You guys, it’s time to talk about large age gaps in relationships. Specifically, when men in their 30s and 40s date woman* in their late teens and early 20s.
Let’s break down why it happens, why it can be dangerous, and best practices, if you do end up in a relationship like that.
I do, of course, need to start with a giant honking caveat. Not all relationships with a major age difference are unhealthy. This is not me *saying* that all relationships with a major age difference are unhealthy, so please don’t take that away from this post. I intend to be clear about my support of all healthy relationships, regardless of the ages of their participants. I am saying, though, that these relationships should be looked at more critically than those involving folks of a similar age. They are more likely to be exploitative or imbalanced, and significant work needs to be done to make sure they aren’t unhealthy or dangerous.
Why do older men date younger women, and why do younger women date older men?
It’s a pretty common thought that women mature more quickly than men do, leaving a cohort of women in their late teens ready to start having mature, adult relationships, and finding no male peers able to provide that. Dating men a decade or more their senior means having a partner who (often) has a full time job with a consistent schedule, who has money, who is good at communicating. He’s likely sexually experienced, and more willing to perform sexual acts that younger men think are gross or disdainful (oral sex, frequently). Plus, older men have likely figured out what *they* want from a partner, making it more likely that any relationship is a serious or long-term partnership.
Sometimes, women do want a guiding figure to partner them while they navigate the tough transitions of ages 16 – 23, or so. I’m not just referring to a daddy kink, of course (though that’s not infrequent), but that having older friends and loved ones can provide a kind of structure to a genuinely terrifying world (ask any millennial if they have hope for the future. Seriously). Having an older partner with a powerful personality can remove some of the stress of early adulthood. Independence is great, of course, but so is having a partner who will help you do your taxes.
My assessment of men’s motivation is slightly less flattering, I’ll admit.
Some men have an urge to nurture or guide a partner. They want to be an authority on something, like sex or dating, or to get to teach their partner a skill. They’re generally not looking for a peer or an equal, but instead want someone they are definitively more experienced than. Some men purposefully date younger women so they can feel more youthful. Movies frequently cast younger women as the partners of older men, because men in Hollywood are permitted to age into their 50s and 60s gracefully, while women are retired from being sexy in their late 30s. So men see examples of sexy film relationships where the men are greying and distinguished, and the women could honestly be their daughters. Men regret that they’re no longer attractive to women in their 20s, so deliberately find a partner who’s younger to prove to themselves that they’re still hip and sexy.
Younger women are less sure about what they want from a relationship (“stable’ is great, but isn’t a very specific descriptor), so older men get to guide their partners into something resembling their ideal partner. Older women, on the other hand, have high expectations and requirements for a partner, which can feel difficult or uncomfortable for men their age.
Plus, sometimes an older man just meets a younger woman, and he fall in love with her, and it has everything to do with her personality, and nothing to do with being deliberately sought out for her age. Honestly, that happens. But I often ask myself what about her personality is informed by her age.
- She’s accepting and loving. Is that because she’s not sure what constitutes as unacceptable behavior from a partner?
- She does lots of little gestures that shows that she cares. Is that because she feels insecure, and thinks that going out of her way for a partner is the only way to keep him?
- She’s emotionally supportive. Is that because she hasn’t yet discovered what kinds of emotional labor are frequently demanded from women, or doesn’t even realize that the balance is uneven?
I don’t mean to be uncharitable of healthy relationships where men in their 30s and 40s date woman in their late teens and early 20s. I’ve been in a few of them, and I don’t feel as if I was coerced or taken advantage of, generally. I do want to be sure that the motivations of those involved are as healthy and adaptive as possible.
Permit me an anecdote, if you will.
When I was 16, I went to a convention in downtown Philadelphia, and I met a 35 year old man that I will, for the sake of this post, call Michael. Michael communicated what felt like a respectful appreciation of my body, but was delighted by my personality. He was going through a fairly difficult transition in his life, and needed a friend to talk to. We texted back and forth, hundreds of times per day, for months. Six or seven months into our friendship, he asked if I wanted to come down and visit him for a weekend in Virginia. We’d spoken about hiking, about my meeting his dogs, about visiting the church where he was a lay leader, about making a fire in his backyard.
I ran it by my mother. She said no.
Now, it should be mentioned that my mother rarely forbade me from meeting or spending time with my odd friends, or going on adventures, so I was genuinely confused. I tried to communicate, clearly and logically, that Michael wasn’t interested in dating me, or sleeping with me, or anything like that. And I was a mature, responsible young woman – I would be safe. What was wrong with spending time with him? My mother said this: “Listen, I believe you. I actually believe you that this man is kind, and isn’t going to try to have sex with you, or make you unsafe. But what I wonder is this: why is a 16 year old girl the closest confidant of a man in his 30s? That tells me something about HIM.”
