One of my “sisters” (a term for the close circle of female friends I unreasonably trust) moved to New York earlier this year to get a Master’s in Hebrew Bible and Interpretation and, at 30, regularly texts me what the “babies” in her class said that amused, incensed, or wowed her. The “wow” days with the “babies” are exceptionally rare. She doesn’t believe that the kernel pops until mid-twenties, no matter how smart you are, and as a result her fellow classmates are not only superficial, they’re undatable because they won’t “get it” for another few years. When they come to class and share photos of the swipe they met on Tinder, she rolls her eyes. When they tell her they are married, she launches into what a mistake her first marriage was – “I was 17 and it was a disaster.”
But for all of her surliness, Sara is absolutely one of the most attractive, smartest, funniest, approachable, and crafty people I know. She can talk about Foucault or Louis C.K. – your choice – while processing traumatic life events, painting a table, smoking a cigarette, and keeping an eye on dinner. She has a depth of insight into the world that few people possess and straddles mutually exclusive worlds without missing an eyelash and I’ve always felt that has made the divide between her and her classmates all the more precipitous. We went through one Masters program together – her first, my second – and I know intimately that she can discuss the class lectures, sure. But for her, there is a restucturing of the lessons to synthesize them in new ways. What Miley Cyrus said to her burn of the week is irrelevant. Like Sherlock Holmes said, “It is a mistake to think that [the mind] has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it, there comes a time when for any addition of knowledge, you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”
Dating someone younger, then, is an impossibility for her. Someone fun and lively, an adventurous guy who knows where to find a good burger at an ungodly hour? Those guys are fun in small doses. But the men she primarily gravitates towards are experienced men, highly intelligent, more sober and quiet without anything to prove. Someone who can teach her and keep up with her. In short, someone older.
The flip side of this is that she is easily disgusted with men who seek younger women – men who value her beauty and vitality more than her experience, intelligence, abilities, and who shrug off her scholastic endeavors. Which is why we could never date. We’re two sides of the same coin, you see. I typically date younger women. It’s not that I’m an ageist. I’ve dated older women and thoroughly enjoyed those times. But I have a pattern that overwhelmingly arcs towards someone younger than me. A therapist once told me “it makes sense.” I spent many years playing the adult with my parents – taking care of them, cooking for them, helping them through life transitions like retirement or going back to school. I took care of my little brother too, who is 14 years younger than me. My mom tells me that in preschool, I was “the daddy” during playtime (she was friends with my teacher and had all the details on this) and have been “too serious” or “too mature” since I was little. Taking care of someone is the groove I play and I have to consciously work against those instincts to take care of myself. But again, these are insights gleaned from years of therapy where it can finally “make sense.” Sara and I like to point these things out to each other when we are starting new relationships. “Has she made you a Taylor Swift cd yet?” and I will shoot back with, “What’s his 401K like? Have you talked about retirement plans yet?” We snipe. It’s how we stay friends.
It’s also the same experience, when you think about it. Sara and I are both mature (admittedly aging) thirty-something singles with good heads on our shoulders who know what we want and have learned what we won’t put up with. Not to break down the gender issues, but Sara experiences what it’s like to be a woman in the current dating context by embracing her age and the few gray hairs that she has while I do what “every guy” does, I try to find a younger companion to help me not feel so old and who will appreciate my “daddy” side.
When it comes to age disparities in relationships, what is too old or too young? Obviously, there are certain legal borders on this. If your new friend is under legal age of consent for your state, stay away. Stay far, far away. But upper range? No cap there. You like 91 year olds? Go for it. Liver spots and dentures do it for some people. Perfectly legal, as long as their heirs know about you and everything is in writing including care of life plans.
Lots of people swear by the “half your age plus seven” rule, where you divide your age in half and then add seven to find your lower end border. In other words, I’m 33. So half of that would be 16.5 plus the seven. The youngest person I could date, according to this rule, would be 23.5.
(33 x .5) + 7 = 23.5 years old.
The other side of this rule starts by subtracting the 7 then doubling that number. So, for instance, at 33 I need to subtract 7 (which brings me to 26) then double it (52). The oldest person I should date would be 52.
