge of my consciousness is the notion that the loss of passion at a woman’s midlife seems to be caused by a constellation of factors. This loss feels partially hormonal, as we ride the roller coaster of menopause, developmental as our life space and roles change, relational (both with ourselves and others, and especially with our intimate partners) and heightened by our growing sense that the best years of our lives– or at least the most exciting– might really be behind us. Perhaps midlife is a time of awakening that makes us see our lives clearly for what they have become. I know deep in my bones that I cannot be the only women my age examining every inch of my life with a magnifying glass, wondering where the bright, vibrant person I was in my 20’s and early 30’s has disappeared to.
Over the months, I have become more and more curious about how other 50-something year old women negotiate this period. As I do not a lot of daily contact with women my own age (and I wasn’t sure that I was ready to discuss my increasing restlessness with my life with the people around me) I decided to crowd-source my questions about passion at midlife to a closed group of well-educated but otherwise diverse women over 40 on Facebook, some of whom I knew earlier in my life, some of whom are (pardon the expression) virtual strangers. I asked them deeply personal questions such as “What role does passion– physical or emotional– still play in your life?”, “What role do you want it to play?” and I asked if others missed feeling seen and appreciated and desirable.
Let’s just say that the question was provocative and timely. Countless women responded thoughtfully and honestly to my questions (it generated 14 pages of replies, as well as replies to replies, with new comments and dialogue still popping up 18 days later.) The answers to my questions have been as diverse as the women themselves. Many women deeply feel—and mourn- the loss of passion in their most intimate relationships and have seriously contemplated whether they want to stay or leave long marriages/relationships. Some women have already left these relationships and are happily single while others are out exploring their sexual freedom. Some are unhappily single, having been the partner left behind. Some women have actively revitalized or come to terms with their long-term relationships, recommending books as varied as The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts by Gary Chapman, Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel and The Grown-up Marriage by Judith Viorst. The respondants recommended TedTalks, podcasts such as Savage Lovecast, about love, sex, and relationships and on-line classes through Landmark Education that helped them assess what they really wanted for their lives before making big career and/or lifestyle changes.
My questions evoked deep discussion about monogamy and whether one partner/person can truly ever meet all of our needs, emotional and physical, or whether we are unfair and/or unrealistic to think that this is even possible. Some recommended polyamorous relationships, others greater reliance on friendships to meet our need for deep emotional connection. Several women from other cultures shared how they balance their native cultural norms about marriage and relationships with their own physical and emotional needs. Some respondents worry whether they have crossed the line from “spouse” to “roommate” in their most intimate relationships and wonder whether they really can live with this for the rest of their lives.
A common theme that emerged is the desire to be seen—truly seen- and acknowledged. I am one of those women who feels that midlife has caused me to grow increasingly invisible to the world in ways I find disturbing and unsettling. I can also feel this creeping invisibility in my personal and work relationships, often feeling reduced to my roles (I never set out to be “mom” to anyone other than my biological children!) or to stereotypes about middle-aged women, as though everyone around me, including myself, has forgotten that I am smart, interesting, beautiful and vital in my own way.
I have been married before and know from experience how easy it can become to unconsciously drift from lovers to parenting partners or lovers to roommates. It feels frighteningly easy in our long-term relationships to become perfunctory, stating “I love you” out of routine, out of habit, rarely asking ourselves, “Is this really how I feel?” “Am I being sincere and earnest when I say this?” Am I still meaning, “I am in love with you and still choose you” versus “I love you as a human being and have appropriate concern for your welfare?” It is interesting to consider what most of us need and/or hope for when someone tells us they love us. Maybe not everyone needs this to mean more than “I care about your welfare and I am not going anywhere.” Maybe a year ago, I didn’t need to think so deeply about it. Maybe this is really my restless inner 20 year old, gripping her fingers tightly to the door frame, not ready to be put to bed once and for all, screaming “I want MORE,” rather than the mature 50 year-old me, who may at some point in the near future start doing the driving of my emotions again.
There have been some replies to my questions about passion that touched on the unrealistic expectations that we are provided with about love, courtship, marriage and/or long-term relationships by novels, TV, movies and popular music. On the one hand, I don’t know how often I ever see depiction of my life in popular culture. I am a 50 year old, overweight, twice married bisexual woman with a high intensity job, two kids, a nose ring, and eight ear piercings, who rarely had trouble getting laid when I was single. Believe it or not, you really don’t have to be a size 2 for someone to want to have sex with you! Self-confidence and generosity in bed are surprisingly sexy. In fact, my longest periods of celibacy were actually during long-term relationships, but that is probably a story for another day. Have you seen someone like me on TV? No?! Maybe this is part of why I feel so invisible. On the other hand, there may be something to this over-romanticizing of love, relationships and marriage in popular culture, as I mentally subtitled this blog post as “Contemplating passion in my 50’s or How Ed Sheeran ruined my middle age zen” before I even wrote a word.
