The Mystery of Old Love

Photo by Pierre Amerlynck, Belgium

Photo by Pierre Amerlynck, Belgium

Old love is subtle, hidden and perhaps uncommon, but it is nonetheless a marvelous and beautiful thing that should be celebrated more widely and deeply than it now is.

Public expressions of love are common among young people. Young lovers kiss, caress and hold each other, and there is much music, poetry, and literature to celebrate it. Love is also reflected among friends when they do things together or help one another. As with young love, there is plenty of literature and art about friendship. Less often do we talk about old love—love that has been seasoned and baked through decades of living and working affectionately together.

Evolving Love

Love starts as dependency with young children and parents clinging together. Then it matures gradually as parents let go and children extend to siblings, pets and playmates. In adolescence love catches fire from the hormones of puberty, and after that there is nothing as frequent and common in young minds as the lusty thoughts of love.

Over the decades of middle life love evolves with the rhythms of sex, work and family, all of which blend uniquely for each couple. Each partner’s attitudes toward all major elements of life must be shared and tempered against those of a partner, and the process is long and gritty. Many marriages do not survive these years. (Here, marriage is an express commitment to live together with mutual regard. It may exist between any two partners.)

After raising children and nearing the end of work, love needs again to adapt. Couples face one another as they did when young but without the ephemeral beauty and energy of youth. Partners look forward to the possibilities of retirement and inward toward a new acquaintance with one another. Old love is beginning to take shape.

Old Love

Old love sometimes never emerges in a relationship. People may stay together out of habit or fear. They may not be able to envision living differently or they may be afraid of economic and emotional loss if they dissolve their marriage. Ending an old marriage may leave one partner destitute. Children, grandchildren and friends may create social pressures to stay together. Enduring an imperfect partnership may be less frightening than starting over alone.

Dr. Marc E. Agronin opens his book, “How We Age,” with a story of a 93-year-old woman he visited who had just lost her husband after 73 years of marriage. She was in a wheelchair, stooped, silent, and Dr. Agronin assumed profound grief. Overwhelmed himself with what he imagined to be her loss, he leaned in close to offer comfort. “What has it been like for you losing your husband after so many years of marriage?” he asked. She paused, apparently trying to find the right word, then replied, “Heaven.” Her husband had been a gruff, abusive man.

If old love does set in, a treasure unfolds. Each partner learns all the little habits and quirks of the other, accommodates them, even enhances them, and offers a cocoon of comfort and security for the other. There’s often a division of labor and a courtesy concerning small irritations. Men may care for the yard, while women frequent the kitchen. Old irritations—maybe television preferences, eating habits or any of a dozen persisting differences become swamped by a rising tide of sexuality, friendship and deep compassion.

The accommodations may be as small as picking a partner’s favorite vegetable or as large as major compromises on the rearing of children. Also, over 40 or 50 years, old lovers have likely endured great loss such as the passing of parents, siblings, friends, or possibly even children, and they have helped each other through these losses. They have also celebrated successes with family, work or other activities. All of this builds strength that is inside and between the partners.


Old love mimics what botanists call inosculation—a grafting of two plants. Sometimes branches that touch will graft, but the more interesting inosculation involves roots. Underground, unseen by the rest of us, trees often form root grafts, which give each tree access to the nutrients and water of the other.

Botanists say root grafts occur mostly between trees of the same species, but it occurs between trees of different species as well. After all, ‘species’ are human artifacts—nature is not confined to their boundaries. Trees may join roots in unexpected ways and over large areas. Aspens in the north and west graft freely, forming a common root mat in the soil under large areas. When we walk in an aspen grove we see only the trees.

Photo by Julis Freeman-Woolpert, Concord, NH

Photo by Julis Freeman-Woolpert, Concord, NH

I’m reminded of the ancient myth of Philemon and Baucis in which a poor old husband and wife were granted a wish by Zeus that neither outlive the other. At death they appeared to continue their lives as intertwining trees, he an oak, she a linden, growing on a nearby hill. One has to imagine their roots were also intertwined, supporting one another in unseen ways.

In a grocery store or park, at a reception, maybe a funeral, we often see old couples. In some of them, hopefully many, there is a forged behavioral unity, one that enhances and lifts each partner, a unity emerging from decades in the crucible of work and family. If we pay attention, we may witness an odd gesture, a gentle touch, a constant presence, a graceful, almost unconscious concern for one another, all expressed in ways special and particular to them.

So goes the mystery of old love.


Many thanks to Karin Haynes for calling my attention to the tale of Philemon and Baucis.