Have you ever felt attracted to someone much older? Or a lot younger? And did you mentally rap your knuckles, dismissing the attraction as something outrageous? Did a well-wishing friend rubbish it, call it a stupid infatuation?
Not just in India, but across the world, people are uncomfortable with the idea of a sizeable age gap. As psychiatrist Dr Vijay Nagaswami, who has written three books on relationships explained, “Men who pursue relationships with much younger women are pejoratively referred to as ‘cradle snatchers’ and women who do the same are called ‘cougars’. The younger partner is thought to have unresolved Oedipal issues or worse, dismissed as a ‘gold digger’. In urban India too, while there is a growing incidence of such relationships, social comfort with them is not growing at the same pace.”
Last week, I did a snap survey on Facebook of 50 men and women in the age group of 30 to 60. They were asked to share their experience of dealing with an attraction they ‘d felt for somebody much older or younger. Most of them admitted having such feelings but no one had acted on them. “What will people think?” seemed to be the prevalent concern. “It is wrong,” was another common reply.
The norm is to date or marry someone in the range of five years younger or older. For women, especially in India, marrying a man ten years older is generally acceptable. But 20? “He’s old enough to be your dad!” is usually the reaction.
It’s relatively easier for men. Many take it as a sign of virility to bed someone much younger. But would they marry her? Not likely. Societal ridicule and ostracism hold most back. Remember the joke when Saif married Kareena, recalling how Saif had called Kareena“beta” when she attended his first wedding?
A few practical fears that came up in my survey include anxiety about a generation gap, children and sex. According to the website eHarmony, “When men date younger women, it can make them feel a lot younger, but for women, being with somebody younger often makes them feel older and more conscious of their appearance.”
I had to search long and hard outside the survey to find a few who had braved age stereotypes.
When Shwetha* fell in love with Ram*, she was 40 and he was 62. She was a childless divorcee; he was in a marriage of convenience. Ram had two sons, both 30-somethings. “Love was written all over him whenever we met at work, but I was sure he felt guilty about his feelings towards me,” said Shwetha. “I was free to love, however, and made no secret about our mutual attraction.” They have been together for the last ten years, although they haven’t married. “I am a granddad now, how can I think of a divorce and remarriage?” said Ram. “ Shwetha knows how much I love her. Even my wife knows about her though I don’t flaunt the relationship in public. At this stage in my life, I don’t want any scandal.”
Along with misplaced righteousness, the decision to limit potential partners to a specific age range is guided by a fear of judgment by society. “But where is there any room for criticism, unless you’re going out with somebody like that for reasons other than love?” Shwetha pointed out.
For 31-year-old Liza*, there is no doubt she loves 55-year-old Prakash*. “We both thought it impossible at first,” she remembered. “But the more we talked, we realised that we thought alike on most matters. That’s a rare connection, too special to be ignored. It helped that in my head, I am much older, and he is very youthful,” she added.
“Initially, I worried about friends and family. She has a lot of close friends and I was afraid I wouldn’t fit in. But then, I decided to overlook that fear as for the first time in my life, I had someone with whom I could be myself completely,” Prakash says. “Right now, everything is perfect. I don’t know if things might become difficult when issues around retirement or health problems arise. We trust our love, so the future doesn’t bother me too much.”
Forget wagging tongues
Siddharth Mangharam, founder and CEO of the singles network Finding Love Over Here believes that a couple outside the conventional age bracket shouldn’t worry about societal judgement. “I know many happy couples where the age difference is 10 years or more and in one case where the age difference is 25 years,” he says.
However, Nagaswami does mention a caveat. “Both partners should be mature enough to be conscious and aware that such a relationship will bring with it a unique set of issues. As long as they learn to understand that both partners are likely to grow at different paces and each will have to make age-specific allowances for the other and refrain from blaming the age difference for their issues, then the lack of ‘age equivalence’ need not be a deterrent,” he said.
Societal judgement, fertility and mortality seem like small beer next to the headiness of finding love that lasts long. As sex columnist, Julieanne Smolinski, “If you’re not into someone because of the arbitrary time in which their parents created them—well, more tasty imperfect flesh for the rest of us.”
(*Names changed on request)