In age gap relationships love conquers risk

July 12, 2015
older woman younger man

My friend was in her late 20s when she fell in love with a man in his late 40s. Everyone thought she was a little crazy. I mean he was so old.  But now he’s 87 and she’s 67 and their relationship has outlasted others from the same era, my own included. What a life they’ve shared for almost 40 years – in diplomatic circles, in foreign countries, publishing books, and working as consultants. They’re still flying round the world together. In retrospect, they were perfect for each other – both are erudite, multi-lingual, and cultured.  An age difference of 20 years turned out to be irrelevant. Their marriage is testament to the power of love.

Research shows marriages with big age gaps are riskier. Even a five-year age gap can make divorce more likely, one study shows. That doesn’t stop people chancing it despite disapproval of friends and family, the jokes and the gossip. A long list of celebrities comes to mind: George Soros 83, the billionaire funds manager, married 42-year-old Tamiko Bolton in 2013; Stephen Fry 57, the television personality, married his 27 year-old boyfriend Elliot Spencer this year; and our own Sid Londish 91, the veteran Sydney property developer, is dating a 60-year-old woman. From Hollywood, age-gap relationships are nothing new with women increasingly likely to be the older partner. Think Susan Sarandon who was 12 years older than Tim Robbins. The relationships ended after 23 years but in her late 60s Sarandon has gone on to date a man in his 30s.

It’s easy to be negative. The unflattering names used sotto voce to describe such rebels – cougar or gold digger (if she’s a much younger woman), cradle-snatcher or toyboy – reveal society’s judgments. The relationships are suspect till proven enduring. An older man may be admired for stamina, and encouraged to seize the day. But he can also be subject to ridicule. I’d recommend you read Why older men should date younger women. (Hint: she’s hot). It’s hilarious. But a teeny bit mean.

Born years or decades apart, you’d expect couples to entertain different goals around children, career and travel. He’s ready to retire and sail the world, she’s moving into the corporate suite. And common interests? If he’s into Dave Brubeck and she’s into Britney Spears, the relationship is doomed surely? If sharing the housework is what she expects but he hails from a pre-feminist era, love won’t conquer the bathroom wars, will it? Yet it can.

So stigmatised are these relationships that Bea is keeping hers mostly a secret from her family and friends. She’s 49 and she’s fallen in love with a man who’s 83. She wrote to me recently: “We feel like we’ve met our soul mate…… In terms of compatibility, both in bed and out, it’s reciprocal.” The age gap is no barrier.  If outsiders guessed, she said, they’d wonder what she saw in him – a wizened body, arthritic hands, replaced knees, dodgy stomach….

What she sees is a “highly intelligent, perceptive man who has led a full and diverse life, who sees me utterly…. [we] have told each other everything.” Nearly everyone who’s seen them together assumes the relationship is platonic “because no-one in their right mind would be attracted to some octogenarian, and he can’t have any desire left, surely?” Psychiatrists might have a field day but she doesn’t care. She’s happy. She’s also better off financially than he is, and has made it clear she’s not after his house. She’s younger than his daughters who don’t know about the affair, and her children don’t know, either. You can imagine her kids’ reaction: “Yuk.”

A few years ago researchers at the Australian National University conducted a major study to determine the factors associated with marriages lasting (or not). They followed 2,482 couples over six years. In their paper What’s love got to do with it? they listed the ingredients of a good and bad marriage. A large age difference between husband and wife was a definite risk factor. Couples close in age, where the husband was one year younger to three years older than his wife had less than half the risk of separating than couples where the husband was nine or more years older than his wife; and two-thirds the risk of marriages where the husband was two or more years younger.

But closeness in age was only one of the key compatibility ingredients. If the couple were in agreement about future children, had similar levels of education (rather than the man being more highly educated), didn’t smoke (instead of one being a smoker), and where the wife didn’t drink more alcohol than her husband were also more likely to have a lasting marriage. Both having parents who hadn’t divorced was a plus factor as was financial security, and having no resident children. So being close in age isn’t the be-all and end-all. Even by this cool accounting system, where love is eliminated from the equation, being compatible in the other ways could over-ride an age gap.

But who’s going to eliminate love? “It breaks my heart,” Bea told me, “that our time is limited by his age.”

Because I’m overseas, there may be a delay in comments going online.

Coming of Age is updated every Monday. Click ‘subscribe for free’ to get it emailed to you.