"I got another one," I say, passing my phone across the table. "He's 26 and he is 58. It's been six months, but he has not allowed her to meet any of his friends yet."
My husband rolls his eyes and gives his hands to the phone without bothering to read.
"Tell her to run," he says. "Get out of your way, it will never work."
Conversations like this happen regularly at our home. The e-mails, tweets and comments on the blog seem to come in waves. I will not take anything for a few months, then three in a week. I reply to everyone.
In 2011, I wrote an essay for the Guardian entitled "It's not my father, it's my husband" – to be with a man who is 35 years older than me. In it, I wrote of the intense conversations that my current husband, ironically called Young, had during our first dates, the support we received from our families and our final decision to get married and have a child.
The essay has been widely shared online. After a week or two enjoying the warm glow that always comes with seeing my name in print, I was ready to move on. Then the e-mails started.
"Hi Ruth, I do not normally post people I do not know."
"Hi Ruth, I waited so long to read a piece like yours."
"Dear Ruth, we hoped you could offer us some reassurance …"
Unexpectedly, I found myself in a role of Dear Abby for hundreds of couples with large age groups in their relationships. I am still amazed by the intimate details that people will share with a stranger. It is an honor to trust so many secrets, so I always take the time to reply.
The letters come overwhelmingly from women and are, without exception, intelligent, reflective and self-conscious. Many of them weighed the pros and cons and decided if their relationship was worth the risk. They realize that other people can judge them; they understand the real possibility of being thrown into a role of guardian at a young age; and accept that the chances of reaching a wedding anniversary of gold are scarce. Most are realistic about what the future holds, but believe that love is worth it.
Sometimes there are red flags: a former who is still a little too close for comfort, or a partner who is reluctant to introduce the other to relatives and friends. Many of the couples who wrote to me are colleagues and lovers, and in some cases relationships are extramarital affairs. These are the stories that make me and Young widen the eyes of one another and shake their heads, but when it comes to answering I try to highlight the issues as kindly as possible and suggest that they need to be addressed.
Often, all I do is remind these people that difficult conversations take place in all relationships. Every couple cares about their health, their finances, their chances of having a family. We are all worried that we will become less attractive as we age, that our interests will diverge or that one of us could get sick. Even a partnership that looks perfect on paper has no guarantees.
For some of the women who come into contact, it seems that simply writing to me is cathartic enough and my answer to them is never recognized. By writing their story, they are given permission to make a choice: continue with their relationship or end it.
At other times, a short initial message becomes a continuous dialogue. Young and I exchanged e-mails with a couple for several months, and Young even agreed to speak by phone, but they remained silent for several years. Sometimes I wonder if they have been able to overcome the challenges they have faced, both real and imaginary. I've visited Google a couple of times to see if I can find new information about them. So far, I have not been successful.
The happy endings are excellent, though. A woman, who first came into contact about four years ago, had a series of problems to solve with her boyfriend, who was 36 years older than she. When he stopped writing messages for a few months I was worried, but then a link to his wedding photos arrived in my mailbox. It was proposed after skydiving and they were married shortly thereafter. They seemed radiant and full of joy.
Not long ago, the same woman added me as a friend on Facebook, and now they have two giggling children with rosy cheeks. Watching her husband's pictures on the floor with their daughter reminds me of Young and Tom at that age. It makes me smile imagine the fun they have in front of them.
The involuntary but welcome consequence of asking for advice on other people's relationships is that it drives me to reflect regularly on my own. I do not have a backup answer that I copy and paste when asked why my marriage works. Instead, I take the time – every time – to think about what is easy and what is difficult at that particular moment.
There are coherent themes that emerge: the importance of honesty and open communication, the need for respect and patience and the willingness to accept that things will change.
Since I wrote about my marriage for the first time, Young and I have faced new jobs, losing loved ones and different moves. But in our core, we are the same people we were when that essay was published almost eight years ago. We have a small close-knit group of friends, who have known us for a long time and accept us without judgment. We both like to sit in front of a fire with a bottle of wine, some background music and a good book or a piece of writing we are working on. And every night when we curl up and go to bed – sometimes just the two of us, sometimes with Tom among us for a last cuddle – we whisper that it's the best piece of the day.
The other day I asked Young if he thought the e-mails would never stop.
"Not probable," he said. "When we started going out and I looked for reassurance online I read all about Charlie Chaplin and Oona O & Neill Now when people go online looking for reassurance, they find us We are not rich and famous, but we are real and we are they will continue to send emails. "
I suspect he is right.
I'm not an expert in any marriage or relationship, not even mine. But if I had to offer only one suggestion to other couples it would be this: the numbers in a relationship – 26 and 58, or 29 and 61, or 35 and 70, as they are in our case now – are the least important pieces of your story. Do not worry about counting them.
Instead, count the things that count: the knowing and smiling looks; moments of shared laughter; and sweet nights when you fall asleep still holding hands. Where there is love, trust and commitment to making things work, happiness will follow.
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