On Valentine’s Day 2023, the Institute of Population Ageing held a debate on whether romance and falling in love were generally experienced by the young. Haoyu Suo and Pianpian Zhao responded affirmatively with Dr Yanan Zhang arguing the contrary.
Zhao opened the debate by examining three concepts: ‘generally’, ‘romance’ and ‘falling in love’. The word ‘generally’, she suggested, describes an objective phenomenon; a tendency, a common occurrence, or a widespread characteristic which is used to indicate that a statement applies to most cases but not necessarily all. ‘Romance’, she continued, is a feeling of excitement of love between two people, which is often associated with sensuality. ‘Falling in love’ typically refers to the initial stage of a romantic relationship. Falling in love can be accompanied by physical and emotional changes, such as increased heart rate, sweating, butterflies, and a heightened sense of happiness and excitement. After defining terms, Zhao listed examples to demonstrate how society generally views romance and love as the preserve of young.
- Popular/high culture: protagonists in romantic movies and TV shows are often young couples, with older adults being underrepresented. For example, in William Shakespeare's play ‘Romeo and Juliet’, the main characters are depicted as young and impulsive lovers. In the film, ‘Titanic’, Jack and Rose met when they were in their 20s.
- Marketing: marketing strategies for romantic products and services often target younger populations. Here older adults are often overlooked in products such as dating applications, despite being potential customers.
- Social expectations: older adults are expected to care for relatives or partners, and/or provide childcare. This prevents them from initiating romantic relationships.
- Ageism: through stigmatisation it is believed that older adults are no longer physically and psychologically capable of experiencing strong romantic feelings.
Following Zhao's suggestions, Suo provided additional arguments based on the following:
Evolutionary psychology: From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, younger people are biologically programmed to fall in love and form romantic relationships in order to propagate the species. In this regard, young people are more likely than older adults to engage in mate selection behaviour, such as flirting and dating, in order to find a suitable reproductive partner. Young people, who are at their peak of reproductive capability, have a greater chance of successfully reproducing and passing on their genes. During the ageing process, the desire for mate selection and productive fitness (the biological driver) decreases.
Stereotyping of older adults: Society often holds negative views about ageing. Here older adults are seen as less attractive, less desirable, and less sexually active than their younger counterparts. Although this is a form of ageism, it may make older adults less confident about their capacity to form romantic relationships. In addition, older adults are not only discriminated against or stigmatized when using dating apps and/or websites but are offered little support for their psychological well-being when it comes to forming relationships.
Prior experiences. Older adults might have had unpleasant and/or traumatic previous romantic relationships. In this regard, it might be difficult for them to ‘open up’ to other people and/or start a new relationship. Furthermore, the fear of rejection may prevent them from seeking new romantic partners.
Reduced social network: Older adults may experience reductions in social networks due to retirement, decreased mobility, death of friends/relatives, and the departure of grown-up children from the home. Decreased mobility and cognitive decline make it especially difficult for older adults to participate in social activities. These life changes limit their opportunities to meet new people, let alone build romantic relationships. An unfamiliarity with technology may also prevent older adults from being able to use dating apps and websites, which are widely utilised by their younger counterparts.
In conclusion, Suo suggested that the aforementioned factors may contribute to the perception that falling in love generally happens among younger people. However, this is not always the case and it is important to keep an open mind and avoid stereotyping: People of all ages can engage in, and sustain, romantic relationships with the right kinds of support and resources.
Rebutting Zhao and Suo’s perspective, Zhang identified the key psychological elements of falling in love arguing that these were not bounded by age, gender, or race. Falling in love can be the result of exceptionally strong general attraction or be linked to the process of mate selection (Aron et al., 1989). Four factors have been found to be strongly associated with general attraction: similarity, propinquity, desirable characteristics, and reciprocal liking (Brogaard, 2018). Similarity and desirable characteristics are also understood as determinants for mate selection (in addition to social influence and need fulfilment). It is also argued that falling in love is more than an extremely intense case of general attraction or merely a precursor to marriage (Aron et al., 1989). The process of falling in love is also linked to factors such as specific cues, readiness for entering a relationship, isolation from others, and mystery.
All of these factors are found amongst people of all ages, including older adults. For instance, older adults share similarities in terms of attitudes and personality traits with many other people. They also have the need to spend time with others, have the capability to provide emotional or physical care, and can also be loved and needed.
How do Older Adults Fall in Love?
Despite the fact that physiology changes due to ageing, older adults maintain sense perceptions and lead an active emotional life (Schulz, 1982). Mental, emotional and social abilities are not bounded by age (Charles and Carstensen, 2010), and the capacity to fall in love is not weakened by ageing. The need to be loved and the opportunity to express love is just as important for older adults as it is for younger people. The value of social support provided by intimate relationships is irreplaceable. The need to be appreciated and to experience affection and love increases when people have difficulties with their biological and physical functions. A recent study examined older adults’ experiences of falling in love. This research provides evidence that falling in love occurs among older adults. Moreover, nowadays it is common for retirees to embark on new intimate relationships.
The Neglect of Older Adults’ Experiences of Romantic Relationships
Falling in love is instinctual for human beings. This includes older adults; however, they are not simply propelled by instinctual drives but also desire partnership with intimate others. Nevertheless, when people discuss romance and falling in love the topic is often framed by the experiences of younger adults. Falling in love, finding a life partner, and building a family usually happen at reproductive age. Once a stable relationship has been established after falling in love, those involved generally remain in the relationship for extended periods of time. If the relationship is dissolved in later life due to divorce or widowhood, many older adults desire to fall in love with someone again. Research shows that there is a growing divorce rate amongst those aged 65 and over (Brown and Lin, 2022). However, little attention has been given to romantic relationships among older adults. This could be partially explained by ageism: when people discuss older adults’ needs, the primary focuses are social and health care. Their emotional needs and relationship demand are overwhelmingly ignored.
Traditional cultural norms could be a further explanation for the neglect of older adults’ experiences of falling in love. For instance, in ancient China cultural norms dictated that sustaining one romantic relationship over the life course was an important virtue for women. Against this background falling in love in later life, following the collapse of marriage or through widowhood, was seen as stigmatising. Nowadays, many societies remain strongly influenced by these kinds of cultural norms.
In conclusion, Zhang argued that it is not just the young that fall in love, older adults desire love and engage in romantic relationships. Older adults are physically and psychologically capable of falling in love, and they still have the need to both love and to be loved. However, the topic of older adults’ romantic relationship trajectories has been under researched, which raises concerns about the lack of attention given to this group’s emotional and relationship needs.
About the Authors
Dr Yanan Zhang is a Research Fellow on the DAI@Oxford Programme with a quantitative focus. Her role involves the creation of an evidence base for positive interventions in support of population ageing.
Haoyu Suo is a Visiting Student at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing. He is a Ph.D. Candidate of the Institute of Population Research at Peking University
Pianpian Zhao is a Leslie Kirkley Visitor at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing. She is currently a Doctoral Student in Applied Economics at Jinhe Center for Economic Research, Xian Jiaotong University.
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