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Sense & Sensibility

Grown-up love: Settling down or selling out?

By Kerri S. Smith

At 25, Mandy Riste listened to mellow jazz, smoked the occasional joint and indulged in long lovemaking sessions with a darkly gorgeous foreigner who whispered Persian endearments in her ear. Romance, drama, love, sex and weekend escapes topped her list of priorities.

Even though her lover's nationality, religion and political views infuriated Riste's conservative family and alienated friends - Dad barred him from family gatherings and even threatened to boot Riste from the family business - she shrugged it all off. Her college-era description of the Ideal Man - a degreed professional, good-looking, Jewish, with an upscale lifestyle - seemed shallow, materialistic and na‘ve. This was a glorious affair. She was in love. She felt alive.

Even though her lover's nationality, religion and political views infuriated Riste's conservative family and alienated friends - Dad barred him from family gatherings and even threatened to boot Riste from the family business - she shrugged it all off. Her college-era description of the Ideal Man - a degreed professional, good-looking, Jewish, with an upscale lifestyle - seemed shallow, materialistic and na‘ve. This was a glorious affair. She was in love. She felt alive.

Flash forward to 1999: Riste is 38, working for Dad in the family business, married five years to a handsome Jewish guy, and rearing three kids in a ritzy Scottsdale neighborhood.

Did she sell out or settle down? Riste says a little of both, but she sees the painful decision to end her long-term love affair to look for a husband as "simple practicality." In her 20s, she says, decisions were based on emotions, but in her 30s, she began navigating with her head.

"Post-college, I didn't worry much about the future, having kids, all that," she explains. "I was just - in love, in the moment! It didn't matter that our philosophies and backgrounds were totally different. Then as the years passed, I started thinking about having kids - and my lover wasn't what I wanted anymore."

Riste's metamorphosis from love-child to child-bearer is typical of how many of us change from young adulthood to full maturity, says Dr. Jamie Turndorf, a New York psychologist and director of the Center For Emotional Communication. Better known as "Dr. Love," a relationship expert whose radio show is broadcast by WEVD-NY, Turndorf's latest book, Till Death Do Us Part (Unless I Kill You First) will be in bookstores soon.

"The older you are, the clearer you are about what you want in a long-term relationship - your eyes are more wide-open, you know yourself and your needs better," Turndorf says.

Grown-up love often is a calmer feeling, she continues, with less gut-churning exhilaration but more overall happiness. As the years go by, those cliches about sharing similar values and deep friendship start to make a curious sense for many people, both men and women. Interestingly, lots of thirtysomething and fortysomething women surveyed by BBW for this story say everyday moments of intimacy - sharing smiles across the Sunday brunch table, a quick phone call at work to share an inside joke - mean more than the standard dozen roses on Valentines Day.

For some, including Riste, grown-up love also means accepting characteristics or situations that once would have been non-negotiable. "His career isn't what I thought it would be," she says of her appliance-selling hubby. "I thought he was going to be this up-and-coming guy, but it just crumbled under him." Today, it takes every penny of both their incomes - she works full-time, too - to keep the babysitter and pool-cleaning service paid.

And while their sex life isn't as frantic or frequent as it used to be, Riste says it still sizzles, which Turndorf describes as a crucial asset. She tells women complaining of too few orgasms to "take him to the drive-in, make out in the back seat, jump his bones," and pooh-poohs the idea that we must trade a bed buzz for security.

"Sex bonds the relationship and makes it long term. Grown-up love doesn't mean settling, or giving up passion," Turndorf advises. "Act like a kid, do crazy things, stay young. Trading good sex for stability means you're getting the meat and potatoes but skipping the fruit!"

That's just what Cheyenne, Wyoming attorney Ann Strong* says she did - but she says doing without some fruit is an OK trade-off. Strong, 35, describes her sunny-natured husband of five years as "a little dull" and their sex life ho-hum.

But maybe by comparing him with former lovers, Strong is being unfair. Her romance roll call includes a weekend with an Australian pro rugby player; a fling with a fellow attorney and a year spent two-stepping with an urban cowboy. Before that, while working overseas, she dallied with a doctor; during a year living in New York City, she loved a Haitian politician. A more casual, episodic affair with a Navy pilot came next.

Back then, she says, the tension of dating, the chase, the getting-to-know-you stuff, was compelling. She recalls actually liking "the tension of worrying if he was going to call or not. I liked the anxiety, it added to the fun."

