One of my valued experiences in life was when I dated someone who was 18 years younger than me but it’s not for the reasons you might expect. There are no bro-motivations lurking here. I didn’t care one iota about their age. Rather, I didn’t want to pass on an opportunity for a meaningful relationship and always wonder about what might have been. It was more about me saying yes to life and taking a chance on love when it seemingly had little odds of success. In the end, the relationship didn’t work out, but I have zero regrets.
So, in case you have ever thought about a relationship offset by age, here are a few tips for how to make the most of it.
I have written this with the older person in mind but there are tips here for the younger person as well. I also have age differences of 15 years or more as a focus but again, those in relationships with lesser gaps might find some pointers in what follows.
This is also a heteronormative article because I think that amongst queer communities, which have non traditional relationships already, that age differences are accepted more than in the rest of society. I also don’t have any personal experience into long term, queer, age stratified, relationships. However, there may be some things that resonate herein for those folks as well.
The first thing I want you to know is this;
The stigma is real
There’s a good amount of social disdain that will come your way from a relationship with a significant age gap. If this relationship is not something you truly want, then others will easily tear down your resolve. It is true that things are gradually getting better as more people are accepting that love can happen in non-traditional places. Still, the stereotypes are plenty and I can assure you that none of them are about you having a meaningful connection.
I feel like older folks carry more stigma in these types of relationships, but I could be totally wrong as I’ve never been more than 6 years younger than a partner.
Older man/younger partner
If you’re an older guy, then other men generally want to high five you because they assume that dating someone younger is just about sex. Apparently, dating younger is supposed to be an accomplishment; a bucket list item of some sort. The downside is that these high-fivers are incredulous when you suggest that someone younger fulfills any purpose beyond the physical. Such dismissal is demeaning to a heart that has found so much more in another person.
Older men also face the stereotype of having a midlife crisis and the assumption is they are trying to recapture their youth. This mid-life crisis trope is easier for folks to believe. The truth is, sometimes two people’s personalities synch up and there is an attraction regardless of age.
Also, when an older man dates a young woman, I’ve noticed that both parties face the ire of some older women. This is true even if the older women have no romantic or physical interest in the man. I believe that for these women, it’s the fear that one day they too might be replaced by someone younger.
This makes sense given that most of what we are taught that is sexy in a woman comes with being youthful. It’s complete drivel but the notion is present nonetheless and it can shape people’s insecurities about your relationship.
It means that some older women have a fear about their relationship ending at the hands of someone younger. These older women can be a lot of things, but young again is not one of them. For these women there is going to be some resistance to your new relationship. That’s not your problem but it won’t stop some from trying to make it so.
Older woman/younger partner
Older women have to worry about the cougar trope and that they are preying on young men.
Older women face a huge stigma for dating younger men. Even a small age difference skewed in this way is hard for some women to accept. I suspect this is based on the stereotype that men are more immature than their female counterparts. The thinking being that a younger man is even more immature and that no older woman would want to date such a person. Again, this notion is ridiculous but it doesn’t change the way some people think.
Unfortunately, because men seem more prone to fetish, older women also have to worry about young men fetishizing them as cougars. If you are an older woman dating a younger man then your worry can come from all sides.
Aside from being seen as too immature for an older partner, younger folks are also viewed as having parental/daddy issues, being a homewrecker, naive, or a gold digger. There’s not much to find from others that says young people can seek legitimate love and companionship in someone older. However, I’m here to tell you that it can happen. Not only does it occur I have seen some wonderful lives and families formed as a result of two people putting aside age and focusing on one another.
This was a long way of saying that stereotypes abound and there is no safe haven if your relationship threatens someone else’s security. People will come at you from all angles to tear you down so they may feel better about themselves or their relationship.
I don’t say any of this to scare you, I just want you to know that if this connection is just about sex then be honest about it to each other. If you want a relationship that goes deeper, then be honest about that too. You will need to lean on each other often. Some folks will easily support you so you won’t be alone, but you will also hear negativity in regards to your relationship and it will come from within your social circle (family, friends) and without.
Don’t let the stigma bother you. Acknowledge that where you are now is a result of living your life to the fullest. Be honest, be fair, and love each other regardless of what the goal of being together means to both of you.
Beware the power imbalance
In any romantic relationship both partners should have a balance of power so that decisions are made equitably. In age distanced relationships this becomes even more critical.
Whether you realize it or not, the person who is older often exerts authority just by existing alongside someone who is much younger. It is important to make sure that what the older person says isn’t taken as law just because it has been spoken. This requires mindfulness and checking in with your partner. If they confirm this dynamic then you have to be willing to make the necessary changes to keep their autonomy intact.
How you ask is important. You could say, “do I assert my authority too much when I speak about something?” This is an honest attempt to get at information for the good of the relationship, but it also triggers a desire in your partner to not upset you. In this situation, the other person has to establish your wrong doing by saying “yes you do this.” That can be hard for people to do because it adds pressure to an already tense situation.
A better way to ask is to assume culpability up front. Instead say something like, “how much do I assert my authority when I’m talking about something?” This helps the other person know that you acknowledge the behavior so they don’t have to be the one to call you out. They will either let you know the extent that this happens which can then be discussed, or they will let you know that they don’t feel that you act in this way. When wording this way it also opens a line of communication for this topic down the road if it’s needed.
It’s important to make sure the balance is equitable in any relationship because both people need to feel as if they are valued and are guiding the relationship.
