When Feminist Theory Met Marxism
I was old for my age at seventeen; he was 29 and still finding his way in the world. He was majoring in philosophy while working full time at a local mall, selling kitchen gadgets. He was the second assistant manager, entrusted with the store key and the deposit. I was a perky young sales associate, working the register after my high school classes, a college class, and my internship at a local magazine.
I was taking Feminist Theory 101, and my nascent radical leanings were beginning to bloom. My high school boyfriend and I broke up; I was an impatient virgin, ready for sex, and he was a sweet Christian boy, content to wait. Enter John.
John was a few inches taller than me, with round glasses, a receding hairline, and soft brown eyes. He was also a Marxist, which in addition to piquing my political interest, made him an extremely lenient supervisor. After closing, when we were supposed to be sweeping and straightening, we’d spend our half hour flirting and debating politics. He had expected me, the store’s first teenage hire, to be a gum-cracking airhead, and I surprised him with my intellectual energy and philosophical hunger.
After a few months of friendship, we began—well, dating would be a strong word for it. We were hooking up, with few expectations. I couldn’t tell my mother about him, and he couldn’t imagine a serious relationship with someone so young. But by the time I graduated and accepted early admission to a local women’s college, we had fallen in love.
John was the first man I slept with, and I learned much in his gentle hands—he was a patient, giving lover, and just kinky enough to handle me. I was experimenting with sex, and exploring my feelings, and began to realize that I was bisexual. I’d never been with a woman, and I didn’t want to cheat on John. It was clear that this was a serious relationship, that John was someone I wanted to be with for years to come—but I didn’t want him to be my only lover. We had some serious talks, and decided that an open relationship would be the best way for us to stay honest and happy while I gained experience.
Eleven years later, we’re married and expecting our first child. I’m 28; he’s 41. We have, for several of those years, been in some form of open relationship—and though we’ve had our ups and downs—like every couple—we’re still very much in love. Our challenge has been negotiating the age gap between us. We knew it wouldn’t always be easy, but sometimes the gap has manifested itself in surprising ways—and factors other than age have helped us overcome it.
We learned early on to focus on our similarities. John and I may be twelve and a half years apart in age, but when we met, we were relatively close in lifestyle. John worked after high school and waited to start college until he began to crave intellectual challenge—and then realized he was brilliant. As I began college, we were both living the lives of working-class undergraduates, toiling behind a register and having late-night arguments about philosophy. I had much more in common with him than I would have with a man his age who worked full time and had children, so although we were different ages, we were at the same stage in our lives and careers. (Some years later, I did become romantically entangled with another man John’s age who had an advanced degree and an established career; despite our attraction, our worldviews were far apart, and it soon became clear that anything more than attraction would never have worked.)
And then there were the power dynamics. I’m not talking about role-playing in bed (although that’s fun, too). As we grew closer, John and I had to pay attention to how we treated one another on a day-to-day basis. For instance, who was making the decisions? Who pays? Whose knowledge has more authority? When we were first dating, John knew things I didn’t—about how to maintain my car, juggle my classes, or criticize U.S. foreign policy.
I was so taken with his intelligence and life experience, that I found myself deferring to him when it was time to make decisions. I realized this and pointed it out, and we agreed to actively work against this dynamic. We realized that allowing our roles to become in any way parental, or for one of us to take control of the other, would lead to serious problems. Instead, we focused on developing my confidence and authority. John had experience, sure, but I was far more outgoing and social, and had talents he didn’t possess. We were also well matched intellectually. I’ve never felt that one of us was “the smart one,” though we certainly have our own areas of expertise. Acknowledging this has allowed us to maintain the relationship on more equal footing.
Of course, the most obvious challenge for us was other people. We were happy and content together, but my parents? Less than thrilled about their precocious teenager taking up with an older man. (His mother, on the other hand, was fine with it. She and John’s father had a 15-year age gap!) It took years for John to win my folks over—but it happened, eventually, and now even my conservative grandparents embrace him as part of the family. I told them, early on, “Just wait five years—you’ll see, he’ll still be around.” By the time those five years had passed, they had grudgingly accepted him, and six years after that, he’s welcomed with open arms.
Of course, it wasn’t just family members. We got plenty of judgment from friends, coworkers and strangers on the street. I learned to remind myself that for every judgmental waitress who assumes John is my father, there are a dozen supportive friends who celebrate our marriage. I also realized that many of the people who initially expressed reservations were doing it for the right reasons. After all, it would have been easy enough for the power dynamics to flow the wrong way, into a controlling and joyless relationship. My friends and family were looking out for me—and it usually didn’t take long for them to get to know John and recognize him for the mellow, loving person he is. We also both maintained circles of friends our own age, to keep us grounded and give us perspective. We both now have a diverse circle of friends from a wide age range.
There was also the question of commitment. I wasn’t sure, at 17, that I was ready for a long-term relationship, but by the time we got married, I was 26, and had taken some time to give it thought. We might be an extreme case of “not rushing into it” (one friend described us as “strangely Victorian”), but negotiating an age gap does require some forethought.
We weren’t sure we wanted children. In fact, initially, neither of us did. It was the security we felt with one another, along with some biological urges, that changed that, and we thought and negotiated and dithered long and hard about when to do it. We finally decided to have our child in my late twenties, partially because we want John to be young and healthy enough to fully enjoy and participate in fatherhood.
When you’re in a relationship as complicated as ours, it’s important to face your fears and speak about them openly, even if they’re difficult to discuss. Because I’m the younger partner, and have been more sexually active in our open relationship than John has, one of the biggest challenges for us has been his (not always unfounded) fear that I would leave him for someone my own age.
For my part, I fear our old age, and worry that his health will decline while I am still young and vigorous. These are legitimate worries, and it hasn’t always been easy to communicate them. Doing so has been a major step for us, and we’re still working through them. Of course, all relationships hold fears and insecurities, and not all of them have to do with age. We’ve had to acknowledge and deal with the age gap without always putting it at the center of every problem. Age is important, after all, but it’s not everything.
Fortunately, it hasn’t all been fears and doubts. There are some upsides to the age gap, too—for one thing, it gave my music collection a serious upgrade. John, who grew up in the Florida antiracist punk scene, introduced me to Bad Religion, The Clash, and Public Enemy’s classic It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. I might not get all of his Schoolhouse Rock references, but I can take credit for introducing him to The Butchies and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
I also appreciate the fact that his long-ago early girlfriends cured him of his hang-ups and trained him sexually. I got the benefit of an experienced, skilled lover right from the beginning, something my sweet high-school boyfriend could never have offered. He also showed emotional intelligence, perception and sensitivity that few teenage boys master, and he refused to play the silly emotional games that tend to dominate the teenage romantic landscape. It was a revelation for me the day John explained that we didn’t have to bullshit each other—we could actually just talk. Imagine.
Ultimately, age is one factor in the matrix of emotions, ideas and circumstances that makes up any relationship. Does it matter? Yes—it affects how others treat you, how you view one another, and how your futures might mesh. Is it a deal breaker? Not necessarily. After the early years, John and I became comfortable with the difference in out ages, and it became part of the familiar landscape of our relationship, no more significant than my bisexuality, his Italian-American heritage, or our shared loves for Tolkien, sushi and single-malt scotch.