I have been spending a lot of time listening to music lately. I play it almost constantly at work as it helps block out background noise and I am increasingly playing music at home. I have always been drawn to music that either 1) makes me want to dance; 2) makes me want to sing along loudly and/or 3) makes me feel. Preferably deeply. I will listen to almost any music with the exception of heavy metal or polka music (don’t ask), but my deepest fondness is for what I like to refer to as “achingly beautiful” music. The kind that makes my 20- and 30-something work colleagues depressed when they come to my office to ask me questions. This is the kind of music that I listen to almost constantly when I am in a contemplative mood, deep in my head. Whether I am unconsciously creating a life “soundtrack” that is reflecting my inner state or whether I am exacerbating my contemplative mood by listening to this kind of music is up for debate.
I was talking to someone about my recent nostalgia for my 20s and she asked what music from that time was I listening to. She logically enough assumed that I would naturally gravitate to the music of my youth, but that has really not been the case. I did go through a month-long period of listening to Purple Rain and 1999 after the unexpectedly profound death of Prince earlier this year. Actually, in the interest of full disclosure, I should own that I basically cried for two solid weeks after his death, partially at the loss of his musical genius, partially for the loss of the soundtrack of my late teens and early 20s. I still can’t listen to D’Angelo and Maya Rudolf’s singing Sometimes It Snows in April in a Tonight Show tribute without dissolving into a puddle of tears and menopausal hormones.
As I share an iTunes account with two teenagers, I actually find myself listening to a lot of current pop music. Of the three of us, I am certainly the most likely to listen to the “gives you the feels” angsty 20-something singer-songwriters like Ed Sheeran, Shawn Mendes, and James Bay. Or maybe I’ll listen to Sam Smith or Adele (there is a great Facebook meme going around this week that says “Adele Got Me Missin’ A Man I Don’t Even Have.” Truth.) If I am feeling a little more mature, I may round this out with some Erick Baker (Unbroken Promise is sexy and poetic and someone should be singing this to every middle age woman I know:”Baby take off your coat, And I’ll loosen my tie, You are far too beautiful, For us to turn off the lights, Your December skin, And a trail of our clothes, You can keep your socks on, If your feet are cold”), Damien Rice, or Chris Stapleton (because nothing says feel-good mood like “Whisky and You”, right!?)
The problem with a singer songwriter like Ed Sheeran is that he perfectly captures what I am missing about my 20s, while still seeming really sweet and innocuous while he is doing it. He seems nice, he’s so adorable you want to squeeze his cheeks, he has a Matisse tattoo in honor of his mom and he rips my heart out every damn time I listen to him sing. Even Spotify has him on a Playlist entitled “Life Sucks” because of his song, Small Bump, a beautiful heart-felt tribute to friends who lost a baby. I know that listening to this music perpetuates the (probably) unrealistic idea that I should still be the object of such fevered passion—or even able to bestow it on another— at 50. Not fair. It probably also does not elevate my mood but when I try to listen to more upbeat music I just end up irritable. I blame this on my hormones. And Ed, Ed, Ed—what is the deal with singing in Thinking Out Loud “And darling I will be loving you ’til we’re 70”?! Like 70 is soooooo old! Only a 25 year old still thinks 70 is old. The rest of us know better and need a life partner who is willing to hang in there until let’s say at least 85, at a bare minimum!
In any case, the responses to my questions about passion have definitely been thought-provoking for me when thinking about my own marriage and my other emotionally intimate relationships. Maybe passion is less a naturally occurring feeling than a state of being that two people need to work together to actively create and maintain. I can see ways that I have not been giving my best effort and that when I am deep in my head being contemplative, I can become passive in relationships that I once willingly chose with optimism and the hope that they can sustain me for the rest of my life. I can’t create or rebuild passion all on my own, but it is incumbent upon to me to figure out what doing “my fair share” means when I am the one doing the whining about the lack of passion in my relationships—even if it means doing more than my fair share for a time- before declaring passion completely lost.
Sometimes, I am not even sure that my lamentations about the death of my 20s and the lack of passion in my life are even relationship issues, or at least, not necessarily relationship issues with others. I am questioning everything in my life right now and struggling to determine what it is that I want for myself outside of my roles of “mom” or “employee” or “co-worker” or “wife” or “friend.” My sense remains that this reassessment is as much developmental as relational.
I truly feel that this deep sense of loss I have about the lack of passion in my life, this burning desire for more, is at least 50% about me wanting to feel passionately in love with myself again and in love with my life. I am starting to pursue things that nurture my soul, such as taking voice lessons, picking up the guitar again, writing these personal essays and trying to honor the belief that my voice is important. That I deserve to be heard. That I deserve to be seen. That my visibility in the world, in my relationships, like passion, may be less a naturally occurring phenomena and instead a state of being that I can nurture and grow.
Passion is something that we need to kindle and maintain in our relationships with ourselves. Maybe it is even more important in this relationship as we enter our 50’s. I think that feeling passionate about ourselves– allowing ourselves to embrace it and to prioritize it– must be an active choice. It takes work and commitment and maybe nerve to say “my happiness about myself as a human being, about myself as a woman, is just as important as the happiness of all these people I feel responsible for.” I choose passion. Isn’t passion what being brave and reckless is all about?