We’re brought up on fairy tales and later, romantic comedy depictions about finding your significant other. While tossing your split ends out the window in the vain hope that prince charming will roll up in his white Mustang to rescue you, you probably had the “Would You Ever Date a Guy That/Who’s _________” conversation with your besties.
“Would you ever date a guy that has kids?”
“Would you date a guy who’s bald? …What if it’s from a disease?”
“Would you ever date a guy who’s 10 years older than you?”
My answer to the last question was a fervent no. In my personal fantasy world, the acceptable age difference between a man and woman was rigidly set at five (maaaaybe seven) years. What could I possibly have in common with someone more than five years older than me? If he’s that much older, why isn’t he married yet? Any man who dates a much younger woman is a creepy cradle robber. It’s just gross. Imagine the subsequent hypocrisy of me dating someone who’s 17 years my senior.
I was born in 1990; he was born in 1973. I’m 23; he just turned 40. Ours is a whirlwind May-Mesozoic Era romance if ever there was one. I can write about it, and more importantly, laugh about it now, but that wasn’t always the case. In the beginning of our relationship I was insecure, embarrassed, and ashamed—not of my beau and his rapidly approaching senior citizen discount eligibility–but of myself, because I was worried that everyone we came across as a couple would be every bit as narrow-minded and judgmental about our significant age difference as I once was.
What if people think I’m a gold digger? What does it say about me that I’m not dating a fellow 20-something? What if my mom disowns me? Does this mean I have daddy issues? All these stereotypes, stigmas, and opinions we see and read in the media–perpetuated by pop culture—most of which are formed by people who have never once been in a relationship with someone particularly older or younger than they are. We internalize these assumptions and accusations as facts—at least I did.
I know that I’m independent, so why, when I first started dating my boyfriend, did hearing “Gold Digger” on the radio make me squirm in the driver’s seat of my car? I know that quality men come in all different ages, so why did I initially question my boyfriend’s single status, especially when prior to us dating, I was one of those “single people” myself? Why did I assume a woman who has supported every decision I’ve made would suddenly turn her back on me because of who I’m in love with? Despite never feeling like I missed out on having a dad when I was growing up with a single parent, why did I fear this relationship was some latent expression of “issues” I didn’t even know I had?
When we first started dating, I was so overwhelmed by my fear of how people might perceive me that I was noncommittal, standoffish, and even mean. In the beginning, I didn’t even tell my friends I was seeing anyone after we had been on several dates. When he introduced me to his friends, I was shy; I’d keep to myself and imagine all the things running through their minds about me. When our relationship became Facebook official, I waited a long time before introducing him to any of my own friends and my mother. When I finally did let our relationship into my militantly guarded world, my friends and mom were surprised, but they accepted our relationship in a way I sincerely wish I had from the start. I may always feel guilty about how selfish I was then, putting my superficial concerns above what really mattered: how happy I was (and am) with him.
I let it get to me—this imaginary nonsense about how things ought to be when you’re in a serious relationship. We romanticize these happily ever afters, and in the process we perpetuate the notion that anything that deviates from the same old high school/college sweethearts bit is something that should be frowned upon. Sometimes the stereotypes ring true: there are women out there who have “earning potential” at the top of their must-have list; there are dishonorable men with bad intentions and those who treat their girlfriends and wives like trophies; there are women who manifest issues they had with their father (or lack thereof) into their romantic relationships—there’s plenty of truth to all of that, but sometimes, a couple with an age difference is just a couple.
Allow me to expose the lurid details of dating an older man. There are a lot of references to movies that go over my head. There are old photos that make my childhood 90s attire look like haute couture. When we tell stories about things that happened in high school, the other does the math, and we marvel at how old he was or how young I was then. When “Father Figure” by George Michael plays on the radio or at any business establishment, we have a good laugh. He introduces me to the classics old shit that sucks, and I teach him how to use hashtags. We deal with each other’s quirks, watch TV, and have fun like any other “regular” couple.
At the risk of this sounding like a writing sample for Hallmark–we should be accepting relationships for what they are: a couple of people who are together because they like/love each other for whatever reason. Race, gender, age, religion—the way I see it, if you’re not one of the people in the relationship, you’re in no position to judge. I admit I still have my moments, usually at parties surrounded by married people his age with their kids. It’s not always easy, and by no means do I advocate giving up hanging out at bars for volunteering at the nursing home cafeteria to find Mr. Right, but if you do happen to find yourself interested in someone a little older or (legally) younger than you, it can work, and it can be every bit as loving, fulfilling, and life-changing as being with someone from your generation. Look at Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart (23 years difference) or Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones (25 years difference).
Don’t get swept away by the fantasy. I may have never daydreamed about dating someone 17 years older than me, but I did daydream about what I have with him: a loving relationship filled with laughter with a respectful man who’s kind, thoughtful, and genuine. At the end of the day, I’m glad I realized there was a lot more potential for “happily ever after” in my relationship with him than with my bullshit preconceived notions.