There’s a funny thing that happens when people fall in love: We sometimes end up in relationships that might challenge what society believes a “real” relationship looks like.

Actors Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore were married from 2005 to 2013 (David Shankbone / <a href=“” title=”“>CC BY 2.0 DEED</a>). Actors Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore were married from 2005 to 2013 (David Shankbone / CC BY 2.0 DEED).

Take, for example, a relationship in which the two people have a huge age difference. Whether we like it or not, many of us can understand that a middle-aged or older heterosexual man might choose to be with a woman much younger than he is, especially if he has money, power, and status. There are so many celebrity pairings like that, and it’s so frequently perpetuated in movies and TV shows, that while we may disapprove, we still accept their reality.

But a young man with a much older woman? Why would a man want to do that? We’ve already seen how it doesn’t work out in the long term, perhaps most famously with Aston Kutcher and Demi Moore, who was 15 years older than Kutcher when they wed—which helped spread the terms “cougar” and “puma” into societal consciousness—and more recently with Hugh Jackman, 55, and his soon-to-be former wife, Deborra-Lee Furness, 67.

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Focusing on those examples, however, can make us forget the many times that huge age differences did work out in the long term. There are couples like director Sam Taylor-Johnson and her husband, actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson, with 24 years between them; French president Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte Trogneux, who is 25 years older than he is; and the late Tina Turner, who was 16 years older than her husband, Erwin Bach. And, on the opposite end, couples such as actors Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who is 25 years younger than he is, and actors Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, who is 21 years younger.

Having experienced two age-gap relationships myself—once with a much younger man, 26 to my 48, and a much older man, 26 years my senior—I know how transformative they can be, despite societal judgment. They certainly were for me. I discovered those judgments can obscure some nuances that are worth considering, if we’re willing to have a more honest discussion about age gaps. Yes, according to my experience and the research, intergenerational relationships can have drawbacks. But they can also energize us, provide us with new perspectives, and help us to grow.

Enter Bugs

“Bugs” rented a room in a house across the street from me. He was just about the most beautiful man I’d ever seen, a young Jude Law-like Adonis with piercing blue eyes, a smile that could melt an iceberg, and a beautiful body that was shaped by years of bicycle racing in his native England.

I sometimes felt his eyes on me as I loaded my children or groceries in and out of my minivan, and it made my pulse race. Sometimes, we caught each other’s eyes and smiled at each other, my cheeks a rosy pink from blushing. Eventually, we said hello and I discovered he did landscape work. It just so happened that my husband and I needed some.

He came over to look at our yard, and, as I explained my landscape vision, I made a joke about his last name, which begins with “Good.”

“There are many ways to be good,” he said with his dazzling smile, as he gave my shoulder a gentle squeeze.

Was he flirting with me?

We hired him—I did not tell my husband about the squeeze—and sometimes we shared a cup of tea in the yard together and chatted. There was something about him that was different. He seemed wise beyond his 26 years.

“What is it about you?” I asked.

Bugs shared that he had done a weeklong international residential self-growth intensive called the Hoffman Process that delves into family-of-origin issues. The more he told me about how it had helped him, the more I knew I wanted to go.

By the time of that conversation, my 14-year marriage had just imploded—I discovered my husband’s infidelity and couples counseling wasn’t really working, even though I was hopeful to salvage our union for our two young children’s sake. While it would have been easy to point the finger at my husband, I knew I had contributed to our marital dysfunction. I was eager to learn in what ways and why.

The retreat was transformational for me. And it gave me the strength to decide to leave my marriage despite my fear. I was only working part-time and I had no idea how I was going to support myself and my kids, and I worried how the divorce was going to affect them. All I knew was that I could not stay in the marriage.

After I told my husband about my decision, I thanked Bugs for introducing me to Hoffman. Then we kissed—not on the cheek, but a deep kiss on the softest lips. I felt alive in a way that I hadn’t in the three years it took my marriage to deconstruct.

My 55-year-old husband didn’t seem to want me, but a gorgeous young man did? I was in.

And so, we slept together, the first man I’d had sex with other than my husband in nearly 17 years. It was just a few times over a few months, because he had to return home to England. But our connection was deep—much more than just sexual attraction—and Bugs and I have remained friends ever since. I am forever grateful to him for helping me find my most authentic life.

The science of age gaps

I could have easily fallen in love with Bugs. Still, I wonder—would we have been a good couple for the long term? According to some studies, no. Some research indicates that while couples in which the wife is significantly older may experience great love and happiness, judgment from others may be stressful—especially for the women. Women in a small 2006 study admitted they had some insecurity about aging and all the couples felt stigmatized.

And that stigma can actually shorten the woman’s life. As Sven Drefahl of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research writes:

Couples with younger husbands violate social norms and thus suffer from social sanctions. Since marrying a younger husband deviates from what is regarded as normal, these couples could be regarded as outsiders and receive less social support. This could result in a less joyful and more stressful life, reduced health, and, finally, increased mortality.

Stigma aside, marriages in which the wife is older than her husband are more likely to struggle, even if the age difference isn’t all that big. In fact, couples in which the wife is just five years older than her husband are three times more likely to divorce than couples of the same age, one study finds. 

But new research by social psychologist Justin J. Lehmiller provides a more promising picture. Lehmiller interviewed some 200 heterosexual women in romantic relationships, some much older than their male partners, some much younger, and some close in age. What he discovered is that women who were more than 10 years older than their male partner were “the most satisfied with and committed to their relationships compared with both women who were younger than their partners, as well as women whose partners were close in age.” Somehow, they were able to ignore or dismiss the stigma.

