Let’s be honest, when it comes to dating, we live in a lawless era where love is love and (almost) anything goes. We are seeing large age gaps in the dating pool, and not just the typical old-man-younger-woman narrative. For example, a 2003 AARP study reported that 34 percent of women over 39 years old were dating younger men. Add in the popularization of divorce over the last 50 years and the introduction of dating apps, and matters of love, sex and how we connect are utterly transformed. Love is a melting pot. And if age ain’t nothing but a number (RIP Aaliyah), how are we to navigate what is appropriate (or not) when it comes to finding a partner?
I find it refreshing that society has begun to validate the simple fact that relationships (no matter how short or long) can still be meaningful. As our culture continues to redefine itself, the narrative of “you only get one love” is being rewritten. Permanence is replaced with living in the present (a mindful act) and appreciating things for what they are now. They say nothing lasts forever, and while I do see long-term, committed, monogamous relationships (which is amazing!), I also see dating after divorce and other alternative situations. Apps and websites have been a major catalyst in the dating community, and the doors have opened for all demographics. No wonder age gaps in relationships exist! It is an exciting time for experimenting in dating.
Dating Age Rule
The old rule of determining a socially-acceptable age difference in partners goes something like this: half your age plus seven (40 = 20 +7 = 27) to define the minimum age of a partner and your age minus seven times two (40 = 33 * 2 = 60) to define the maximum age of a partner. Generally, I feel like 10-20 years junior or senior is considered “appropriate” by our society’s standards. If Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher can get together (they started dating when she was 41 and he was 25) and movies like “Call Me By Your Name” are nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, surely the taboo of having an age difference has gone out the window. But just because you like them does not always mean society will view your relationship with the same positive light — and this is something to prepare for. Unfortunately, even though we are progressing as a society, there are still people who are judgemental when it comes to obvious age differences in dating. Pete Davidson, 25, and Kate Beckingsale, 45, are the newest couple to experience this, with Davidson defending their relationship on Saturday Night Live by providing a laundry list of famous couples to come before them.
But, are we all experimenting with people outside our immediate age bracket? I asked my peers if they had ever been in a relationship with a significant age difference (for reference I defined significant as 10 years), and I was surprised to find that every friend I asked and some of my Twitter followers said they had.
“[He was] 11 years older than me and I really wanted to be a lot more into him than I was. I liked the idea of us more than I liked him. I cried both times I ended it.”
“He was a bigger baby than me.”
“I was 24, she was 47 and she taught me patience and how to listen to others. She was important, and I am grateful for the time spent.”
“10-year age gap, pretty sure it makes no difference.”
“Yes. 15-year age gap. 40 years old. He became insecure and jealous. He didn’t have his life together and since he was a Marine and went through a divorce, he was cut off from his emotions. I had to dig him out of the MGTOW [men going their own way] mindset, but he was so far gone it eventually drove me away.”
“I dated a guy 15 years senior. It was a very positive experience and he set the bar with future relationships and taught me what relationships should actually be like. Only problem was that he didn’t want kids.”
“I’m dating someone 23 years older than me, and I think it works out because he’s down to explore millennial culture and I’m somewhat familiar with the things he grew up with. The sex is amazing because he’s had practice and I’m curious/open. It’s a good balance.”
“11- year gap. For three years it was healthy, faithful and hardest when I began outgrowing him.”
“My partner and I are 22 years apart. We have a fantastic relationship. The dynamic is dynamic. The love tank is full. Every day is brilliant.”
The last response really stood out to me, dynamic being the key word here. There will always be ups and downs in a relationship, but when there is a significant age gap, this aspect can be amplified. If you have the awareness, romantic connection and emotional maturity to navigate the obstacles life throws at you, does it really matter how old your partner is? A lot of peers spoke of exchanging knowledge and/or life experience with their partners — almost an overarching theme of a mentor/mentee relationship.
Age is Just a Number
When I was 23, I began dating a man who was 17 years my senior (40), and I found myself relating with this mentor/mentee dynamic. But the roles switched between us, which helped keep the dynamic exciting. My partner shared a lot of personal insight with me, which he gained through experiences before we met. He taught me about life and exposed me to stimulating situations I would not have been able to experience alone (at the time). In return, I inspired him to think outside the box, softened his edges and appreciated his giving nature. We traveled together, discussed music, art and film, and supported each other’s careers, just like I would with a partner my own age. We truly celebrated each other for exactly who we were, and that was very special to me.
That being said, one major difficulty of having a large difference in age is making sure the morals, values and life goals of both people are synced. Do you both want a family? Do you both respect each other’s careers? “Mothering” a partner, regardless of who is older or younger, can manifest into a power struggle later on. This attitude in a relationship usually contributes to codependency and controlling behaviors (not cute!). These are major no-nos when your goal is to have a healthy relationship. Regardless of what stage of life you are in, if you and your partner agree on the important things, there is nothing you can’t work through.
Another concerning topic that has come up in my research is people feeling fetishized by their partner. A friend of mine felt her partner was objectifying her due to her young age. In her words: “I’m not your Lolita to manipulate.” This is an extreme example, but I am grateful she brought it up. If you ever find yourself in a relationship where you feel made into a sex object by your partner due to your age, race, gender or sexuality, please identify this a major red flag and reconsider the future of the relationship. Every person deserves to be respected and appreciated by their partner, not viewed as an object or prize. It is important to like the person you are dating, not just the idea of them.
Does an Age Gap Matter in Relationships?
Ex-spouses and children can also affect the dynamic of the relationship. Ex-spouses may have a condescending approach that dating a younger person may just be a fling. And if you are dating someone who is close to your child’s age, realize it might make your offspring uncomfortable. In this situation it is important to treat your partner and your child with distinguishable difference, establishing boundaries and protecting each relationship role. Keep an open mind and be open to discussing the relationship with the people you care about. Remember why you are invested in your partner, what you like about them, and how they make you happy. Be sure to communicate this to your partner and your respective audience (i.e.kids, family members, etc.). The confidence this creates will serve as protection under lingering eyes in public arenas.
At the end of the day, the only people that matter in your relationship are you and your partner. Your business is your own. How you both choose to conquer these obstacles will determine the outcome of your relationship. Keep your love tank full! When you truly connect with someone, nothing should stand in the way of nurturing that — all the rules that once defined dating are out the window.
Shelby Sells is a sexologist, writer, photographer, and cinematographer based in NYC. Her work is centered around the intersection of love, sex and relationships. She aims to liberate sexual prowess through these mediums and educate her audience through emotional intelligence and awareness. She is finishing her degree in psychology with a human sexuality focus.