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Cross-Generation Marriage

Someone slips on a banana peel. Never anyone one knows. One is free to laugh, to enjoy the absurdspectacle.

Just so one reads in the morning paper of the marriage of a couple a generation or two apart in age. One is free to cluck, to tut-tut, to enjoy the imagined absurd spectacle, this being the sort of thing which simply
does not happen between people whom one knows.

Or does it?

It may happen, soon or late, that one or both parties to such a marriage are amongst one's friends or acquaintances. The reactions, then, are strong, immediate, stereotyped, and show wide cleavage as between women and men.

I have experienced as well as observed these reactions over almost the whole of my adult life from the eye of the hurricane: beginning with an early widowhood, followed by more than thirty years as a "young" wife, then nine years as one of the host of grey widow "ladies," and now I am in my seventh year of marriage as an "old" wife.

I am seventy-nine years old, the mother of four children, grandmother of twelve. My husband is forty-three years younger than I. We are white; by Berkeley definition "Hill Libbers;" on the Warner scale upper-middle class; our milieu Academia and the arts. My husband is a painter. I am a writer.

I here report reactions to stable, creative marriages in which there is a generation cross-over, as observed in the today-culture of the United States. My view is anthropological, and, as such, discovers our culture to be age-grade-conscious and segregation-by-generation-oriented and to recognize as its ideal image. Youth.

When the age difference between a man and wife is thirty years or more, it is usually the husband who is old, the wife young. I started to write "twenty," forgetting for the moment how relatively unremarked today is a gap of twenty years, a cautionary reminder against the too-facile use of labels such as "natural," and "instinctual;" and a warning, that however laggingly, some liberation from generation tabu is taking place.


How, then, do older women react to a young wife, newly introduced into the friendship and acquaintanceship circles of her husband? (It is the young wife who enters much more frequently and fully the older husband's circles than he hers, except for her family and most intimate friends.)

The husband who has shown independence in his choice of a wife may be expected to stand out from his peers in other ways, in accomplishment, imagination, intelligence, dynamism, charisma - one or more or all. The young wife slips into a place ready made, and it may well occur to any sensible woman that this automatic placing is a bit unfair, hard to take, all too easy in comparison with her own giving-of-self-contribution to her husband's career. The ready made place may mean, in the diplomatic service or other government service, in the professions, in ladder-conscious Academia, that the young wife is accorded, willy-nilly, social precedence and consideration over her elders. (Time and its passage being as they are, the "young" wife remains young relative to the older women long after she is, in fact, no longer young.) The husband's circles must, then, settle for his wife, like her or not, if they are to keep him, and it may be expected they will try to keep him.

The wives ask: Will this woman trade on her youth? Shall she and we find enougli in common to make do? Is she, after all, up to her husband? The attitude is on the whole negative, wary, watchful, these attributes tending to increase and predominate in proportion to the "success" or actual distinction of the husband.

The wives have reason to be on their guard, nor can they look to their husbands for support. (See below.)

How positive the negative may become; how soon and how thoroughly watchfulness gives way to trust and affection, depends upon the young wife herself, rather more than upon the older women however whole hearted their goodwill. It depends upon how far the young wife has already grown beyond the emotionality, vanity, shyness and gaucheries of adolescence and post-adolescence; how inteUigenf she is; how ample her capacity for compassionate and full maturity; how sensitive her imagination; how genuine her amiability.

Observation  reveals the auguries, on the whole, to be good.


The men's reaction to the young wife is quite different: Positive. Unreserved.

They find it delightful to discover in their intimate group a young face, to hear the laugh, the fresh timbre of a young voice.

They respond with a gallantry beyond their wont, make a larger effort to be amusing, to please. Their interest and animation quicken.

An aura of happy sex surrounds the couple.

By George, if the OH Man  — can do it, why not I?

The shaky maleness gets a shot in the ego, without having to put too fine a point upon a more-than-beginning-paunch, an unadmitted lowered sex-drive, or the spectre of male "change of life."

The fantasies set in motion rarely hover long over the particular young wife who has given them wing; the women's reserve is rarely embittered with jealousy, real or imagined. The men's reactions are in part natural and defensible, in part jejune; and easy, all too easy to caricature. In fact there is nothing funny about their behavior, and much that is tragic. For American men are the victims, more woundingly than American women, of the national obsessive youth-worship syndrome: idealization of youth for youth's sake, whatever its other qualities or worth, and leading to that saddest of spectacles, the imitation of youthfulness when the reality can no longer be held on leash.


How do the men react to a reverse marriage in which the wife is old? Promptly, Negatively. Denuncia-torily. Moralistically.

Either the woman is an old fool who is being taken by a young scoundrel, or both man and wife are, quite simply, beyond the pale.

Surely the old woman does not expect her friends to accept this indecently young man?

The indecently young man surely does not mean to introduce his wife into his circle?

How in God's name is a man supposed to act toward this woman, older than himself? He'd feel a bally fool flirting with her. Playfulness won't do.

