A middle-aged man dating a much younger woman has long been thought of in American culture as a classic sign of midlife crisis. In some circles, dating a younger woman is a status symbol. Men aren’t the only ones who date younger people, though, and the archetype of the “cougar”—an older woman dating a younger man—is rapidly becoming a part of the public consciousness.
Although comedians joke about these relationships, a significant age difference doesn’t make a relationship any less real or meaningful, though it may create some challenges that don’t exist when romantic partners are close in age. Navigating the social ramifications of your relationship while struggling with generation gaps can be tough, but a significant age difference can give you the chance to consider new perspectives and appreciate the offerings of a different generation.
Know When the Difference Is Too Large
Love can be fickle, and we don’t always fall for the right people. Sometimes a significant age gap makes a relationship impossible. No matter how real your feelings are, getting involved with someone under the age of 18 can lead to serious legal trouble.
Even if you’re legally in the clear, a large age difference can undermine the long-term viability of your relationship. If you want to have children, you’ll have to consider whether fertility will be an issue and whether you or your partner will be around long enough to help raise your kids. Age differences can also mean significant differences in lifestyle. If you have an established career but your partner is still living with his or her parents, you could be in for a rocky ride.
Understand Your Reasons
Before you begin a relationship with someone much younger or older than you, it’s important to make a careful assessment of your motivations. Love knows no age, but if you date only people who are members of a different generation, it might reveal something about your approach to relationships. While people who date only people much younger or older than them owe no one an explanation, it may be helpful to consider underlying reasoning. Some who date only much older people may be seeking a parental figure more than a romantic partner. They may be insecure about finances and thus want to be with someone established in his or her career. If you have a history of dating people who are significantly younger than you, maybe you like feeling like your partner admires your experience, or perhaps you’re just not physically attracted to other people your age. A significant age difference doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything wrong, but a long-standing pattern is always worth examining.
Be Prepared to Handle Generational Differences
No matter how understanding you are, it’s likely that you’re going to bump up against some generational differences. You might have different political views, find each other’s music obnoxious, or have no understanding of historical events that profoundly influenced your partner’s life. Bridge this difference by probing deeper and making a concerted effort to understand your partner’s viewpoint. A big age difference provides you with valuable opportunities to learn about alternative perspectives and experiences.
Know How to Handle Criticism
The odds are good that some people are going to disagree with your choices in romantic partners, no matter how perfect your relationship is. With close friends and family, this may mean making an effort to explain why you’re in love with the person and not with his or her age. But be prepared for snide, inconsiderate remarks. Getting into constant arguments about your partner’s age is no way to live, so plan a simple—and ideally polite—response that shuts down further discussions of your partner’s age.
Don’t Harp on Age Differences
Although age differences can create some challenges in your relationship, focusing too much on age can backfire. While you need to be understanding of generational differences, attributing every disagreement to your partner’s age can leave you both feeling self-conscious and misunderstood. If you frequently tell your partner his or her age doesn’t matter, your partner might end up feeling like age is a significant issue, or even that you’re in the relationship specifically because of the age difference. Don’t let age dominate your relationship, and address it only when it is truly relevant.