Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Lessons from a Younger Woman

On a sailboat, the captain plots a course. Steers. The first mate supports, assists, advises.

Sharon V. is fourteen years younger than her husband, who is sixty-nine. These days, with her agreement, he’s captain, setting the course. The time has come for him to retire and pursue his boyhood dream of circumnavigating the globe in a sailboat. When you’re sixty-nine, the final horizon looks closer, so you do these things. There’s no way to disguise that reality.

But when you’re Sharon, when you’re fifty-five, a clinical psychologist with a desire to keep working at the practice you’ve built through years of passionate dedication, agreeing to be first mate is a younger woman’s act of love.

“We’re out of sync,” she says, “and we’ve talked about it a lot. We talk about everything, we talk it to death.”

Sharon and I talked about it last weekend at a family wedding on the Jersey Shore. Lots of fun. Cupcakes, “Love Shack,” mornings with sea foam around the ankles, recollections of other weddings the family has gathered to celebrate. Sharon is married to my brother-in-law, Joe. She and I sat down and for the first time since we met some fifteen years ago we chatted about what it means to be the much-younger spouse. I learned that our mother-in-law told Sharon flat out that she was too young for her son, and I felt grateful for her pathbreaking; I’d never even noticed a disapproving glance. I learned – with no surprise – that her husband never suffered anxiety at the idea of coupling with a younger spouse as my wife did. We talked about people mistaking us for the children of our spouses (in each case, it’s happened only once), about class reunions, about the cultural generation gaps that come in such marriages. Funny that Sharon and I had never talked about all this before.

She and Joe celebrated their 25th anniversary this year. When she let him slip the ring on her finger that silver age ago, she smiled into the face of a man who was – like her –smart, widely read, and fit. An established psychologist, he first appealed to her because he could teach her things about her profession, but also about theology, and about sails and telltales, luffs and clews. She admits to having had a weakness for professor types. She was twenty-nine, he was forty-three; love and joy suggested they could be twenty-nine and forty-three forever.

“I didn’t know the age difference would become more apparent as we aged,” she says. “Physical health, stamina, cognitive speed, just small things. But they make a big difference.”

Cognitive speed. Remember, she’s a psychologist. She understands how aging changes our capabilities, how we need more time to make decisions or how we change our mind more often. As a psychologist, she can also look at the span of life and recognize how perceptions of age are sometimes a shorthand that describes what we can and can’t do. A high school freshman dates a high school junior and the years are a thrilling chasm because the older of them has a driver’s license and a job. But soon that separation collapses, and three years is no difference at all. Ten isn’t even so bad when you can both make children and the money to feed and shelter them. And while fourteen might be worth a second thought, it’s not so important when you’re both working and healthy and dancing late into the night. And if you are young and ignorant with love, one thing you can’t do is chart the decades to come. You know only that the person beside you is the one you’d choose to be at your side when you face Atlantic gales or Pacific sun. If you’re lucky, that’s the constant.

Because Sharon loves Joe she’ll give up a practice she’s built for a quarter century and say goodbye to patients she still wants to help. Joe and Sharon will sell the house they’ve shared. She’ll fret a bit about what might happen to them as they sail, whether they’re still capable of such an adventure at their ages. And she’ll take her time to think about how she might reinvent herself upon her return when Joe will be in his mid-70s and she’ll be on the verge of Social Security. For now, maybe, they can live as if they’ll always be fifty-five and sixty-nine.


  1. Thank you for this post. I am in a similar position (the younger woman-45), and realizing that I "need" to retire at 55 in order to spend time with my partner, who is nearing 60. I am glad there are others in front of me. All my best to the "Mays" and "Decembers"!

  2. Please ask Sharon if she will start her own blog, or online consultations for hire: I am 43, my husband is 66, and we have a 3 year old and a 3 month old! On top of that, no doubt somewhat due to practical (or perhaps, impractical) life circumstances, but some due to pathology or biology, he went from a vital 62 to a prematurely aging 66. Anyone whose lived the age difference and lives it well can sure help others going through the same. I'd love to be able to hire or benefit from Sharon's experienced wisdom. Thank you just for sharing this post.