Who's counting?

I'm in my 20s, seeing an older guy. What should I know about dating a divorced man in his 40s?

Published October 9, 2003 7:18PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm a woman in my mid-20s involved with a man in his early 40s. I've never been married, but I've had serious boyfriends. He's divorced (was married for a few years, divorced 2-3 years ago) and has no kids. The one-sentence divorce summary is that he thought they were starting a family when his wife left to find herself. He gives the impression that he hasn't done much dating since his divorce, although he's a very attractive man and it's hard for me to understand how that's possible. He's intelligent, funny, sexy, in great shape, and just the right amount geeky.

So we're dating, he calls, I call, we go places, we come home, have fantastic sex, sleep, wake up, have more fantastic sex, go our separate ways, and do it all again several days later. He's very attentive when we're together, complete with romantic hand holding and eye gazing and chair rearranging so we can sit closer in restaurants. He leaves things at my house and says he'll get them "another time." He calls before dates to confirm and after dates to thank me. But he doesn't call just to say hello, and he doesn't end dates by asking when he can see me again. Obviously we keep going out, but I do most of the asking.

What should I know about dating a divorced 40-something man? I know the part about the realities of the age difference, but I'm not asking about marrying him; I'm asking about dating him. What can I expect? Are there signals that I should be aware of that I wouldn't already know about from dating guys my own age? If a 25-year-old guy says he needs to rest (after a long day of athleticism) rather than see me, I think something's fishy; but if this man says it, I'm inclined to believe him. When he's attentive, is it because he's interested or because he was brought up to be that way? If he doesn't mind going a week without seeing me, is that because he's just not into me or because he's an adult with a life of his own? How can I tell whether his divorce has left him more aware of what makes relationships good, or more disenchanted with them overall? What are the major life differences between this guy and the 25 year olds I'm used to dating?

Younger Woman

Dear Younger Woman,

I admire your approach to this, your careful curiosity, your disinterested interest. I think you are going to do well in this relationship whether it remains just a dating situation or evolves into marriage.

I would say the main difference between a 25-year-old man who has never been married and a 40-year-old man whose wife has left him is that the 25-year-old still thinks he can solve everything. The 40-year-old knows, on good evidence, that he can't.

He wanted a family. He probably still wants a family. If you really like him, you should discuss this matter of the family. You should let him know what you think. If you do not want a family, it's your obligation to tell him so. If you do want a family, but not right away, this is an ideal opportunity to discuss that with him.

Because he has matriculated from the university of abject failure with a degree in remorse and anger, he is not likely to maintain a lively faith in quick and easy solutions. He's going to be cautious. He is not going to rush into the same lion's den twice. He has seen that it is not enough to want something and believe in it, or to entrust your life to someone else. Fate, the unknowable mind of the other, opaque and vile circumstance, inscrutable nature, implacable evil, whatever you call it: Things don't always go your way, in matters both grand and trivial.

But here is the main thing about a guy past 40: When you reach 40, you start counting. On your fingers and toes you can count the years before you're 60. That's sobering. You figure, OK, I want to have some kids. If I spend two more years in this relationship and find out she doesn't want kids, then I've lost two years and I'm what, say, 44, then if I find a woman, court her for two years, get married at 45 or 46, take another year or two maybe to conceive, we're looking at having the first kid at 48, I'll be 64 when the kid graduates high school, I'll be retiring when he's headed for college, where's the college money coming from, what if I have two or three, will I need a nanny, will my wife be working, how'm I going to afford that?

See what I mean? When you get to 40, you start counting. So he is probably weighing his chances with you as we speak.

But, as I say, I really like your approach. I encourage you to be open, frank, sincere and inquiring with him. Believe me, he's going to appreciate it. In fact, if he's being a little diffident right now, it might be because you have not shown the kind of seriousness he is looking for. So you need to get straight with him: If you're just interested in dating and not marrying, make sure he understands that. Likewise, if you think maybe you'd like to have some kids with this guy, let him know. Because the more I think about it, the more I think that's the biggest difference between 40 and 25: At 25, who's counting? At 40, everybody is counting.

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