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Does Age Difference Really Matter?

True love is a treasure, but it doesn't always occur when — or with whom — we thought it would

En español | You've fallen for someone 20 years younger, and he/she for you. Friends say you're "infatuated" — why can't they see you're in love? They may impugn the motives of the younger person ("Gold digger!"), or imply that it's all about sex ("You sly devil, you!"), or warn you that unless this is a fling you'll wind up "lonely, poor or both."

Sally Humphreys is 30 years younger than her husband Ronnie Wood

What does age have to do with love? Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood, 65, and Sally Humphreys, 34, are newlyweds. — Dave M. Benett/Getty Images

Does that just about describe the level of "support" you're receiving? To be fair, your friends may have a point: It is sexy to be with someone different, and there is a certain pride in attracting the interest of a younger mate. But there's more than that to your new relationship, as you know, so you could do without the nudges and winks.

Many couples have conquered this barrier, remaining happily married, or committed, for decades. Perhaps the best known are 68-year-old Michael Douglas and 43-year-old Catherine Zeta-Jones, who have bridged their quarter-century age gap to stand by each other through a long partnership (and some recent serious health scares). Or look at 65-year-old Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood, who made 34-year-old theater producer Sally Humphreys his (third) bride in December 2012.

You don't hear as much about what I refuse to call "cougars": women substantially older than their male partners. Could it be that men prize youth and beauty more highly than women do? Maybe, but I suspect another dynamic is at work: Women don't want to feel maternal about a lover, nor do they want to see themselves as a mother figure in a lover's eyes. This aversion may have stopped some women cold who were hot for younger men. (Unless, of course, they were named Cher.)

But all this prompts a bigger question: Is it smart or stupid to take on a partner 20 years younger once you hit 50, 60 or 70?

The answer to that question may lie in your answers to these:

  1. Is there something deeper between the two of you than sexual attraction?
  2. Do you enjoy hanging out with your partner's peer group? Does he or she like to hang out with yours? If not, can you give each other the space necessary to maintain friendships the two of you don't share?
  3. Are you prepared to reconcile the fact that your differing phases of life (retirement vs. midcareer, for example) may give rise to divergent weekly schedules, mismatched "life pressures" and differing availability for leisure time?
  4. Do you have a big enough heart to deal with the likelihood of a serious illness striking the older partner first?
  5. Are you prepared to compromise? It doesn't take much for a health issue to curtail a couple's social life or travel plans.

Just as age has its rewards, so do age differences. The younger person gets an experienced companion who is often better established in the world. The "senior partner" may also have more money — perhaps, even, a more interesting life. The older person, for his part, gets a higher-energy companion who is likely to help the couple stay fit — and, quite likely, more sexually active.

But won't the "junior partner" eventually have to pay the piper? Well, if you're 50 and your companion is 70, you're almost bound to provide care long before you would for a mate of the same age. But we love whom we love. Plus, most people would willingly choose to endure the rough patches so long as they get a reasonable run of the good stuff beforehand.

Your children, of course, may not see the lure of September-May dating quite the way you do! If they are grown, it may strike them as practically incestuous to learn that Mom or Dad is dating someone their same age. They may worry about fortune hunters or a compromised inheritance, or struggle to perceive their new 40-year-old stepmother in a maternal light.

If your love is true, you'll help everyone involved work through these issues and more. And both you and your 11th-hour soulmate will congratulate yourselves for having the gumption to step off the cakewalk of same-age coupling.

Pepper Schwartz is AARP's love and relationships ambassador.

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