I’d never before told my parents about a girl I was interested in.
“She’s Sri Lankan,” I said, bracing myself for their reaction.
“Hmmm,” my mother hummed, frowning.
“And she’s 3 years older than me.”
My mother burst out laughing in disbelief. “Poda!” she chided me, for that well-executed joke.
I was just glad of my decision to not tell them she was actually 5 years older. My mother might have died of laughter.
Growing up, this common school of thought drove my life: women were more emotionally mature than men, hence there needs to be a sufficient age gap between them for there to be parity in the marriage.
The phrasing is my own by the way. Most people who spoke out about the topic instead reduced it to simple sentences such as “Adu orikkalum nadakkilla! (That will never work out!)” or “Pennugaludeyum aanungaludey mindset same alla! (Men and women have different mindsets!)”
It was something that every community in Kerala seemed to agree upon. Sure, some were perfectly fine with a decade long gap between partners, while others didn’t mind if the woman was almost the same age as the man.
But no one endorsed the other end of the spectrum.
As I became increasingly progressive in my beliefs, the validity of an age gap felt as flimsy as that of gender roles. I no longer believed my wife should do the cooking for me, or that she shouldn’t work when I could provide. Then why would it matter if she was older than me?
That’s the way it stayed until my mother’s laugh.
Seeing how incredulous an idea it was in her mind made me stop and wonder. Even though by then I’d gotten to know my potential partner very well and had found no disparity in our relationship.
Then a dear friend of mine, a woman my age who was perhaps more progressive than me, articulated her concern.
“Age gap does matter. You may think it doesn’t now, but it does.”
It was a voice note, and I looked at the WhatsApp screen, willing it to provide clarification.
Wait, what does it mean “it matters”?
My imagination tried to fill in the gaps, recruiting scraps of conversations heard in the past in order to cobble together an explanation.
A few elders in my extended family had once mentioned how if the wife was older than the husband, she wouldn’t be able to care for him as they aged.
It’s an argument that has aged as well as Bond movies from the 60s.
So if I wasn’t choosing a life partner who could double as a hospice worker, what could be the problem?
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Next, the aspect of biology entered the discussion. Could it be a matter of having kids? I wasn’t an expert, but hadn’t science advanced enough to give aspiring lovers some leeway? Even if a couple got married when the husband was in his late 20s and the wife was in her mid-30s…
That’s when Google pointed out that women’s fertility starts to decline past the age of 35. Sure, it’s not a number fixed in stone, and there are a lot of variables to consider…
But what struck me was that I’d never considered any of it. While swiping right on a dating app, the age of a woman had almost nothing to do with her childbearing capabilities, at least for me.
What did matter, of course, was how attractive I found her. That’s when a nagging voice in my head raised the possibility. If your partner is older than you, wouldn’t she “lose her looks” before you did?
I can almost hear the deafening roar of outrage such a sentiment might provoke amongst some readers. It’s not polite to articulate that physical attraction is an extremely important part of a marriage. Especially when emotional love supposedly overrides it.
That’s why sometimes I admire the brutal truths hidden in the simplistic statements of older generations. The people who are often politically incorrect and regressive in their thinking are able to consider aspects of life my generation cannot, either out of naivety or worse, stubborn adherence to ideology.
Yes, true beauty is on the inside. But biology dictates that outer beauty matters too.
Will I find my wife unattractive as she reaches her 40s ahead of me?
Of course, thanks to my long-standing skincare regimen, which I think can best be described as ‘palaeolithic’, I wouldn’t have much to complain about. If anything I’d have to work hard to convince people she was in fact older than me.
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In the end, it wasn’t the matter of children or physical beauty that made me realise age was an issue. It was something far less tangible than that. Something far more insidious.
It’s tough to define strength in this context. Especially when such a statement conjures up assumptions of toxic masculinity.
I’ve previously talked about how, if my wife had a more lucrative career than me and the kids needed someone at home, I’d gladly choose to stay with them. I’d seen enough instances in my life to understand that men often have an ego that doesn’t allow them to rely on their wife’s income.
