They used to be called “May/December” romances — a younger woman and an older man. The lady was variously described as a “gold digger” or a “trophy wife,” more often the latter now. Sometimes you see the reverse, a woman senior to the man — a gigolo, if he is “kept” by her.
The relationship involves a kind of social exchange. The aging man trades his status or wealth for the woman’s beauty, fertility, and a return to the springtime of life.
When my daughters, both young women, hear about such things, all they can say is “gross.” The female isn’t the “gross” part.
Other factors do play in. Sometimes the tally of years is irrelevant. The puzzle pieces don’t always fit in age-acceptable matters of romance. Should a rare magic happen, age similarities or differences matter little.
The man who marries a woman of greater years, like the woman who enjoys a seasoned man, might also have unresolved parental issues. Transference is what Freudians would call it. Put another way, the adult child’s unconscious invites a second chance for the kind of love represented by the parental stunt-double — the new, older person; especially where such love was never won from the parent.
Nor should we overlook the attractions of mortality itself: another soul speeding to death’s gate before oneself. For those of us at war with time, the brevity of the rose’s bloom makes it even more appealing than if it were everlasting. We value things and people, in part, because we won’t always have them. The perishable delights of life create urgency and the desire to hold on tight before Cinderella’s clock strike’s midnight — and we all turn into pumpkins.
There is, however, a less dark possibility. Pablo Casals, the famous cellist/conductor of the mid-20th century was 81-years-old when he married his 20-year-old cello student, Marta Montañez Martínez. Robert Baldock, Casals biographer, wrote: “No one who knew them or saw them together during the final years of Casals life could doubt … that they married for love.” Indeed, Casals said his attraction to his wife came, in no small measure, from her physical resemblance to his mother in her youth.
Still, people being people, some wondered about the match. The musician put it this way in 1970, three years before his death:
I was aware … that some people noted a certain discrepancy in our ages — a bridegroom of course is not usually thirty years older than his father-in-law. But Martita and I were not too concerned about what others thought; it was, after all, we who were getting married — not they. If some had misgivings, I can only say our love has deepened in the intervening years.
An apocryphal version of the student/maestro story is amusing. Casals got engaged and then informed his MD of his upcoming nuptials. The physician expressed alarm.
“You’d better think before you do anything — this might be lethal!”
Casals didn’t respond right away, but appeared to consider the doctor’s words. Only then came the answer.
“Well, you know, if she dies, she dies.”
Quite vigorous for most of his remaining years, Casals passed away at age 96 in 1973. The Immortal Beloved lives yet.
The image above is of Pablo Casals and his wife, Martita 1960 by Lisl Steiner, with permission: http://www.lislsteiner.com/
Very interesting post! I wonder, also, how midlife crisis becomes a factor for both heterosexual men and women who have been divorced become engaged with younger fellows. Perhaps they want more control, and perhaps they have lost trust in those close to their own age.
There’s another possibility that I think you alluded to – gold-diggers of some sort. I’ve met quite a few women, some who were tantamount to prostitutes, who dated and then later married older, more sophisticated and established men to either or both get money/security from them and/or wait for them to die off to win their inheritance. Prenuptial agreements are a safeguard to any male or female breadwinner in such marriages or, in today’s newfound terms, legal romantic partnerships.
Socioeconomic factors, in addition to Freudian factors, appear to be important correlations, if not causations as well. In my own personal accounts, when I was younger, I dated older men and, after being raped after the Marines, attempted to date a woman (I felt “grossed” out by that), primarily because of the traumas I had suffered from same-aged peers who bullied me in childhood and then later, males at different times who either took advantage of me or criminally sexually assaulted me (–at least this is what I consciously and subconsciously chalk it up to after multiple psychotherapies and psycho-treatments).
The Freudian is always there as well, but after getting a non-lethal but life-debilitating and socially stigmatizing disease from being raped in the mid-2000s, acquiring and maintaining romantic relationships that were anything but asexual became too challenging in the bedroom. The precautions of having to deal with both human papilloma and genital herpes became too much for me to bear, even though my partner at the time (a male) thought that I put too much effort in preventing him from getting the disease or preventing me or him to get the disease in other places (e.g., you can get genital herpes in your eyes, exposed papercuts on your fingernails, in your mouth; you can get cancer in your mouth from oral sex with a person with high-risk forms of human papilloma). For an educated man from Stanford, whom I dated back then (and whom I maintain a friendship with after I broke it off with him), he appeared to lack the knowledge about safe sex, and thus he appeared to be at risk himself for not being educated enough about safe sex. His belief in condoms, for instance, do not protect against all forms of STDs/STIs, and oral sex is not safe without dental dams or other forms of protection. They don’t teach you those forms of protection in sex education during grade school, and they certainly don’t spread the word or awareness in the public.
