Holding hands
Photo: © 2009 Jupiterimages Corporation
We read the women's sports pages (i.e. the wedding announcements) as avidly as anyone, and is it just us, or are there more and more couples with more than a few years between them? Women marrying men a quarter of a century older or a dozen years younger. And we wonder: How's that working for them?
For the past 12 years, I have written about weddings for The New York Times, and learned one lesson: Love can blindside you. Over and over again, I've interviewed people who kept lists of qualities they were looking for in a spouse—a Wall Street banker, a vegetarian, a skier, a poet, someone who recycles, someone who drives a Porsche, someone under 30—and then fell in love with a completely different type of person, someone much younger or older, say, than they pictured.

That happened to me once. When I was 25, I spent ten days in Rome doing things I had never done: staying in hotels that cost more than $50 a night, eating pasta that wasn't Stouffer's. I also met a man who quoted poetry and knew all about wine and astrology and Roman history and which fork to use when presented with several in a fancy restaurant. I thought he was drop-dead gorgeous. He was 80. He wasn't a father figure—he was a grandfather figure. At the end of our weeklong romance, we exchanged addresses and phone numbers. I waited longer than I have ever waited for any man to call me—I was in my 30s before I gave up hope, and only because I figured he was probably dead. But what I learned was, you might think it's not possible to fall in love with someone 55 years older than you, but as with most things you think you can't possibly do—fly an airplane, learn Chinese, move to Paris alone—you actually can.

Still, there's a big difference between being swept off your feet and staying for the long haul. A generation gap makes both people ask hard questions about love, aging, permanence, sacrifice, and family. And when it's the woman who's much older, as I'm seeing more and more often these days, she becomes more conscious of the fragility of her beauty, her fertility, her 20/20 vision.

Dianne Dallin, 46, met her husband Mike, 32, in the middle of the Utah desert, on a canyoneering trip. She was divorced with two children. Her first impression of him was: "He's very cute and very young." She wrote him off. But he was interested in her right away. "I've never been specifically attracted to older women, younger women, whatever," he says. "For me, it's a question of what the person is like inside—which is why the age difference wasn't a red flag."

For a year and a half, they were canyoneering and rock climbing partners, strictly platonic. On Friday nights after work, they'd drive from their homes in Colorado to remote canyons, sometimes eight or ten hours away. She set him up with one of her younger friends, and had a long list of others to introduce him to. "Then, suddenly, I felt myself falling in love, and I really agonized," she says. "What if I tell this guy I want to be more than friends and he says, 'Oh my God, you're like a mother to me'?"

Finally, one night after 12 hours in the canyons and almost a full bottle of wine, she was so exhausted and tipsy that she got up the courage to say, "Do you want to take this relationship further?" He smiled, and they spent that night in their sleeping bags hugging and kissing.

Dianne says that now that she's married to Mike, she worries more about her looks than ever before. "I think that when men date younger women, it makes them feel a lot younger. But for women, being with somebody younger makes us feel older. We're more critical of ourselves. I don't feel older all the time, just when I look in the mirror. When we're hiking, his knees are worse than mine." 

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