You had me at
health insurance

Minding the age gap in a May-December relationship

Must be the new guy, I thought when first I spotted Rob at the Indiana radio station where we both worked, me as copy writer, he as the new morning show host. He was tall, lanky with a wide grin. Cute, I thought, but too young for me.

“What’s the matter?” he remarked as I drew near. “Couldn’t afford a full pair of pants?”

I looked down. I was wearing a pair of cropped pants, a fashion phenomenon that was relatively cutting edge at the time in Indiana.

“Not on what I make at this place,” I shot back. “Of course, you’ll make more. You’re a man. You can buy full-length pants.”

Our co-workers laughed appreciatively.

Back and forth banter and a few casual lunches followed for the next two years. We both dated others, and in between, Rob would ask me if I wanted to start something more serious. I always said no.

“I’m older than you,” I’d say. “I mean, really, what would people think? Desperate cradle-robber? Predatory cougar?”

Then one day, I said yes. What the hell, I thought. Who am I saving it for? The mythical Mr. Right? Besides, we no longer worked together, he having gone back to school for a career change from radio to radiology.

And so it began — nights of Scrabble and movies and food and sex. It wouldn’t last long, I thought. But I’d enjoy it while it did.

2

‘I kinda like it here’

Glamorous British actress Joan Collins was 32 years older than her theatrical producer husband, Percy Gibson, when she married him in 2000. Asked by reporters if she was worried about their age difference, she replied, “If he dies, he dies.”

An older man with a trophy wife is not that unusual. But when women of a certain age find romance with men half their age, eyebrows still raise.

I’m all for seeing the old double-standard up-ended. I just never intended to be the standard-bearer for the cause. Yet, here I am, with a significantly younger man.

How significantly, you ask? Rob is 14½ years younger than I am. Yes, I could round it up to 15, but that sounds like a lot more.

A conversation you might hear between us:

HIM: Wow! You were hot in this photo. I wish I’d known you then.

ME: Well, I was about 25 in that picture. You would have been…?

HIM: Hmm. 10. In 4th grade.

ME: I think our relationship would have been a felony.

People who don’t know us well never assume there is a difference in our ages. I look younger than I am, and Rob’s hair is graying and thinning noticeably. But I know. My friends and family know.

In 2004, when Rob left radio and finished his training as a radiology tech, he announced he wanted to leave Indiana. This is it, I thought wistfully: the end of the affair. Cue the violins.

Au contraire! He wanted me to come with him.

At first, the idea seemed ludicrous. I’d been living in the same community since I graduated college, married and raised my children. I had deep roots there. But now I was divorced and both my children were out of the nest. I was restless.

When I was a young woman, I’d always dreamed of bright lights, big city. But that’s not what Rob was offering. He wanted to move to Florida to be near his aging father who lived in a retirement village. The prospect was not appealing.

He asked me to accompany him on a reconnaissance mission to hunt for jobs and housing in Florida, perhaps thinking he could seduce me with sunshine. I agreed to go as far as Atlanta, where my eldest son and his wife lived. I’d enjoy a nice visit in a city I adored, and he could pick me up on the way back.

Within a few days after depositing me in Atlanta, I got a phone call from Florida.

“I’m going insane,” Rob whispered. “What made me think I could live near my father?”

I was not surprised. Every time he had ever mentioned his father, the words “controlling” and “over-bearing” popped up.

When Rob swung back up to Atlanta, we stayed for a few more days of eating caramel creme brulee at funky restaurants, viewing a stunning photography exhibit at the High Museum, and, of course, pleasant weather.

“I kinda like it here,” said Rob.

Me, too. I’d been a regular visitor to Atlanta since my eldest son took a job here after college. Now, this same son informed me I was going to be a grandmother. I suddenly had a vision of what a new life could look like for me. I smiled and not so coyly asked Rob if he wanted to drop his résumé off at some Atlanta hospitals.

