Can Relationships with Major Age Differences work?

Sometimes readers do send me suggestions for topics. For instance, Diana recently wrote: “Dear Felicitas Heyne, at some point I would love to read your contribution on the topic major age difference in relationships. After all, one hears about «it can really work well because so much can be learned from each other», to «hell no, this only involves emotional hang-ups». I know that this is a wide field and in the final essence, everybody has to make his/her own choice. Nevertheless, I would very much appreciate your comments. Maybe you can also recount some of your own professional experiences regarding this subject.”

Interestingly enough, not long ago I actually did have my first professional experience dealing with this situation: It involved a couple where the man was 15 years older than the woman. On a very personal level this is also a familiar subject: My father was 20 years older than my mother, and my father-in-law 10 years younger than my mother-in-law (in 1965 when they got married this bordered on a scandal!). Obviously I am happy to entertain Diana’s suggestion and write today’s article about it.

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The vernacular says “opposites attract” and two people separated by a huge age difference are obviously in many respects very different. Consequently it should not come as all that much of a surprise when those who fall in love don’t appear to have a lot in common. Going in, in these relationships sparks tend to fly even more intensely than would be the case with people of the same age: The younger is fascinated by the charisma and life experience of the older and frequently admires him/her for it – understandably that it is very pleasant, downright heady for the older person. When asking the older part of these relationships what this means to him/her, one is frequently treated to a response implying the “fountain of youth” and it actually frequently becomes apparent that the older person does his/her utmost to keep pace with the younger. That is very likely to have a positive effect because those who feel younger, stay younger longer. One tends to challenge one’s own limits, to stay in top form and to be intellectually as agile as possible. Instead of settling back in the comfortable feeling of “ having made it” one remains open to the new, is interested in trends, does not see everything “youth is up to” with suspicion and doesn’t complain at every opportunity that everything used to be better (a phenomena that I have already increasingly have begun to observe with folks of my generation – help!!)

Naturally there are also negative examples of this effect: Who does not know them, the prides of creation who desperately attempt playing the youthful lover with their hair implantations and sportsters, although they have left the 60s far behind! Or the ladies whose facial wrinkles and length of the skirt just won’t go together! This results in those panic moments when one happens to innocently walk behind a fabulously coiffed blonde with hot pants (size 34) and high heels and then she suddenly turns around . . . in these situations my father would drily comment: “things just aren’t always what they seem”. Or even worse, those with all that Botox and the injected lips who have totally lost their capability for any natural facial expressions.

But even when the situation is not that extreme, for the older partner it can get to be uncomfortably stressful beginning with the point in time when certain age based limitations and changes simply can’t be ignored any longer. If the woman is older she is often troubled by the great fear to be left – what is going to happen to her if he gets tired of her and finds someone younger? On the other hand, men probably are not nearly as often afraid that the much younger partner may leave them – one of the reasons for that may well be that men in these constellations are often above average well off, something that in their eyes represents a certain compensation for their age (as studies continue to prove certainly with good reason, by the way). With them the dominating concern involves decreasing physical capacity and the threat of impotence.

Understanding and tolerance are essential

Generally these relationships do require lots of understanding and tolerance of each other because beginning with a certain age difference the partners essentially belong to different generations – and therefore are potentially shaped by different role models, thought patterns, cultures and social environments. For instance, only 20 or 30 years ago men who primarily cared for raising the children were seen as decidedly exotic and tended to be treated with a smirk. Today, most women of the younger generation emphatically demand those abilities and the willingness to participate as a partner in the household and taking care of the kids. On the other hand the female image of those times has also undergone considerable changes. These social expectations and role models alone already contribute to stress in partnerships when husband and wife are more or less contemporaries – in relationships where they are separated by fifteen or twenty years that can pretty quickly turn into considerable fuel for conflict.

However, aside from these mostly practical issues, conflicts in relationships with a great age difference also are frequently created because the partners are at different stages of their lives and development. This is also something I have experienced with the couple in therapy: While she was in her early thirties and professionally energized and ready to get going, in his late forties he had moved into more sedate waters. That can quickly lead to substantial conflicts of interest only to be overcome with plenty of communicating and mutual accommodations. By the way, in the case of my parents it must also have caused more than one occasion for a discussion: When I announced myself by way of the pregnancy test, my mother had just turned 42 and my father was already 62 – an age when most men are looking forward to a leisurely retirement rather than dealing with baby diapers and getting up at night.

Fortunately for me my father was flexible and sufficiently fit enabling him to welcome this unexpected challenge (otherwise I would probably have landed somewhere in the hospital waste). As a daughter I profited in many ways from the fact that my father could also easily have been my granddad: He was very patient, had lots of time for me and very intensively got involved in this late adventure of once more being a father. Nevertheless, later I have often thought that it could not have been easy for him; in those days he did not know that he would reach a physically and intellectually healthy 92. I wonder whether he was afraid not to see me growing up? Naturally those thoughts did not bother my mother in her early forties – after all, at that time under normal circumstances age and death are not subjects of particular concern. If everything in the partnership is copacetic, these time-lag vital issues don’t have to be a problem; ideally the couple profits by being able to maintain the dialogue. But I doubt that this always comes easy.

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The issue of domination and submission

A particular challenge in relationships with a great age difference is surely always the issue of domination and submission. While partners of the same age are on he same playing field when it comes to negotiating who leads, with couples with a great age difference there is frequently the danger that the older partner due to his/her more extensive life experience tries to “parent” the younger one or even in many instances does not take him/her sufficiently seriously. That often occurs with the best of intentions because as an example the older thinks he/she should be unburdening and protecting the younger. After my father’s death my mother had a very hard time to cope on her own because my father had always relieved her of many things he did not want to be a burden to her. For instance, at the age of 72 she had never completed a transfer document, she did not even have any idea about her financial situation – because he had always taken care of that! – Or else exactly the opposite happens: In his/her attempt to humor the younger and keep him/her happy, the older agrees to as well as with everything because he/she is afraid to lose his/her other half and therefore is not willing to risk a conflict. This environment quickly creates dangerous mother-son- or father-daughter relationships that benefit none of the participants and breed a lot of pre-programmed trouble when the dominated partner – naturally – sooner or later finally revolts and attempts to create an emancipated relationship. For all intents and purposes these couples, more than those of the same age must be more aware of, and continuously examine and if necessary re-negotiate their relationship’s equilibrium.

By the way, to me celebrity couples are always a fitting benchmark for how much the saying: “When two act the same way, it isn’t necessarily the same”, is still valid in our society. Michael Douglas is 25 years older than Catherine Zeta-Jones, Donald Trump has 28 years on his wife and in 1997 Woody Allen even married his 36-years younger adopted daughter. What is the reaction to these wonders of creation when they show up with those hot chicks? Correct: Admiration, envy, and approval. However, when Demi Moore catches the 15 years younger Ashton Kutcher or if Kate Moss flirts with some hunk eleven years younger, the gentile public’s eyebrows shoot up. “With more than five or ten years between the two partners, women need strong nerves and a pronounced self-confidence in order to live this love”, says the author Susanne Walsleben who has recently published a guide on the topic: “How does one love a younger man?” (so far only available in German, sorry!) Then one soon hears the comments about advantage being taken and speculation is rife, at what point the lady is going to be too old for him. At that, according to the Kinsey Report somewhat older women and younger men are at least sexually a pretty good fit: She has finally arrived at a stage where she is sufficiently experienced and relaxed to confidently live her sexuality and he is at the pinnacle of his potency but at the same time still playful and happy to try new things. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?

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