“I got another one,” I say, passing my phone across the table. “She’s 26 and he’s 58. It’s been six months, but he hasn’t let her meet any of his friends yet.”
My husband rolls his eyes and hands the phone back without bothering to read.
“Tell her to run,” he says. “Run like hell. It’s never going to work.”
Conversations like this occur regularly in our house. The emails, tweets and blog comments seem to come in waves. I’ll get nothing for a few months, then three in a week. I reply to every single one.
In 2011, I wrote an essay for the Guardian titled “He’s not my father, he’s my husband” — about being with a man who’s 35 years older than I am. In it, I wrote about the intense conversations my now-husband, ironically named Young, and I had on our first dates, the support we received from our families, and our eventual decision to get married and have a child.
The essay was shared widely online. After a week or two enjoying the warm glow that comes with seeing my name in print, I was ready to move on. Then the emails started.
“Hi Ruth, I don’t normally message people I don’t know.”
“Hi Ruth, I’ve been waiting so long to read a piece like yours.”
“Dear Ruth. We were hoping you could offer us some reassurance.”
Unexpectedly, I found myself in a Dear Abby role for hundreds of couples with large age gaps. I am still astonished by the intimate details that people will share with a stranger. It is an honor to be trusted with so many secrets, so I always take the time to respond.
The letters are overwhelmingly from women, and they are, without exception, intelligent, thoughtful and self-aware. Many of them have weighed the pros and cons and have decided whether their relationship is worth the risk. They realize that other people may judge them; they understand the very real possibility of being thrown into a caretaker role at a young age; and they accept that the chances of reaching a golden wedding anniversary are slim. Most are realistic about what the future may hold but believe that love will make it worthwhile.
Sometimes there are red flags: an ex who is still a little too close for comfort, or one partner who is reluctant about introducing the other to family and friends. Several of the couples who have written me are colleagues as well as lovers, and in a few instances the relationships are extramarital affairs. These are the stories that make me and Young widen our eyes at each other and shake our heads, but when it comes to replying I try to point out the problems as gently as I can and suggest they need to be dealt with.
Often, all I do is remind these people that difficult conversations happen in all relationships. Every couple worries about their health, their finances, their chances of having a family. We are all concerned that we will become less attractive as we grow older, that our interests will diverge or that one of us may become ill. Even a partnership that looks perfect on paper holds no guarantees.
For some of the women getting in touch, it seems that simply writing to me is cathartic enough, and my reply to them is never acknowledged. By writing down their story, they have given themselves permission to make a choice — to continue with their relationship or end it.
Other times, a short initial message becomes an ongoing dialogue. Young and I both exchanged emails with one couple for several months, and Young even agreed to talk by phone, but they have been quiet now for several years. I wonder sometimes whether they were able to overcome the challenges they faced, both real and imagined. I have taken to Google a few times to see whether I can find any new information about them. So far, I’ve had no success.
Happy endings are excellent, though. One woman, who first got in touch about four years ago, had a number of issues to work through with her boyfriend, who was 36 years older than she was. When she stopped messaging for a few months I was worried, but then a link to her wedding photos arrived in my inbox. He had proposed after a skydive, and they had married shortly afterward. They looked radiant and full of joy.
Not long ago the same woman added me as a friend on Facebook, and they now have two giggling, rosy-cheeked children. Looking at pictures of her husband goofing around on the floor with their daughter reminds me of Young and Tom at that age. It makes me smile to imagine all the fun they have ahead of them.
The unintended but welcome consequence of being asked for advice on other people’s relationships is that it prompts me to reflect regularly on my own. I don’t have a stock answer that I copy and paste when I’m asked why my marriage works. Instead I take the time — every time — to think about what is easy and what is difficult at that particular moment.
There are consistent themes that come up: the importance of honesty and open communication, the need for respect and patience, and a willingness to accept that things will change.
Since I first wrote about my marriage, Young and I have dealt with new jobs, losing loved ones and several moves. But at our core, we are the same people we were when that essay was published nearly eight years ago. We have a small and tightknit group of friends who have known us for a long time and accept us without judgment. We both like to sit in front of a fire with a bottle of wine, some background music, and a good book or a piece of writing we are working on. And every night when we curl up in bed — sometimes just the two of us, other times with Tom between us for one last cuddle — we whisper that it is the best bit of the day.
I asked Young the other day whether he thought the emails would ever stop.
“Not likely,” he said. "When we started dating and I looked online for reassurance, I read all about Charlie Chaplin and Oona O’Neill. Now when people go online looking for reassurance, they find us. We’re not rich and famous, but we’re real and we’re happy. They’ll keep emailing.”
I suspect that he is right.
I am not an expert on any marriage or relationship, not even my own. But if I had to offer just one piece of advice to other couples, it would be this: The numbers in a relationship — 26 and 58, or 29 and 61, or 35 and 70, as they are in our case now — are the least important pieces of your story. Do not bother to count them.
Instead, count the things that do matter: the knowing, smiling glances; the moments of shared laughter; and the soft nights when you fall asleep still holding hands. Where there is love, trust and a commitment to making things work, happiness will follow.