Most often, women get diagnosed long after the occurrence of contraction, and men can only get tested for genital herpes, but not human pap (unless they present with cancerous signs). Further, whenever people get their physicals done with an STD check, the doctors fail to disclose that they only test for the main life-threatening STDs, but they do not automatically test for herpes or human pap unless you specifically have symptoms or unless you specifically ask for it; I got lucky, if you’d call it that, because after I reported my rape, they immediately tested me for everything and only found those two diseases.
I was still in shock and pissed that I’ve now encountered what I think could be categorized as medical trauma on top of rape trauma. Since my last attempt at dating about eight years ago, I’ve learned to feel more happier as an asexual than I did when attempting a sexual relationship with a man or a woman. However, that did not come without some pain and suffering, and it certainly took a ton of effort on my part to adjust – all without therapy or guidance.
The man whom I last dated was close to my age, which I decided to be more socially appropriate at the time – especially given my need to disclose to every person I started dating about my STDs, and especially since I was in my 40s and did not want to be labeled a “cougar” (I would only date one person at a time for the purposes of a long-term relationship, and I’ve dealt with rejection and acceptance at different levels – both hurt and scared to death of having to deal with that process since my 30s; dare I say that I’m not afraid of rejection or abandonment, at least not in the cases of sexual relationships, if not at all). When I was younger (and prettier and thinner), however, and before I had any STDs, I dated men a few years older than me because I consciously thought that they were more mature than guys my own age. Subconsciously, I probably wanted to fill the gaps where my own father failed. Sex back then was painful, and I cried at times. I have been cheated on by men, I have been dumped, and I have been ghosted. I have never cheated on a man, and I’ve never dated more than one man at a time. I have broken it off with men, and I have taken it both fast and slow, depending on the relationship. In my younger years, I experimented, but I’ve mostly have safe sex.
Overall, and based on my own personal experiences, I think that people select their mates according to their past and present life circumstances, and I think age is an afterthought unless there are strong ulterior motives and/or problematic externalizing disorders at play. Additionally, I think some of the founding fathers of psychology married younger spouses, and I think that people back in the day (e.g., E. A. Poe, being one of them), commonly married women in their teens.
For the LGBT community, as well as for polyamorous communities, I’ve seen so many couples, on average, be at least one decade apart in age. I wonder, then, if there are underlying and unresolved parental issues from childhood at play among the majority of persons in those populations? I’m not saying this to bring back the diagnosis of the same-sex disorders, but I am saying this because it seems quite odd that my friends who are part of the LGBT community rarely have partners who are close in age. I’ve read some accounts from Beck’s book, or perhaps another book/article, where Freud had hypothesized on the etiology of homosexuality, but I cannot recall what he said – other than it stemmed from childhood and the parent-child dynamic, in particular with the mother. The Oedipus and Electra complexes ring a bell, but I wonder if such age-based phenomena among dating/marrying are widespread across both heterosexual and same-sex populations. I’m sure that aging and midlife crisis issues might also contribute to the change in dating someone of a different generation (younger or older), but health-related conditions (such as STDs or cancer or other physiological disorders) may also be a contributing factor. Evolutionary theorists may include a form of altruism theory to explain how those who are not able to reproduce later in life (or those who are not fittest) might do what they can to survive. If these psychological theories, including humanistic theories, were married, one might say that the need for love, sex, and belongingness are achieved sometimes through partnerships, marriages, or romantic/sexual engagements – that is, unless you’re asexual and/or sapiosexual, and that partners who become romantically engaged with the less fittest people are doing what they can (consciously and subconsciously) for altrustic means.
Then again, those who were parentified as children may also be prone to becoming the “helper” and “rescuer” in romantic relationships when marrying an older person on their deathbed, or a similar-aged person who has a ton of physiological and/or psychological problems. I think that divergent solutions to such problems – if they are, in fact, problematic (and not just cigars being cigars) – are better and more appropriate than convergent solutions via conventional methods; multiple forms of introspection and retrospection, which are based on multiple forms of psychological and psychosocial theories, can explain, together, the nature for which these phenomena occur. What do you think? (I concede that I may be off, biased, incorrect, or flat out crazy, but I thought I’d show a little integrity by responding with all of my thoughts and my vulnerable histories.)
