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Friday, April 5, 2013

The May-December Romance

How much of an age difference is too great?  We've all thought about it, right?  How old is too old?  How young is too young?  I mean, even if you're not single and dating, you only have to glance around while stuck in the grocery check-out lines to find the discussion staring you in the face.  Tabloid headlines like, "Demi and Ashton", "Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones", "Madonna and (insert name of flavor of the month)."  We talk, we gossip and we silently judge those "cougars" and "dirty old men."  Come on, admit it.  You do!  You know how I know?  Because we all do.  You are not alone.
What I've noticed is that the discussion and debate rarely come up when it comes to same-sex relationships.  Have you noticed?  Does the stigma not apply to same-sex partners?  Did you realize that Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi are fifteen years apart in age?  So are Elton John and David Furnish.  So are Rachel Maddow and her partner, Susan Mikula.  And yet, it goes largely undiscussed.  Why do you think that is?  Is it because there's no gender stereotype that fits here?  That is, no dirty old man dating a bimbo?  No desperate cougar trying to recapture her youth with a young stallion?  Or is it that homosexuality is still (and unfortunately) such a controversy that focusing on age difference just seems trivial?
Anyway, I digress.  What I want to talk about is, how many years is too many? and how do we make it work?
The unofficial formula that I've often heard is: half your age plus seven years.  For example, a 36 year old's cut off should be a 25 year old (36 ÷ 2 = 18, 18 + 7 = 25).  A 46 year old's cut off is 30, a 60 year old's cut off is 37, and so on.  Personally, I think it's a silly and ridiculous formula but I think the point here is that, the older you get, the less the age difference matters.
I've been on both sides of the spectrum.  My first girlfriend was 13 years older than me, which doesn't sound like that big of a difference at my age now, but at the time, I was only 20.  Always being a precocious kid, I couldn't see what the big deal was back then.  I was (or so I arrogantly thought) far more mature than my peers, so it made perfect sense that I would fall for someone whose age matched my maturity level.  It didn't take too long for me to realize, though, that I was in way over my head.  Her 33 years of life experiences ahead of my 20 gave her a significant advantage over me and when she was done using and abusing me, she moved onto another young and impressionable girl: my best friend from childhood.  It was then and there that I vowed to never again hook up with someone so much older than me.
My my most recent ex was ten years younger than me.  In the beginning, and only for a fleeting second, I thought that ten years might be too large of a gap for my comfort.  I was in my mid-thirties and she in her mid-twenties.  I remember my mid-twenties: I didn't have a fucking clue what I was doing with my life.  I didn't have a fucking clue about love.  And I didn't have a fucking clue who I really was.  But, as I said, my reservation lasted only a fleeting second.  Because when it came to the real things, values, communication, sense of humor and common interests, I thought she was surprisingly mature.  (At least, that's how she presented herself to be.)
In the end, of course, I realized that, despite her projected maturity, what she was experiencing in her mid-twenties was exactly what I had experienced too: the not knowing who I really am, the not knowing what real love actually looks like, the not having the confidence to be really fucking honest and having a strong penchants for other people's significant others.  (Been there.  Done that.  Happy to show you the scars some other time.)  I've since moved past that sort of behavior.  Now in my mid-thirties, I know what I want in a partner.  I can recognize how special true love is and how to respect, nurture and value it above all other things.  And I was, when we met, ready for the real deal.  And now I find that I am still making the same mistakes as my peers: that is, having had my heart broken by a young, beautiful and fickle girl.  Will that experience sour me on younger women forever?  Oh who knows… At this point in my life, the only thing I'm sure of is that I should never say never.  But there are many factors worthy of careful consideration:
Long-Term Relationship Goals:  This is a biggie.  At this point in my life, I am (or was until the shit hit the fan) looking for someone to stick around permanently.  I don't necessarily need a marriage certificate (though I will fight the good fight for my right to choose that option) or children but I wouldn't rule them out either, as long as I found the right person.  I'm not looking for someone to dance and drink at the clubs with.  I have my friends if all I wanna do is go out and have a good time.  I want the whole thing: love, passion, friendship, great sex, partnership, romance and someone to come home to.  Someone in their twenties is likely just looking for someone to fill their Friday nights.
Career Stages/Financial Disparity:  I'm gonna be honest here, I couldn't give a shit about the financial disparity between myself and my partner.  As long as my partner can contribute to our relationship in a healthy and productive way, I don't care how much or how little money she makes.  But that doesn't mean it's not an issue for her.  Likewise, I don't care what my partner does for a living, as long as she is fulfilled in the career of her choosing.  But I have to admit that this thought crosses my mind when my company throws its annual Christmas parties: Can she dress herself up and can she hold her own mingling and talking with highly educated professionals?  Not everyone is up to this task.
Energy Levels:  I'm lucky.  I'm a fairly active girl.  Even when I was a heavy girl (I used to be 100 lbs overweight), I still got out, swam, skied, traveled, walked, hiked and played outside with reckless abandon.  So dating a younger girl works well for me in that sense.  But my first girlfriend (who was 13 years older and very home-bodied) had a very difficult time dealing with my hyperactive personality. 
Health Issues:  I had this conversation with some friends not long ago - if you knew in advance of getting involved with someone that they had significant and progressive health issues (e.g., type-1 diabetes, cancer, hepatitis c, etc.), would you date them?  I hated sounding shallow but I answered, "no."  The bottom line for me is that I don't want to get emotionally invested in someone when I know for certain that our relationship has a looming expiration date.  Would I want to get emotionally invested in someone who I'll likely outlive by 10, 15 or 20 years?  Would someone younger want to get involved with me knowing the same outcome?
Cultural Differences:  With my first girlfriend, she would often make references to songs, movies and singers that I'd never heard of, and television shows that aired when I was too young to understand.  Lord, I don't think that woman ever got over the '70s-'80s "heyday" of rock-n-roll (insert eye roll here).  Conversely, I'd have a light chuckle over the fact that I remember when Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video premiered on MTV and my younger girlfriend hadn't even been born yet, or that my first girl-crush was on Lynda Carter from "Wonder Woman" and hers was on Kate Winslet from "Titanic" (ok, ok, I crushed out on Kate too but seriously, who didn't?  She's gorgeous!).  And I would laugh at the fact that while I was knee deep in college-aged angsty music like Alanis Morrissette and Sarah McLachlan, my ex was lip syncing to The Spice Girls (sooooo tell me what you want, what you really really want!).  While amusing, these things never really bothered me.  In the grand scheme of things, pop culture doesn't have an impact on the important things like values, friendship, communication, etc.  That said, there's nothing like a good pop culture reference to reinforce the gap and remind you that your life experiences cannot always be relatable.  The soundtracks of our lives are just plain different when you grow up in separate decades.  And if your girlfriend is sensitive about her age, it's probably best to keep those chuckles to yourself.
So while some will say that age doesn't matter, I say: it does… but only so far as you let it.  Maturity can be the great relationship equalizer in a lot of ways.  Not everyone's maturity level matches their actual age.  I've met grossly immature women who were older than me and remarkably grounded young women who are fresh out of nappies; you just never know what you're going to get with people.  BUT you have to admit that no amount of maturity or level-headedness can ever match the wisdom that comes from actual life experiences, valuable mistakes and hard fought lessons. 

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