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She's Older, He's Not

Age Gap Fallout continued...

Sherven recalls a man who was 15 years younger than his wife and going through a period of work-related anxiety. "His wife said, 'I remember when I went through that,'" Sherven says. "She said it with compassion. She could offer a different perspective by virtue of her seniority."

If an older woman offers wisdom and experience, a younger man offers new ideas, particularly about gender roles, says Diane Smith, 44, a registered nurse in Urbana, Ill., who is married to a man 14 years her junior. "I find men my age still looking for the wife that is supposed to take care of them," she says. "I personally wanted a man who could and would take care of himself."

Divorced with three daughters who are 20, 13, and 10 years old, Smith wasn't interested in having more children, and that was fine with her new husband, so they avoided that potential conflict. But it took her a while to believe he would choose her 40-year-old body over that of a younger woman.

"The body image thing is really a hot spot," she says. "Women just can't understand why a man would want an aging woman when there are all those fit, cutesy young bodies out there. Most men who want an older woman see those cute girls as young and dumb. They thrive on the sophistication, experience, and knowledge an older woman brings to the relationship."

Sexual Peaks and Perks

Women's sexual energy is said to peak at age 40, and Smith has found this makes a 40ish woman like herself a perfect sexual match for a younger man. "There's this thing at 40 where all of a sudden there's more interest in sex," she says. "There's this feeling of, 'Hey, what did I miss out on?'"

Unlike younger women who are raising children and are often too tired for sex, older women, at least those without young children, are often ready to devote themselves to a vibrant sex life, she says. "They're more willing to experiment, more relaxed," she says.

And sexual compatibility can endure, says Jack Nussbaum, even as the woman moves toward old age. "I wouldn't be with Olivia all these years if I weren't happy in that area," he says. "It's very important to me."

While an older man may look for a younger woman to make him feel virile and powerful, an older woman doesn't consider a younger man a status symbol, according to Smith, who hosts an online chat group about age-gap relationships.

"It isn't an ego thing with women as it is for men," she says. "It is finding someone who will love them and be their best friend."

Coming to Terms

Far from showing off a young mate -- the way an older man might do -- Olivia Rogers feels so self-conscious about being older than Nussbaum that she refuses to socialize with his friends. When he published a novel, she threw him a party at her house and happily invited her friends and her four children. But when he hosted a publication party in San Francisco for his friends, she chose not to attend.

"There are compartments in our relationship, but through the years we've adjusted," Nussbaum says. Chief among the partitions is that they keep separate residences. "We've never lived together -- for me, that's been a great frustration," Nussbaum says. "I think she's concerned that if we live together, I'd end up in the caretaker role and she couldn't stand that."

Even though women live longer on average than men, older-woman/younger-man couples, like older-man/younger-woman couples, must face the question of mortality. "In all probability, I'll lose her rather than she'll lose me," Nussbaum says. There's no better reason to savor the experience, he says. "We've had 20 glorious years of 'This will never work,'" he says.

And what is his reaction to that constant reminder by his long-term partner? "Let's live every day."

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