(33 – 7) x 2 = 52 years old.
That’s my spread, 24 to 52. Those are the people I “should” date. Let’s say she’s 24. That’s the youngest person I could date, according to that formula. Well, I’ve broken that rule and lemme tell ya… there comes a point where you just don’t want to date someone younger.
I briefly dated a 22yo this year and wowzers was it awful! Oh, the sex was great, don’t misunderstand. But whenever we weren’t cuddled up, I just wanted her to stop talking. She was opinionated on things she didn’t understand, her version of a “good” movie was something directed by Joe Wright (who makes beautiful films but chops up classics of literature in the process), and – in the end – she told me she didn’t want to be seen in public with me because she was afraid her friends would see her with “an old guy.”
Again, I’m 33. I will leave it to you, reader, to determine whether that is “old.”
The other side of that is that the last time I dated an older woman, she thought she knew how to make dinner better than I did (it was a family recipe), thought getting a second Master’s at 29 was “immature” because “you need to get a job” and, as you can probably predict where this is going, she wanted to get serious by the third date. Imagine my surprise when she got dressed up for our third date and, without any lead in, asked me “So, where is this going? Like, are you ready to get married or what? Because my mom really wants grandkids and you need to decide.” Just like that, we were over.
I think part of my aversion to old people is that I’ve spent so much time with them. I was an “old soul” from birth and naturally gravitated towards more mature conversations which revealed the horrors and mundacity of adult life. A guy who bought drugs from my stepfather once told me I was “the wisest, most experienced little dude” he had ever met. Meh. Consider the source, but as I recall he said that after I gave him business advice on how to start his own RV business. He now lives in Florida and owns an RV business. When I date, I don’t want to be bored or feel that pressure to “decide” on the spot whether we are going to get serious. I don’t appreciate someone devaluing my life accomplishments (or family recipes) because I should have already started a family. And one of the things we don’t really talk about when we talk about age differences in dating is where people are at. We talk about age as though that tells us everything. “Oh, he’s 22. Clearly he just wants to party and have sex.” Well, at 22, I was working for a law firm and by the following year would be case manager for the firm’s two branches, shuttling files and preparing notes all across the South. A year later, I finished a degree, finished my first book, and was using every bit of loose change helping my mom after state budget cuts caused her to abruptly lose her job and helping my girlfriend at the time fund two internships in New Orleans. At 22, Sara was going through a divorce. The following year, she moved to Paris and taught herself French. Then she became a fundraiser for politicians in Northern California, then was asked to move to Washington, D.C. to “go pro” and work for the conventions.
That was how we “partied” our way through our twenties. Divorces, degrees, D.C. and dedication. This isn’t to brag on us, it’s just to say that not everyone fits these cultural scripts that we judge each other against. I didn’t wake up at 30 and think, “It’s time to find a spouse who won’t embarrass me and start picking out colors for my future home.” As best I can tell, neither has Sara, though that’s what people expect Thirtysomethings like us to do. I have every reason to believe that when I am 40, I won’t be focused on getting that carrot-stick promotion for upper management, running a marathon to prove I’ve still got it while wearing a t-shirt that reads “Team-Building Exercise 2022.”
We’re all at different places and life. To say that this doesn’t affect who, how, and why we date is just miserably stupid. Of course it does. And though the science on age disparity in coupling-up goes back and forth, there seems to be a primal drive in most heterosexual males to seek younger partners and heterosexual women to seek older partners, even if the gap between them is negligible. This is a nice generalization – “men like younger, women like older.” But it is incomplete. A more accurate statement would be to say that according to the 2000 study, “men prefer women between the ages of 25 and 35, while women prefer men between the ages of 30 and 40.” But we’re not done bucking those age expectations just yet. According to a 2014 study, among 531 men, “coital frequency was higher among men with a height less than 175cm” (just under 5’9”). Not only that, a study at Erciyes University in Turkey found that short overweight men between 20 and 54 had more sex and lasted longer in bed, on average, 7.3 minutes compared to more fit men whose average was 108 seconds. In other words, women enjoy “dad bod” (older, shorter, fatter body types) – typically the kind of body guys grow into after they’ve had their fun and their metabolism starts to slow down.
