WHILE THE DEBATE OVER GAY MARRIAGE ROILS THE COUNTRY AND INTERRACIAL COUPLES continue to be stigmatized in many communities, the true frontier of romantic transgression can be found in relationships between people of vastly different ages. Has our perception of such "age gap" couples really evolved beyond the lurid corruption of Mrs. Robinson or the absurdist comedy of Harold and Maude? Perhaps this state of affairs is about to change at a time when childbearing is not a prerequisite for marital bliss. More couples are experimenting with relationships that dive boldly into the generation gap.

I spoke to several couples who have braved the disdain and dismay of family and friends: "What, you can't find someone your own age?" they'll ask. "When you're 70 she'll be 90!" they'll proclaim. But some vigorous 50-year-olds with youthful outlooks feel that people their own age have become too settled in their ways. On the other end of the spectrum, many young people find that the romantic prospects among their peers are painfully immature. Despite the stares and giggles and whispers they endure, these couples know that love should be welcomed wherever it is found. As many of them told me, "Age is just a number."

DAN, 44

CHRIS, 21

Q: How long have you been together?

CHRIS: About two months.

Q: How did you meet?

DAN: Initially, we worked together. Then I got a better job and left. We were in two different sections of the same business: I'm a pharmacist and she's a pharmacy tech. Even though we could see each other across the room, we didn't really work closely. Occasionally, she'd ask me a question about a medication or something, and then, you know -- "Oh, how was your weekend, by the way?" "Oh, it was good." "What did you do?" That type of thing. Real casual.

Q: So when did it switch over from a casual thing to one or both of you admitting that you wanted to go out? And who did it?

C: We texted each other every day.

D: Yeah, we started texting, and she would ask me questions about her relationship. I guess because I had a little more experience [with dating], I would help her out -- like trying to figure out what her boyfriend at the time might be thinking. I gave her a guy's point of view on stuff. As far as when we made the decision to date, it's hard to say. We went to the desert and had a really nice time together, we went riding, but that was as friends.

C: We didn't make [a] decision -- it kind of just fell in that way.

Q: Somebody has to take that chance of ruining the friendship by going one step further.

D: Actually, I approached her. I told her that I had feelings for her [that went] beyond friendship. I told her that she would have to come to me and let me know that she felt the same way before we could make [a] decision. And probably within a week, she came to me and said, "I think I have the same kind of feelings, we should talk." So we went out on more of a date kind of thing and decided that we really wanted to see each other as more than friends.

Q: Chris, what were you thinking during that week that you considered whether you had feelings for Dan?

C: How I was going to break up with my boyfriend because I had found a man that was going to treat me right. Guys my age are just little boys. I don't want that.

Q: A common thread in my interviews with age-gap couples is that they find people their own age unsuitable for one reason or another. What was your attitude toward such couples before you were one yourself? Starting with you, Dan.

D: Never really thought much about it.

Q: Honestly?

D: I mean, if I saw a couple like us walking, I would kind of look at them and smile to myself and say, "That's kind of cute."

Q: How did your family react?

D: Not positive or negative, they were more concerned with my happiness, ultimately. They know that I'm really young at heart. I still go out and ride motorcycles and do stuff that most 20-year-olds are afraid to do. I literally will jump my bike like an X Gamer and not think twice about the danger. Although my soon-to-be-ex-wife is pretty gutsy, too, for a 39-year-old. I still feel like I'm in my 20s -- I like to go out and dance and have fun. That's probably why we clicked. She probably thought I was younger than I was.

C: Yeah, I did.

D: Obviously, I'm not 20, but I certainly feel that way.

Q: Okay -- Chris, same question.

C: My family and friends' reaction was, "You don't need to be with a guy that old." And I told them, "You know what? It's the way I feel. If I love someone, there's nothing I can do about it." They're kind of dealing with it now.

Q: Can you bring Dan to your parents' house?

C: They would not approve. They don't want him over there.

Q: So "dealing with it" doesn't mean that the fight's over?

C: No.

D: I've tried to be real understanding. I don't want to cause a rift of any kind. But I do talk to them on the phone sometimes. Her mom is very nice, I understand where they're coming from -- I mean, they're not much older than I am.

C: I'm giving them some cool-down time while they get used to it. Mom has said, "Be careful" and "What are you thinking?" -- [that] kind of stuff. My dad has just gotten back from a trip to the Philippines; he's only been back a couple of weeks, so he doesn't really know much [about the relationship] yet.

Q: How long have you lived away from home?

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