The Daily Telegraph

The toxic truth about my age-gap marriage

Eyebrows were raised at the age of Lady Kitty’s husband – but women tend to escape scrutiny says Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal


I was 26 when I met my now ex-wife. She was far more successful than me, white and substantia­lly older. Seven years later, we divorced following our much-publicised relationsh­ip. This week, I found myself reflecting on our age-gap marriage after reading about the wedding of Lady Kitty Spencer, 30, to 62-yearold billionair­e Michael Lewis. In marrying him, Princess Diana’s niece has chosen as her partner a man five years older than her father, Earl Spencer.

The couple have given away little detail about their romance – so, naturally, there has been endless speculatio­n about the age difference. The subject has also been in the news thanks to 63-yearold Sharon Stone’s rumoured romance with balaclava-clad rapper, RMR – aged 25.

My ex is the newspaper columnist Liz Jones who, during our time together, turned her one-sided take on our relationsh­ip into a lucrative industry, churning out thousands of articles. I still appear in her work now, despite not speaking to her in 12 years.

I thought a great deal about that relationsh­ip over lockdown – its disparitie­s in age, race, power and income – while I finished writing a novel about a disintegra­ting marriage between an Indian man and his glamorous English wife.

Liz was earning more than 10 times my salary when we met. After airing our domestic linen in print, it had almost quadrupled by the time we parted ways.

In 2000, I was in my first job in journalism and living with my mum. I would turn up for work at a London radio station in baggy jeans, a hoodie and trainers. Looking like that, I met Liz for the first time in her chic Thameside office. Clad in Helmut Lang, with salon-perfect hair, she gave me an interview about her nomination for a media award.

A week later, I met her again at the ceremony. I had smartened up that day and her interest was more than obvious. So I took the initiative and emailed later, asking her to dinner. She was clearly in a “cougar” frame of mind, and I was happy to be her cub for what I thought would be a night or two.

After an awkward meal at her local Indian restaurant – I can’t say we hit it off – she offered to drive me to the station. I cheekily asked if she’d drive me home to the other side of London, and was surprised when she agreed.

The conversati­on became friendlier; so much so that when she parked outside my mum’s house, our goodnight peck developed into something more intimate – something I definitely didn’t want my very traditiona­l Indian mother to see. Liz hurriedly drove me back to her place.

Within three months, I was living in her stylish north London home. Two years later, we were married. But while all this sounds adventurou­s and exciting, I would like to ask: how would it seem if the sexes were reversed?

Metoo has rightly shone a light on the exploitati­on of women at the hands of powerful, predatory men. The movement, founded by the activist Tarana Burke, is also for racial justice, following her experience­s of abuse as a black woman.

Twenty-one years ago, no one questioned a wealthy middle-aged white woman’s public relationsh­ip with a younger and poorer darkerskin­ned man. Given the lack of reaction to Sharon Stone’s latest affair, no one does today either. Women seem above the moral scrutiny applied to men in their sexual conduct.

A male public figure would face inquiry were he to parade his exotic young trophy so flagrantly. Instead, it is celebrated as a model of emancipati­on; of older women defying the patriarchy.

While in a position of power over me, Liz portrayed herself as a victim. Writing about her anorexia, anxieties and Ocd-like behaviour towards everything from tidiness to pets, she was a woman apparently so painfully neurotic that no one thought to question her shabby flaunting of a brown and virile toyboy.

That she was the editor of one of Europe’s biggest-selling magazines, in charge of multimilli­on-pound budgets and asked to advise the prime minister on women’s issues, was all but ignored as she presented herself as a sort of kooky Helen Fielding character, who’d hopelessly lost herself to a young roué.

The truth is, even with her welldocume­nted issues, Liz was, and remains, the toughest woman I’ve ever encountere­d.

Older women are attracted to young partners for the same reasons older men are: their beauty, vigour, eagerness to please – and because they’re easy to control. The younger lover is a status symbol. “Like a Prada handbag” is how I once described myself, “with added clitoral stimulatio­n”.

I came to live in a gilded Islington cage, lavished with unrequeste­d gifts and holidays as Liz spent some of the fortune she made from writing about me – mostly derisively – no doubt in the hope that I wouldn’t leave.

Her writing, of course, never gave any sense of my vulnerabil­ity. The working-class product of an immigrant home wracked by alcoholism, violence and insolvency, I was, in my 20s, always going to fall under the spell of a wealthy older woman who promised me a lifestyle and security that I’d never imagined for myself.

Friends did try to warn me that some people are drawn to the imbalance of relationsh­ips like ours, but Liz even spun this in her favour, claiming our marriage had been a sort of affirmativ­e action programme.

“I was so accommodat­ing of him,” she told an interviewe­r last year, “because he was Indian… I thought: poor him. I need to help him. He’s less advantaged than I am.”

Our marriage was doomed from our wedding day: an occasion I felt swindled into, having never proposed. She arranged it without my knowledge; I found out when I discovered a receipt for the country estate.

Confronted with it, she declared she’d already told the world in her column – which I no longer read – and would look a fool. She then broke down in tears, robbing me of my anger as I comforted her and agreed.

She did the same thing on the day when I discovered she was 16 years older than me – not the 10 she had claimed. Having told me she was 36 on our first date, two years later, aged 28, I learned I was about to marry someone in her mid-40s. She again broke into hysterical tears, submerging my outrage with her distress.

We lasted five more years, her articles increasing­ly criticisin­g my sulkiness, sexual withdrawal, slovenline­ss and infidelity. Eventually, I left, renouncing any entitlemen­t to a share of the townhouse as well as any alimony in order to escape her overbearin­g shadow.

Having been depicted as little more than a gigolo, I forwent a small fortune that would have given me stability, and have lived a financiall­y precarious life since. Naively, I had hoped she would stop pouring scorn on me in print, but she has continued to do so, banking cheque after cheque in the process.

Jokingly referred to as “cougars”, the intentions of older women towards their young prey are often toxic and can do great emotional harm. It’s taken me years of therapy to heal the mistrust and confusion I developed. It was a painful and scarring experience.

While not all age-gap relationsh­ips are so poisonous, it’s only right to subject both sexes to the same ethical scrutiny. Older women should be held as accountabl­e as any ageing male who shows off his partner as a younger prize, thinking his money and power entitles him to it.

‘Women should be held as accountabl­e as any ageing male’

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 ??  ?? Mind the gap: Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal and Liz Jones in 2005, main. Above left, Lady Kitty Spencer, 30, and her 62 year-old husband, Michael Lewis
Mind the gap: Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal and Liz Jones in 2005, main. Above left, Lady Kitty Spencer, 30, and her 62 year-old husband, Michael Lewis

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