Her appetite for fun, freewheeling men dwindled with the years, though. The other attorney played debilitating mind-games with her, potentially endangering her career progress. The last guy before her husband was the cowboy. Their sex life was so hot they rarely made it to the restaurant most weekend nights, but she got tired of his refusal to attend plays or concerts. Since they were so different, they could talk about almost nothing. He even objected to the classical music that she slipped on the CD player Sunday mornings. Eventually she quit enjoying his company.

One day Strong decided it was time to find a marrying man, so she booted the cowboy and job-hunted in her home state of Wyoming. Three months after moving to Cheyenne, she met her intended at an after-work happy hour. And while she sometimes mourns her wild-girl days, Strong says she's satisfied with her decision.

"Once I approached 30 and started thinking of my future, it was obvious those men were highly inappropriate," Strong says. "My husband is dependable, with no angst and no emotional baggage. We are comfortable together. It's sometimes a little dull, but that's good. I guess you could say stability has become exciting for me."

Speaking of emotional baggage, Lila Hendricks*, 44, divides men into two categories: guys whose baggage qualifies as carry-on, and those with awkward, hard-to-handle quirks that must be checked at the ticket counter.

Hendricks, a freelance television producer in Los Angeles, lives with a carry-on baggage man. A year into their nine-year love affair, they broke up, only to reconcile a few months later. Eventually they moved in together, and although the relationship is fulfilling, she feels little need to marry.

Her live-in lover is altar-shy, too, largely because of a bruising, early marriage. A carpenter, he makes a fourth of the salary Hendricks pulls down. He's also painted and fixed up their bungalow so it fits them like a glove. The money issue is not a big deal to Hendricks, who stresses the companionship, good conversation and simpatico vibes they share.

This couple seems to have made a healthy accommodation, says Dr. Love, a.k.a. Turndorf. But often she counsels people whose past heartbreaks keep them from making a positive connection with a real-time lover.

People who are dating in their 30s and 40s usually cart around enough emotional baggage to blow up the relationship before it gets to cruising altitude. The trick is to put the past to rest before it wreaks havoc on the present, Turndorf adds.

"Human beings are a product of our history, in that we tend to be like Pavlov's dog: the bell rings, we drool," she says. "So if you had a previous partner who screwed you over, you come into the new relationship with an expectation that this person is out to get you, too."

Women caught in this reactionary mode tend to interpret the current man's behavior in light of what the former man did. It leads to misunderstandings and unnecessary stress, Turndorf says.

Reactionary describes Sheila Livingston*, 37, who had a fairy-tale love affair with a fellow college student that imploded shortly after graduation. That's when Livingston caught her fianc»e with another woman, nuzzling on their living-room couch. Later she discovered he was a confirmed cheater who'd secretly dallied with other women during their entire four-year relationship.

Livingston has turned down two proposals in the years since breaking up with the cad. She doesn't trust men, although she has enjoyed a series of casual affairs. Recently she met a new man and things were going well until a misunderstanding ripped open old wounds.

"I woke up at 2 a.m. and my lover wasn't in bed, where he'd been a couple of hours earlier," Livingston says. "I looked for him everywhere, including the parking lot and swimming pool, worried and scared. Then he meanders back into the apartment like nothing happened and wanted to know why I was upset."

His explanation: he couldn't sleep, got up to smoke a cigarette on the patio and started talking to some guy who also was having a cigarette. Turns out this guy is a stockbroker and interested in the boyfriend's business. They ended up going back upstairs to the neighbor's, where a party was going on, swapping business cards and having a couple of beers.

>Her reaction: to shriek and sob that he was a liar, a dog, a pig, and obviously having a sneaky sex thing with one of the two women who live upstairs and hosted the party. Livingston accused him of various shady behaviors, angering him and hurting his feelings, before realizing he was telling the truth about the episode.

Diagnosis: big-time emotional baggage. But psychologist Jean Hardesty says Livingston's pattern indicates she may be ready to let go of the past and move into a more trusting union. Hardesty works part-time as an instructor at UCLA, and in her private practice in Encino, Calif., specializes in counseling plus-size women.

