If our current political climate is any indicator, being older doesn't necessarily mean being wiser. Most of us know a 45-year-old who behaves like an incensed preteen barred from attending her friend’s slumber birthday party, or a Bodhisattva-esque 12-year-old with an inherent understanding of the tides. And, generally, we can all agree—at least conceptually—that age is but a number when it comes to romantic pairings.
Until, of course, your 62-year-old uncle brings his new girlfriend to the egg hunt, and she slurps when she chortles at “forever alone” memes, and doesn’t even know who sings Dirty Pop.
Then it’s just...gross? Predatory? Delusional? Parasitic?
In today’s dating world, there is no clear-cut line for when an age gap in a romantic relationship goes beyond the socially acceptable and becomes creepy. As the average age of marriage increases alongside access to education, and the gender pay gap decreases (but is still somehow a thing?!?!), the oh-so-romantic exchange of the older man’s financial support for the younger woman’s fertility has lost some luster. Now that the general public is hesitantly opening up more possibilities for women and queer folk outside of the kitchen and the closet, there is space for couplings to be less transactional and heteronormative than they were for our cradle-robbing ancestors.
As it happens when a script is rewritten or ditched altogether, we’re all just stumbling around trying to figure out what the lines are. Some still abide by the ol' half-your-age-plus-seven rule. Some will only date above the age of 31, because everyone knows that is the exact moment at which people instantaneously want to commit. And some simply do not give a fuck about the age gap at all.
“I gravitate towards women who are exploratory, have an internal locus of control and are not set in her ways,” says David, a 37-year-old industrial organizational psychologist in DC. “These are qualities that are emblematic of youth, but can be found (or not found) in someone of any age.” (Full disclosure: David is 12 years older than me, and we used to date.) “I’m not decidedly into younger women,” he continues, “and I really don’t designate myself to a certain age range. Ideally, when you’re into someone, it’s because their behaviors are expressive of who they are as a person, not of the particular demographic they happen to belong to.”
I.e., he ain’t got no type, bad bitches is the only thing that he likes.
Recent psychological research from the University of Texas supports the notion that, across cultures and history, men do prefer younger women, and women prefer men their age or older. While this holds true on a macro level, loosening social structures and mores are offering more flexibility, feasibility and choice when it comes to the age of the people to whom we pour out our souls.
“It’s really just about whether you’re on the same wavelength and whether you’re ready for the same things at the same time,” says Patrick, a 32-year-old graphic designer in New Orleans. (Full disclosure: we have never dated.)
Though stage in life is commonly tied to age, the two don’t necessarily run parallel, as was the case when Patrick dated a woman eight years his senior. Freshly divorced and in her mid-30s, she was looking to explore and have fun, while Patrick, in his late 20s at the time, was ready for a more serious relationship.
Assuming that age, maturity and intention for a relationship go hand in hand wrongly assumes that development and growth occur on a fixed and linear timeline headed towards a destination, and that this timeline is the same for everyone. Similarly, assuming that a greater number of experiences necessitates a deeper level of maturity overlooks the reality: that it’s the meaning we glean from experience that makes it worthwhile, not simply its occurrence. An international party boy who has seen the Seven Wonders from a cross-faded perch on his yacht is not necessarily a shining beacon of cultural competency simply because he’s covered a lot of surface area.
But what about disproportionate energy levels? What about physical limitations, libido and “biological time clocks”? What about, um, death?!?
These are valid concerns and causes for consideration (although Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart seem to be doing alright). The statistics are indeed gloomy, and reflect a negative correlation between large age gaps and relationship longevity, with the rate of divorce getting higher as the age gap increases.
But here’s the thing: romantic chemistry is rare. And beyond that sweet, sweet chemistry, there are so many variables that need to fall into place for a relationship to be sustainable. When we’re lucky, the important ones line up. And if that chemistry is truly fire, we work to make them line up. Invariably, there are variables that don’t align. There are a million reasons we can find or create for why a relationship won’t work out. This is true for couples with a fifteen-year age gap, and this is true for couples with a thirty-second age gap.
Beyond the physical, biological and the, uh, death thing, couples with an age disparity might need to negotiate a generational divide. As with couples of different nationalities, this difference mostly boils down to knowledge that can be acquired through exposure, and a difference in communication styles. Take, for example, my lack of knowledge on personal finances and ample usage of the word “lit,” in juxtaposition with David’s affinity for complete grammatical sentences via text, and his flagrant dismissal of Lady Gaga’s artistic genius.
But as anyone who has ever fallen in love with someone with a poor grasp of your native tongue can attest, connection isn’t simply an exchange of jargon and an alignment of trivia knowledge. An engaging, challenging and expansive connection isn’t about being exactly the same.
Online dating tools allow us to set demographical filters that limit our exposure to people who are different from us and outside of our comfort zones, facilitating a romantic climate reflective of our polarized political climate. But not all young people are energetic and flighty. Not all older people are set in their ways. Not all New Yorkers are socialists.
It’s fine to have trends, tendencies and general preferences when it comes to who you gravitate towards romantically. It’s fine to have fetishes. It’s fine to have a type (please send any irreverently intellectual Latin American men with a grungy edge and a heart of gold my way). Maybe you’re drawn to women who are passionate, outspoken and slightly nihilistic, and historically you’ve dated a lot of Argentine women. Maybe you are drawn to women who are clear on what they want, who have fascinating stories to tell and lots of wisdom to share, and all your exes happen to be older than you. Maybe you just really like bulky dudes. Regardless, you wouldn’t just be with someone because they are Argentine, or because they are older, or because they are bulky af.
Being into someone only because of the demographics they represent is almost as shallow as not being into someone only because of the demographics they represent—by which I mean, their age.
Consent is imperative; not exploiting people and not letting other people exploit you is imperative. But don't be afraid to celebrate and embrace the thrill that there are more options for your romantic life than there ever was for your no-good-dirty-rotten-cradle-robbing-great-great-grandfather. If you really vibe with someone, don’t let numbers, statistics, demographics and other people’s opinions limit how you connect and who you connect with.
And remember: you don’t have to be a martyr in your personal life. Sometimes, differences are too much to reconcile. When you’re driving at four in the morning on a highway outside Baton Rouge and you need to know which exit to get off on, not understanding your partner’s accent is an issue. Sometimes, it’s just too much, and that’s your call to make.
Then again, if you’re on the same wavelength, you’re ready for the same things at the same time, and that sweet sweet fire chemistry is truly lit, you may just need to learn each other’s languages. And if you’re both down, you may find that their impeccably mixed Old Fashioned is, like, exactly what you want to be drinking while you watch the new Lady Gaga documentary.