En español | You made the mistake of asking your adult daughter if that guy she went out with last night was "anything serious."
She gave you a nonchalant shrug and smiled. "Don't book the church yet, Mom — it was just a hookup!"
At first, her disclosure strikes you as too much information. But then it gets you thinking: You're single, too — what could be so bad about a casual night in bed with someone you like but don't love?
For 50-plus types unwilling to walk — possibly rewalk — the path that leads to romance, rings and relocation, the prospect of a "friend with benefits" is looking less and less like a millennial indulgence.
After all, it gets awfully lonely waiting around for "the one." Perhaps you've decided that what you need at this point in your life is someone to talk to and laugh with — someone with whom you can share the sheets, but not the tax refund.
Many older divorced or widowed men and women are in the same boat. They feel protective of their privacy and peace of mind, but they haven't become eunuchs or hermits. Every now and then, a familiar craving surfaces.
So how do you handle it?
You're probably not desperate enough to stalk your neighbors, or to go looking for friends with benefits in all the wrong places (bars come to mind). But offered a chance to reconnect with someone from your past — dinner with your high school steady, for example — you might just surprise yourself by winding up in bed. The next morning (or even that night) come the recriminations: Was it wrong to give that person the sexual green light when you had no intention of rekindling the emotional side of the relationship?
'I'm in like with him — exactly where I want to be'
Marilyn, a 57-year-old single colleague of mine, recently reconnected with someone she had worked with many years ago. A few weeks later, she joined him for "a wonderful weekend" in his home state.
"So now you're in love with him?" I teased her.
"No," Marilyn said with a laugh, "it's better than that: I'm in like with him — and that's exactly where I want to be." She further confided that they planned to make their reunions "a regular thing — if four times a year can be called 'regular.' But I think that's about all I really want."
Marilyn's casual approach to maintaining a friendship with benefits typifies the mindset of older folks who have reconciled themselves to having "great fun" even if it's "just one of those things." And episodic pleasure-seeking may be more common than you think: In The Normal Bar, a book I wrote last year with Chrisanna Northrup and James Witte, we reported that 61 percent of female survey respondents who had partners fantasized about someone they had met. (For men, the figure was 90 percent.) And should they be propositioned by someone they found attractive, 48 percent of the women (and 69 percent of the men) said they would be tempted to have sex outside the relationship. Indeed, many surrendered to that lure in actuality: 36 percent of female respondents (but, surprisingly, just 21 percent of the men) had spent a night with an old flame, typically at a class reunion.
Further evidence of Roving Eye Syndrome came from a study of sexuality in the United States commissioned by AARP in 2009: It found that 6 percent to 8 percent of singles age 50 and up were dating more than one person at a time. The same study revealed 11 percent of survey respondents were in a sexual relationship that did not involve cohabitation.
What do you have to lose?
Can a casual sexual relationship exact an emotional toll? For sure, people who associate intimacy with commitment are ill-suited to sex that's as meaningful as a summer breeze; for them, the FWB arrangement would be a bad idea.
That doesn't mean all casual lovers feel emotionally bereft in the wake of a purely physical rendezvous, mind you. Many say they're getting exactly what they want and need. Is that a deplorably manipulative state of affairs? Possibly — until you stop to consider how many of us are comfortable with being unpartnered but how few of us are willing to remain untouched.
Sixty-something sexologist Joan Price, for one, endorses "gray hookups," but with a couple of strong caveats: The people involved must be emotionally capable of handling their status as noncommitted bed partners, and they must protect themselves against sexually transmitted diseases.
In a national study conducted in 2012, the Center for Sexual Health Promotion found sex partners over 50 twice as likely to use a condom when they regarded a sexual encounter as casual rather than as part of an ongoing relationship. Mature sex partners do not have the best track record when it comes to using condoms, but at least they're likelier to use them when they know very little about a partner's sexual past — or present!
Personally, I think it all comes down to a very simple choice at any age: Is enduring loneliness, celibacy and extreme horniness really a better option than exchanging a few "simple gifts" between friends?