And is an age gap is an impossible thing to navigate?
On the first day of teaching at university my tutor had the whole year sit in a ring on the floor (it was a drama class, go figure) and say an interesting or unusual fact about ourselves. We went around the circle, hearing variations on a theme: I went travelling on my gap year, I’m scared of spiders, my favourite film is Breakfast at Tiffany’s. When it came to my turn I didn’t think much about my answer, but adhering to the ‘interesting and unusual’ request I went with ‘my boyfriend is older than my dad.’
I thought it would get a laugh. It didn’t.
What it actually got was a sharp intake of breath and a very wide berth from everyone on my course for the rest of the term. In retrospect, maybe it wasn’t the smartest thing I’d ever done. But who knew a room full of arts students could be so easily shocked?
But I had to get used to shock over the next few years. I’d always had a thing for older men, but that had usually meant five to ten years older. My ex, who I fell for completely to my own surprise, was more than thirty years older than me.
I realised, once we’d been together for a few months, that even some of the most open minded of people still find large age gaps difficult to understand. I once had a nurse in a family planning clinic ask if I was being abused when I disclosed my partner’s age. People at dinner parties openly asked me what I thought I was doing. And in some respects, I get it.
When you’re young and naive it’s easy to assume that the older party is taking advantage of the younger one. Perhaps there is an element of that: the confidence and dominance of someone much older than you is reassuring and attractive when you’re a confused teenager, but to reduce a relationship to the age gap is, I think, short sighted.
That said, a huge age gap does create some undeniable issues. My university housemates were amazing about it, but there was no denying that it was odd to have a dinner party with a whole room of people in their early twenties, with one guest in their early fifties. It changed the vibe, and if they were really honest, it wasn’t how they would have chosen to socialise. Just because I wanted to seek out the company of someone so much older, didn’t mean that they felt the same way.
Similarly, the good natured flirting with my friends that my ex enjoyed wouldn’t have mattered much if he had been younger, but as it was it made them uncomfortable and meant that I ended up separating out my social life, keeping my friends separate from my boyfriend. His friends were much more relaxed, but sometimes found it difficult not to patronise me, or even question why I wasn’t off dating someone my own age.
As you can probably imagine, my family weren’t wild about the situation either, adopting a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy about the relationship. It was the best solution to a difficult situation, but it meant missing family parties and holidays to be with my boyfriend and shlepping half way across the country around Easter and Christmas, always feeling guilty and like I should be somewhere else. I didn’t fully appreciate what a toll the situation was taking on my relationship with my family until after we broke up. Dating someone who could take part in my family life was a revolution.
I’m not saying that an age gap is an impossible thing to navigate. Most of the bad things about my first relationship had nothing to do with the age difference. We would have been badly matched for a long term relationship whether he’d been fifty or twenty. Someone who’s emotionally unavailable is a bad dating choice however old you both are, and someone who loves you and understands you can be a great partner even if they’re older.
It’s unfair to suggest that an age gap is the kiss of death for a relationship. I’ve known couples with twenty years between them who’ve been intensely happy, and the man I’m marrying is eleven years my senior. But it’s an inconvenient truth that the bigger the age gap, the more there is to consider. The person that you’re dating might be amazing, but that doesn’t magically erase the age gap.
If you’re settling down with someone older than you there are things that you need to discuss. Do you want children, and if so, how will that work for you both? Can your friends and family accept the relationship, and if not how much does that bother you both? And, much as I hate to say it, can you make your peace with the fact that your partner will probably die before you?
No relationship is easy, and no relationship is perfect. Having a few decades between you doesn’t automatically curse a relationship, but if I’m honest? It makes it more complicated, and if you like someone enough to deal with that complexity the the relationship stands a great chance of surviving, but if you’re not ready to ask the big questions and make some big compromises? An age gap relationship might not be right for you.