Will It Work?
Dec. 11, 2000 -- When Tamara Latorre met her boyfriend, she was 32 and he was 43. That is, he said he was 43. They met online, so how could she know for sure? After their first rendezvous in person, he confessed: he was 52. The 20-year age difference between them didn't trouble her. She'd already fallen for him.
Three years later, they're happily living together on a four-acre horse farm in southeastern Massachusetts. The age difference doesn't show up when they're riding horses or racing down the slopes on a ski vacation. The gap appears when they talk about their future.
Eager to get the education she missed when she was younger, Latorre is enrolled full-time in college and plans to go to law school as well. A mother of four -- her oldest is 12 -- she is preparing to launch a career for the first time. Her boyfriend, meanwhile, is on the downside of his working life. Until he got divorced recently and his expenses went up, he thought that at this point in his life, he would be retired from his work as a dentist. Now his goal is to retire as soon as he can. He's got three kids: one in college, one about to start college, and one who is 10 years old.
When Latorre spends her evenings studying, he sometimes complains that she's ignoring him, she says. "I tell him I'm doing this so you can retire and I'll be able to earn money for us," she says. They've worked out a compromise. She studies only on weeknights and he often joins her. "I read him philosophy and he helps me figure out what the heck they're talking about."
The May-December story
While no statistics are readily available, older man-younger woman couples have long existed and may be becoming more prevalent and more socially acceptable. In certain Hollywood and corporate circles, especially among financially successful men, the practice is so common that these younger women, usually second wives, have been given the disparaging nickname of "trophy wives."
Medical advancements are helping this merger of the generations become more realistic than ever. Erectile enhancing drugs such as Viagra have allowed many older men to continue an active sex life. At the same time, new fertility treatments have extended the childbearing years for women, making possible families like that of author Saul Bellow, who became a father at age 85 this year when his 44-year-old wife gave birth.
"The concept of what age means in our society is changing very rapidly," says Ian Alger, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry at Weill Medical College of Cornell University. With many men rejecting the idea that they should retire at age 65, older men are discovering they feel vigorous enough to mate and even to start new families, he says. The Internet has been a rich meeting ground, since it lets people communicate without revealing their ages. "It brings everybody into the marketplace of life," he says.
Sometimes, people aren't even looking for the right partner online; it just happens. When Tamara Latorre first started chatting online with her now-boyfriend, she says she paid no attention to age. "I had absolutely no expectations of meeting him."
The challenge of May-December
While these pairings can bring great joy, they often carry unique challenges, experts say. First among them is that the average life expectancy for men is now 73.6 years, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, compared to a life expectancy for women of 79.4 years. An age difference of 15 or 20 or 35 years early in life may seem insignificant, but over time the age gap can mean that the younger woman is nursing an ill or dying husband just when she's in midlife and eager to be active. "We're dealing with two people in different stages of the life cycle," says Harvey Rubin, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry and director of continuing education at the Yale School of Medicine.
Trying to merge these cycles may involve reconciling to the fact that the woman will be left to raise a child by herself. One couple Rubin saw in private practice met when she was in her early 20s and he was in his late 50s, a dashing and successful businessman and musician. "She promised him she'd never want children," reports Rubin. "Well, he became a father at 82." Because of heart trouble, he's not able to help much with the child, who is now 3. "Their marital relationship is really nil," says Rubin. "He's been ill and needs her help."
The stability factor
Despite the problems the age difference can bring, the gap often does have perks for the younger partner, including financial stability. While a younger woman may end up being the caretaker of her older husband, the relationship may have begun with the premise that an older, more financially successful man will provide status, safety, and security for a young woman.
Christopher Zuckowski, 48, a federal employee in Maryland, has no problem with this. He clearly states that, in addition to love, what he offers is stability for his 22-year-old fiancée and her two children. "My primary goal is that she and her kids have a good life," he says. Much of this stability comes from the fact that he is old enough to be established in his career.
The intolerance factor
While couples often work out the age gap, their families and friends may still not be very accepting. Zuckowski's age is a problem, for instance, with his soon-to-be in-laws: he's older than they are. The three have not yet met, although the couple is engaged.
Tamara Latorre also has been on the receiving end of social disapproval. When she and her boyfriend are at the movie theater, they often run into couples who knew him when he was married. Some of these couples are friendly to her, while others clearly disapprove.
"The husband walks over and the wife stands there glaring," says Latorre.
Working it out
While these social snubs can be painful, they often can be shrugged off. More difficult are conflicts at home. Younger women may expect their mate to be their best friend, while older men may not be up to the psychological task, says Charles D. Hill, PhD, professor of psychology at Whittier College in Southern California. In lieu of verbal intimacy, sex may be a couple's bond, but with age and illness, the man's sexual performance may suffer, he says. It is imperative that the couple find other means of sexual pleasure and other common interests as well, he says.
At its best, the end of life can be another path for intimacy. The couple accept that part of the deal of being of different generations is caring for each other, come what may. Some couples rise to the challenge and experience new intimacy. "Life brings its ups and downs," says Ian Alger at Cornell University. "Many people shoulder this burden and are partners for better or for worse."
These are the partners who have truly bridged the two or three decade gap in ages -- and met in the middle.
Jane Meredith Adams has been a staff writer for The Boston Globe and has written for numerous other publications. She is based in San Francisco.