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Dating Maze #330: Age Gap

March 17, 2011 | by Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

I didn’t plan on falling in love with a man 15 years older than me.

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

Barry and I have been dating for three years and we are soon to be engaged. We met randomly while buying furniture and what was supposed to be causal turned into the love my life. We match up in the most beautiful ying-yang way. I am 27 and he is 15 years older.

Over the last year, after getting to know what a great man he is, my parents have resolved themselves that Barry is my choice. However, my large extended family has not met him and they have already decided they don’t like him. They think I’ve been wasting my time and my life. They say things like, "What is a man of 40 years doing with a 25-year-old?" "You will never have a career because you will have to have children right away!" (Barry wants me to have a career if I want one.) And "You won’t be able to have the large family you want."

Barry is also more observant than my family and they feel he is forcing me on a more religious path. On the contrary, I have found out so much more about myself in the last years learning about our tradition that I will always be thankful to him for exposing me to. Perhaps the plans I made when I was a dreamy young girl have been altered since meeting Barry, but I do not regret it at all.

I love my family very much. Though they live in another city about four hours away, we all meet many times a year, similar to My Big Fat Greek Wedding. But now with all these negative feelings, Barry has a negative impression of my family and wants to only go to family functions that are mandatory, excluding the numerous "get-togethers" throughout the year. The idea of having to choose him over my family is killing me.

How would you advise me to help my family accept him, and vise-versa? While this is supposed to be a wonderful time, it feels soured. Should the age difference matter? Is there any way to be sensitive to their concerns while still maintaining a united front?


Dear Susanna,

You've developed a deep, caring relationship with a man you want to build your life with, and it's only natural for you to want your extended family to be happy for you. We understand that instead of looking forward to sharing the good news with your grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, you dread the experience, because until now they've given you negative feedback about Barry being 15 years your senior and because you've become more Jewishly committed due to his influence. We're sorry that what should be one of the most joyous times of your life has become stressful for you. We'll answer each of the questions you've posed in a few moments. But first, we'd like to look at the dynamics of the situation in which you and Barry find yourselves.

Age Differences

When it comes to age differences between a couple, it can work out if the man and woman are comfortable with the difference and how it may affect them long term. In some cultures, it's common for men to marry women 8 to 12 years their junior, and in others, a difference of more than 7 or 8 years raises eyebrows. While we've seen a number of successful age-gap marriages of 10 to 15 years, they are not very common, and most of the time, these matches came about serendipitously, just as yours did. The man and woman first met at work, at a mutual friend's home, in the synagogue they both attended, or, like you, at a store. They started talking, made a connection, and eventually started going out.

In these cases, the man didn't begin by saying, "I'm looking for a woman much younger than I am," and the woman would likely have rejected any suggestion that she go out with a man who was that much older than she was. The couple came together because the "Ultimate Matchmaker" arranged for it to happen. Because they are right for each other, the relationship moved forward in spite of their age difference, not because of it.

The obsession with age can make a man unmarriageable.

Occasionally, a single man will ask us to help him find a prospective wife who is 15 or 20 years his junior. (We're not matchmakers, but we are still asked.) When we explain that they're more likely to connect to a woman who is closer to their age, they may insist, "Well, Barry is getting engaged to someone 15 years younger than he is, why can't I have that?" It's this very attitude that can make such a man unmarriageable. He has made age his most important criteria, instead of looking for someone who is right for him, and he is likely to miss out on the best opportunities and never find what he's hoping for.

Your letter leads us to believe that you and Barry gradually came to realize that you were right for each other and took a great deal into consideration during that process, including how your age difference might affect your relationship long term. For example, there may come a point in time that Barry will want to wind down his career and focus more on travel and recreation, and you won't be ready to enter this phase of life. And even though your health and the way each of you will age aren't entirely within your control, you may eventually have to grapple with issues of one partner's failing health. Of course, every couple has its unique set of challenges regardless of age, and these often can't be anticipated. However it's important for couples who are considering marriage to discuss how they might deal with those issues that they are likely to face.

That fact that you have factored this into your decision to marry probably played a role in your parents' taking the time to get to know Barry and accepting him as your choice for a husband.

Family Concerns

We are wondering, however, why your extended family acts as if you haven't made a well-considered decision.

Is it possible that they're concerned that you're someone who is easily influenced by others? Someone who has made some poor judgment calls in her adult life? Or someone who doesn't have a strong sense of self and has allowed someone else's dreams to become hers?

