Rachel Maddow and her partner, Susan Mikula, are 15 years apart. So are Ellen and Portia. My dear girlfriend and I also have an age gap of over a decade. While May-December (or even May-October) romances can present occasional challenges, they can also be awesome.
How big of an age difference is too big?
The unofficial formula is the “half your age plus seven” rule.
So if you’re 30, the rule goes, the youngest person you should date is 22 (since 30/2 = 15, and 15+7 = 22).
When you’re 44, the cutoff would be 29.
At 58, it would be 36, and so on.
And while this is a silly formula, it reveals an interesting truth: the older you get, the less age differences matter. An 18-year-old and a 32-year-old are 14 years apart, but these 14 years encompass a huge gap in experiences. Take those same 14 years, 30 years later, and you’ve got a 48-year-old and a 62-year-old. Sure, there are still some differences, but the gap has definitely shrunk.
Age gaps tend to be more accepted in the queer community than they are in general. Maybe this is because we’re already doing something that differs from the norm, so an age difference on top of it is just icing on the deviance cake. Or maybe it has to do with the gendered tendency in age differences among heterosexual couples. Demi and Ashton notwithstanding, the “older man, younger woman” scenario is much more common than the reverse. This pattern tends to reinforce gender inequalities and stereotypes in a way that queer relationships can’t. Or maybe it has something to do with child-rearing. On average, fewer queers (especially gay men) have kids, so maybe people care less about age gaps when no little kidlets are involved.
As far as I’m concerned, barring illegality, there’s no such thing as an age difference being “too big” unless it presents problems for the couple. The bigger the differences, the more potential problems. But the key word is potential. Particular problems may or may not materialize for any given couple. Here are a few of the most common ones:
+ Differences in energy levels.
If one partner wants to climb mountains and the other can barely climb stairs, this may be an Issue. Of course, age doesn’t necessarily dictate energy levels. My mom told me recently about her 70-something friend who was complaining one day about being sore. My mom thought, “Oh, that poor thing… the aches and pains of getting old.” But then the woman continued, “I really need to avoid doing my five-mile hikes on consecutive days”(!)
+ Health problems
The older you get, the more likely you are to have health problems. This is a generality, but on average, it’s true. If you end up with someone much older than you are, chances are that your partner will face a serious health concern before you do. This worry may or may not be a deal breaker. My DGF asked me once, “Are you going to want to change my diapers in 30 years?” My answer: “If we’ve been together for 30 years, of course I’ll change your diapers.”
+ Cultural differences
Maybe you grew up on “Barney,” but she remembers “Captain Kangaroo.” Maybe you slow-danced to Color Me Badd in sixth grade, while she danced to it at her first marriage. These kinds of cultural differences can be funny, bizarre, or depressing — it all depends how you interpret them. Personally, I love that my DGF and I were raised in different decades. It gives us even more to learn from each other. Sounds trite, but it’s true.
+ Life Stages
Like differences in health, life stages are correlated with age. (But “are correlated” doesn’t mean “correspond perfectly.”) If one of you is hitting your stride in your career and the other is just starting grad school, it may take a little extra effort to appreciate where your sweetheart’s at.
Bottom line: Age is not “all in your head” — but what you make of it is. It’s a factor that may or may not have important implications. Like differences of religion, social class, or cultural background, it’s worth taking seriously to help you understand and strengthen your relationship.
Six Relationship Tips for Couples with Age Differences:
1. Hang out with other couples that are both your ages. If one of you is 31 and the other is 49, make sure to spend time with couples in their early thirties and in their mid-to-late forties. This way, neither of you will feel habitually left out because of age, and you might also gain some additional perspective about your partner by seeing where her peers are at, what interests them, etc. (You might also try hanging out with people whose ages or lifestyles are very different from both of yours — it will underscore how much you have in common!)
2. Don’t cast your own age as superior. If you’re the older partner, a “been there, done that” attitude toward your partner’s experiences is not useful. Maybe you have extra insight, but that doesn’t mean you know everything there is to know about your partner’s situation. Similarly, if you’re the younger partner, don’t assume you’re inherently cooler or more savvy. Treat each other as equals. Your own experience is not better or more valid simply because it happened more recently (or longer ago). And relatedly:
3. Embrace your different experiences. Talk about each others’ childhoods, music preferences, school experiences, etc. You have a lot to learn from each other. Be open to each others’ cultural preferences. Maybe this means you take turns deciding what movie to watch or what music to listen to. Try to understand and appreciate your partner’s aesthetic sensibilities, even if you don’t always share them.
4. Talk about your goals. This is good advice for all couples, but it’s especially important for May-December (or even July-October) pairs. Do you want to have kids? Buy a house? Retire? Travel? Make sure your partner knows what’s important to you, and where you see yourself in one year, or five, or ten. Just because someone is 39 doesn’t mean her biological clock is ticking, and just because someone is 22 doesn’t mean she wants to go clubbing. Make sure your ideas about your partner’s goals and desires don’t rest on assumptions.
5. Listen to everyone else, then ignore them. Your daughter may be uncomfortable that you’re dating someone her age. Your friends may not see why you’d be with a woman who hasn’t gone dancing since Tribe 8 was hot. They may openly question your motives, or your partner’s motives, or your sanity. Listen to their concerns, answer their questions, and completely disregard their judgments. Only you know what makes you happy.
6. Don’t hide your partner away. To avoid people’s judgments and criticism, it may be tempting not to socialize with your partner as much as you might if you were the same age. Early in the relationship, fine: you want to make sure it’s working for you. But once you see that it is, don’t hesitate to show your partner around town and introduce her to your friends and family. If she makes you happy, the people who really care about you will eventually recognize this, and will get to know your partner for who she is.
Your turn, readers: have you ever been in a relationship with an age difference? Did the age gap bring any special perks or challenges? What do you think about big age differences in relationships?
About the author: BW is a lesbian in her early 30s who reads a lot, writes a lot, and eats more cheese than is prudent. Her other non-day-job hobbies include hiking, doing art, hanging out with her dog, and watching “Breaking Bad” with her girlfriend. BW used to be married to a biodude, and writes about that and other things on her blog, Butch Wonders, which you should totally check out.