Accept the age difference
You’re going to think about how old you were when they were born. For me I was graduating high school when my past partner was born. If you think about it that way it’s freaky as hell. That’s the wrong way to view it though. It’s not like you were waiting outside the nursery at the hospital trying to pick out your next partner (unless you’re a fundamentalist Mormon and then all bets are off).
In reality, you found each other when you were both adults and assuming you have both said yes to this experience in a fully consensual way then you’re good to go. Stop thinking about the age difference before you were together and focus on the here and now.
Also, don’t mention age as a factor in their behavior or their lack of knowledge. This is belittling.
Sure folks who are significantly younger than you likely haven’t had the same amount of life experience as you. Don’t lord that over them or say stupid things like “you’re only 20 what do you know?” That is toxic behavior. You’re just seeing them for their age and not their worth in your life.
Those from other generations have uniquely different ways of seeing the world. Try and learn a little something while you’re at it. Plus, just being older doesn’t make you intelligent. I can show you some pretty dumb adults parading around as know-it-all’s on any given day.
You will die first
That’s a harsh statement isn’t it? The truth is though that if everything goes to plan then you will end up on the other side of the dirt far sooner than your partner. Are you both okay with this?
This can feel like your time is fleeting and that you’re being deprived of a long life together. Dating someone younger brings your mortality into focus in a way most other relationships don’t. If you proceed, it’s important to focus on what you have, not what you haven’t, in order to make the most of your time together.
Your friend groups are different
I’m not saying it can’t happen but it’s unlikely that you’re going to bridge the age gap between your friends and theirs to create a unified group that hangs out together. That may be unrealistic in any relationship regardless of age. So if you’re 40 and hanging out with a group of 20 year olds, or vice versa, it might sometimes become a bit much. The dynamic between you and your partner is far different than the dynamic present in the elevated energy of a group.
These situations will make both people feel their age. Each of you may have to develop a good deal of patience to handle these situations. Try to enjoy them as best you can though because that dynamic isn’t going away while you’re together. Luckily, things can get a little better as both friend groups age. For some reason the distance between 40 and 60 year olds is less than that of 20 and 40 year olds.
I suppose that as we deal with the ups and downs of walking around on planet Earth we develop some similar life experiences as we age.
Make sure you aren’t overcompensating
This is a general relationship warning that cuts across age lines. As a human, you will often crave stability, attention, or whatever energy from a new relationship that was lacking in a previous one. So as often happens, your next coupling may have too much of that quality.
Here is one example of what this can look like if you are the younger of the couple. Let’s say you are dating someone your age but they are too immature for you. So you break up. Then you meet someone older who is calm, low key, and emotionally intelligent and you find it wonderful to be with someone so mature. You begin dating and life is great. One day though, this mature person doesn’t seem to hit your sweet spots in the same way and they seem too mature and without the excitability that you have.
This can also happen with the older person who may feel the exuberance of youth in their partner which becomes too much to handle down the road. No one is immune.
The takeaway here is that while seeking opposite personality traits from that of a previous partner can be exciting it is always possible that this same trait can become too much as the relationship progresses. If you let your emotional pendulum swing too far after a breakup then you can overcompensate in your next relationship. As you reach your emotional center again the sheen of your new partner can begin to wear off.
This can happen with any personality trait and you can probably point to a time in your life when this dynamic was at play.
Sometimes there’s no way to know this until it’s all said and done. Seeking an opposite can be just what you need or it may be too much. The key is to know what you need independent of others.
For instance, maybe the person in your last relationship didn’t correspond throughout the day as much as you wanted. Your new potential partner texts you throughout the day. Are you going to want this same attention a month, a year, or a decade from now; or will it become too much? Can the behavior be altered to fit each other’s needs or is intrinsic to who each of you are. This is a small example, but it can result in some big issues centering around trust and primacy if neglected. Make sure to ask yourself probing questions about what traits are best suited to you in a partner, what traits your new partner has, and then proceed accordingly.
Don’t make this a unilateral decision. Use this as an opportunity to open up and discuss the issue with your partner. You may find that they have similar fears and that the two of you can work together to solve them and grow stronger.
It may not last
I’m betting fewer age skewed relationships last than age approximate ones. It can be hard to bridge that gap and when it doesn’t work, it’s okay. People change as they go through life and the two of you won’t always change in complementary ways. We find out what we want in life by living it.
If the relationship ends, don’t let the negatives rule your present. Instead, focus on the joys from the experience and let them shape your path forward.
In my case, as I said before, it was a wonderful experience for me and it taught me something very special about how to be present when life happens. I held onto that beautiful idea first and foremost and that has always stuck with me. Looking back, I wouldn’t have made the relationship last one more day than it did, and I wouldn’t wish it back either. There’s beauty in that.
The sooner you realize that the good experiences can shape your life more than the bad experiences, then you will be in a position to benefit most from what life throws your way. Let it make you better, not bitter.
So there you have it. These are all of the things that I remember thinking about and the dynamics I noticed while in my relationship. Don’t let the dissolution of my relationship or anyone else’s discourage you. If you think you’re doing this for all the right reasons then “grab life by the horns and hump it into submission” (thanks to the movie Dodgeball for that little gem). What I actually mean is, go for it and enjoy one another’s company. I know couples with huge age differences that are still going strong after years and years. It can work. There are success stories out there.
Ultimately, you have to make your own decisions and guide yourself. May your path be true and happiness abound.