I didn’t understand what she meant at the time, and I went on to have a half dozen other relationships – close friendships, flings, serious year-long romantic relationships – with men more than 10 or 20 years my senior. All of them ended for different reasons, but as an adult, I recognize that all of those reasons were tied to our age differences. I wasn’t experienced enough to deal with a partner’s grief at losing a parent – I was 19! I had never been in a situation like that before, and I couldn’t handle it That relationship ended. I didn’t have a stable enough schedule to see one friend regularly – I was in college, and working two jobs, and he worked a 9 to 5. Our calendars never overlapped. I was one sweetie’s closest friend after his marriage fell apart, and I felt like I was a way for him to regain the excitement that he lost in his marriage. That felt exploitative. I was another’s entire support network, because I didn’t know at the time how to set boundaries. I couldn’t deal with taking on the entire burden of his mental health on top of taking my classes. I ended that relationship, too. They were all loving and exciting and joyous, and they all had potentially problematic aspects to them.
Why can relationships with a younger woman and older man be dangerous?
Young people are brought up to defer to authority. When someone paints themself an an authority, it’s a natural response for a younger person – a younger woman, especially – to accept that authority without questioning it. Inherent power differences in relationships (as opposed to carefully negotiated ones, where both parties begin as equals, and have a way to turn off the dynamic if they want to) mean that one person is ultimately less able to make healthy decisions for themself, because one person is More Experienced, More Capable, and More Right.
This can be compounded in kinky relationships, where the older, male partner is dominant, and is literally making decisions for his partner. Possibly making rules for her. Even if she’s fantasized about this kind of relationship, it’s likely that *she* doesn’t know safe ways to enter into a power dynamic, and that *he* doesn’t have much motivation to give her the kind of carefully considered negotiation that she needs. “I have no limits!” is a line we frequently hear from young submissives, and their older male partners frequently (conveniently) take that as truth, as opposed to an uninformed statement made by someone who does not yet realize how her own experiences of kink will color her behavior and needs for the foreseeable future.
We already know the kinds of things that create privilege, and age and gender are two of them. With privilege comes power, and with power comes the difficulty interaction with consent. Older partners need to be *especially* cautious when it comes to ascertaining the consent of their younger partners. Remember that FRIES consent (freely given, revocable, informed, enthusiastic, specific) includes “informed” – it’s difficult to be informed when you don’t yet know what possibilities exist, or what the consequences of various activities could be.
Now, if we ruled out all relationships with power differences, that would forbid interracial relationships, and all heterosexual relationships. I’m not suggesting that. But it’s a dangerous place to be without taking extreme care.
So, how can someone be in a relationship with a large age gap and make sure that everyone is healthy and safe?
Ask yourself some questions.
- Why am I dating my partner? Is it their personality, or the circumstances that their age creates?
- What do I like about my partner? Are those things you would typically find in someone closer to your age?
- How often does each of us state our needs? How often does our partner work to realize those needs?
- How do I want this relationship to progress? How do I want it to end?
- What do I want for my partner?
- What do I want to change about my partner?
If you are the older partner, you should encourage your partner to spend time with peers and friends who are not you. Yes, they are likely dating you because they are mature and don’t want to date people their age, but there are other people whom they can be close with who aren’t so far from their demographic. That is important to give them a sense of perspective and appropriate development (hm, all of my friends are hanging out and knitting a few times a week – maybe I…shouldn’t just be going to bars or staying in with my partner?).
Make very, *very* sure that you aren’t grooming your younger partner.
Grooming: “to prepare or train (someone) for a particular purpose or activity.” The word is often used when children are being sexually assaulted by an adult, but the idea is relevant in relationships where the younger partner is a consenting adult, too. If your urge in this relationship is to nurture and teach, be very careful what you are teaching them. Is it communication skills, sexual preferences, confidence, adulting skills, and other things that they can take out of their relationship with you and apply to being a successful adult human being? Cool, okay, that sounds good. Is it how to please you, how to be in a relationship with you, how to behave in response to you? Uncool, unacceptable, problematic.
“This is how I’d prefer you to ________” is a loaded statement in *any* relationship with a power difference. Now that you’ve read this post, you know that you can’t just state preferences without taking care that to communicate that it’s optional to respond to it. To, in fact, carefully work to mitigate the affect that your power difference makes whenever you make a request or state a preference.
I want to say again that I have seen – and been in – very healthy relationships where the man is much older than his younger woman partner. There’s something about older men that can be helpful, supportive, loving, nurturing, guiding, dangerous, coercive, or accidentally problematic.
Be more critical of your relationships, please.
* almost all of this post applies to relationships with an older man and a younger male or non-binary partner, as well. There is even extra danger in queer relationships because of the difficulty finding age-appropriate partners and support networks due to being closeted or in homo/transphobic circumstances.