I'm 58 years old, widowed and never remarried for 19 years. This year a long-standing friendship with a man changed. It's hard to describe how or why. We've been buddies forever. He's 61, married and divorced twice. We've known each other since college days. He's a great guy. He's smart and successful. Suddenly this year our friendship included seeing each other more often. A few months ago, a friendship hug turned into a kiss and we crossed the line into sex. It was very surprising.
He has asked me point blank about the possibilities between us. We have many things in common. We laugh a lot. He's a true friend. But the problem I'm having is that I'm not in love with him. Can people get together as friends and fall in love later? The truth is, it's the only thing that's missing. Am I putting too much importance on this? The truth is, I would love to be in a relationship. It just never happened for me after my husband died. - S.R., San Diego
I've actually been getting more and more versions of this question in the past few years. The part of me that enjoys observing changing cultural patterns is more than intrigued.
In Western civilization, limerance, otherwise known as the experience of being "in love," is the Johnny-come-lately of marriage and life partnership. It's hard for modern people to imagine, but I'm here to say that, as recently as 100 years ago, limerance was not the first and most important criterion for measuring the possibility of a successful life union. I'm not saying people didn't regularly fall in love, just saying that it wasn't the be all and end all of the equation.
A hundred years ago, some folks fell in love and got married. Some folks got married and awakened two or 22 years later to find they'd fallen in love with their spouse. Some folks got married and fell in love with someone else, then either ignored the feeling or acted on it with clandestine affairs or by abandoning their marriage. Other folks got married and never fell in love with their spouse, yet continued faithfully in that marriage and died believing they had lived a meaningful and satisfactory life replete with benefits and blessings.
Put simply, the idea that the only valuable kind of life partnership is one founded on "in-love-ed-ness" is a cultural prejudice, not an ontic necessity.
In a time of a spiking population of middle-aged and late middle-aged divorced adults, all staring down the oncoming train of old age, I know a lot of people who are at least imagining if not rethinking the trade-off between the priority of limerance measured against the very real benefits of friendship, faithfulness, mutual support, companionship and comfortable, satisfying sex (even if never cosmic, soul mate sex.)
It all comes down to choices. And, like all choices, saying "yes" to something means saying "no" to one or more other things.
For some people, negotiating the ideal of finding great love might have some sense of loss about it but still would be a fair and reasonable trade in exchange for finding a faithful friend who would walk them to the grave. For others, negotiating the ideal of great love would seem like a betrayal of values. This group would be willing to walk away from the benefits of a warm, more practically negotiated "friendship marriage" so they could preserve the ideal. Their loss would be accepting and learning to manage loneliness, but they would die admiring themselves for never betraying the ideal, even if they never realized the ideal.
Both groups would do the opposite thing for the same reason: authenticity and self-respect. I'm saying that either choice can be meaningful and worthwhile, as long as we make that choice consciously, responsibly and authentically.
OK, so you're not in love with him. The next question is, what do you value? What is the hierarchy of those values? What are you willing to say "no" to, so that you can say "yes" with integrity to something else?
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of "Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing" (Stephens Press). His columns also appear on Sundays in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 702-227-4165 or firstname.lastname@example.org.