You've told us that this isn't who you are – that you've outgrown your childhood aspirations and that you're happy with the direction in which your worldview has changed since you and Barry began dating. Is it possible that your family views you as an immature young woman, and doesn't see the personal growth you've experienced? If the answer to any of these questions is, "yes," then we'd like to know why that's so.

Perhaps they're allowing their opinions to be colored by stereotypical views of what used to be referred to as a May/December romance. When a man dates a woman who is much younger than he, some observers may think he's refusing to acknowledge his own age, or is only interested in her youthful appearance. They may be jealous that he can attract someone young and vibrant, wonder why he's so appealing to her, and think that she must be interested in him solely because he's settled financially or is a father figure. These people seem to be viewing the relationship on a superficial level, without considering the qualities that drew the couple together.

She may become a caretaker for him at an early age.

Those people who look at the relationship a little closer, and can see the genuine connection between a man and a woman with a number of years between them, may be concerned about deeper issues. They may worry that the younger person will miss out on certain things life has to offer because her partner is less active than she is, that the responsibilities of raising a family will fall disproportionately on her, that she'll have to change her life plans to accommodate his needs instead of her own, and that she will have to become a caretaker for him at an early age.

These are all legitimate concerns, but they are ones that most couples with a considerable age gap between them discuss and take into consideration long before they make the decision to marry. Interestingly, these "issues" also arise in couples who are much closer in age, but because they are not looming in the foreseeable future, they don't discuss them.

Another concern some people have about big differences in ages is that the older person may unduly influence the younger. That seems to be happening in your family because you've decided to become more religiously observant, and this isn't an experience they can easily identify with. It is hard for them to understand that someone can explore Judaism because they've been influenced by someone they're dating, or by a friend or co-worker, and come to genuinely identify with it and want it in their life.

Your letter sounds as if it's been written by someone who has taken a good look at herself, her value system, her goals in life, and her priorities, has carefully considered the pros and cons of her situation, and has made a choice that she's confident with. We believe this is what really matters when it comes to making the decision about marriage. If you were to tell us that you weren't comfortable about the way you'd adjusted your priorities and life goals, or that you really weren't sure what you wanted out of life, we'd tell you to gain that clarity before announcing any engagement.

Social Integration

Now let's address the situation that you're dreading with your relatives. First of all, we wonder why you and Barry have been dating for three years, and in that time you've traveled to a number of family get-togethers, but have never brought Barry along. Is this something you didn't want your family to know about because you were uncomfortable with it yourself? Did you hear so many negative comments that you were reluctant to bring him along? Or has your family made it clear that he's not welcome? Do you generally have trouble dealing with the dynamic of your extended family? Does your family have a hard time accepting something that's different or doesn't fit into their view of the way things "should be?"

We suggest that you take the approach that the best defense is a good offense. Talk to your various relatives, and let them know how much you love them and value your relationship. Explain to them that you're an intelligent person who considers things very carefully before you make choices in life, and that you hope they can respect the choices you have made, to develop goals in life that are meaningful to you, and to marry a man you have gotten to know and love over the past three years. Mention that you've carefully considered all of the factors that might come into play because of the difference in your ages. But you feel strongly that this is the man you want to build a marriage with, and you hope that they can accept your choice and get to know Barry for who he is.

Are they willing to get to know him as a person?

Let your relatives know how much you value your warm and caring extended family, and that you want Barry to be a part of it as well. Are they willing to accept your choice of Barry and take the time to get to know him as a person? If they're not, you'll be deeply hurt and you believe that, in time, your family's unwillingness to accept Barry as your husband will eat away at your relationship with them, and that is something you don't want to happen.

We think that the next step will be up to them. Many of your relatives may warm up to Barry once they can acknowledge that you've made a carefully considered decision. Understand that many families need some time to accept and get to know someone who doesn't fit into their "image" of what a newcomer to the family should be like. We hope that you and Barry will both give this time. It may be that he will be accompanying you to family functions, feeling uncomfortable, and yet forcing himself to be pleasant even though he feels that he's being judged. He'll need your understanding and support about his discomfort, and you'll need his understanding and support about how torn you feel and how much you want things to work out.

It's entirely possible that some of your relatives will never be happy about your choice of Barry. (That could also happen if you had chosen someone closer to your own age.) If the majority is accepting, you should be able to tolerate the negativity of the minority. However, if most of your extended family doesn't warm up to him, you may find that some version of Barry's "solution" is your best choice. The two of you can attend bigger family events together, and you will attend some of the smaller get-togethers by yourself, with Barry's understanding and support. That's a solution that we've seen work for other families.

We hope that our advice is helpful to you, and we wish you the very best.

Rosie & Sherry

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