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Should Age Make a Difference -- In Love?

“I think I have fallen in love with someone my father’s age.  Am I sick, crazy, or what?  Do I have a neurotic father fixation?  What’s going on with me?  More importantly what should I do about it? My best friend told me, 'Tabitha, he is too old for you!  You always have been a sensible woman.  You know it can’t work.  Break it off!'  Is she wrong?  Could it work?  Could this be real love?  I’m so confused.”

Tabitha’s concerns are shared by millions of men and women who find themselves attracted to or romantically involved with people their society says are ‘age inappropriate’ for them.  On the basis of age difference alone some people don’t let themselves get involved, or if they are involved they end the relationship.  Others do not let age matter and they plunge ahead no matter what the age difference is.  There are a lot of people who don’t seem to even let themselves romantically notice people outside of what they think is the ‘proper age range’.

A fair number of people hardly consider age differences at all, while for others age difference is a crucial factor.  With different groups in different social spheres ideas about what is the acceptable or proper age range differs widely.  Then there are the rebels who purposefully work against and outside what they see as society’s dictates of correctness.  Consequently these rebels only will let themselves be romantically involved with people much older or much younger than themselves.  There are other people who are absolutely turned off by people close to their own age and for them the greater the age difference the better.

Different people experience very different results when there is a great disparity in the age of the couple in a romantic relationship.  I remember Sheila who talked of the love affair that saved her life and gave it purpose.  That love affair was one that started when she was 23 and he was 83.  It only lasted six years but it was the most influential and joyous six years of Sheila’s young adult life according to her.  What was your reaction when you read 23 and 83 years old?  Then there was Johnny who told of his affair with his very French French instructor who he described as a worldly older woman of deep passion and deeper understanding.  Without his exceptional relationship with her he said he could never have come to successfully love anyone, including himself.

Views on love and age differences seem to be varying ever more widely.  One view is, if you want a standard marriage, to raise kids, to have your extended family accept you, and to fit in with your ‘normal’ neighbors you had better marry somebody who is fairly close to your own age.  If you don’t mind being different or if you want to be different, age doesn’t matter just so long as you have healthy, real love going on between the two of you.

Another view is, once a person has achieved a sort of basic maturity and can be seen as sufficiently adult it’s OK for them to love and be loved by any other adult.  Actually this is the view held and supported by the law in much of the world today.  The problem is age is not a very good measure of actual maturity.  I once served as an expert witness in a case where a 22-year-old teacher was arrested for having sex with a 16-year-old student.  This officially under-age student had for three months led five children out of harm’s way in a Central American revolution after her own parents were assassinated.  She came from a country where marriage or affairs between couples of these ages was common   Not only was she a full-time student but she also was a full-time job holder in a responsible position.  Despite all signs of this student’s psychological maturity the teacher was deemed guilty and was headed for prison.  Teacher/student sex laws have been designed to protect a youth from being victimized by a predatory adult and sometimes may be interpreted too narrowly. 

As is sometimes the case, the law’s attempt to govern love was thwarted.  With help from a church this couple managed to escape to a Caribbean nation where now they are both outstanding citizens of that nation, are both teachers and are raising their four children in a healthy, happy home by all accounts.

Do you agree that our world needs all the healthy, real love it can get?  If so then perhaps romantic, sexual, marital and all other types of love between adults of vastly different ages had best be completely accepted and honored.  If the love is real and healthy, perhaps age differences don’t really matter.  Right?  Of course, not everyone agrees with that kind of thinking.

People who want to have rules for how love should work and be governed keep having problems about age and what should be socially sanctioned.  In the modern Western world it wasn’t too long ago that in some areas an age difference of greater than three years was questionable, and an age difference of 10 years was totally unacceptable.  Now in certain social spheres just about any age is OK if the couple is happy and doing well.  There are those who protest saying that anything beyond seven, or maybe 10, or maybe 12, or maybe 15 years is unseemly or even perverted and psychologically sick.  Do you think there’s anything ‘sick’ about a loving couple who shares an age gap of 20, 25, 30, 35, 40 plus years?  If a 20-year-old is in love with a 40-year-old does it bother you?  If a 40-year-old is in love with a 60-year-old is that bothersome?  How about a 60-year-old with an 80-year-old?  Then, of course, what about an 80-year-old with a person who has reached the century mark, should that concern us?

Think about what these people had to say.  “Marlena is 20 years older than me,” said Bob.  “But she is one astonishing female.  My friends and family complained when I told them about us, but I just couldn’t pass up such a wonderful woman, and besides I love her so much”.  On the death of her husband who was 30 years her senior Francine said, “I’ll be forever grateful for the time I had with Darrell and I wouldn’t trade my relationship with him for anyone or anything else in the world.  I’ll probably go on to love someone else, I suppose.  That’s what Darrell wanted me to do.  I think my next relationship probably will be good too, but it will be far better because of my love with Darrell and what it did for me”.  Elaine told of her affair with an older man being in every way superior to what she had experienced with ‘boys’ her own age who she saw as just not having enough to offer.  George said much the same thing about his “cougar” and sees her as someone who is refreshingly free of the hang ups of youth like some of the people in his own age group.

