In the 1967 smash hit The Graduate, Anne Bancroft’s character Mrs Robinson initiates a love affair with a young college graduate Ben Braddock, played by the charming Dustin Hoffman. After a short-lived whirlwind romance, Braddock finds himself in love with Mrs Robinson’s daughter Elaine, getting caught in a mother-daughter drama culminating in a shotgun marriage between the youngsters. Apart from being immensely successful, the film highlighted some major prejudices Hollywood of the ’60s held regarding relationships between older women and younger men: they are troublesome and must be avoided.
Sadly, a marriage between an older woman and younger man is still perceived a social anomaly that is not only difficult to manage but also requires greater patience and hard work than a marriage between an older man and younger woman. Western society may largely be tolerant of such a union but the subcontinent still has a long way to go in accepting it. “The concept we live by is patriarchal in nature,” explains 60-year-old homemaker Sultana Khursheed. “The husband is supposed to head the family and if he is younger, then that isn’t always possible. Therefore, many Pakistanis — particularly of my generation — frown upon the idea of women marrying younger men.”
From family to finances
Khursheed highlights a very significant aspect of every marriage, regardless of the age gap between the involved parties. As she rightly suggests, the husband is generally expected to cater to the monetary requirements of the household, a bleak prospect considering younger husbands are likely to be at earlier stages of their careers and therefore, less secure financially. This runs the risk of the elder wife becoming the main provider, often perpetrating feelings of insecurity and resentment from the husband.
According to psychologist Sarah Illahi, there is also evidence that younger people, irrespective of gender, tend to be attracted to a sense of security afforded by older ones. “A senior at work will be more ahead of the game in terms of career; more successful,” she explains. “A young male employee may fall for an older female one.”
Similar was the case of 30-year-old Waleed* who met his 36-year-old wife Muzna at their workplace. “I was already pretty intimidated by Muzna. She was not only older but far, far senior to me when I joined work,” admits Waleed. “Things turned sour when I lost my job soon after she and I got engaged. I was distraught over what she would think of my joblessness.”
Fortunately, Muzna was empathetic to Waleed’s situation, being a career-oriented woman herself. Nor did Waleed intend to live off her salary. “I couldn’t let Muzna pay for us, of course! That is a man’s job.”
In addition to this, working couples with large age differences often have contrasting priorities. One may still be building their career and the other practising for retirement. “In this situation, it doesn’t matter whether the wife is older or not,” explains 31-year-old Mehreen* from London whose husband Omar* is three years her junior. “Omar is at the pinnacle of his career in wealth management and spends his time networking, learning and working late, etc. On the other hand, I am rather sick of my job as a researcher and avoid social gatherings Omar is fond off. Our age gap isn’t too large but I do feel like he and I are at different stages of our lives right now.”
The biological clock ticks…
Unfortunately, being at separate stages with clashing priorities extends to more than just a couple’s working and social lives. There are also many biological implications one must consider before entering into unions with prominent age gaps — babies, in particular. “These issues seem insignificant in the first couple of years but later on, cause friction between the couple,” explains Sultana.
It is hardly breaking news that the older a woman gets, the harder it becomes for her to have a baby. While medical advancement has made what was previously impossible a reality, many marriage counsellors cite children as a common point of argument in chronologically mismatched couples. Such is the case of 30-year-old Samreen* and Nasir*, who is six years younger. “Realistically, I have another 10 to 12 years to have a baby,” laments Samreen. “But Nasir doesn’t even think of children yet. He just wants to focus on his career. He doesn’t realise the older I get, the harder it will be for me.”
Samreen’s predicament is lent credence by gynaecologist Dr Raheela Mohsin Rizvi who prescribes 23 to 28 as the ideal age for a woman to reproduce. “A pregnancy during one’s 30s is also not difficult. The problem arises when and if a woman is past 40 when her ovarian functions decrease, causing further physical and psychological problems that can affect the couple adversely.”
