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She's Older, He's Not


WebMD Feature

Nov. 27, 2000 -- On a gorgeous Sunday morning in 1980, a man we'll call Jack Nussbaum rode his motorcycle down the California coast to see a woman who was interested in buying his Arabian horse. Olivia Rogers (not her real name) was a successful doctor, separated from her husband and the mother of four teenagers. From the moment Jack and Olivia met, they couldn't stop talking. Morning turned to evening. She didn't buy his horse, but he was smitten.

"I never asked her age," says Nussbaum, a software developer in San Francisco. "I figured she was probably a dozen years older. It didn't matter to me because she was young of mind and spirit."

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In fact, she was 55 and quite convinced that, at 35, he was far too young for her. "The age difference was always an inhibitor for her," he says. "She figured this was never going to last."

Twenty years later, they're still together. They're in a committed relationship and very much in love. She's 75 and a retired pediatrician in good health; he's 55 and continues to work. Over a lunch of Chinese food, Nussbaum positively beams as he describes the merits of being involved with an older woman and, in particular, Olivia. Twice divorced, Nussbaum says he had developed a habit of trying to tell women who were his age or younger how to live their lives.

"The first time I opened my mouth to say something to Olivia about what she should do, I stopped," he recalls. "Here she was this utterly charming, competent doctor who'd raised four children. Who was I to tell her anything?" He says, "It was a lesson: I was with a mature and powerful woman."

Falling in love with a woman 10, 15, 20 years older, or more can be exhilarating. These so-called age-gap relationships with the woman as the senior partner are more accepted now than in previous times, some observers say. Even so, making the relationship last involves tackling some thorny -- and sensitive -- issues. Among the common trouble spots, experts say, are differences over whether to have children, anxiety over body image and sexuality, and coping with reactions from peers and family members.

Age Gap Fallout

"You can end up with a large gap in understanding," says Judith Sherven, PhD, co-author of The New Intimacy: Discovering the Magic at the Heart of Your Relationship. "The older person is going to have less energy eventually and may not be interested in exploring new things. The younger person may want to rock and roll all night and hang out with younger people the older person finds boring."

The degree of discord depends on how each partner feels about the differences: Are they fascinating or frustrating? The most romantic question, according to Sherven, is "Can you teach me who you are?" Asking that can help bridge the gap brought about by the age difference. "The differences between people are always opportunities to expand psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually," she says.

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