Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer "radical empathy" and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.
Today the Sugars address the issue of "May-December" relationships, involving one partner who is significantly older than the other. Some say love is ageless — but others note the practical questions to consider: What happens when one person becomes physically unable to do the things you once enjoyed together? If your partner is older, are you likely to live many years alone after that person is gone? Are the things a 30-year-old is concerned about different than the things a 50-year-old cares about?
Sitting in today is Lucinda Franks, a reporter and author of the memoir Timeless: Love, Morgenthau, and Me, which tells the story of her marriage to a man who is 27 years her senior.
I am a 25-year-old single woman nearly done with graduate school. I'm on the search for a single man within my age range, but I often find myself attracted to men in their late 30s to early 40s. I don't intend for this to happen. I met a man at a bookstore recently, and we went on a lovely date. When we realized the age gap was more than 12 years, we mutually decided not to pursue a relationship and remained friends. This pattern has repeated itself with different men. And yet I find, when I try to date men my own age, they're unavailable. Either they have partners or they can't keep up with me in terms of emotional maturity. Would it be a waste of my youth to experiment with older men?
I'm an independent woman with financial stability who is still discovering her voice in many ways. I'm scared that dating an older man would interfere with this process of self-discovery because they have already found their voice or, at least, are more settled in a version of who they are. I'm concerned about what effect such a power dynamic will have on me.
Another fear I have about dating an older man is that if it worked out, I'd have to face the possibility of living the last 20 years of my life alone. I'm not looking for someone to parent or financially support me; I'm looking for a partner. Am I making a mistake by not exploring a May-December relationship?
Steve Almond: We talk about age, but really, in relationships it's about power — the power to create your own identity and to be recognized fully for that, rather than hooking your wagon to someone else's route. I thought about Louisa May Alcott's Little Women as I was reading this, and it's such a fascinating story. Jo is the writer in the family, and she has an appropriate partner — the neighbor, Laurie — who's her age and is in love with her.
But Jo decides she doesn't love Laurie. She winds up with Professor Bhaer, who's twice her age, doesn't have money and is a German immigrant. But what does he have? He knows that Jo is a writer, and he knows he wants to help her find her voice. So in a certain way, he's exactly what she needs.
Cheryl Strayed: You can't make decisions about people when you're thinking about them as categories rather than individuals. I think you should date people you like and people you find interesting and attractive and compelling, no matter what their age is. Also, you say, "If it worked out, I'd have to face the possibility of living the last 20 years of my life alone." That presumes your life is going to go along this course you control. You actually don't know when you will die. You don't know when your future partner will die. You don't know what sort of health you're going to be in. Anything could happen at any minute. So don't over-predict your life. Just go out and connect with people who spark your sense of attraction and desire and adventure and all those good things you look for when you're looking for a partner. Those questions you're asking should really be asked within the context of a specific relationship.
Lucinda Franks: I certainly hadn't planned to end up with a much older man. My dream had always been to find a person my own age, with my own interests. I was in my mid-twenties and a journalist for The New York Times when I interviewed the district attorney of New York, Robert Morgenthau. He was about 53 at the time. I was a hippie, and he was an icon of the establishment. One night, he asked me on a date. I thought he wanted to sell me a story, but he had other ideas. He asked me to a party at Arthur Schlesinger's house on behalf of Jimmy Carter, who was running for president. I dressed up in my best silk-patterned blouse, my bell-bottoms and my platform shoes. We walked into the Schlesinger home, and there were these women in silk and satin. They looked at me like I was homeless. I turned around and started to walk out the door, and I walked right into Jackie Kennedy Onassis. Everyone looked at Jackie like she was a god — their jaws dropped and they couldn't stop smiling. I looked up at Bob and he was smiling, too, but not at Jackie. The rest is history. We've been together now for 38 years.
Cheryl: Did you have concerns about the age difference?
Lucinda: Absolutely, from the beginning. I was very concerned about his longevity, whether he'd have the energy to be a father, to do the things I did. There was every reason in the book not to marry him.
Cheryl: The two of you have had a long and happy love. But were there things that turned out to be hard because of the age difference?
Lucinda: There weren't many challenges until he got to be in his 90s. Predictably, he slowed down a bit. We don't go hiking or camping or do the things we did before, but we've learned to replace those with conversation. I never, never thought he would live this long. I always, from the beginning, lived in fear that he was going to die.
If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. Nobody knows what is going to happen. Your 22-year-old husband could have a catastrophic accident or illness. Your older husband, like mine is, could live well into his 90s. There is nothing constant but change. There was something new all the time that kept the marriage alive. We found ways to see and appreciate each other as the young, beautiful people we fell in love with. Sometimes you lose sight of that wonderful person you fell in love with as you age.
You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. Listen to the full episode to hear a question from a woman concerned about how to raise a child with a partner who is 16 years older.
Have a question for the Sugars? Email firstname.lastname@example.org and it may be answered on a future episode.