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Age-gap relationships warp both partners' inner timelines and long-held presumptions about where their lives are going. Sometimes things are done out of order, just because there's chronological confusion to begin with. Jill Adler's boyfriend, Ryan Freitas, is 27; she is 39. They met at a bar in Park City, Utah, four years ago, and for the first year they dated, she lied to him about her age. "Then one day I had my driver's license out and wouldn't let him see it. He asked, 'What are you hiding from me?' Finally, I said, 'Just look at it. If you're going to walk away, walk now.'"

He stayed. In 2005 Jill really wanted to get pregnant, but Ryan wanted to turn 30 before becoming a father. She told him she couldn't wait that long, biologically. So he made the leap. They weren't married, he was scared to death, yet he still said to her, "I'm your man."

"Think back to when you were 26," she says. "At that age, I didn't want to have a kid, so I kind of understood. But he didn't want me to miss out on the opportunity. It was basically a gift from him. He was doing me this great favor. And I never said, 'Now you have to move in; now you have to marry me.' It was just, 'You are going out of your way to do something incredible for me, so whatever you need to do is totally your prerogative.'"

For all its challenges, an age gap can also provide a chance to slow down and take a deep breath. Sarah Belle, 49, lives in Iowa City with her husband, Haywood, 67. She loves his easygoing pace and low-key, old-fashioned sense of romance. He buys her gifts, but they are more thoughtful than flashy, like a single flower or a new umbrella. "When we were dating, every time I came to visit he'd have licorice—I love licorice," she says. He never tried to wow her with expensive jewelry or clothes—even though, as a successful real estate developer, he could afford to. "He didn't have to prove anything," she says. "When people are younger, they often try to sell themselves." And the prospect of nursing him if he becomes seriously ill is fine with her. "Of course I'll be there to take care of him!" Sarah says enthusiastically, as if she were talking about a cocktail party she will definitely be attending.

I've often heard that love should be easy, that even the hardships shouldn't feel so hard. I believe there's some truth to the Cinderella fairy tale—your partner should be like a shoe that fits perfectly, not one you have to force because you want to live in a castle and wear a tiara. More than anything, Dianne Dallin says, being married to a man 14 years younger has taught her to keep her eye on the essentials: Does it feel right? Is he kind? Do I love him? If the answers are yes, she says, then nothing else really matters.  

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