We periodically get questions about dating and age, specifically about how to handle it when one person’s older than another, what healthy age brackets look like, and what the warning signs are for unhealthy dynamics around age. We’ve talked about this before, but it’s worth revisiting.
First of all, it may be more helpful to look at phase of life than at age. What kind of worldview do they have? Do they have kids? How do they spend their free time? What does a typical week look like for your schedule, and for theirs? What does an ideal week look like? Is it compatible with yours? What is their friend group like? What does their normal employment situation look like, and how does it complement or contrast with yours? How’s the power dynamic between you two? Have either of you ever said anything resembling “Well, I used to think that, but when you’re older you’ll see it my way”?
Most differences taken by themselves don’t matter so much; for instance, plenty of healthy couples involve one partner who’s in school, one who has more outdoorsy pastimes than the other, one who already had kids, etc etc. So ultimately, what does your gut instinct tell you?
Five years matters a lot when one person’s 14 and the other is 19, but it doesn’t matter at all if the people are 35 and 39. A 55-year-old’s spouse might be 40 or 70, but I’d be alarmed if one person were 16 and the other were 31. Though that’s the same age difference, it’s a wildly different percentage of life, and that’s bound to affect the relationship.
Sometimes it works out just fine to date/marry someone who’s far older or far younger, and the key difference is generally in the power dynamic. But it can be hard to recognize unhealthy patterns of invalidation, and those are so easy to fall into when one person’s got a few decades worth of extra confidence, skillfulness, and rhetorical skills. And it’s worth remembering that some older people pursue younger partners in a predatory way, specifically because younger people often lack boundaries and don’t trust their own instincts, so it’s easier to have control. Sometimes it’s less predatory and more narcissistic; it’s easy to feel extra-knowledgeable and powerful when you’re hanging out with someone who has half your experience.
A friend of mine pointed out that everyone wants to date twentysomethings: High-schoolers think college kids are so much cooler, and 40-somethings often gravitate towards the same crowd! She said, “It’s the part of life that is validated most by our culture and media. In a lot of ways it’s the only part of life where people are usually portrayed as real people rather than caricature roles in those real people’s lives. People in their 40s are parents, not people, and people under 20 are children, not people. People over 40 are ‘the old’ and once again not people.”
There’s often an assumption that people who’ve remained unmarried longer are somehow less marriageable overall—I even see it in people who themselves have never been married, and the one they’re judging is their own age. It’s silly, really. People don’t lose their value as a potential partner just because they turn 30, or 60. As people age, they gain wisdom and competency and all sorts of good things, and you’ll want someone who can grow with you.
In fact, I want to emphasize that: We have to find partners we can grow with, and who will grow alongside us. It’s not enough to find someone who works right now. If it’s going to actually work over a lifetime, each partner has to be someone who can help the other become their best self—loving, competent, wise, and joyful—and they have to be someone who will always strive to grow in those same key ways. If they’re too immature to grow up or too set in their ways to change…it doesn’t bode well.
Age Ain’t Nothing But A Perfectly-Accurate Representation of How Old You Are [The Toast]
Comments from Men Over 40 to Run Away From [The Toast]
Dodgy Older Dudes Being Dodgy [Captain Awkward]
And this comment from Mary on the latter article, which is a superb response to “But I still feel twentysomething!”
I’m thirty-six in a month’s time, and I also identify with “thirty-SIX? HOW?” feelings. At the same time, nothing makes feel, “…oh yeah, thirty-six” like hanging around with people in their twenties. I have a mortgage! I have been with my partner for ten years! I have friends with teenage kids! I have seen Doc Martens, black tights and ditsy floral dresses come in, go out, and come back in again! I have seen and experienced (and occasionally perpetrated) a wide variety of relationship [bologna] and have No Time For That Nonsense! I tend to consider workplace dilemmas from the perspective of “what should management be doing here?” instead of “oh god my LIFE what am I even DOING”! I regard sleep and exercise and reasonably healthy food as good things that I can do for myself rather than oppressive tools of the conformist system!
I mean, not everyone has the same list, obviously, but if you get to your late thirties and see no difference in experience and knowledge of the world between yourself and a twenty-one-year-old, even a mature and intelligent twenty-one-year-old, what on earth have you been doing with that time? It doesn’t say good things about you.