Exploring why some women choose husbands old enough to be their fathers.
At 7 a.m. on a recent Monday, I sat in a beige waiting room surrounded by back issues of AARP The Magazine and pamphlets on gastrointestinal health. “Is anyone here for Jack?” a nurse asked. I raised my hand, and she searched my face for the word she needed.
“Husband,” I filled in for her.
“Right,” she said, eyebrows raised. “Your husband’s colonoscopy is done and he’s nearly ready to go home.” She walked me to where Jack, still loopy from anesthesia, chatted merrily with the surgery center staff, his naked butt exposed in his backless hospital gown. He made the nurses giggle with slurred jokes about Snapchatting his experience in the endoscopy ward—funny, because Jack’s never used Snapchat.
“He’s such a hoot!” one of the nurses said.
Ten years ago, I couldn’t have imagined settling down with a man 20 years my senior, “hoot” or not. There’s the biannual colonoscopy to sit through, because at 52, Jack’s at that point in life. There’s also the social stigma, the difference in career phases, the fact that Boyz II Men brings him no childhood nostalgia whatsoever. Our differences, experts say, give couples like us, with an age gap of 20 or more years, a 95 percent chance of divorce.
Given the statistics, why do women like me yoke ourselves to men old enough to be our fathers?
Popular theory suggests gold-digging is in effect, since older men presumably have greater financial security. But three years into my marriage, I’m still (happily) driving a 2004 Honda Element with 160,000 miles and a back door held shut with my German Shepherd’s leash. While I’ll admit that it was Jack who introduced me to the joys of bottled wine over boxed and hotels over hostels, my husband is a guy who invests most of his money back into his business and his community—one of the reasons I fell for him—and I work hard to bring in my own. Besides, recent research suggests it’s millennial men who are most likely to marry for money. With more than 40 percent of American breadwinners now female, I’d argue we’re looking at the rise of the sugar momma.
Harder for me to write off, according to scientists, is another unflattering explanation for May-December romances: the dreaded daddy-issues theory. While an American Psychological Association study debunked the hypothesis that younger wives are compensating for lousy father-daughter relationships, the research didn’t address women like me, whose dads have been caring and present and normal. Could we be the ones subconsciously attracted to a ::cringe:: daddy-husband?
“The short answer is ‘yes,’” says Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., AARP’s love and relationship expert and best-selling author of American Couples. “A woman can have a healthy relationship with her dad and still be looking for that father figure in a spouse. Someone who can protect them and teach them—someone who has taken on the world, and who can help them take on the world, too. It’s not that these women are sexualizing their dads, but the things that a dad represents.”
Initially, Jack represented nothing for me but a job. When we met eight years ago, I waited on his table at a fancy restaurant in a small New Jersey town. I was a graduate student studying journalism, and I knew Jack (who was on a date at the time) was the owner of a local publishing company. Between taking an order and delivering a check, I pitched myself as a writer-for-hire.
A gig wasn’t in the cards—his company wasn’t hiring—and neither was a romance. Jack would tell me later that, although he’d found me cute in an overly eager, naïve sort of way, I wasn’t his type. His celebrity crush is Martha Stewart, and I have neither her bone structure nor her flair for miniature fruitcakes.
But a year later, Jack stumbled upon a blog I wrote and sought me out to offer me a job. It felt thrilling to finally be working in a real office with real business cards and a real mentor. When I needed an apartment—tough to find in a resort town with sky-high rents—Jack offered me a room in his house, which meant we frequently worked late before coming home to split a bottle of wine. It was here I discovered Jack’s bleeding heart for animals, his passion for restoring vintage typewriters, and his talent for narrating dull car trips with an uncanny Sean Connery impersonation. Somewhere between copy-editing and cabernet, we became great friends…and then more.
It complicated everything. I fretted for months over revealing my new relationship to my traditional parents, who were surprisingly alright with it. I worried that already living with Jack would torpedo our chance at love. And I worked extra hard at my job in order to show the small-town-gossip set I wasn’t some floozy with a fetish for baby boomers. So the implication that falling for Jack could have been a ploy by my subconscious to secure a daddy figure who’d make life easier? Cue the explosion of my feminist head.
My raised hackles are to be expected, sociologists say. Although society is trending toward greater acceptance of individual choice, there still exists the idea that by marrying older, a woman has turned against her gender (i.e., she’s perpetuating the fallacy that men should be providers while a woman’s value is as a trophy). One friend told me he’d lost all respect for me when I committed to someone so far my senior. And when Jack and I married three years ago, acquaintances placed bets on how long it would last.
“It’s a paradox,” Schwartz says. “In many cases, the more progressive a woman’s friends, the more likely they are to raise their eyebrows at a big age gap. Often, it’s not that there is anything wrong with the love or desire between the individuals, but with the way it works in terms of placement in the world—she may get a lifestyle upgrade or an intellectually potent guy, but it often displaces the woman more than the man.”
Case in point: Shortly after we started dating, I’m the one who quit my job. Since Jack’s life in New Jersey was already established, I also reimagined my five-year plan, which had involved moving to a bigger city with a larger network of young professionals and fewer early-bird specials. I can see how, on paper, the power dynamics of my relationship look ripe for judgement. And that judgement is not entirely unfounded. In addition to his lumberjack good looks, I am attracted to Jack’s intellectual potency, his worldliness, and the unwavering way he protects the things he loves—all idealized “daddy” qualities (albeit ones I’d also find attractive in a 20-something).