As far as Jill Cadigan was concerned, it was just another lonely Friday night. She poured her pinot grigio, TV purring in the background, and plunked herself down in front of the computer. At 40 and long single, she'd had plenty of friends rave about their Internet dating finds, but she never put faith in clicker romance.
Not so many miles away on that chilly December's eve of 2009, Michael Thomas, a cop who was also 40, had just come home from work, ordered in beef lo mein and pot stickers, and had no ambitions for the night other than a few video games and catching a few Friday-night TV shows.
For reasons Cadigan still can't pinpoint, that fateful night she clicked her way to the Internet dating site Match.com.
"I never thought it would happen to me," she says, "but within five minutes I ended up seeing my husband. It was the first photo I saw that night, and I remember saying, 'Whoa, there are some really cute guys on here.' I winked at him" (that's Match lingo for letting him know she found him cute).
Over at his lonely-bachelor pad, Thomas caught the wink and clicked right back, sending an instant message that led to a real-life date just 48 hours later. By Christmas Eve, he'd blurted out, "I love you," as he dropped her off at home. And by 10-10-10, as they like to refer to their wedding date, they were husband and wife.
Cadigan and Thomas are Exhibits A and B in the collected tales of true romance later in life.
We talked to plenty like them, folks who never thought they would find "the one," some who never even wanted to get married ("When I was a little girl, I never played bride; I played queen or teacher," says one such woman who married at 42), and plenty of folks who were perfectly willing to wait till Ms. or Mr. Right came along.
While it's hard to say just how many Americans fall into the first-time-in-love-in-their-40s-or-50s set, eHarmony.com says that on its site in the last three years, folks looking for love in their 40s and 50s have become the fastest-growing demographic. And eHarmony boasts 542 marriages a day of couples who found compatibility on its site, based on a 2009 Harris Interactive poll.
Science behind later love
Gian Gonzaga, a social and personality psychologist who runs eHarmony's relationship research facility in Los Angeles (and the brains behind the 236-question compatibility questionnaire that is the hallmark of eHarmony), has been studying for the past 20 years what accounts for long-term romantic success. He figures he has interviewed tens of thousands of couples.
He knows intimately the landscape of love later in life and, in a recent phone call, ticked through the advantages and the drawbacks, which he points out are often one and the same.
"In the advantages column, you've got people who tend to be more secure in the day-to-day of their lives" compared with younger daters, Gonzaga says. "They've got better jobs, they're likely financially solid and have completed their education. Since finances are the biggest thing couples fight about, that removes one of the big stressors."
Another thing, he says, is that by the time you're nearing 40, "who you are psychologically tends to crystallize. You're not locked in, but you've stabilized who you are, and it's a little bit easier to depend on the other person being who they seem to be. We change most radically between the ages of 18 and 22."
Then there's this recurring anthem: "One of the things we often hear from this age bracket is, 'I kind of get what's important to me,'" the love doctor adds.
For Lesley Stephens, a speech pathologist who considered herself "eternally single" at 35, it didn't hit her over the head the first time she went out for Indian food with David Hansen, a medical resident who was 42 at the time.
But just one month later, says Stephens, something suddenly, undeniably hit her: "There's just knowing that you know. It was a feeling, 'This is serious.'
"I could just totally be myself around him."
Stephens and Hansen married when she was 39 and he was 46, the first marriage for both: "Things just felt natural and simple."
On the other hand, says Gonzaga, one of the drawbacks of later-in-life romances is that "because we're less likely to change who we are, it places a higher priority on picking the right person at the start of the relationship."
Playing for keeps
Indeed, in talking to half a dozen couples who met in their late 30s, 40s or 50s, we heard over and over variations on the I-knew-right-away theme. And once they knew, most of the couples said, navigating the bumps was mostly a cinch, since they knew through and through how one-in-a-million those matches felt.
Carolyn Jacob is a Harvard-trained dermatologist who was almost 41 when she got married. When "suddenly, eerily, you meet someone who is just the right someone, after you've been single for a very long time," she says, "the learning curve is short but very important." It matters that you get it right, learn how to be a team player, she says, "because it's so wonderful to have a best friend to share the rest of your life."
Michael Thomas, who, like his wife, had never been married, wholly gets how blessed he is, no matter how long it took, and no matter that he discovered her on a computer screen: "Every morning when I wake up, I look over at her and think, 'Oh, I am so happy.' Her positive energy just rubs off on everything I do. I used to wake up and groan at the start of the day."
For her part, Cadigan calls her beloved cop "an angel on earth" and says she is so very grateful she wasn't willing to settle, just to get married like all of her friends.
"I am so thankful every single day for him," she says.
And she has no regrets that it wasn't one day sooner. "I met him at exactly the right time that we were supposed to meet. I wouldn't change one bit of our story."
Keep the faith, baby — and other words of wisdom
Some advice from the 40-something Front, compiled from interviews with six couples:
•Always have hope. Don't settle, or leap into marriage for the wrong reasons.
•While you're waiting, be patient. Live your life at 100 percent and have faith that if Mr. or Ms. Right comes along, you'll know it when it happens. Until then, make as many of your dreams come true as you can.
•It can be hard to get used to someone else's quirks. But remember they are getting used to yours — and, by this time in your life, you know what yours are.
•Try hard to be a team player. This means sacrificing some of your independence.
•Communication is key. If you're frustrated that someone can't read your mind, speak up. By the time you're in your 40s, you're smart enough to know you can't sweep stuff under the rug. If something is bugging you, say so. Solve it. At least talk it through.
•Remember this thought from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: At the moment of commitment, the universe conspires to assist you.
In other words, when you decide you're going to love someone no matter what, it's easier to say, "Yes, warts and all, we're going to work this out."