Out with the Old
By Annabel Meschke
Relationships with age gaps have long been commonplace in societies wherein marriage is a major socioeconomic goal. When presented with relationships with age gaps of ten years or more, and/or when the younger partner is my age, I have a gut reaction of judgement and an urge to take the younger partner under my wing as if I am in any way equipped to pass judgement on someone’s relationship, much less rescue someone from it, and yes, that is a problem on my end. (I’m a Pisces, baby, I’m a fixer!)
NYU is #2 on Seeking Arrangement’s Fastest Growing Sugar Colleges (colleges with the largest number of students in relationships in which their partner, typically older, provides them with financial assistance), second only to Temple. The prevalence of this specific kind of age-gap relationship and the common misconception that every relationship like it is inherently sinister may in part shed some light on the semi-commonly held impression that there is a certain danger that lies within these romantic connections and the desire to make and maintain them.
Most of the scientific research conducted on relationships in which there is an age gap of more than five years focuses on marriage, claiming, for example, that upon a first marriage most people marry within their age group, and remarriages see wider age gaps. Age-gap relationships in the media are often glamorized, the focus of a multitude of fluff pieces speculating on the nature of paparazzi-photographed lunches between male celebrities pushing 40 and supermodels pushing 20. According to slate.com, Leonardo DiCaprio (currently 41) has only dated models aged 20-25 for the past decade. Unable to shed my bias, this cute li’l stat had me reaching for the nearest bucket in which to barf away my visceral discomfort. I couldn’t shake the feeling that these relationships, more often than not, involved an abuse of power to some extent. Still, I soldiered on in pursuit of an honest and emotionally intuitive understanding and portrayal of an age gap relationship involving real people for whom the main talking point about their relationship may not matter so much to them as it does to those who may pass judgement. I sought people I knew, whose relationships didn’t mimic any stereotypes associated with age gap relationships (sugar relationships, serial celebrity daters, marriage material).
Age-gap relationships in the media garner a lot of attention simply because they are less common, and people are often curious. I even found a very lengthy compiled list of every famous relationship with an age gap larger than ten years, listing Lisa Bonet and Jason Mamoa, Sarah Paulson and Holland Taylor, and Nick Cannon and Mariah Carey, and a slew of others.
Something that perplexes me about my own somewhat inexplicable prejudice is the fact that all of the father figures in my life have been old men, which probably sounds way weirder than it is —my mom looks just likes a good old dude! My dad is almost 80, and my step-dad divorced his first wife before my mom was even born. I was literally raised by old dudes. This may account for my crotchety nature and my personal style that can most accurately be described as get-off-my-lawn-meets-farmersonly.com-with-a-whisper-of-Paris, and yet my appreciation and love for the old and wise does not translate when I see a 19 year-old on the arm of someone pushing 30. Part of this might simply be a result of the relationships I’ve witnessed in which people my age end up separating from their older partners because of irreconcilable differences—often due the fact that they’re “just at different stages in their lives.”
As I embarked upon this mammoth of a project, I assumed that the majority of the interviews I would be able to get would be from people who are the younger person in the relationship. This is partially because of my subconscious judgements of people nearing middle age that hang out with people my age (not on their end, I just know that I’m an obnoxious 20 year-old and I hope that in ten years I won’t want anything to do with people my age, no matter how much Kierkegaard they read or how emotionally intuitive they are), and also because if someone who’s 20 is the older one in a relationship with a significant age gap, the legal system may need to get involved to some degree. By the end of the experience, however, the insight I gained from my interviewees shed a lot of light on the relationships I encounter a lot more commonly as my friends and I enter our twenties.
I interviewed two of my close friends, Ben* and Lily* both of whom have been my soulmates since high school. Ben’s age gap with his former partner was three years, and Lily’s age gap with her current partner is seven years. I also felt it would be remiss of me not to interview my wonderful mom whose age difference between herself and my dad is 17 years. The age gap between herself and the boyfriend (which seems like a goofy word for anyone above 70) she had for most of my life was 26 years.
*Names changed for privacy, y’all.
How did you and your partner(s) meet?
Lily: We met sort of on Tinder but not really—I'm not a huge fan, it was more something fun to swipe through people. I started running into him around school and I used it to reach back out to him because he was cute and kind and asked interesting questions.
Mom: Met them at restaurant bars.
In what ways do/did you feel closer [to this person] than someone your own age?
Ben: I’ve always found that I prefer to date people that are older than me. I find people my age to be lacking a sense of maturity/lacking a sense of independence, as I’m one of the most independent people I know, considering the social circles that surround me at school.
Lily: I was always friends with people significantly older than me; even by 16 I was hanging out with people 22-32 years old. Spending time with people older than I am is nothing new to me and something I have been very comfortable with for a while. I like people older than I am. We get along very well! I often surprise people when I tell them my age.
Mom: The gap is much smaller between intelligent people.
In what ways is/was the age difference a defining factor in your relationship?
Ben: At the end of the day, the age thing pretty much broke us. I’m stuck at school until I graduate and he’s a fully formed adult with the freedoms to travel and seek out work as he sees fit.
Lily: I wouldn't say it's necessarily a defining factor. Of course it plays into certain interactions, but at the end of the day we're not together because we like spending time with someone who is older or younger than ourselves, it's because we are genuinely compatible. We hit it off right away and communicate well.