In the many issues influencing love I like to look at what history and culture and science have to tell us.  A lot of people get rather upset when they find out that history, different cultures and science frequently tell us things that are very different from what contemporary society would have us think.  They discover that the history taught by the movies and many high school teachers is not at all that accurate and often is not the complete story of what really happened.  For some even more upsetting is how different other contemporary cultures, nations, societies, etc. are regarding age as compared to their own.  Then there’s science which keeps discovering new ways to understand how we and the universe work and what really is ‘age’?

The upsetting nature of truth when arrived at through the pathways of history, multiculturalism and science seems to apply when considering age differences and healthy, real love.  Historically marrying someone close to your own age is a very recent development.  For a very long time in many parts of the world and throughout Western world history a man was supposed to establish himself so he could be a good provider which usually meant he was in his late 20’s or early 30’s, and then he was supposed to marry a young teenager preferably someone between 13, or at most 17 years of age. 

For a woman to be unmarried at 18, or as old as 20 meant she had ‘missed it’.  Mary was thought to have been a young teen when she joined with Joseph who was probably in his 30’s.  Cleopatra is believed to have been a teenager when she bore a son by Julius Caesar who was in his 40’s or older.  Empress Catherine The Great of Russia had a lengthy series of lovers, each a young lieutenant in their 20’s right up to the end of her long and productive life.  Indeed powerful men and women of every age have taken young lovers very much there junior.  This was as true for women as for men. 

Throughout history it has been usual for many a wealthy queen, duchess, countess or well-off commoner widow to acquire one or more young lovers.  It is interesting to note that science has discovered evidence that shows having a young lover often makes the physiology of both older men and women function in a more healthful and youthful way.

Love between age similar people historically seldom has been the accepted or the preferred style.  It wasn’t until democracy began to catch on in the 1700’s that love, sex and marriage between people more similar in age started to gain real popularity in some avant-garde, liberal circles.  Now it may be more avant-garde, democratic and liberal for people of very different ages to engage in love, sex and marriage.

Sciences tell us that having meaningful relationships with people of widely differing ages can be very good for us.  This can include love and sex which apparently adds substantially to the benefit.  Older men and women physically seem to age more slowly with younger lovers.  Younger people psychologically stabilize and mature more completely with the mentoring of older lovers.  There is some thinking that says polyamore couples who are involved with widely age-different other couples, or an individual, also garner these benefits.

Couples who have wide age differences quite often do face struggles with age prejudice.  Friends and family may attempt to break up age-different couples.  Societal acceptance may be withheld and the pressures of conforming to cultural norms may be severely applied.  Some age-different couples discover the disapproval of others actually can be used to strengthen their love bond with each another as they fight against this form of age discrimination.  Many couples with age disparity also discover that their age differences are very enriching, but it’s true other couples experience these differences as seriously divisive.

If an age-different couple knows how to do ‘I win, you win’ love relating they usually discover that no one has to lose because of age difference.  They add to each other by way of their differences instead of becoming conflicted.  As is true of all couples, the trick here is to live doing the behaviors of healthy, real love and avoiding the actions that are anti-love.  When that is done it seems age makes no vital difference.  Of course, some people handle age differences well and some don’t.  There are those who delight in the surprises and challenges that their age differences bring them, and there are those who are increasingly annoyed, aggravated and upset by these differences.

Age difference seems to be a cause for some people to break up, and for others it means almost nothing, while still others find it enjoyably challenging and rewarding.  As with all other kinds of couples, a healthy self-love and a true love of life turns out to be far more important than an age difference.

With all that as background let’s look at a few questions.  When it comes to romantic love do you think you have an age prejudice?  Do you disqualify people from being candidates for love because they are considerably younger or older than you?  If you encounter a couple who seem to have a wide age range difference do you think or talk with terms like “cradle robber”, “daddy’s gold digger”, “mommy’s baby boy”, “dirty old man”, “cougar” “predator”, etc.?  If you see a loving couple whose age difference is outside the range you have been taught to think of as appropriate do you look down on them?

Do you demean and disrespect them, or do you appreciate and honor that they seem to have found and are doing love in spite of the age prejudices which may have beset them.  If you are single do you need to open your age range thinking?  If you are in a committed relationship do you need to open your age range thinking as to who might be candidates for loving friendship and other kinds of loving relationships?

So that you are not left hanging and wondering what happened to Tabitha, with a little counseling help Tabitha saw that her attraction to her older lover was based on a great many shared interests, a common philosophy of life and similar goals.  She had not had an obsessive attraction to older men and in fact had dated age-widely.  She and her older lover joined a book club with interesting members of vastly different ages where they felt accepted and found close friends.  In counseling they worked on some problem areas common to many couples that had little to do with their age difference, and went on to do their love quite well.

As always, Go and Grow in Love

Dr. J. Richard Cookerly

Love Success Question
What do you think the subtle messages are concerning age and love that got into your head?

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Previous Comments:
  1. Kris
    November 9th, 2014 at 13:52 | 

    This is a very enriching article. well researched, and very useful for people who are struggling if it is right or wrong when they are love and has a wide age difference.

  2. Jennifer
    April 18th, 2015 at 10:08 | 
    Very interesting article. Well written and veryhelpful to me being in an age-gapped relationship.
  3. June 17th, 2015 at 12:21 | 

    My sincere belief is that love doesn’t see an age difference, so as long as the couple consists of two fully consenting adults (16+ in the UK), then it’s nobody else’s business what they do.

  4. Nikolaus
    June 29th, 2016 at 14:17 | 

    wonderfully reassuring in an age where the law still makes not as much sense as the law of love.

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