Beth liked Michael so much that she decided to fix him up with one of her friends--somebody a little more his age.
"Michael and I became best buddies at work," Beth said. "We went to lunch together almost every day, and eventually started getting together on weekends for a movie or dinner. We really related to one another. I thought he was a doll, but I never imagined our friendship becoming anything more.
"So one night I said to him, 'I've got this cute friend who's your age . . .' He hemmed and hawed, and finally said, 'But, I'm interested in you.' My first reaction was to laugh, although I secretly had a crush on him, too."
Not long after their evening of true confessions last spring, the Laguna Beach residents began seeing each other on a romantic basis--all of which would not constitute an unusual love story, except that Michael is 25 and Beth 31.
Celebrities have always had a knack for getting away with such eccentricities as out-of-wedlock babies and older woman/younger man relationships. Cher is 42 and her boyfriend, Rob Camilletti, 24; Tom Cruise, 26, has a 33-year-old wife, Mimi Rogers; Susan Sarandon, 42, and Tim Robbins, 30, are expecting a baby.
But in the past decade, ordinary folk also have started to throw out the rule book when it comes to age.
Of course, tradition scarcely bats an eye when a man is 5 or 10--or even 20--years older than his mate. And now, modern mind set shrugs off the reverse as well.
"So what? That was my reaction from the beginning, and it's still my reaction," Chris Liebsack, 35, said about having a wife 7 years his senior. "I judge people more by what they are than by their age."
Chris and Nan Liebsack met at work when he was 29 and she 36. Recently divorced from a man 3 years older than she, Nan at first was "hesitant about becoming involved with a younger man."
"I said to him, 'You know, I am older than you,' and he said something like, 'Big deal,' " Nan recalled. "It was real eye-opening for me."
The Santa Ana couple married 2 years ago. Nan feels that Chris provides her encouragement and motivation lacking in her first marriage.
"I just started back to college to get my degree," said Nan, an administrative assistant. "Chris has been very supportive. He understands why it's important to me, whereas an older man might say, 'Yes, dear, whatever.' "
"I think that the difference those 7 years make is in the way that my generation perceives the role of women," said Chris, who works in data process control. "To me, a woman has an obligation and a right to fulfill her own needs."
"He definitely treats my career more importantly than my ex-husband did," Nan said, adding that her first marriage was based on the idea that "he went out and earned the living, while I stayed home and took care of the children. That was acceptable at the time we were married, but when we divorced I discovered that I wanted to branch out. Chris was very understanding that I needed to become an independent woman."
One question that arose early in their relationship was the prospect of children: Nan, the mother of two teen-agers, can not have any more. "We talked about it, and I decided that it's OK with me not to have children of my own," Chris said.
"In the whole issue of older women and younger men, (the man's desire for children) is the only thing people really need to be concerned about," said Victoria Houston, author of the book, "Loving a Younger Man."
"A woman in her late 30s or early 40s who already has children may not want to go through that again. Chances are that if he hasn't had kids, a younger man is going to want them. But then again, an older man marrying a younger woman might not want more children, either."
"My husband and I have been trying to get pregnant for 2 years," said Houston, the mother of three college-age children. "I don't know if it's going to work out or not. When you get older, that's a problem--it takes longer."
Tustin psychologist Kara Cross pointed out that a woman in her 30s and a man in his 20s frequently are at different places in their lives concerning parenthood. "She may be feeling her biological time clock, whereas he is not yet ready for children," Cross said.
Married to a man 9 years younger than her 43 years, Houston interviewed dozens of couples with similar age gaps for her book.
"I found out some surprising statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau while I was doing my research," said
the Connecticut journalist. "Forty percent of American women over the age of 30 are living with or are married to younger men. One-third of marriages today are second marriages, and of that group over half are couples where the woman is at least 5 years older than the man.
"Yet women still have this feeling that there's something not right about it. When women get asked out by a younger man, their first response is to say no."