How Healthy are Old-Young Marriages?

Published on 9th February 2009

A pragmatist will tell you that love is overrated. Especially when it comes to determining whom to marry, lovers generally do not take romantic-love into consideration. Even when they do, such a variable is never near the top of the reasons for marriage. For them, economics; financial stability or the potential for financial stability is rated much higher than love. And the reasons? Well, in a modern world, love does not pay bills.

Frankly, love is necessary but not sufficient; financial stability on the other hand, is both a necessary and sufficient reason for marital commitment. One could list a dozen or more reasons for why people get married: good family and good reputation, kindness of the heart, rapport and so on. But really, nothing compares to economic stability.

This may be the reason why African women marry men who are much older than they are. Within the context of the continent, men “arrive and achieve more” much faster than the women.

Wedding Rings
In general, it is acceptable if the age difference between partners is ten years or less; but where the difference is more than ten years, such a relationship is considered a May-December nest: the younger person being in the “spring” of his or her life (May), while the older person is in his or her “winter” (December). In most of these relationships, it is the men who are significantly older than the women.

Not too long ago -- especially in agrarian and indigenous societies -- husbands were expected to be older than their wives. In polygamous settings, the third, fourth or fifth wife may be 15-30 years younger than the husband. Cultural and societal expectations were different; the role and place of husbands and wives were mostly structured and unquestioned. Even in modern times, we still have a whiff of the olden days.

Now, unlike then, most women have the constitutional, cultural and economic strength to engage in a relationship that catches their fancy. They need not marry a grandfather; be involved in multiple marriages or tied down in a relationship that does not fulfill their emotional and mental needs.

International conventions, domestic laws, modernization and economic power have enabled most women easy entry and easy exit in relationship. The concept, definition, and practice of marriage are changing.To proposition a man or woman who is 15 or more years older or younger is no longer a big-deal. Even so, the norm and the preference are still older men-younger women.

A few years ago Kenyans were shocked when Wambui Otieno-Mbugua, at 67, married Peter Mbugua, a man 42 years her junior. If their ages were reversed, very few people would have wagged their tongues.

Some well known May-December unions include that of Tony Randal and Heather Harland (50 years); Chuck Norris and Gena O’Kelley (28 years); Warren Beatty and Annette Bening (21 years); Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones (25 years); and Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn (35 years). And then there are Larry King and Shawn Southwick (26 years); Mary Tyler Moore and Robert Levine (18 years); Jerry Seinfeld and Jessica (18 years); Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher (27 years).

There are several implications to May-December relationships – implications that border on economic, social, and health ramifications. Some older men and women behave as though age is boundless and timeless. It could be so. Some empirical data shows that some older people actually feel and behave young and vibrant; while some young people feel and act old.

Realistically however, with age comes different  illnesses: erectile dysfunction, shortness of breath, weak knees and weak muscles. For some people, some of these manifestations become apparent a few years before their 60th birthday; after that, it is a downward slope. Some men are lucky: they can go on and on and on without much problems until they waltz into their grave.

But what if it happens at 60 or earlier, you have a wife who is 20-25 years younger? Will a 60 year old man be able to keep up with a 30-40 year old woman? Aside from health difficulties, there are  issues surrounding children born of such association: what happens if a 20-30 year old bore children for a much older man? The man may not be able to keep up with the children as outdoor activities may become a painful exercise.

With such unions,  when the man dies or becomes infirm, will there be sizeable inheritance an enough money for the children’s education ? Will the aging husband be able to spend quality and memorable time with his 3-16 year old children? What about issues relating to generational gap? How does one bridge such gulf? In traditional and agrarian societies, such cleavages may not mean much; but in western and westernizing societies, the differences may be as conspicuous as night and day. At any rate, the speed at which a couple overcomes these differences may depend on the individual level of education, disposition, exposure,  worldview, collective sense of self, and on their objective for entering into such partnership.

Some men deliberately go in search of much younger women; they purposely seek May-December relationships. The same is also true of some women. But what if “it just happened”?

There are things about young maidens that drive a man wild and crazy. Their young minds and young bodies and young souls can and do drive men to the brink of insanity. In such moments, it is difficult to differentiate between love and lust and infatuation.

Assuming it is love, then you must be careful not to take or play a fatherly role. She is not looking for a daddy. In you she found a lover, a husband, a partner. Something else; you cannot be overly jealous or overly suspicious when she wants to go play with her age-mates. Also, if your lover or wife is too young, he/she may become other people’s object of desire and fantasy.

Mr. Sabella Abidde lives in Washington DC. He can be reached at:

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