Still single after 40? Sounds suspicious

In the middle-age dating scene, it's better to have married and split than never to have married at all

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

After the ultimatum, there's one more thing you can say to prompt your partner to pop the question.

"Nothing is for sure," you should say. "So if we marry and it doesn't work out, it would be bad, but not so bad." Allow a short pause here. "Because, at a certain point, it is better to have been married and divorced than never to have been married."

Okay, maybe it's not the best or easiest gambit to lob over the table, but there's truth in it. Being divorced may say a person has failed, but it also suggests a number of good characteristics - the most important being the willingness to take an emotional risk.

The decision to marry is always a leap of faith. The clouds do not part to give you a sign from above that this is what you should do.

While a common-law arrangement - the state 15.5 per cent of Canadians are in, according to the latest census - may carry many of the same emotions and commitments, not to mention legal ramifications, in my opinion it does not count as a marriage.

Many people who marry know how the ceremony changes, and deepens, the nature of their relationship. Aside from religious deterrents or a philosophical aversion to marriage, knowing what the sanctified union means, and how it alters everything, is exactly why so many choose not to do it, even though they say they love their partner.

"Common-law relationships provide a back-door escape psychologically," says Barbara Hudson, a relationship coach in Rocky Mountain House, a small community in Alberta. "It's a coping mechanism. It's how we trick ourselves into being okay about the relationship. We figure we can leave more easily."

Marriage, on the other hand, suggests the best of human attributes. It shows an ambition, a conviction in one's ability and a stepping up to serious responsibility. But also the willingness to be swept away by faith in love, a letting go. It's about a surrender to the ideal of forever romance.

Having serial love affairs may be great and fulfilling in the moment, but over decades, a history of romances, live-in or not, that did not result in marriage can make others suspicious.

"Above the age of 40, whether it's a man or a woman, if that person has never been married, it's because there's something going on in their heads," says Gloria MacDonald, principal of Perfect Partners dating service and co-author of Laws of the Jungle: Dating for Women over 40. "Boiled down, it's almost always fear. Fear of something. Fear of being rejected. Fear of a relationship. Fear of intimacy."

Dr. Phil McGraw has weighed in on the problem. On his TV show, he once tried to uncover a fortysomething woman's inability to say "I do" by asking the probing question, "Don't you believe that when you love them, you lose them?" Her high-school sweetheart had died in a car accident. Her father and uncle had also died. Dr. Phil decided that she was afraid to lose another man to whom she was emotionally attached.

In the middle-age dating scene, a lack of marital history can be a red flag.

"I always ask people, 'Are you fine with someone divorced, separated or widowed?' " says Ms. MacDonald, whose Toronto-based company specializes in matching up professionals age 40 and up. "Most people prefer to meet someone divorced rather than someone who has never been married, and that's true for both men and women," she says.

"Women definitely question why I have never married," confesses Dan, a friend who is 48. "I get everything from people thinking I must be gay to saying I am a playboy."

His explanation? Hey, he's a playboy. "I work in a fast-paced business," the creative advertising executive says. "I'm always travelling. I'm meeting lots of people. I am making a lot of money. Life's a party."

Would he be wary of a woman over 40 who has never married? "I probably would be," he says sheepishly, adding that he recognizes he has problems with commitment and he assumes a woman who hasn't married by that age likely has issues, too.

Women who have never married are often subject to speculation that their standards are too high; that they are too ambitious in their professional lives and lack the nurturing gene; that they are unattractive or unreasonably difficult; or that they have been unlucky in relationships that didn't work out, or stayed too long in ones they intuited weren't right, and then discovered they had missed the prime female eligibility window - their 20s and 30s.

As marriage is often viewed as a passive choice for women - it's assumed they have to wait to be asked - many never-married women in their 40s and beyond feel compelled to mention the proposals they turned down.

"The perception is that something is wrong with me," says a friend who is 50. (And yes, she is slim and very attractive.) "But then I say I was engaged three times to different men, and that I backed away from it each time, and I can see them thinking, 'Oh, okay, at least there's not something so bizarre about you that no one ever even asked.' "

It's far easier to explain away a failed marriage. Besides, a marriage that ends in divorce earns you a PhD in the Human Heart. In my long (and ultimately failed) marriage, I learned how the heart can swell with love, how it can break, ache, be betrayed, grow hard and, after time has passed, how it can revive itself and even skip a beat in love again.

I regret none of that emotional education. It was an important part of my development. Having a failed marriage is an experience that others who have gone through one can understand. It's a universal story of courage and disappointment. You tried. You failed. Not having taken that risk may protect you from the pain, if it fails, but you miss out on the roller-coaster ride that takes you to highs and lows, and along the way, some memorably big emotions.

And, well, that is life.