And what stance toward the young man? Fatherly? Patronisingly at ease? Jolly?

It is my conviction these men are reacting to panic — sheer middle-years, American-made, male panic. The aura of happy sex surrounding the irriprobably pair reminds the older men that this young husband may be presumed to be out-performing his elders — the youth bogey raising its sexy head. And men are justified in feeling that both nurture and nature have let them down rather badly. They have been reared within a culture which makes no positively oriented and sanctioned provision for pre-marital sex experience and which does not offer its young, or its old, socially accepted patterns or procedures for extra-marital sex. The double standard for sex, now in process of dissolution, still leaves both men and women without the sex proscriptions and prescriptions to be found in most other cultures of today and in the so-called "simple" or "primitive" cultures of yesterday.

Nature, too, has let men down, putting male potency, its degree and its durability, physically beyond individual control. And when impotency is upon a man, there is no youth-disguise he may wear for lover, mistress or wife.


Meanwhile, Why, the man asks himself, are the women so damned unconcerned? To all appearances, so acquiescent, ruminative? So intrigued? So preoccupied in quietly, cooly, openly sizing up the young husband?

It can't be they are fantasizing Young Lovers of their own?

Well, of course it can. They do.   

And if the husbands suspect they detect an ironic gleam, a touch of naughtiness and triumph in their wives' eyes, their suspicion is probably correct. The wives may well be recollecting fickle Nature's generosity in placing no biological or age limitation on a woman's participation in the sex act to full orgasm.

The women say "Bully for you!" to both the young husband and to the old wife, especially to the wife. And mean it, for the most part. Given a reasonable sense of security on the part of the other and younger women, the marriage calls forth a spontaneous generousness, not always to be found between women; an amused by gentle gaiety; and something almost protective toward both wife and husband. Beyond the imponderables of temperament and congeniality and the nuances of like-dislike, love-hate, the reality of the positive reaction depends upon4he younger wife's own security, upon "where she is," by her own standards and those of her society.

The unmarried woman, younger than the young husband, or close to his age, confronts in his marriage a bursting of the youth balloon — her secure toy. All manner of new values, new life-patterns, tumble from the burst balloon. Picking up the pieces, if she is as bright as a woman ought to be, a wry smile accompanies her words, "And I thought I was liberated." It will occur to her that perhaps, just perhaps, American men, some of them, are taking stock of women, lovers, mistresses, wives, in other countries? In other cultures?

To the woman who is a widow, particularly if she is old, the marriage is an ego shot: If she can do it, why not I? And indeed why not?

(The detailing of the whys and why nots and of the whole of this area, widowhood, largely neglected by both women's and men's liberation, I shall hope to explore. It is a wasteland needing opening up. But — another day, another thrust.)


So - the women say "Bully for you!" And the men come 'round given time and pertinent guide-lines from their wives. The fact of the marriage and the . parties to it are accepted and naturalized to the circle. There is exotic appeal in that the marriage "works;" that it has an amiability, a distinctiveness, a distinction all its own, and there is the difference of menage. The wife has an old and comfortable familiarity with the "life-style" of the majority in the circle. Both the women and the men find something to envy, something to look forward to, "When the children are grown up," in her present so differently-oriented household.

In both women and men, but sooner and more deeply (perhaps) in the women, there has been a pondering and some subtlety of comprehension of the strains, the restraints, the reluctances, the shocks and hurts this old woman has herself endured and foisted, all unwilling, on her family and her closest friends before taking a lover; before the serious, thoughtful decision to go on to marriage; of the questions the young man must have asked himself, and found hard answers to, before making his decision and commitment to this marriage.

The shell is cracked: let us to the kernel, bitter-svi'cet, strong.

Crossing generations in marriage is a Way of Life too aberrant, too special except for some few, particularly when it is the man who is young, the woman old.

The man need rather to have raced down his Time-track with greater awareness, speed and intensity than is customary:  to have lived through and beyond the romantic love-fantasy of youthful illusion, beyond first and later loves; to have been through and out of an earlier marriage. He must long since have realized that he does not desire nor intend to have children of his own seed. He must have learned many hard realities.

I can scarcely say what the old woman is about when the young man comes abreast of her, loitering down her long Track. But the tracks will merge only with an instant chemistry and recognition, beneath all differences, of mutualness of Values, Direction, Taste, Pattern, Style.

In the merging will be no place for pretense, for effort to appear younger and less wise than one is, or older and more wise. No place for jealousy of youngness, of old experience. Each must be himself as he is or strives to be within himself, not as family, friends or society image him or would have him be.

For those to whom come such a love and such a marriage, the horizon of communication takes on a palette of sunrise shades, and sunset; an enlarging; closed shutters opening to let new winds blow through, bringing sounds and smells from new worlds for them to savour. And always, the intimate continuing discovery of the unknown potential behind the unlined, unlived face of youth; behind the lined, lived face of age.