But a new study by Christian Rudder, a co-founder of the dating site OkCupid, says there is another side to all of this. Women might prefer older men, but there are very definite limits to that statement. He concluded that women prefer older men until they turn 29. After that, they prefer men their own age or younger. “At age 40, women start to look exclusively for men who are younger than they are” while men universally prefer a woman in her early twenties. “A few chose 21, 22, 23, and 24-year-olds, but 24 was the ceiling.”
So when it comes to age differences, are any of us really following a cultural script? It seems most people do whatever they want, regardless of age or social convention, because there are more important things than pudge or gray hairs. Like effort. Effort is attractive. Personality too. Or character. Honesty. An adventurous nature. But when there is a noticeable age difference between you and your partner, how do you navigate that?
Some things to consider:
- Physical age versus psychological age – Things I like about older partners: they are mentally and emotionally mature. They’ve learned from their mistakes and can love deeply, fully, and offer me a great deal of understanding and sympathy. But the truth is, sometimes I don’t want that. I want someone who just wants to have fun with me, who encourages me to stay up late and be a little irresponsible. Also, with age comes… wrinkles. And health issues. (shrug) Just being honest. If you’re superficial (and I’m not judging here), then these are things to consider. Younger bodies are tighter, firmer, perkier, and brighter.
- Experience versus “know-it-all” – One of the things you’re going to stumble over is that while an older partner is experienced, they can also be condescending at times. A “been there, done that, now let me explain what you can learn from me instead of learning for yourself…” attitude can wear on the younger partner really quickly. Everybody likes someone with experience. No one likes a know-it-all.
- Life Goals – Looking at long-term compatibility, the two of you need to have the same plan. Be on the same page. Move in the same direction. If that’s not the case, then prepare for a lifetime of friction.
- Sexual Compatibility – Oh my gosh, this is the best, right! If your partner is older, they probably have a routine down that works; at least, let’s hope so! If they are younger, they are willing to try out whatever you suggest and have the energy to try all new variations on the tried-and-true to make it that much better. But no matter how wide the gap between the two of you, pay attention to their sexual needs and help each other have great sex.
- Finances – It is inevitable that age is not the only difference; chances are, so are your finances. One of your will have financial independence and one of you will become… well… dependent. Typically, the older partner enjoys “taking care of” the younger partner but not always. Sometimes, finances can be used to control or “buy” love, emotional or sexual favors, etc. Don’t subject yourself to that. Enjoy it when they share their wealth, but don’t let it control you or the relationship.
- Spending versus Saving – Your older partner might be more experienced, which is a good thing! But with that experience comes a checklist. To be blunt, they’ve already crossed some things off their Bucket List and won’t want to splurge on a huge sound system or “a night on the town” because they’ve done it. This might mean they want to save up for different activities, rather than “lose” money on something they’ve already done. Plus, even if they wind up doing that fun thing with you, they might poo-poo all over it because it wasn’t as fun as “the last time.” For example, my dad had already joined the Navy and sailed around the world a few times by the time he met my mother. She wanted to travel, but my dad would always say “I’ve done that. I don’t want to go with you.” Ultimately, this was a big problem in their relationship and contributed to their divorce.
- Friend Group – The older partner probably comes with a collection of friends they’ve picked up over the years. If you don’t like their old friends, good luck telling them! They’re going to be loyal to that person whether you like them or not. On the other hand, if you’re dating someone younger, those friends are probably younger too and will influence your partner to get into all kinds of “trouble” or “drama” that you’d rather avoid. To be fair, those friends are probably more fun and exciting that the older partner, much more the older partner’s friends.
- Family – The younger partner’s family may have reservations with an older person dating their loved one. Use age to your benefit – if your older partner can find common ground with older family members, those family members will probably run interference for both of you. Often, an older partner comes with children. Be sure you’re prepared to become an immediate parent!
17 Celebrity Couples with Big Age Differences, by Peggy Truong