And it could be that the stigma over age-gap relationships is changing, however. A new Ipsos poll finds that 39% of Americans have dated someone with an age difference of 10 or more years, and a large majority say it’s socially acceptable for all sexes to date someone a decade younger than they are. Interestingly, singles 35 and older seem to care a lot less about judgment from others than younger singles.

Dating is one thing; marriage is another. Most couples tying the knot for the first time are close in age, according to the National Center for Family & Marriage Research—about 2.8 years apart for heterosexual couples and 4.7 years for same-sex couples. When it comes to marrying again, heterosexual people tend to have a slightly larger age difference, 5.5 years, but not as much as same-sex couples, 6.9 years.

Actually, more same-sex spouses have a large age gap versus heterosexual spouses; some 5% have age gaps of 20 years or more compared to 1% of heterosexual spouses, according to the U.S. Census.

Still, there’s a persistent gender divide. Men tend to be more satisfied with having a younger wife over an older one, according to a 2018 study, whereas women are more satisfied with a younger husband over an older one. 

That’s understandable. While illness, disability, and health issues of all sorts can happen to people at any age, a woman whose husband is much older than she is will likely become a young caregiver, perhaps much earlier than she may be prepared for. Emma Heming Willis, Bruce Willis’s much younger wife, has been quite honest about how the actor’s frontotemporal dementia—a progressive, neurodegenerative disease that affects language as well as behavior—has impacted her and their young children.

“Caring for a much older spouse begins with being realistic about the short and long-term effects of age gaps. The ability to have open conversations instead of sweeping aging under the rug is important,” says Pamela D. Wilson, of The Caring Generation, a resource for caregivers. 

What about the other direction?

That is not something I even considered when I fell in love with my college professor, Alan, a working journalist. I know that seems complicated, especially in our #MeToo era. I was hardly an innocent, however. I’d already been married and divorced by age 26. I knew exactly what I was doing when he asked me out after I was no longer his student.

Of course, we don’t often if ever turn to research when we fall in love with someone regardless of their age. We just go with our gut and heart.

Alan had a wicked sense of humor and among the many hats he wore—newspaper editor, professor, national officer for the United States Harness Writers Association—he was a professional magician and delighted his students with at least one trick per class.

<h3>Greater Good Chronicles</h3> 
A <a href=“”>series of essays</a> by people trying to apply the science of a meaningful life to their daily lives.

Greater Good Chronicles

A series of essays by people trying to apply the science of a meaningful life to their daily lives.

He was a beloved professor who worked his students hard, demanding that we get things right and fair, made us memorize the First Amendment (and gave us frequent pop quizzes to make sure we did), and insisted that we make deadlines—no excuses.

Alan wasn’t a particularly good-looking man. My fellow students and I thought he was somewhat odd-looking, but we couldn’t quite figure out why, although the goop he used to plaster down his salt-and-pepper hair didn’t help. Still, at a certain angle, or if I squinted—ideally both—there was a hint of Paul Newman to him, perhaps because of his playful blue eyes. But it wasn’t really his face I fell in love with—it was the whole package: his brain, his charm, his humbleness, his kindness, his humor. He was so much different from any man in his 20s I’d dated.

I fell in love with him fast and hard. And then I fell in love with his profession, too. If I hadn’t taken his class, which I barely managed to get into because I couldn’t type the required 35 words per minute, I would not have become an author and a journalist, a career I have loved for 40 years.

We probably spent more time laughing than anything else in the almost two years we were together. We had all sorts of in-jokes, including creating the fictional Ear Wax Foundation. We’d send each other official-looking letters from the nonprofit pleading for a donation to halt the buildup of the growing health menace.

“I want to marry you,” I said to him one day.

“No, you don’t,” he said, his voice gravelly after years of smoking. “You want to marry someone your age and have children.”

He was right, of course, but I didn’t know it at the time. I really did want to have children and he, a lifelong bachelor, didn’t. When we stopped being lovers, he became my mentor and friend.

A few years after we broke up, I met and I married a more age-appropriate man, just seven years my senior, and we had two children. My life got busy with homework, Little League and Cub Scouts, and Alan and I lost touch.

In 2014, a decade after I divorced, I emailed him to let him know that I was dedicating a book I’d just co-authored to him, along with my parents and sons, and I thanked him for making me a journalist. A year later, I mailed him a copy with a loving inscription. But it was returned to me a few weeks later. He had moved and there was no forwarding address.

I emailed him, gently scolding him for moving and not telling me his new address. I got a response about a week later, but it wasn’t from him—it was from his niece. Alan had fallen and broke his hip, which led to him contracting the flu and pneumonia. He was dying, she told me.

I was heartbroken; I asked if I could talk to him on the phone. The next day, as his caregiver held the receiver up to his ear, I said in mock sternness, “Professor, I’m calling from the Ear Wax Foundation to inform you that you’re late on your dues.”

Although he was too weak to speak, I could hear a soft chortle. So, I did all the talking. I told him how much he meant to me; how thankful I was that I discovered journalism because of him. And I told him, fighting back tears, how much I loved him.

Alan died four days later. He was 85.

I know he was happy that I made that deadline, the most important one of my life.

My two age-gap relationships were short-lived, but they shaped my life forever. I am so thankful for them.

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