Does Age Difference Matter in Love?

Man and woman wearing button-up sports shirt on the center of trees.

As a young girl I was totally captivated by the movie The King and I, and on occasion you could see me waltzing with an invisible partner to “Shall We Dance”. The film, based on the romantic Rodgers & Hammerstein musical of the same name, is about the mid-19th century King of Siam and Anna Leonowens, an English schoolteacher who accepts the position of teaching the King’s 29 children. She falls in love with him despite the obvious age, status, class and cultural differences. Although a fictionalized version of a real life encounter, the storyline points to a woman’s romantic tendencies to fall for a man who wants to rule her – a king.

For some, dating someone who is considerably older or younger is not out of the question. A woman who gravitates to older men, may find them more attractive, mature, and stable. She may think an older man is well suited to her tastes because she wants to be cared for in a style she imagines she deserves. An older man may like the way he feels with a young girl on his arm, considering himself her mentor and willing to father her along until she reaches the age of reason. An older woman dating a young man 15 years her junior may not see a problem, until the gossip from her circle of friends comes within earshot: “She’s found a new boy toy.”

While age gaps of five to eight years may not prove to too big to have a successful relationship, especially for those over the age of 30, age gaps of fifteen years or more present a very real psychological dilemma, one of inequality. It will be obvious to those on the outside looking in that the relationship is out of balance and socially inappropriate, but for a couple who has fallen in love they may lack the insight and maturity to foresee the problems ahead.

There are several age cycles to adult life, each with different maturational milestones to achieve. Couples who are in different phases of their lives may find that they are in opposition to their partners’ phase of growth. A woman just beginning her career cycle and whose partner is reaching the age of retirement may find him less than enthusiastic about her achievements. His “been-there-done-that” attitude and discouraging remarks in response to her personal strides in carving her place in the world can create considerable tension. He may be looking forward to relaxing rather than relating and may feel uncomfortable socializing with her colleagues and friends who are of a different generation. A woman’s individuation process may be thwarted if her older man behaves like a father. Early in the relationship she perhaps thought his generosity, stability and other paternal qualities were desirable traits, but now they are interfering with her newly found freedom and sense of self. She will either continue to submit to his authority and lose her identity or rebel if he tries to dominate too often. Psychologically, she no longer wants a king to rule her. Instead, she wants a lover to match her. She will be at her sexual peak when he may have to take a little blue pill to feel as sexually alive.

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A man who chooses a “pretty young thing” to call his own, may have second thoughts when he snaps out of his midlife crisis. He will yearn for an equal complement rather than an object of affection and sexual pleasure. He may become intellectually bored with his “too young” romantic partner and may tire of waiting for her to catch up to his intellectual level. Wisdom is what he will desire as he steps onto the path of midlife spiritual emergence, someone insightful who can shine the light one the deeper aspects of his soul and fill the hours of his life with true companionship. As one of my friends who married a girl 24 years his junior confessed, “Now, I just want a woman who I can have a deep conversation with and who can match and stimulate my creative mind.”

When a couple is a generation apart they may not think the same way or even speak the same language. What was the colloquial “cool” for the American Graffiti generation is now considered “hot”. As a result communication and relating can be awkward. The couple may not share the same values or have the same attitudes and opinions about a gamut of subjects. Each generation has its own evolutionary track and when there is a generation gap in a relationship it may prove difficult for both members to understand each other’s perspectives. The lists of differences (likes and dislikes) may be too long, making it hard for them to find a common ground of mutual interests.

Like Stella who “gets her groove back”, a woman who takes the romantic plunge enjoying the company of a younger man certainly is flattered by the fact she can still compete with women much younger than herself. She may consider herself a diva who deserves to be noticed, enjoying a fling with someone who helps her recapture her younger days and who she can flaunt to bring more attention to herself. But faced with the immaturity of her partner she will slip into the role of the Queen archetype, giving orders, scheduling his day, or even dressing him to complement her outfits. She might mother and smother him until he breaks free of the psychological entrapment of constantly being under someone’s wing. Once he has confronted his “Peter Pan complex”, grows up a bit and recognizes the shadow of an adoring mother he will want to leave his childhood behind and seek out a partner more his age.

Those who insist age doesn’t matter usually bring up a number of arguments in support of their claim. They will say things like: “She’s mature for her age”; “He’s an old soul”; “We have so much in common”; “Age is just a number”; or “We are so much in love.” All may be true and good enough reasons in one’s own mind to pursue the relationship in the moment. But what is also true is that huge age gaps can create huge problems in the long run. One friend I spoke with confessed that her first marriage to a man 10 years senior was all about domination and control and as the years went on she felt more and more she had lost herself somewhere. Her second marriage was to a man 10 years younger than her. Her children from her first marriage objected, thinking she was an embarrassment. To this day, 10 years later, they won’t speak to her.

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