I'm 49; she's 23

Strangers give us looks; friends fear she's a gold-digger. But we're in love

Published May 30, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

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

Dear Cary,

I am a divorced 49-year-old man who is in a happy, loving relationship with a 23-year-old woman. We first met and got to know each other shortly after I separated from my wife, but we did not begin seriously dating until after the divorce was formalized, six months later. We have been together for six months now, and I am happier than I ever was with my ex-wife. There are, however, some potential problems with our relationship. They are all related to the obvious substantial difference in our ages.

First is the marked difference in the circumstances of our lives. I am a successful professional and businessman, and she is a financially struggling graduate student. (When we first met, she was still an undergraduate.) I have no problem paying for all our dates, our meals, traveling together, etc. It seems only natural, since I have the means to do so, and the financial impact for me is truly negligible. At times I have done even more for her financially, such as pay for many of her material needs, e.g. textbooks, school and living expenses, etc. She has never asked me to do this; I have always offered without prompting. On occasion, my girlfriend has expressed some discomfort about the things I have given her, saying that it feels like a sugar daddy-sugar baby relationship; but conversely, she has not turned my gifts down either, mainly because I insist. For both of us, there is definitely no sense of obligation or strings attached or quid pro quo. To me, it just seems like a natural thing for me to do, to help take care of someone I love. My family, however, is concerned that she is taking advantage of me, and I can certainly understand their perspective. They do not understand why a beautiful, young woman would want a relationship with someone old enough to be her father. Early in our relationship, I posed the same question to her. She told me that she has always been attracted to older men (she had earlier ended a relationship with a 35-year-old man) and found "boys" her own age to be immature and superficial. How can I convince my family -- and I suppose to a certain extent myself -- that she is not a gold digger?

The other problem we have encountered is the reaction of other people -- strangers, acquaintances, friends and family -- to our relationship. It ranges from, at best, surprise, to bemused cynicism, to being scandalized, to outright hostility. Noone we know reacts, at least initially, to our relationship favorably. This was of course predictable, and I thought I had prepared myself for the reactions of others when we first started dating. But I must confess that constantly battling the tide of negative opinion weighs on me. I am a very youthful, active 49, and have been told that I could easily pass for someone ten years younger. The problem is that my girlfriend is also extremely young-looking, which accentuates the age difference. Walking in public holding hands invariably engenders stares and second looks. Do we just have to resign ourselves to withhold all displays of public affection until she starts looking older (by then, hopefully, I will still maintain my own youthful appearance)? I know it shouldn't matter, but the opinion of others matters to me. Especially problematic are the attitudes of business friends and colleagues who knew and liked my ex-wife, and who consider my current relationship at best highly unusual. How do we deal with them? At least my girlfriend and, for the most part, her circle of friends find our relationship much less problematic.

But perhaps biggest the issue I have with our relationship is that I am worried that as I continue to get older, she will be a vibrant, still-young woman saddled with an increasingly decrepit old man. I am still very fit, healthy and active, but I worry that in 10 or 20 years, my health will start failing, and she will be stuck with me. I love my girlfriend, and if not for the issues noted above, I would wish us to have a long, happy life together. As much as I can look after myself and stay young for her, I am worried that the inevitable discrepancy in our physical well-being will lead to guilt on my part and resentment on hers. I have discussed this with her, told her that in many ways she would do better to find someone nearer her own age, but she has always dismissed my reasoning out of hand, seemingly without giving it any thought. Is this a legitimate concern I have? How can I be certain that she knows what she may be getting herself into?

Mr. September

Dear Mr. September,

Your concerns sound reasonable. But what are you to do about them? You cannot change your age or hers. You cannot change how your friends and colleagues think and feel. You cannot change the reactions of strangers. So why not accept your situation exactly as it is?

As to what to say: It might help to memorize and agree upon certain phrases that politely define your relationship and clear up misconceptions. A little lighthearted humor might help; sometimes it's refreshing to be disarmingly frank: "She's my girlfriend." But I leave it up to you. I intuitively sense that you are diplomatic and alert to social nuance.

Accepting the situation exactly as it is may require giving up the illusion of control. If you are a successful businessman and professional, you may be accustomed to feeling you are in control. It may be a habit to orchestrate events so that chance events are eliminated, when possible, and hedged against, when not.

But what if an undersea earthquake causes a tsunami and wipes out your town?

It is a mistake to assume that only visible dangers matter. Have you read "The Black Swan"? You might enjoy it. To greatly oversimplify, one lesson of that book is to prepare for the unknown. To assume that it will be the unforeseen that will surprise us is more or less tautological, yet we seem to have trouble with that.

Maybe we translate uneasiness about the unknown into concern about the known. For instance, your concern about what may happen in the future may be a way of dealing with your concern about the present.

The future is uncertain for everyone. It was uncertain for you and your wife. You probably planned to stay married but something changed. You could not have planned for that. Age can shift the balance of a marriage. But so can other things.

Youth is no protection against disease or accident. Your wife could get sick. You might end up being her caregiver. You must be ready to take care of her just as she must be ready to take care of you.

She is young and may not care to think about what might happen later. One day she might find she's no longer in love with you. She may leave you. But if you and she were the same age, she might leave you as well. You can't know. Neither can she. She doesn't have to be a gold-digger to wreak havoc on your life. She may just be a person who wants to do what she wants to do when she wants to do it. If her feelings should change, then she might leave you. Would that make her a bad person? Would it make her a bad person if she promised to always love you and then stopped loving you? If she follows her heart, and her heart changes, and she is not able to see that coming, does that make her a bad person?

This is love. This is life. Nothing is certain. Accept it.

By Cary Tennis

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