Sorry, the short version (or tl;dr) of my response is that I really like your post, and I have always found it interesting how people and society accept generational gaps between romantic partners. I’ve been fascinated by the different theories that have explained such phenomena, and I’m always curious about why Freudian theories appear to be at the forefront, despite many other theories having been developed. I, of course, do not deny that I have my own issues from childhood, but I also consider other factors that have either exacerbated my psychological condition(s) or added onto the originating one(s). It is quite an interesting phenomena, indeed, especially since our history books reveal changes in what are socially acceptable under such terms.
One thing to add: When it comes to erotic transference, childhood and adulthood issues (including loss and trauma) become even more painful to revisit and acknowledge. I am reminded about the health problems (and losses) I have that stem from multiple forms of trauma and polyvictimization, and I am reminded about how envious I am of others, as well as how lonely I am with regards to not having all of my needs met. Loneliness is both a dependent and independent variable in the complex array of a person’s psychosocial life, health, and long-term outcomes. There are coping skills that can help with loneliness, and there are alternative solutions to feeling less lonely (depending on the type of loneliness one addresses, as there are different forms of loneliness), but to avoid the discussion of losses and retraumatizations that occur to deal with those losses is adding flames to the fire already burning away at a person’s heart. Unresolved and/or complex grief – albeit disenfranchised, needs working out, lest one goes down a path of engaging with the wrong people and putting them at risk for more harm than good – that is, if such engagements are problematic, or risky. For some people, age gaps don’t matter, and they may find real or pseudo love, belongingness, intimacy, and connection (or even healing) in their relationships. –This latter hypothesis, however, has yet to be tested.
Thanks again, multinomial. Your comments often provoke more thoughts in readers, I suspect, than the essay that prompts them.
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Rescue is certainly on the unconscious list for some people in forming relationships; as in a second chance to save someone dear to you. Thank your for opening many more possible explanations for anyone interested in this topic. And, once again, your resilience in the face of what you’ve described leaves me without words to capture your strength.
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Thank you, Dr. S. I went overboard with my comments, which I should probably condense in the future. I think I am dealing with so much right now that I have become opinionated about everything. If there is such a thing as the flooding of traumatic memories, maybe the flooding of knowledge could also be true. My brain goes into hyperdrive sometimes, but it immediately relaxes after the storm has subsided. The truth is, my mother was about 11 years or more younger than my father. I’m completely biased when it comes to these discussions, and disqualified, as I’ve never married. I have no idea what marriage is like, other than the example my parents gave. My parents remained together throughout my life, which is bitter-sweet for me. That’s all I can say that is really relevant. Others’ comments were more appropriate, but so many things all of you say are over my head. I really don’t know much at all. Thanks for your kind words about my resilience and strength.
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I was married to a much older man and we got on very well. It lasted only 4 years due to other reasons. Thank you for the article.
Your are welcome, Oscar Dandelion, and thanks for your addition to the conversation.
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Interesting article, Dr. Stein. Carlas’ response to his doctor — “Well, you know, if she dies, she dies.” — made me laugh out loud. It can, indeed, happen.
I spoke two days ago with my late-friend’s husband. Fifteen years older than his beloved wife of 45 years, he lamented that the reality of losing her has become sharper with each new day.
My son’s marriage to a woman 24 years older lasted for two years. It weighs heavily on my heart to think that he “might also have unresolved parental issues.”
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Glad you got a laugh, Rosaliene. As to your son, multinomial correctly enlarges the pool of possible explanations of marriages between people of different ages. So sorry for your friend’s husband — and for the loss you have also suffered in the death of his spouse.
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Thanks, Dr. Stein. I miss having her in my life.
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Excellent article, Dr. Stein! It is a wonder I did not marry a much older man considering my own background, but I didn’t and I am grateful. Now that we are well into our middle years it is nice that we are both the same age, understand the trials this brings to our bodies, and the knowledge that we will be there for each other for the rest of our lives, is a comfort.
Glad it all worked out, Nancy. Thanks for commenting.
The spirituality of humankind knows no such boundaries as age, or color for that matter, when it comes to matters of the heart. (Those things are all bodily doings.)
I once had an intense bond with a man 30 years my junior. The attraction was very much mutual.
I resembled his mother in no way, and he was not the son I wish I had.
It was a connection so strong that when we parted, it felt as though a limb had been severed from my body. That was how strong the loss.
Though we never acted on this attraction except an embrace, I sometimes wonder…..
Well said, chitterlingsandpigfeet. Thank you for saying it.