S o, how old is she?" was the first or second question many of my friends asked when I began dating last summer after an amicable divorce.
The question surprised me—it was usually asked before "What interests do you share?" or even "What does she do?" which of course means, "What does she do to earn a living?"
And it was asked before the one question I consider to be essential: Does she have a sense of humor? (Of course, when a guy tells you his wife or girlfriend has a great sense of humor, he really means, "She laughs at my jokes.") I wondered: As a man in my mid-40s going through the process of divorce, did people expect me to troll for much younger women? Age hadn't really occurred to me— I wasn't even looking for a new relationship when I met a woman six years younger than I at a writing seminar last August.
I had no answers, so I contacted Dr. Michelle Gannon, a Bay Area couples therapist who co-leads workshops called Marriage Prep 101.
"In my personal and professional experience, age is really not all that important for relationship success. There is such a wide range of maturation and life experiences with each individual. I think what does matter is how the age difference affects compatibility," Gannon says. "For example, do individuals of different ages still share enough compatibility in terms of interests, lifestyle choices, values and energy level to ensure a successful relationship?"
Though a large age disparity can cause a gap when it comes to cultural references, Gannon believes an age difference can be an advantage if the man is substantially older.
"Often, older men have proven themselves professionally and are more ready to focus on relationships and family. This capacity can dovetail nicely with the younger woman's readiness to be in a serious relationship and start a family," she says. "I know many, many successful couples with the woman being more than 15 years younger than her husband."
When people see an older man with a younger woman, they often don't see the real reasons they're together, Gannon says. "I think the mistake is the assumption that the older man is with the younger woman for her looks, and that the younger woman is with the older man for security and money. Perhaps they have a great friendship, love, romance and shared values and interests, and because he is older and more mature, he's more ready for the relationship and willing to work on it."
Of course, not all relationships with age disparity involve older men. Perhaps the most famous couple where the woman is significantly older is Susan Sarandon, who's 61, and Tim Robbins, still a bit of a pup at age 49. They met on the set of Bull Durham (1988) and have two sons. They've shared 20 years together, an eternity among Hollywood A-listers.
"I am not all that surprised when I see an older woman and younger man," Gannon says. "I'm impressed if they just do not care what others think. One advantage of this dynamic could be the woman is more accepting of her sexuality."
Is age disparity no big deal, or are there issues couples should watch out for? One of the biggest is children, Gannon says. Does one partner want kids but the other doesn't? This can be a major stumbling block, because there's no middle ground. Are there kids from a previous marriage, and what's the relationship to them? If there are, Gannon says, the partner who is not the parent should consider whether he or she is willing to take on the role of step-parent.
And then there's the issue that's prevalent in every relationship, regardless of age: money. Is one partner much more financially secure than the other? If so, how does this affect the balance of power in the relationship? Gannon advises couples to discuss the sharing of finances early and often, so no issues are left unclear when a couple is ready to commit.
Other concerns: Will family and friends of each spouse accept a partner from a "different generation"? Gannon asks. And can the older partner match the younger one's energy? Finally, there are the cultural issues, as partners will probably prefer different bands and movies (Talking Heads vs. Nirvana; Shaft vs. Pulp Fiction) .
"But really," Gannon asks, "How important are those differences in the scheme of things?"
To learn more about Dr. Michelle Gannon's common-sensical approach to preparing for matrimony, go to www.marriageprep101.com.