So when I had dinner with the lady called Amalthea and she offered to pay since I was a student and she was working full time, I reminded myself of the lesson I’d learnt. Don’t feel insecure about this, because that is a terrible thought to nurture.
But as I got to know her better over the next few weeks, I realised the five-year difference in age between her and me manifested not just in terms of finance.
She knew more about the world than I did. Not in a David Attenborough kind of way, but just in terms of practical matters. She knew about mortgages and employment contracts and immigration law and international travel requirements.
True, she’d literally lived more than me, but did that fully explain the disconnect?
I considered conventional marriages I’d seen among my friends and relatives. Did any of the women feel like they knew less than their older husbands? Did they feel inadequate when they were being told what steps to take in order to get their visas for UAE, Saudi Arabia or the United States? Did they squirm with embarrassment as their husbands explained the housing market in Canada?
I don’t know for certain, but I suspect not.
I think neither they nor anyone around them found it the least bit odd that their husbands were educating them about this. At the same time, countless Malayali women are entering marriages just as aware as their husbands are about life.
But are any of them facing the prospects of having to teach their husbands?
That’s what I mean by strength.
It’s one thing for a man like me to learn how to cook and clean. It’s a laughably low bar to clear to gain membership in Club Feminism.
With just a few years of concerted effort and through the right kind of education, men like me can learn to treat women with respect. We can gain an understanding about gender roles, the patriarchy, the history of oppression towards women, the need to reshape society moving forward.
But true strength is much harder to gain. It’s not achieved by the acquisition of knowledge, but by constant reorientation of subconscious emotions.
Meaning it’s one thing to know that your wife can earn more, know more, and navigate better through life. It’s another to experience it on a daily basis, in countless instances, over and over again.
It’s easy to dismiss this as simply an issue of me and my older partner not being equals. If we were, the thinking goes, I would possess qualities and skills that complement hers.
Yes, but if the genders were swapped in the above equation, would there be such incompatibility?
If my (or your) wife earned less, knew less and was less competent at navigating through life, would there be the same disparity in the marriage? Would she feel as inadequate as I would if I was in her place?
Progressive minded Malayalis can agree that in the past, women didn’t have enough say in their marriages. We’ve worked as a society to try and change that. But even now, there are countless women who are perfectly fine with having husbands who provide them with a home and establish a standard of living.
Perhaps the reason those husbands don’t feel shortchanged is because they expect something from their wives that only women can provide. Raising a family.
For far too long, many wives have been relegated to the passenger seat of the car (yes, we’ve launched into a metaphor), going wherever the husband drives them to, with little to no say in the matter. But there was one domain that was their own. Child-rearing.
Now men like me have been relegated to the passenger seat, not out of coercion, but rather ineptitude. We can have a say in the matter, except we know whatever we say will be silly and pointless. There is no domain for us to control. We become the worst kind of partner, the one who can’t do many things and do others badly.
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Imagine the kind of strength you’d need to still remain in that passenger seat. To rise above your own feelings of inadequacy, to constantly cleanse yourself of a growing sense of resentment, to remind yourself that your wife loves you and doesn’t think she should be with someone “on her level”.
I wonder if certain women reading this will dismiss it as the thoughts of a deeply insecure man. Rather than wear a pink shirt and insist I’m secure in my masculinity, I’m fascinated to know what they would think if they married someone like me.
Imagine marrying a man who makes you laugh, who is creatively skilled (let’s say…can play musical instruments really well), and can have deep and interesting conversations with you. Basically, a man who you could fall in love with relatively easily.
Would you be attracted to him six months later when you’re handling the immigration paperwork to Australia because he messed things up?
A year later, when you’re expecting a baby and he wants to watch the latest Marvel movie instead of attending a birthing class, would you find it adorable or infuriating?
By the time you have two small children to take care of and a thriving career to focus on, and a constant stream of challenges popping up at home and school and work, will you look at this man you married and see the charming, creative man you fell in love with?
Or will you see a person who depends on you, assisting when possible but never co-piloting, a person who has to jog to keep up with your walking pace?
I don’t possess the strength to be with someone older, more successful and more mature than me.
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To my single female readers, do you possess the strength to be with someone younger, less successful and less mature than you?