Recycled People: Forming New Relationships in Mid-life
Coral Atkinson & Paula Wagemaker
Shoal Bay Press, $24.95,
Recycled People is a timely and welcome book. When one examines the generation of any timely idea, one discovers that it arises out of a preoccupation that is shared by a wide section of the community at large. The idea articulates a gap which begs to be filled with fresh understanding. Even Galileo was part of a huge body of research and literature offering fresh theories about the movement of the heavens.
It is not surprising, then, that just when I am in the final stages of writing a book on establishing couple relationships, I find that another has been produced on much the same theme. Recycled People appears at a time when, everywhere I turn, both men and women are puzzling about how to meet, how to woo, how to assess their compatibility with prospective mates – all over again.
The fact that we have no better word than “courtship” in the English language to describe this phase of older pair-bonding suggests the need for new conversations and concepts. Very young people might still refer to “dating”, but this term hardly fits the large group of singles who have previously been partnered, who are anything from early 30s to 70+ and who like the idea of being with a mate again. Many in this group are very fully occupied with career and/or family responsibilities, and do not have the time or inclination to experiment with intimacy and sexuality in the way an adolescent does.
Busyness, a more complex lifestyle, and the added problem of loss of confidence in one’s judgement, which is the legacy of relationship breakdown, create a recipe for uncertainty about finding and establishing a stable new relationship when you have been through it all before. In addition, there now exists a large group of people in their late 20s and 30s for whom finding a partner was not a priority earlier in their lives; and who are now looking up from their successful corporate desks, wondering if they have left it too late, as they see their peers immersed in children and home-making while their designer apartment starts to seem increasingly empty.
But however much they are wanted and however well-written, “relationship” books must always answer the accusation of “Yet another self-help book!” There is some kind of stigma automatically attached to this genre, which other authors do not have to suffer. I have never quite worked out how it is that you can have any number of books on improving your golfing shots or your investment returns, without an accusation of navel-gazing or selfishness. Yet all are designed to make you happier. And if relationships and mental health are in ruins, it doesn’t do your golf a lot of good. In fact, looked at that way, relationship books could well be placed in the sports section of major bookshops!
There are some bad self-help books, which deserve the reputation they unfairly bestow on other much more useful ones. If we can distinguish the good from the bad, we can examine in as objective a way as possible the contribution of this latest effort.
In my opinion, a useful self-help book:
- is real and recognisable rather than impossibly idealistic
- represents the complexity of human endeavour rather than oversimplifying it
- provides thoughtful reflection and suggestions rather than prescription
- puts personal problems in their social context rather than individualising them totally
- supports and encourages rather than judges the reader
- educates about issues rather than proselytises about solutions
- assumes the reader has some ideas of their own on which to build rather than assuming that the author is a higher form of life
- regards its message as a contribution rather than the final and only answer.
Recycling People meets all these criteria, some more thoroughly than others. The authors establish a clear purpose from the outset. They have been through the ordeal themselves, and have discovered some common stories as they have talked it through with friends and others. They aim to set out the issues facing people in mid-life who are seeking and building new partner relationships so that those facing these issues realise they are not alone. In hearing the stories of others who have navigated this journey, the reader will learn, be reassured, gather hope, and presumably have a better chance of success.
As far as it goes, the book achieves its purpose superbly. It is full of very frank and refreshingly real anecdotes from many interviewees. The reader is informed and entertained as the book lays out a comprehensive gamut of obstacles and challenges in every aspect of renegotiating relationships. The style is light, a sauté rather than a slow roast. Some of the issues tackled here are unlikely to be canvassed over the dinner table, issues such as mid-life erectile difficulties and not liking your partner’s children. We move from the supremely practical (who pays on a date?) to the subtly psychological (“commitment phobia”). Even the question of “Pets” is addressed, a source of delicate negotiation in my own case.
The very best thing about Recycling People is that it strikes a chord of recognition with many people, and in doing so, makes an excellent and accessible read. But it does not try to offer any exploration of puzzles, nor attempt to provide ideas about what to do once you’ve recognised yourself. There are some hints, but they need to be hunted for among the anecdotes. Though the book does not attempt a deep examination of the issues, the authors are generous in citing other writing and sources of further information, and so it acts as a useful reference-point.
According to my list of criteria, Recycled People is realistic, reflective, supportive, unpretentious and unprecious. It makes us laugh at ourselves, which is one of the best self-help strategies around. And like any useful contribution, it opens the topic up, while leaving plenty still to be said.
Suzanne Innes-Kent is the author of Love for All Seasons and is currently writing a book on courtship.