He applied in person at Emory University Hospital with his résumé in hand and his charming radio show host repartee at the ready. He was offered a job within a few days.

My friends were aghast. You’re moving to Atlanta? With a man you’ve only been dating a few months? He’s way younger than you! He’s been married twice already! He’s a terrible risk!

No one thought I’d go through with it. But I was determined. Yes, I’d miss my friends, I said. Yes, it was a risk. But I’ve always been a bit of a gambler, I told them.

Secretly, however, I was worried they were right: My relationship with Rob would fall apart eventually. Some hot young nurse with whom he worked at the hospital would provide the temptation. In my mind, she was wearing one of those sexy nurse Halloween costumes. “I never meant for it to happen,” he’d say penitently. Maybe there’d be a scene. Shouts. Tears. In the end, he’d move out, move on. But I would survive. I would be in Atlanta. I would spend my golden years playing the part of hip granny and world-weary, wise woman in a world-class city with good weather.

3

Viva Las Vegas

I’m sure there are numerous studies that point out the age gap between partners as a significant factor when considering the viability of a relationship. Common sense would lead you to the same conclusion: There is a higher divorce rate among May-December unions. But we had no intention of getting married. We would simply cohabitate. We were way past the age when we felt any family or societal pressure to marry. No children would be involved. Our financial dealings could be kept mostly separate. If or when the inevitable split came, there would be no necessity for lawyers.

So I moved to Atlanta with him. Time passed. Life happened. Our lives started to become entwined. We bought a condo together. My grandchild started falling asleep in his lap. Sexy Nurse never materialized.

Then, a practical matter changed our dynamic. I took an internship that set me on a new career path. I loved my work, but the internship offered no benefits. The COBRA insurance from my job in Indiana was set to expire.

We initially had assumed his employer offered domestic partner health insurance. They did. Sort of. They offered insurance to same-sex domestic partners.

Purchasing my own health insurance was tantamount to a monthly payment to a loan shark. This was 2005, before the health insurance crisis was in full swing. I remember sitting in a back stairwell of the building where I worked, talking to any insurance company willing to give me a quote.

“Eight-hundred and fifty dollars a month?” I gasped into the phone. “Are you kidding?” Of course, she wasn’t. She worked for a health insurance company.

Rob and I mulled over our predicament. Actually, it was really just my predicament. While I was still years away from Medicare eligibility, I was not so young as to blithely assume I would stay healthy until then.

“Let’s just do it,” Rob said.

“Really?” I said. “But you said you didn’t want to get married again. You said…”

He cut me off.

“I know what I said. But let’s just go for it. Let’s get married.” As proposals go, this one was decidedly unromantic.

I looked at him carefully. We both had been around the block enough times to realize that marriages have been initiated in far less favorable circumstances. The only big worrisome factor was the age gap. And, to be fair, it was more like a canyon than a gap.

On the weekend before my COBRA insurance would expire, Rob and I hopped on a plane headed west. There, in Las Vegas, we were married at The Garden of Love wedding chapel, which I chose at random from a long list on the internet. We found the white stucco building on a busy strip of highway. Inside, we saw garishly decorated rooms for themed weddings: a pirate fantasy in one room involved swords and eye patches; another room resembled the flight deck of the Starship Enterprise; and, of course, there was the obligatory Elvis wedding room. Seeing Rob and I dressed in all black, the proprietor asked if we wanted the Goth option.

“Uh, no,” I said. I immediately put my pea-green jacket back on to discourage such assumptions. We chose the very ordinary floral room, bedecked with garlands and arches and wreaths of dusty artificial blooms.

We were steered toward a large case of wedding rings. We hadn’t thought of rings, but the proprietor could not shame Rob into buying one, despite a valiant try.

“You’re at least worth a real jewelry store,” he whispered to me. “Maybe one in the mall.”

So we just stood under a trellis of fake flowers and said, “I do.” It took less than five minutes.