An emotional rollercoaster
As suggested by Dr Rizvi, the female body undergoes physical changes that often affect women’s mental stability. Most commonly, insecurity regarding physical appearance arises and many women begin to doubt how attractive they are to their spouses. “Even after 40 years of marriage, I still wonder if my husband still loves me like he did when we were younger,” admits Sultana. “And he isn’t even younger than me. We women take aging very seriously so I would imagine that insecurities are only accentuated if you have a younger or younger-looking husband.”
There are plenty like 25-year-old Noman* who can share stories to corroborate Sultana’s idea. “I work at a cosmetics company and one day, brought home some freebies, one of which was an anti-aging cream,” he narrates. “You won’t believe it but my wife — who is only 30 — lost her temper that night! Out of all the products, she focused only on that one cream and accused me of calling her old. It took me an hour to calm her.” Judging from Noman’s experience, Sarah contends that anxiety about a straying partner is much higher in women with younger husbands as they become more conscious of the age gap.
A somewhat related issue is that of mental compatibility — or lack thereof — between a man and wife. Both may have little in common due to something akin to a generation gap. At 29, Tehmina* had been in a year long relationship with Dawood* who is seven years younger until one evening changed everything. “We were visiting Dawood’s friends, all of whom are younger than me. I felt like their mummy!” confesses Tehmina. “We had no jokes, no stories, and no experiences in common — nothing. I recall mentioning the Spice Girls and they all burst out laughing, saying they had been in fifth grade when the band was popular. It was so embarrassing!”
Tehmina’s gripe was not one-sided as Dawood felt terribly awkward that night too. “All the stuff she spoke about was from way before our time,” he says. “She then pretended she had a work-related errand to run and walked out saying that she couldn’t bum around all day like my friends and I.” Needless to say, the couple split soon after.
Considering the Tehmina and Dawood’s experience, it is safe to conclude that a vast age gap impedes mental compatibility, in certain cases. Not to mention, women have been proven to mature much faster than men. Hence, Sarah suggests that in order for a marriage between a mature woman and young man to thrive, “the husband must be extraordinarily mature in how he deals with his wife.”
It is a pity that most Pakistanis are unaware of our cultural history that is rife with examples of older women being paired with younger men for various reasons. Mughal kings often married senior women and vice versa in order to maintain the bloodline and family wealth. In spite of this, our society fails to accept such a union as ‘normal.’ Families generally search for a ‘choti bahu’ that will be visually appealing to her husband as well easier to control than a grown woman. Stereotypes and terms like ‘cougar’ and ‘robbing the cradle’ are frequently associated with women who fraternise with younger men and there is even more taunting when these stereotypes are broken.
“My husband, Ghani was 34 and I was 42 back when it happened,” says Bisma* reminiscing about a disastrous evening she had a few years back. “I encountered an acquaintance at a party who thought Ghani was my younger brother,” she says. “I would have talked back had it not been for Ghani grinning like a little boy, clearly very pleased with himself. On top of this, while we were driving home that night, a beggar came to our car and said ‘Allah aap ke baitay ko chaand see biwi de.’ It was mortifying!”According to Sarah, one should “remain level headed” and make sure their partner does not gloat too much, lest it get to their head.
Age is just a number
Nearly 35 years after The Graduate, Hollywood once again went abuzz with blistering criticism for the then 42-year-old Madonna who had married her long-time boyfriend Guy Ritchie secretly, despite him being 10 years her junior. Closer to home, Bollywood beauty queen Aishwariya Rai’s marriage to Abhishek Bachchan has remained under intense media scrutiny ever since it was announced in 2007, owing to the international icon being three years older than her husband. While the former couple called it quits in early 2008, the Bachchans continue to defy all social stigmas and prove that age is an issue of mind over matter — if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.
*Name have been changed to protect privacy
Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, May 4th, 2014.