Bridging the Age Gap
Nov. 27, 2000 -- On a gorgeous Sunday morning in 1980, a man we'll call Jack Nussbaum rode his motorcycle down the California coast to see a woman who was interested in buying his Arabian horse. Olivia Rogers (not her real name) was a successful doctor, separated from her husband and the mother of four teenagers. From the moment Jack and Olivia met, they couldn't stop talking. Morning turned to evening. She didn't buy his horse, but he was smitten.
"I never asked her age," says Nussbaum, a software developer in San Francisco. "I figured she was probably a dozen years older. It didn't matter to me because she was young of mind and spirit."
In fact, she was 55 and quite convinced that, at 35, he was far too young for her. "The age difference was always an inhibitor for her," he says. "She figured this was never going to last."
Twenty years later, they're still together. They're in a committed relationship and very much in love. She's 75 and a retired pediatrician in good health; he's 55 and continues to work. Over a lunch of Chinese food, Nussbaum positively beams as he describes the merits of being involved with an older woman and, in particular, Olivia. Twice divorced, Nussbaum says he had developed a habit of trying to tell women who were his age or younger how to live their lives.
"The first time I opened my mouth to say something to Olivia about what she should do, I stopped," he recalls. "Here she was this utterly charming, competent doctor who'd raised four children. Who was I to tell her anything?" He says, "It was a lesson: I was with a mature and powerful woman."
Falling in love with a woman 10, 15, 20 years older, or more can be exhilarating. These so-called age-gap relationships with the woman as the senior partner are more accepted now than in previous times, some observers say. Even so, making the relationship last involves tackling some thorny -- and sensitive -- issues. Among the common trouble spots, experts say, are differences over whether to have children, anxiety over body image and sexuality, and coping with reactions from peers and family members.
Age Gap Fallout
"You can end up with a large gap in understanding," says Judith Sherven, PhD, co-author of The New Intimacy: Discovering the Magic at the Heart of Your Relationship. "The older person is going to have less energy eventually and may not be interested in exploring new things. The younger person may want to rock and roll all night and hang out with younger people the older person finds boring."
The degree of discord depends on how each partner feels about the differences: Are they fascinating or frustrating? The most romantic question, according to Sherven, is "Can you teach me who you are?" Asking that can help bridge the gap brought about by the age difference. "The differences between people are always opportunities to expand psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually," she says.
Sherven recalls a man who was 15 years younger than his wife and going through a period of work-related anxiety. "His wife said, 'I remember when I went through that,'" Sherven says. "She said it with compassion. She could offer a different perspective by virtue of her seniority."
If an older woman offers wisdom and experience, a younger man offers new ideas, particularly about gender roles, says Diane Smith, 44, a registered nurse in Urbana, Ill., who is married to a man 14 years her junior. "I find men my age still looking for the wife that is supposed to take care of them," she says. "I personally wanted a man who could and would take care of himself."
Divorced with three daughters who are 20, 13, and 10 years old, Smith wasn't interested in having more children, and that was fine with her new husband, so they avoided that potential conflict. But it took her a while to believe he would choose her 40-year-old body over that of a younger woman.
"The body image thing is really a hot spot," she says. "Women just can't understand why a man would want an aging woman when there are all those fit, cutesy young bodies out there. Most men who want an older woman see those cute girls as young and dumb. They thrive on the sophistication, experience, and knowledge an older woman brings to the relationship."
Sexual Peaks and Perks
Women's sexual energy is said to peak at age 40, and Smith has found this makes a 40ish woman like herself a perfect sexual match for a younger man. "There's this thing at 40 where all of a sudden there's more interest in sex," she says. "There's this feeling of, 'Hey, what did I miss out on?'"
Unlike younger women who are raising children and are often too tired for sex, older women, at least those without young children, are often ready to devote themselves to a vibrant sex life, she says. "They're more willing to experiment, more relaxed," she says.
And sexual compatibility can endure, says Jack Nussbaum, even as the woman moves toward old age. "I wouldn't be with Olivia all these years if I weren't happy in that area," he says. "It's very important to me."
While an older man may look for a younger woman to make him feel virile and powerful, an older woman doesn't consider a younger man a status symbol, according to Smith, who hosts an online chat group about age-gap relationships.
"It isn't an ego thing with women as it is for men," she says. "It is finding someone who will love them and be their best friend."
Coming to Terms
Far from showing off a young mate -- the way an older man might do -- Olivia Rogers feels so self-conscious about being older than Nussbaum that she refuses to socialize with his friends. When he published a novel, she threw him a party at her house and happily invited her friends and her four children. But when he hosted a publication party in San Francisco for his friends, she chose not to attend.
"There are compartments in our relationship, but through the years we've adjusted," Nussbaum says. Chief among the partitions is that they keep separate residences. "We've never lived together -- for me, that's been a great frustration," Nussbaum says. "I think she's concerned that if we live together, I'd end up in the caretaker role and she couldn't stand that."
Even though women live longer on average than men, older-woman/younger-man couples, like older-man/younger-woman couples, must face the question of mortality. "In all probability, I'll lose her rather than she'll lose me," Nussbaum says. There's no better reason to savor the experience, he says. "We've had 20 glorious years of 'This will never work,'" he says.
And what is his reaction to that constant reminder by his long-term partner? "Let's live every day."
Jane Meredith Adams is a former staff reporter for the Boston Globe. She writes frequently about health.
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