On our wedding night, we walked up and down the Strip, and he watched anxiously as I lost $100 at blackjack. We were back in Atlanta Monday morning. I was now fully insured by my husband’s employer. Maybe I should schedule a colonoscopy, I mused.

4
Time marches on

Couples married in haste in Vegas probably have better odds for getting divorced than I had at winning blackjack. Nonetheless, 13 years later, Rob and I are still married.

I have taken a lot of guff from family and friends for getting married for the health insurance. I sometimes wonder if we would have gotten married without the specter of a major health problem resulting in bankruptcy looming over me. Or if his employer had offered domestic partner benefits to heterosexuals.

If we had never married, would we still be together? In truth, there have been plenty of times when one or both of us was mad enough to pack up and leave.

Our marriage has not been a love fest. We fight. Boy, do we fight. But our arguments do not stem from our age difference. No, we fight about the same things all couples fight about: money (I think he’s cheap); housework (he thinks I’m messy); driving (I think he follows too closely); time (he thinks I’m annoyingly late); and how can one man have so much stereo equipment and can you please take off those damn headphones when I’m talking to you!

The issues with the age difference have been sneaky and subversive, creeping into our daily lives in fits and spurts that we’ve adapted to. The biggest one came with no warning. Chasing down a sharply angled service return on the tennis court, I suddenly felt my right knee pop. Just like that, years of cutthroat tennis came to a painful halt. I had to have joint replacement surgery on my right knee. Then, somewhat later, on my left.

Tennis, which had been part of our social life, was no longer an option on a bright Saturday morning. Rob admits he misses it, misses us doing it. We watch Wimbledon together on TV. Just listening to the thwack of the ball flying off the racket generates a feeling of loss that wells up in my throat.

Worse than the knee replacements, however, would have been knee replacements without health insurance.

***

More conversations you might hear in our house:

ME: When I am in a wheelchair, drooling and babbling and incontinent, I want you to divorce me and find another woman and get on with your life.

HIM: What kind of person do you think I am?

ME: I’m serious.

HIM: Stop it.

ME: I don’t want to be a burden

HIM: Stop it.

I joke, but the fear is real, underneath my teasing bravado. Is another tennis-sized setback waiting to test our relationship?

Yes, there are things we don’t do, can’t do, anymore because of me. But there are enough things we can do that still tip the scales in favor of a happy union. We can still enjoy couch-cuddling while binge-watching “The Handmaid’s Tale.” We are good traveling companions; we take impulsive detours, once to Bruges on our way to Amsterdam because we loved the movie “In Bruges.” We can sit silently in the same room, staring at our iPads, playing Words with Friends with each other and not think it’s weird. We once even painted a faux-headboard on a bedroom wall together without resorting to fist-to-cuffs. (He prefers I don’t watch HGTV anymore.) Most important, we laugh easily and often.

In truth, he could fall over dead of a heart attack or stroke. Medical tests revealed he has considerably more plaque in his arteries than I do. But I’m going with the actuarial tables here. I will probably die, or worse, be incapacitated, before my 15-years-younger-than-I-am husband.

There’s nothing I can do about it. I can only smile at the fact that we are still together, still making it work. If I officially become an old woman who needs care, well, we’ll deal with it then.


ABOUT THE STORY
As Valentine’s Day approaches, it’s refreshing to be reminded that not all relationships require the traditional trappings of a Hallmark romance to flourish. Many couples, especially those who’ve been around the block a time or two, have more practical concerns. For writer Laurie Eynon, health insurance was the tipping point for commitment, and I’m sure she’s not alone. Couples colonoscopies, anyone?

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
personaljourneys@ajc.com


ABOUT THE WRITER
Laurie Eynon is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Personal Journeys. She is gradually retiring from her position as a chaplain at Northside Hospital, but loves it too much to just quit. Now residents of Atlanta for 14 years, she and husband Rob are happy and proud to call it home, but still make frequent trips to Indiana for family time.