"There is such a tremendous amount of distrust because once before, she thought this wonderful guy was the one, and it turned out he had these terrible flaws," Hardesty explains. "I see many women who let a lot of time pass after Mr. Right #1, spending that time in lots of mini-relationships. How those mini-relationships go helps set you up for the next round, or Mr. Right #2."

Hardesty suggests those in Livingston's shoes can un-ring the Pavlovian bell by doing a quick reality check whenever a remark or situation sets off a furor of emotion from the past. Start by quickly ducking into the bathroom and taking a deep breath. Look into your eyes and ask yourself, "is it likely that being an hour late getting home means he stopped off at see his other girlfriend like Billy used to? Isn't it more likely that this new man, who is so different from Billy, really did get stuck in bad traffic?"

Turndorf seconds that advice: "Use your observing ego - the portion of your psyche that lets you step back and observe your reactions - to analyze the situation. Step back and ask, 'is this reaction coming from previous experiences? Is there a reason that I think this person will screw me over like before?' Remember that if you start coming at this guy with a knife, you turn him into a bastard; it's a self-fulfilling prophecy."

But don't ignore actual warning signs that this is a bad guy, cautions Marc Sadoff, a psychotherapist who heads Pacific Skills Training in West Los Angeles and is the author of the Coming Together For Life workbook for couples.

"At least half of the time, your fears are valid and accurate. So I think instead of pushing it away, the big question is to ask, 'am I unnecessarily anxious about this man?"

He suggests looking directly in the eyes of the loved one and describing how you feel, but using carefully chosen words to do it. For instance, you could say, "when you come home an hour late, it makes me think you could be cheating on me, which makes me feel anxious, afraid and angry."

"That's the standard therapeutic way to re-label an 'I' statement, but I'd take it even one step further," Sadoff says. "Add another sentence: 'Can you understand how it makes sense for me to feel this way?' You're not asking the new man to agree that he's a jerk like Joe or Bob, your old boyfriends. A defensive man will deny, minimize, project, get angry, but the best kind of man will not."

Bonnie Alpert, 37, says her past experiences with men have made her both more exacting and less petty. A single mom who works two part-time jobs and is studying to be a social worker, Alpert was married and divorced and in her late 20s before falling in love with a moody musician. When she gave birth to their daughter five years ago, the music man ended their romance, but has offered sporadic financial and emotional support to the child.

Since then, Alpert has had only one lover, and he lives out of state. But recently both a close male friend and the music man have declared themselves. Alpert says she's hesitant about both men, largely because of the way she's changed.

"I'm stalling on all fronts, partly because good communication is non-negotiable now. Before, really good sex could make up for poor communication. Now, it has to be both," she says with a giggle.

Another caveat: she likes her own company much more, so having a man around all the time is less appealing. Alpert reports that she's less eager to please her partner than she was in her youth and more interested in being pleased.

Tucson psychotherapist Joanne Sorenson says Alpert's insistence on being able to talk to her partner means she's solidly on the road to true love, grown-up style. The happiest relationships are between people who can talk about anything, and who see momentary conflicts as opportunity to get to know each other better, Sorenson explains.

"We're just savvier at 30, 35, 40, 45 than we were at 25," Sorenson says. "And when you're in your 20s, you are more malleable. The hormones are pumping, so sex is key. But by age 40, hopefully you've got a life. You've had sexual experiences."

She cautions against completely jettisoning youthful expectations, though. Too many women "just settle for a warm body and companionship and wind up with people who can't give them what they need or want."

You're not ready for grown-up love until you are in charge of your own life, Sorenson insists. Independence and inter-dependence are the mark of the ideal mature love, she says.

"This is about being in charge of your own life, without trying to run anyone else's life or letting them run yours. It's two people standing on their own two feet, free to speak their own truth, asking each other for what they need and creating a healthy inter-dependence. It's sharing lives in a supportive way," Sorenson continues.

Some women find a more spiritual communion with their lover becomes possible with maturity. Alpert calls it a trade-off for the "giddy electricity" she sometimes felt in her younger days, as a new relationship revved up.

"I kind of hope that at this age falling in love will be a deeper, more spiritual connection, but still I expect the giddiness to be there," she says wistfully. "I want to connect with someone at that level from the git-go, and I want to experience a sexual relationship that's also very spiritually connected."

Whatever happens with a new man, the experts stress, don't accept abusive treatment, and don't sell yourself short. And remember that emotional baggage that starts out as check-in can become carry-on if both parties are willing to work together.

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