What happens when your partner is a lot younger or older than you? Some people have made this work beautifully. Think about Jay-Z, who is 12 years older than Beyoncé’. Michael Douglas is 25 years older than Catherine Zeta-Jones and Stephan Fry is a magnificent 30 years older than his lover, Elliot Spencer.
But for other couples, age gaps in the relationship can be a huge source of discontent. One study at Emory University looked at 3000 people and found that the bigger the age gap, the bigger the chances of heart-break. More specifically, an age gap of 10 years makes you 39 per cent more likely to divorce; and couples with a 20 year age-gap are 95 per cent more likely to end up separated!
So where does this leave us? Why is it so difficult to make an age difference work; and how are the successful couples managing? In this article, we take you through four of the more common issues that age-gappers face.
What Issues Might Come Up and How Can You Deal With Them?
Our society loves to criticise those who stick out and behave a little bit differently to the rest. For this reason, one of the big issues that age-gappers will face is outsiders who are rude, judgmental, and ask inappropriate questions.
Have you ever been called a “cougar”, “gold-digger”, “cradle-snatcher”, or “grave-robber”? These are the sorts of terms that people like to throw around when they’re uncomfortable with other peoples’ life choices. While these words can be used playfully, at their core they are derogatory and hurtful. Why? They imply that your relationship is all about transaction and gain – not necessarily about being in love for love’s sake.
At the end of the day, age-gappers need to learn to cope with other people having these sorts of intolerant attitudes. We can’t change the world that we live in – at least not quickly or easily. Instead, try to remind yourself that it’s society that has a problem, rather than you or your relationship. If people are harassing you with intrusive and inappropriate questions – “how do you manage your sex life?” or “did she marry you for the money?” – you have complete license to tell them to but out. After all, your relationship is none of their business.
When it comes to sex, age differences can make for hard times – or, more accurately, not-so-hard times. Why? Sexual disorders become more likely as we grow older. For men, age may bring with it erectile dysfunction: a problem with getting and maintaining a hard penis. By contrast, older women are more likely to experience less sexual desire or struggle have an orgasm.
Furthermore, some statistics say that men and women reach their sexual peak at different ages – with men peaking in their twenties and starting to fade out as they reach their sixties. Women, on the other hand, are thought to peak a bit later, in their thirties! This means that age-gappers are likely to run into trouble in the bedroom, especially if an older man is losing his libido and erection power just as his younger partner is coming into her sexual prime!
How can we work through this sort of incompatibility? Compromise is key. You and your partner need to meet half way. The two of you will need to work at putting yourselves in the shoes of the other. Ask questions to understand what frustrates them about your sex-life and make sure they get a sense of being heard, before telling your side of the story. Often, a compromise will be about one person agreeing to be less demanding and the other agreeing to be more forthcoming with sex.
Have you spoken to your partner about what’s going to happen in the future? If you’re in a long-term relationship with someone considerably older or younger than you, then this uncomfortable conversation needs to happen at some point. Why? In ten or twenty years, the older of you will start thinking about things that the younger person has probably never dreamt of: retirement, care plans, funerals, and wills.
The sad truth about age-gap relationships is that one partner may well outlive the other by a long time. If the older person becomes very sick, the younger one might have to become their caretaker. How do each of you feel about this situation? How will it work when it comes to finances? Who will help care for the kids (if there are any)?
It’s important to address these topics, possibly in the form of an ongoing conversation – there’s no need to reach a resolution immediately. It’s vital, however, that this elephant in the room is discussed rather than denied. These sensitive issues can be tricky to talk about: you may want to speak with a couples’ therapist to find the best way forward.
As a therapist that works with families often, I can say with certainty that every family I have met is uniquely and wonderfully complicated. So, what happens when you mix two complicated families together? Sometimes it works out beautifully; at other times it results in endless conflict, awkward family events, and painfully extended silences. These sorts of family issues often haunt age-gappers – especially when children from a previous relationship come into the picture.
Family tension amongst age-gappers needs to be treated like any other family problem: the first step is to have an open and frank conversation about what’s going on. Help your partner to understand how you feel and what you’re unhappy about; and be sure to understand what the situation is like for them. Once you’ve had this conversation, then you can start to work together in finding a way to ease the family conflict.
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Family issues often imply big doses of frustration, anger, unease, and sadness. If you can bring an equally big dose of compassion and patience, you’ll find that this will take you a long way toward resolving things. If you’re finding that you can’t cope with the tension and are getting nowhere by speaking to your partner, your closest couples’ or family therapist is usually just a click or a call away.
Some Final Thoughts
Age gaps in relationships can be challenging, but at the end of the day this can also present a silver-lining. Why not own your relationship by actively embracing what makes each of you different? As a younger person, for example, you might appreciate the wisdom and life-experience of your older lover. An older person, on the other hand, might appreciate the energy and vitality of someone younger!
But don’t try to pretend that you are your partner’s age – there needs to be mutual respect for your relationship to work; and this is unlikely to happen unless both parties are able to be themselves. Rather, find ways to recognise and appreciate those age-related things that make each of you unique!
Regardless of the challenges that you might face, if you love your partner enough to be willing to weather the storm, then this is far more important than the age difference between you. Of course, if you don’t feel that the struggle is worth it and you’d rather end the relationship, there’s no shame in taking that pathway either. Whatever the case, it’s important that you think about what this age gap will mean for you and your future together.
Daniel Sher is a registered clinical psychologist. He serves as a professional consultant for the Between Us Clinic, which provides sex-therapy online programs.