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sarah hampson: generation ex

When I speak publicly on midlife post-divorce, the questions I field from women are often the same: Are there any good men out there? And will I ever be able to trust again?

Early on in the life of this column, I would have told them that the best thing is to learn self-reliance, to not need men and to have the courage and sense of adventure to live outside the cultural script that dictates we should all be coupled up. Romantic love is oversold, I often said.

That was the subject of my book, after all: that while the possibility of love is always there, and hoped for - vaguely or obsessively, depending on the individual - we don't need it in the same way at midlife that we once did when younger, our biological clocks madly ticking.

And I, for one, refused to let my single status at midlife dictate the level of my happiness.

Like many people who experience the end of a long marriage, I had spent many years in a sorry state, and while there was plenty of grief and hardship in the immediate aftermath of the divorce, I had come to a place of defiance. Why let someone else - an imaginary man - have so much power over my ability to love my life?

Besides, the challenge of being on my own was just as interesting as the complexity of being in a partnership, only different. And with my three grown children and a platoon of friends, I live with a plurality of kindness.

But then I met someone when I least expected it. I was having a dinner party in the early spring - a month before the release of my book in late April - and needed another person (okay, a man) to fill out the group. A friend suggested someone she knew. And that night, when he walked into my house, I immediately felt a psychic nudge, a shock; a little voice in my head told me to pay attention.

I had been through an extended "dry spell," as my friends and experts like to call the state of midlife dating for women of a certain age. Quite apart from the fact that midlife men, generally, have more dating options (older, same age or younger) than midlife women, I had been working hard, focused on stabilizing my situation financially and for my children. I was just fine, thank you.

And so there I was, shilling a book - called Happily Ever After Marriage, about not needing men - when my whole life had changed.

"Oh, you're just like Elizabeth Gilbert!" my book publicist squealed.

The author of Eat Pray Love had ended her journey of divorce recovery in the arms of a loving man. There was another chapter to my book that deadlines had prevented me from writing. How ironic! But I hadn't wanted to be like Ms. Gilbert. I thought of love as an easy solution, a sellout, in a way, compared to the harder road of facing the real possibility of being alone.

I realize now, six months into this relationship, that I was one of those people who thought that women were somewhere "just below sainthood," as Maureen Brine, an acquaintance and Toronto psychotherapist, puts it.

It is often assumed that there's a good guy and a bad guy in a failed relationship, she explains, and many women believe that the majority of the problems reside with the men: They aren't as emotionally responsible for the success of a union as women are; they move on to the next love interest without introspection.

There's a grain of truth in that, experts say, but the issue is more complex.

"Inside most men is a nurturer who wants to get out," says Ms. Brine, who has worked with individuals and couples for 35 years, 20 of them as an Imago therapist.

But is that what women want?

"The things you learned as a boy - to be strong, to be independent, to not show emotion - by today's standards makes you be seen as a lousy husband," says Terrence Real, a Boston-based relationship coach and author of How Can I Get Through to You? Reconnecting Men and Women.

That, too, is true, and yet I know many women, especially those at midlife, who still expect the retro paradigm of a man with all the markers of achievement and financial success.

Consider this e-mail that came from a male reader, who at 62 was facing a dilemma. His wife died six years ago, and for the last four, he had been in a "terrific relationship" with a mature female lawyer. But it took just three days for it to crash. Why? In the process of winding down his business, he discovered a multi-million dollar fraud.

"A $2-million house became a two-bedroom apartment; dinners in New York were replaced by outings to Swiss Chalet; vacations in Paris disappeared entirely," he wrote. "The gulf between our retirement timetable and plans was just too great for her."

Since then, he has gently informed dates - all successful, mature women - of his financial situation as he rebuilds his work life. "In each case, their interest seemed to die right there," he explained. And he wanted to know if he should just hold off until his financial resources are better or if he should lower his sights and approach women who are not as independent.

Sound familiar? I wonder if, really, the heart of that issue is trust. Women still fall into victimization mode very easily, thinking that they're the ones who have more to lose in a relationship if it isn't perfect.

I'm not saying that anyone should hand over the hard-won security of his or her life easily, especially at midlife, when you have less time to recover should it all go wrong. But after four years with a man who is clearly honest, you turf him out because he doesn't have the dough you expected, even when you're financially sound? I felt sorry for that reader.

I like to think that you can get to a place where you rely enough on yourself as a woman that you can make yourself vulnerable again. One of the great beauties of love after the crushing disappointment of divorce is the recognition of its fragility and rarity. We often don't know that when we're younger. We're arrogant about what we think we deserve. I have seen, though, that love doesn't happen just when you decide it should. And then, when it does, and you're willing to drop your defences, that is indeed a new chapter.

Sarah Hampson's memoir on midlife post-divorce, Happily Ever After Marriage, There's Nothing Like Divorce to Clear the Mind, is in bookstores now.