Mom: They were more mature, more settled, more established in career and lifestyle than men my age.
Is/was it ever discussed?
Ben: We talked about it constantly!
Lily: Of course. We've actually had a lot of funny conversations about the way in which people reacted to hearing about our relationship in its early stages. It's always funny on paper but when you meet either of us it works. It comes up of course also in personal conversations but it's usually in a way that's thoughtfully comparative.
Mom: [We] joked about it but never seriously discussed.
What are your favorite parts about dating someone older/younger than you?
Ben: Dating older is favorable for me because I feel like they are impressed by independence and strength in ways that people my age or younger don’t really notice or pick up when they meet me. In a way it kind of feeds my ego while also making for easier conversation.
Lily: As mentioned, I like older people. I have always gotten along with them well. It's nice to spend time with his friends! They're very intelligent, very cool, very grounded. Mine are as well! It's been nice from the other way to watch him enjoy spending time with people younger than him. Also, he's so much easier to date and to communicate with than younger people I've dated. He's really thoughtful, kind, very smart, and very worldly. He's one thousand times more reliable than I've found younger men to be. It's easy for us to approach any sort of disagreement from a more levelheaded place.
Mom: There is much to learn in almost every aspect of life from someone who has been there before and whom you can learn from.
Did you ever see a relationship like yours reflected in the media? If yes, where/what is an example?
Ben: HELL no. There are no gay relationships in the media as it is, more or less ACTUALLY FUNCTIONING gay relationships that also have an age gap.
Lily: Not particularly.
Mom: May/December romances are constantly reflected in the media. People are always; interested in things that are unconventional. Often when the man is older people assume the attraction is money. When the man is younger they assume the attraction is sexual.
What does/did this relationship help you learn about yourself? What do/did you feel you helped the other person learn?
Ben: I grew so much over the course of that relationship. I learned what love is, and got to experience some of the realities of relationships that they don’t show you on TV. The reality is that relationships are work, regardless of how well anyone works together. You have to have an immense amount of restraint, consideration, understanding. I learned what my needs are in a relationship from a partner. I learned what it would take to make me happy in a relationship. I learned how uncomfortable I am with being gay in public with my partner. I learned what true, real, heartbreak is when things fell apart. I’m sure he learned some of the same things, as this was also his longest relationship.
Lily: I think we've learned a lot equally from one another! It's been very cool. We're able to sit together and reconcile slight differences between our age groups in a way that has been really fascinating and fun. On a simpler level, he helps dissuade my anxieties about missing out on going out all the time, and has been crucial in re-establishing my appreciation for curling up together and having likely the planet's most lively screening of David Fincher's Panic Room featuring Jodie Foster, and I've drawn out that tall skinny boy's passion for dance yet again. We balance each other out. It's nice.
Any additional comments?
Ben: Age differences can be really rad if it creates a better match in intellect, compassion, and understanding between two partners. An age difference sucks when you’re a broke college student and your partner is making nearly 6 figures and traveling all over the damn world.
Lily: Again, it's funny when people ask me to define our relationship by age. I don't like to. It doesn't really make sense to. It's always been more of a matter of connecting on a human level and then having to laugh out all the kinks of the age gap as we go.
Upon further Googling, I found out about a couple of societies that people can join for support if they are part of what can be called a “May-December relationship.” At first, I thought I’d found one for gay men in age gap relationships while reading a twitter thread about the recent and much gushed over film Call Me by Your Name, but it turned out to be a critic of the movie (to put it politely) involving a group whose purpose was to advocate for pedophiles. It was a false start, to say the least. I also found The May-December Society, whose intentions I assume are pure, but whose website requires private membership and whose clip-art at the top depicts two silhouettes facing one another, one of a young girl with a bow in her hair and the other of a balding man. This all rubbed me the wrong way, though those are just a couple of the hundreds of increasingly specific online communities and forums for people in any relationship deemed “unconventional,” and I support people supporting one another as long as no crimes are being committed and nobody is being harmed in any manner, no matter how heinous their clipart is.
I set out to write this with the intention of putting a sassy spin on the oft talked about but seldom understood interpersonal phenomenon that is a consensual and legal relationship between two adults whose ages are a few years apart. My knee-jerk reaction used to be simply to assume that an ulterior motive is present when someone around ten years older wants to date someone my age. My now-deeper understanding of what brings people together in these relationships is definitely more complex and compassionate, though I do want to note that my suspicion probably stemmed from a general distrust of age-gap relationships due to the ones I’d seen fail or break my friends’ hearts (Again, Pisces! Protective friend, baby!).
“May-December” relationships definitely change shape as both parties age, but those on the younger end are often more mature than we might realize, and the older ones still grow and learn from and with one another. There are infinite perspectives when it comes to love, and infinite possibilities for romantic relationships between people, and I was pleasantly surprised by my exploration of this kind of relationship. I’ve gotten the opportunity to sort out my thoughts, so I’ll reserve my distaste for the real scumbags and encourage everyone else to happily keep on keepin’ on. With any luck, perhaps my changed perspective will bring me a refined older gentleman caller.
Originally published 12/11/17