When 21-year-old Mary, a junior from the University of Minnesota, met her boyfriend Erik, sparks didn’t initially fly.
“He was charming, too charming,” she says, recalling the day they first encountered one another while working for a local political campaign. “I thought he was just nice to everyone.”
The computer technician, who she affectionately refers to as a “computer geek,” enthusiastically extended a bronzed, muscular arm to everyone he met. He smiled broadly, laughed easily and his blue eyes sparkled when he spoke of saving the earth—something Al Franken, the liberal who was to earn their votes, promised to strive toward as Minnesota’s next senator.
Mary was intrigued. His gregarious nature made her nervous, but she couldn’t resist when he asked, “Wanna go rock climbing?”
What followed were two tumultuous, euphoric, bizarre years of talking, biking, kissing and a wide variety of “outdoorsy things”—as well as a continuous stream of judgmental looks and snide remarks from others.
They were on the same level in heart and mind, Mary thought, so why did a 20-year age difference cast such chaos?
Miami psychotherapist and relationship guru Adrienne Messing says significant age gaps in romantic relationships usually exist in one of two ways: not a big deal or a very big problem.
“First, you have to ask yourself, ‘Why am I in this relationship?” she says. “If your reasoning rests in a healthy, loving connection, age shouldn’t stop you. If you’re a young woman with father figure issues for example, or an older man trying to prove masculinity, that could lead to bigger issues. Be involved for the right reasons.”
Messing says the life experience that comes with age—and, most importantly, the impact years have on personal growth—shouldn’t be overlooked or considered lightly. More times than not, 20-year-old women simply cannot fathom wisdom garnered over a 40 year span.
“Age is the vehicle by which we experience common milestones in life,” says Marie Claire writer Abraham Lloyd in a recent romance article. “These milestones give us the ability to relate to one another. We all experience a first kiss, first partner, first sex, marriage, home, career, child, divorce, etc. If you're at the end of this list, what on Earth could you have in common with someone near the beginning?”
Sure, it’s not unusual to be bewildered by lovers of different generations locking hands and passionate gazes. But that doesn’t mean relationships with significant age gaps are destined to sink faster than Jack and Rose in Titanic.
Consider Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, famous for a 15-year age difference and fabulous sex life. And then there’s Catherine Zeta Jones and Micheal Douglas—25 years apart, but happily married with no worries of numbers or societal expectations.
Mary recalls getting impatient. Weeks of increasingly fun hangouts passed, and Erik had yet to kiss her.
“He was always really careful not to come on too strong,” she said. “He knew the situation—he was the older guy, I was the younger girl. He was extremely careful at first, almost too timid. “
As things progressed, she wondered, “Why would a man in his forties be this interested in me?” He didn’t seem to be pursuing or focusing on sexual aspects of the budding relationship. Rather, the pair could sit and talk for hours, rambling on about adventures, politics, philosophies and dreams.
Mary, who had never dated anyone more than two years her senior, was impressed and intrigued by Erik’s powerfully youthful nature. After long days of classes, his energy could easily surpass her own and he always had new ideas to fervently discuss. When she finally prodded him about his interest in her, Erik echoed the sentiment Mary already held: “It’s not about age. Who could deny this connection?”
When they finally made their relationship official, Mary knew she was taking a leap of faith—Was she crazy? Was this love? Was she letting anyone down?
“I was never scared of dating him,” Mary said. “I wasn’t scared of dating an older man. But I worried I wasn’t doing the right thing, even though it didn’t feel wrong.”
As she introduced Erik to friends and family, a variety of enthusiastic reactions surfaced. She met smiles of acceptance and nods of approval with deep sighs of relief.
“Some people understood right away,” she said. “They could tell we genuinely cared about each other.”
Incredulous disgust dished by others stung like a slap in the face.
“Some of my friends told me how weird it was,” she said. “They had no idea why I’d do that.”
At first, her father was enraged by the new love. He didn’t trust a 40-year-old man with his college-age daughter.
“We fought hard initially,” Mary said. “But then, he just kind of came around. One day, after he met him and liked him, he told me, ‘As long as he’s nice to you, and you’re nice to him, it’s okay.’”
Dating a much older man has its benefits, Mary said. She often grew frustrated by the drunken cheers and Miley Cyrus blaring from the fraternity houses on campus; it was nice to find a rare oasis of maturity.
“Being with Erik is just so comfortable,” she said. “He doesn’t play silly games like many of the guys on campus. He’s not chasing other girls. He doesn’t share a room with three sweaty guys.”
Where’s it going from here? She doesn’t know.
For Mary, living in the moment is easier than mentally constructing a future laced with worry. “I’ve tried to push anxiety about a long-term relationship out of my mind,” she says. “Based on chemistry and compatibility, I could see us staying together for a long time. Based on age, I can see issues seriously affecting us later. So right now, I just want to enjoy the time we have together.”
Jenna*, a 22-year-old from a private university in northeast America, is shy to discuss what she now describes as a romance “similar to Jane Eyre’s and Mr. Rochester’s”—a bright young girl smitten with a wise older man (minus the crazy lady locked in his cellar, as depicted in the classic novel).
David, a salesman in his forties, was handsome, eloquent, and trapped in an elevator with her the day they met.
“We actually ended up getting stuck on a floor for about 5 minutes,” Jenna says of their first encounter. “He gave me 2 business cards and I offered to pass them along to my supervisor to see if our firm could be a potential client.”
When business plans fell through, other motives emerged. David emailed her later that week, asking her out to lunch. Soon, a romantic connection blossomed.
“He didn't seem like your average barbecue-loving, suburban-home-style Dad,” she says. “I like guys who retain their creativity and passion for uncertainty and abnormality beyond their twenties.”
Despite the age gap in her new relationship, Jenna says she and David were able to forge an intimate connection.
“He’s someone who's experienced in life, in love, and in bed. I don't typically like dating guys my age because I feel like the end goal is always a relationship that hinges too much on commitment or too much on resisting commitment,” she says.
“In the moment” was her mantra throughout the relationship, which only lasted a summer. Deep down, she knew it couldn’t work out—career aspirations and drastically different stages of life in general eventually spurred their inevitable separation.
“Younger guys and gals don't always know how to just sit back and marvel at the moment,” she says.
Now, Jenna and David remain close friends. Since their summer-long love, he’s become a solid friend.
“We still keep in touch at least a few times every month over email,” she says. “He's more like a source of advice now and just an older man who I feel secure about airing my twenties concerns to.”
As for what she learned along the way, Jenna says their time together was invaluable. Seeing things from another (older) perspective helped broaden her own horizons.
“The best part is the fact that I had the experience, the fact that we were able to enjoy a short but lovely relationship and look back on it with no regrets,” she says.