By Michael Kimmel
In my psychotherapy practice, I often assist lesbian couples where one of the women is significantly older than her partner. Last month, one of these women asked me, “Why don’t you write a column about age differences in lesbian relationships and how to handle them?”
Yesterday, a gay male couple I counsel, where one of the men is quite a bit younger than his partner, made a similar request, “It would be great if you would write a column about older men with younger men and give us some advice.”
Okay, good people, I’m listening. Here is that column.
Over the years, I have seen dozens of LGBT couples where one person in the couple is significantly older than the other.
While all couples have to navigate questions of shared interests and preferences, younger/older partners sometimes experience this more than others. Age is often a factor determining preferred leisure activities, how to spend money and other important decisions.
For instance, if you’ve long passed your “club/bar/nightlife” days and your lover hasn’t, this could be challenging for both of you. If you are just entering the most productive time of your career and your partner is ready to retire, how do you both manage those differences?
In my experience, younger/older couples also experience more social disapproval of their relationships than similarly-aged couples do. If your friends think your relationship is foolish, this will probably negatively impact your social life and how you experience your lover.
Based on my experience counseling older/younger couples, here are some of the pros and cons I’ve observed for each person in the relationship:
For the younger person
It’s healthy if you:
- Have a great mentor in your lover and feel secure with them.
- Encourage them to stay active and healthy.
- Keep your peer group friendships.
- Give what you can financially to the relationship.
- Accept and even celebrate your differences.
On the other hand, it’s unhealthy if you:
- Lean on your lover too much.
- Depend on them financially.
- Use sex to get what you want.
- Avoid growing up/maturing/becoming responsible.
- Want to please your lover too much (codependence).
For the older person
It’s healthy if you:
- Have so much to give and you enjoy giving it.
- Feel loving and protective of your lover.
- Easily trust them.
- Appreciate what they can give you.
- Have friends that celebrate your relationship.
And it’s unhealthy if you:
- Want to control your lover and mold her/him into who you want her/him to be.
- Use money/gifts/possessions to get them to do what you want.
- Depend on their youth/beauty to feel youthful/attractive yourself.
- Avoid making peace with your own aging.
- Feel that you’re being used (e.g., playing the “sugar daddy/mama” role).
What to do about all this? If you’re thinking about dating someone considerably older or younger than you are, look closely and honestly at your motivations. Take a look at the above lists: Do you see yourself in any of them? If so, are you dating her/him from a healthy or unhealthy place?
Pay attention to power imbalances — younger people usually have less power in the relationship, and they’re not as experienced in life, so their enthusiasm can be easily manipulated. Money is a big factor here; older people usually have more money, and — as a result — have a lot more power in the relationship. How will the two of you handle this?
If your partner is just a trophy to show off to your friends and coworkers, you’re heading for trouble. On the other hand, if you’ve met someone much older or younger, you’ve gotten to know each other, and over time, have openly shared your expectations, where you currently are in life, and even your goals for the future, you could be in for a great experience.
Lots of similarly-aged couples jump into relationships assuming that because they’re so alike, everything is going to be easy. This typically leads to major problems when they — inevitably — encounter their first differences. Older/younger couples are rarely so naïve. They usually anticipate age-related challenges and go into their relationships much wiser.
Remember: It’s not the age difference that matters, it’s how you handle it. Be smart, aware and honest and you’re likely to make it work, regardless of age.
— Michael Kimmel is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in helping LGBT clients achieve their goals and deal with anxiety, depression, grief, sexually addictive behavior, coming out, relationship challenges and homophobia. Contact him at 619-955-3311 or visit lifebeyondtherapy.com.