Should I marry the older man?

My Asian family is dead set against my partnering with a man 20 years my senior

Published January 25, 2012 1:00AM (EST)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

How do you predict the future? Or rather, how do you decide whether to continue with something that makes you happy right now when there's a possibility that it will make you miserable in the future?

I'm a woman in my mid-20s in love with a man in his mid-40s. My family is furious at the 21-year age gap. Every time I speak with my mother, or aunt, or grandmother (the women in my family tend to be more vocal), they argue that he will be aging in only 15 or 20 years. When I'm in my prime and still full of energy, he will be senile and home-bound. I will have to take care of him while also tending to my aging parents and probably late adolescent kids.

My family never tires of doing the math: When I'm in my late 30s, he will be turning 60; when I'm in my late 50s (my mother's current age), he will be approaching 80! And then I will be all alone in my old age, when I need a partner the most.

But after I listen to their forecast of illness and doom, I return to my life and am reminded of how happy he makes me, in the now. He's the kind of person who insists on taking care of his friends' cats every time they go away; who remembers the birthdays of all of his nieces and nephews (he doesn't have kids of his own); who doesn't like to talk much but always says hello to the doorman and to the neighbors in the elevator; who goes out early in the morning and shovels snow for a neighborhood school where he takes classes. He puts the same care, respect and attention into our daily interactions. He loves me fiercely, and I've never felt so happy or safe in a relationship.

Don't think that our relationship is based on the stereotypical pursuit of money and beauty. I recently graduated from an Ivy League college and plan to get an MBA. He never went to college and has been working with his hands his whole life. We both recognize that I'll likely have greater earning power in the future. But our having different backgrounds is actually a great thing. We never run out of things to talk about, and we appreciate the different things that each of us brings to the table.

Despite our different backgrounds, we fit well together. We both grew up as outsiders in our respective communities and have similar sensibilities and values. We share a passion for the same sport, for which we train together almost every day (that's how we met). We communicate easily with each other and have never even come close to having a fight. And when one of us tells a joke, odds are that the other is the only one laughing when everyone else would stare with confused faces. In the six months we've been dating, things have fallen in place so easily that I have pretty much forgotten the age gap.

But not quite. My family's prediction of future misery and resentment for me is always lurking in the shadows. Every time I talk with my mother, she mercilessly shines a glaring light on the monster, and it scares me. Recently, my traditional Asian family has called upon the ancient duty of filial piety and commanded me to end this relationship. It's for your own good, they tell me. You can always find someone your own age to love.

I'm angry that my family is ordering me to make a very personal decision. At the same time I wonder, what if they are right? What if I fight for this relationship and alienate my family, only to find myself caring for an aging partner and young kids when I'm still building my career? Is our happiness now -- and this overwhelming sense that "this is right" in every other way -- worth taking this risk? And if the answer is yes, how do I explain this to my family?

Please help, Cary. I would really appreciate your thoughts.


Dear Torn,

I suggest you take more time with this. You've only been dating for six months.

It's kind of odd, don't you think, that in thinking about the future your family sees only one scenario, the tragically poor widow, bereft of companionship and burdened with a younger woman's labors? No one seems to have mentioned that the very genius of planning is that you can plan for any future. You do not have to plan just for the catastrophic future of your worst imaginings. You can plan calmly and reasonably for a future in which one mate will retire sooner, age sooner and probably die sooner.

If you are planning to get an MBA then you must be acquainted with methods of estate planning and investment strategies. It seems a straightforward exercise to consider how an estate would be planned to take into account the age difference, as well as the differences in earnings that you have already mentioned.

Such a rational approach ignores what is really going on: For a variety of reasons, your family is fearful and upset.

Think how they must fear the awkwardness of their daughter having a husband who is only a few years younger than they are. This is not what they were expecting. They were expecting a young man upon whom they could look as a son. You do not say if this man is Asian, but if he is not, that introduces another difficulty for your family. They will have to adjust to the idea of a man who does not look like them or act like them, and who is nearly their age; they will have to adjust to the idea, if you have children, of children who look blended.

Speaking of children: Does he want to have children with you? Can he? Why does he have no kids? What about you? Do you want kids? Are you sure? Have you thought about it deeply?

There are a million other issues this raises. I have looked at them and thought about them but it is the larger picture that I want to talk about:

The world is changing. Your family must know this. That does not mean they are happy about it. They may feel a deep sense of loss of heritage and destiny. Who knows how they feel? Imagine what a comfort it must be to people of traditional cultures to look backward and forward in time and see in either direction an unbroken procession of people who look just this way and live just this way, and who far into the future will continue to look just this way and live just this way. How beautiful and reassuring that must be! Who would easily relinquish such a vision?

So please, do not scorn or disregard what your family is going through. It is not inconsequential or shallow.

But this is not just about you, either. You are awash in a great historical struggle. On one side are the myriad forces of globalism and modernity, threatening to wash away thousands of years of cultural continuity with a few clicks of a mouse. And frankly, as a romantic, individualistic, secular Westerner, I do think the future belongs to the pioneers and inventors, the scientists and entrepreneurs who will create a new world but in doing so will lay to waste the fragile ancient world that birthed us.

It seems to me that the world goes the way of the seafarer bringing strange germs to aboriginals, the way of strange new tools and tongues, and that we must and will increasingly mix and blend ourselves into fractal mirrors of each other, and learn to shepherd global flows of capital and genes, and since we must adapt or perish, why not fling ourselves joyfully, head-first into this raging and inevitable future, instead of being dragged into it by our heels?

You can't reasonably expect your family to embrace this. To them it must look like just so much carnage and outrage. Nevertheless, you are part of a great, global awakening.

So think on these things and think about how the world is changing and where you want to be in that world, and think, too, about the magic of love and how it can, indeed, if given the chance, at times, conquer everything.

Whether it's worth taking the risk may finally depend on who you are and what cultural system is most deeply embedded in your psyche. Are you a Westerner at heart? Are you a part of the Western romantic tradition, the tradition of individualism and love conquering all? Do you believe in the power of romantic love to overcome social obstacles? Do you? Are you that person? Or are you more deeply, at heart, your mother's daughter?

Whom do you belong to? Do you belong to yourself, to the state, to your family, to God? How can you know? The answers are of course plural. You belong to your family and to yourself, to the state, to your friends and to your God if you think of the imponderable in such terms.

In any case, you don't have to marry this man right away.

So take your time. See how things develop. Bring him around and see how the family responds. Maybe in time they will warm up to him, discover their similarities and overlook the differences.


By Cary Tennis

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