~ JANUARY 2023 ~
If there’s one thing people love to hate these days, it’s an age gap relationship.
For reference, please see the outrage that routinely erupts on Twitter every time Drake or Scott Disick is rumored to be chatting up a new barely legal nepo baby, or the extended meme that is Leonoardo DiCaprio’s dating history. But take it from me, a woman who has now spent half of my 20s in bed (and, occasionally, in actual relationships) with men twice my age or older: there’s more to age gap relationships than meets the eye (and/or the wrath of the Greek chorus that is social media age gap discourse).
These relationships—whether they’re between older men and younger women, older women and younger men, same-sex or non-binary couples—are often controversial. And while it is worth noting that the specific flavor of controversy at play tends to vary based on the gender dynamics involved, the stigma that follows age gap dating typically hinges on power dynamics—or, to be more specific, (perceived) power imbalances.
“These relationships are stigmatized, in large part, because of the assumption that there is exploitation occurring,” says psychologist Sarah E. Hill, PhD, author and research consultant for Cougar Life (which is, ahem, what it sounds like—a dating app for older women interested in younger men, and vice versa). ”We assume the older partner is exploiting the younger partner for sex, or we assume the younger partner is exploiting the older partner for financial gain.”
For the record, these are potentially fair concerns/criticisms to leverage against age gap relationships. That said, is a significant age discrepancy in a sexual and/or romantic encounter necessarily exploitative? In my (fairly well-informed, if I do say so myself) opinion, no. If you want my take (which I’m aware no one asked for, but hi, here it is), age gaps are no more inherently exploitative/problematic than literally any other dynamic that might happen to exist in a relationship. Do they possess the potential for exploitation? Hi, yes, of course—but so do all relationships all the time. My personal (and potentially controversial!) belief is that almost all romantic relationships hinge, at least to some extent, on power dynamics.
Maybe someone is older and someone is younger; maybe someone is a woman (which, in case you forgot, is very much still an underprivileged identity even in this, the year 2023); or maybe (by which I mean in almost all relationships all the time) someone is more romantically invested than someone else. (Even more controversially, I might argue that those dynamics are often a major catalyst for attraction and there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that, but we don’t have time to unpack all of that right now!)
The point is, age gap relationships—like all relationships—include certain power imbalances (based on the simple fact that a relationship of any kind involves two or more people who have different backgrounds and are thus operating on different levels of societal privilege). While, as Hill notes, these relationships can certainly be exploitative, “the majority are not.” In fact, recent research from Cougar Life suggests that “most of these relationships are born out of a genuine, organic connection between two people who didn’t let age get in the way,” as Hill puts it.
Now, do I necessarily think that all successful, quote-unquote “acceptable” age gap relationships need to be of the age-blind “we just happened to fall in love and age is nothing but a number!” variety in order to be valid? That would be a hard no from me, folks. Personally, I have actively, consciously chosen to date men significantly older than myself for a reason (or, for many reasons, actually, but namely because I am ultimately just more attracted to them). Not to mention, I tend to find the implicit assumption that women, in particular, who find themselves at the southern ends of these May-December romances are necessarily preyed-upon victims to be insulting at best, if not a seriously problematic way of stripping young women who are more than capable of making decisions in our own romantic lives of our agency.
With all of THAT being said (sorry, I just have a lot of feelings), none of this is to suggest that age gap relationships are not without their unique challenges. In case you don’t want to take it from me (which, okay, fair), I’ve asked some experts to outline some of those challenges, and how to overcome them.
The Generation Gap Thing
Often, IMO, when we’re talking about the challenges of an age gap romance, we’re actually talking about a generation gap. According to Irina Firstein LCSW, a Manhattan-based individual and couples therapist, generation gaps are very real, and they can (emphasis: can) contribute to bigger issues in a relationship. You may not share the same political values, for example, or have different ideas about what a romantic relationship should look like. The solution? Be honest with yourself—and your partner—about what you want out the relationship, and where your hard boundaries lie. One of the best things about being in a relationship with someone significantly older or younger than you is they can share a totally different perspective. That said, you never want to be in a relationship where you feel like you’re being forced to shift your beliefs or budge on your hard boundaries for a partner.
You May Have Different Interests
For example, when I was a 24-year-old sex writer in NYC dating a 50-year-old accountant on Long Island, we were eventually forced to confront the fact that we had different ideas about how to spend our free time. We may have both loved getting dressed up and going out for a nice dinner, but while he was more than content to book an early reservation and be in bed in the suburbs watching the Food Network by 10, I eventually started to miss those bar-hopping, anything-could-happen kinda nights you’re supposed to have in your 20s.
One way to work around this, says Hill, is to cultivate new shared interests that the two of you can explore together. “Or, if you’re having a difficult time fitting into each other’s social circles, you can work on developing a new shared network of others who are navigating the same relationship terrain,” adds Hill.
Remember, just because you’re dating someone doesn’t mean you have to be attached at the hip. You can both still enjoy the things you like doing on your own time, and forge new hobbies together as a couple.
There’s Still a Ton of Stigma Around Age Gap Relationships
And by “a ton,” I mean an actual f*ckload. Should it be this way? Obviously not. But haters gonna hate, as they say, and unfortunately, those toxic vibes can seep into your relationship.
“Being in a relationship other people find weird or socially unacceptable can create strain on a partnership,” says Hill. “Being sure to communicate openly about stressors and expectations created by these relationships is imperative for ultimate success.”
Basically, communication is key, yes, and openly acknowledging the elephant in the relationship (by which I mean, the age gap) will go a long way in terms of getting ahead of that stigma. A sense of humor doesn’t hurt, either. “Being in a relationship that is scrutinized by others is hard. But if you and your partner are able to laugh about stereotypes and assumptions others are making about your relationship, it can provide stress relief and bring you closer together as a couple,” says Hill.
Bigger Issues *Can* Be a Factor
As is true of literally all relationships all the time, age gap dating has its risks. Just because a relationship with a significant age discrepancy isn’t inherently problematic doesn’t mean it’s never an issue.
“Although the recent Cougar Life research finds that a majority of age gap relationships are based off of a genuine, organic connection between two people, the possibility of predatory behavior can exist,” says Hill. “In particular, people should be on the lookout for signs their partner is exclusively sexually or financially motivated (with the older partner using the younger partner for sexual gratification or the younger partner using the older partner for money).”
Now, am I in a position to say that youth and beauty aren’t powerful forces and that they should never result in financial gain or security? Frankly, no. My personal opinion? As long as everyone involved in any given romantic and/or sexual encounter is a consenting adult who is on board with whatever happens to be going down, then I don’t think that whatever age/money/power exchanges happen to exist are really anyone else’s business.
That said, trust your gut. If something feels unsafe or exploitative or otherwise ick to you, then get out of there and consult a trusted friend, family member, or therapist.
At the end of the day though, age gap relationships are just relationships. And, like all relationships, they’re based on a complex cocktail of attraction, personal preferences, and, yes, power dynamics. Only you can decide what kind of relationship (and what kind of partner) works for you.