On Sleeping with Younger Men
Contains spoilers for the film Harold and Maude.
I often hear that, in a relationship across an age gap, the older partner is the more powerful. There are, of course, relationships in which this is true: between suave, wealthy Svengalis and naive ingenue mentees. But in my experience the power imbalance is more often the other way around.
Of course, loving someone, at any age, requires vulnerability, as it creates a need that only the lover, in all his or her uniqueness, can fulfil. Perhaps it is this sensation of dependency that makes it so common for people to behave in far more childlike—and childish—ways in romantic relationships than they would in any other aspect of life. Love’s narcotic qualities can certainly temporarily lower my IQ by quite a few points, but more importantly the completeness a relationship can bring sets into painful relief the underlying sadness I always feel when single. A taste of honey—flooding the mouth with saliva, intoxicating the brain with its sweetness—really is worse than soldiering on, ignoring the empty rumbles of hunger, on none at all. To have been recently broken up with is worse than to be single.
And this is especially true, with age, with its shrinking future possibilities. In such relationships, I often feel as emotionally vulnerable as an adolescent, but without the excuse of youth or the sense of world enough and time to compensate for failure. The younger person is always wealthier in the one currency that can’t be accumulated, can’t be retained.
And it’s common to feel especially insecure about your attractiveness when you're the older party, especially if you're a woman. In an age-gap relationship, there is often a significant power gap—the younger person wields more power simply because he or she is more sexually desirable and therefore has far more relationship options. This is especially true if the woman is the older one: youth is more prized in women than in men.
All three of the much younger men I've been involved with over the past decade were so flawlessly, effortlessly, luminously beautiful that—catching sight of my face, with its deeply etched crow's feet and asymmetrical Picasso eyes (one eyelid has drooped more than the other, leaving my eyes looking as if they were different sizes), next to a radiantly youthful face; or my blancmange-wobbly, dimply thigh next to perfectly taut coffee-coloured skin stretched over muscle—I felt, often, like a crone by comparison. One of my lovers confessed that he was embarrassed to be attracted to someone of my age and worried his friends would laugh at him. I was really hurt by this—precisely because I found his feeling somewhat understandable.
So, why have I had several of these romantic misadventures? Well, in my experience—and that of my female friends of the same age—when you go on the dating scene as an older woman, most of the guys who are interested are much younger than you.
A lot of the guys my age are in the throes of a mid-life crisis and have aspirations to date nubile twenty-five-year-olds. Just enough of them manage to do so to keep that hope alive for the rest. There was, for example, a group of stick-legged, pot-bellied, trembly octogenarians who frequented one of the tango events I went to regularly when I lived in Buenos Aires. One of them found a much younger girlfriend. All the others spent their nights contentedly gossiping, ogling, fantasising aloud—window shopping with empty wallets and the dream of a lottery win.
As for the younger guys: many don't want to get married and have kids yet (and an older woman is less likely to be looking for that with them); many think we'll be more level-headed, less likely to create drama (this may not be true) or more likely to be confident in bed (probably true). And some find a frisson of delight in exactly the same sensation of taboo-breaking that makes them rule out the older woman as a serious girlfriend.
I'm always astounded when a good-looking guy in his twenties or early thirties is attracted to me. Most aren't, which is natural; I don't expect them to be. But some are. And I've always been a glutton when it comes to gorgeous men. I don't have the willpower to say no.
But even amid the sensual passion, there is this strange double-edged ambivalence. On the one hand, a younger man's desire for me makes me feel young (I've still got it!) but on the other, it makes me feel old (wow, look at the difference between us). When I’m in a relationship with a man of my own age, although there is usually less sexual ecstasy, there is something deeply comforting in the age parity. It makes me feel that we are setting out on a journey, side by side.
Not all of us can be as heroic as Maude is in the movie: the concentration camp survivor who lives in a trailer, who teaches a coddled young man that there is joy in life, liberates him from the prison of his own emotional numbness and—while he playacts a dozen histrionic suicides, quietly arranges her own death with cheerful equanimity. It’s the greatest wisdom of all and the hardest to achieve: to appreciate something to the full and yet be able to relinquish it with grace when the time comes. And this is the real art of the age-gap relationship and, indeed, to perhaps all of happiness: the willingness to let go.
This piece was adapted, by permission, from a letter first published here.