Age-Gap Relationships Can Be Complicated – But So Is Judging Them

Photo by Refinery29.
I don’t know any happy relationship that isn’t odd in its own way. Add a 13-year age gap into the mix and it doesn’t make things more 'normal', that's for sure. But in my case, it hasn’t made the relationship more difficult, either. What does make things tricky is the sometimes quizzical, sometimes aghast gaze that still follows us around the room, across the table or into the comment section, even in 2022.
Between two consenting adults who are both individually in a healthy space, is an age gap in itself so problematic? As someone in an age-gap relationship — usually defined as having at least a 10-year difference — I am now staring back at the onlookers, without judgement, asking: is it finally time to put this discomfort down? Or, on the flip, can stigma around age gaps serve an important purpose in holding older people who are abusing a power imbalance to account?
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We have a natural interest in others' ages: it enriches our frame of reference and quells our nosiness. Type 'Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas' into Google and 'age difference' is one of the first autocomplete suggestions. (I’ll save you opening a new tab – it’s 10 years.) The internet stuck its nose in particularly prominently when the age gap in this relationship first emerged in 2018, despite it barely squeezing its way into what is even considered a 'gap'. This is a trope we see repeated with heterosexual relationships whenever it's the woman who is older. Recently, Megan Fox (35), just four years older than Colson Baker (31), came to her own defence against age-gap criticism.
'Age difference' is also the first Google autocomplete when searching Stephen Fry, who "shocked" and "perplexed" fans when he married Elliott Spencer – 30 years his junior – in 2015. Meanwhile heterosexual relationships between men and considerably younger women – Dennis Quaid and Laura Savoie (39-year gap), Jeff Goldblum and Emilie Livingston (30 years) – attract arguably calmer critique, and less of it.
It seems, then, our age-gap stigma is selective, a mask for some other beef we have with the relationship or its participants. Where does the stigma come from? Sheri Jacobson, a psychotherapist with 17 years of experience in relationship counselling, believes it comes down to fear of difference and the unknown. "Once we get to know something, it takes the sting out of it and it normalises it, and it makes it feel safe again. And unfortunately, this is I think the root of anything that's different. Anything that's novel and we consider 'the other' is often a threat, when it needn't be."
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I asked Sheri if age is just a number when it comes to love. "On the whole, yes," she said. "In fact, in my clinical time, I haven't seen many couples present problems with age being a primary factor." In Sheri's experience, this sense pervades across relationships between people of all genders, ages and backgrounds. "That's the thing about couples that work: each one is different, both in terms of sexual preferences and their wishes, how they spend their time, there’s just so many different permutations and combinations." Her inference: in a world where no two relationships are the same, who are we to say which one is right?
What Sheri has seen as a frequent presenting factor in couples therapy is what she calls a "values gap", which she defines as "a difference in what [a couple’s] respective priorities are in life". Sometimes, of course, that overlaps with age. Said priorities could be "children, or not having children, or wanting to maybe go out more, socialise more or less". In my relationship, the values gap plays out in decisions about where we want to live. My partner is gung ho for an imminent escape to the country, while I still love breathing in the Big Smoke – but I don’t see this as necessarily directly related to how old we are. We could, for instance, have different lifestyle cravings if we were exactly the same age or if our age gap were inverted. Either way, we compromise. Meeting halfway has helped us overcome this by planning to inch further into the ‘burbs for our next move.
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It’s important to note that just because Sheri hasn’t experienced a lot of age-related problems in couples therapy doesn't mean that they don’t exist. Perhaps, because of the social stigma that still surrounds large age gaps, the people within these relationships don’t even want to talk to their therapist about the issues, or they are kept from therapy altogether. Like almost all things, tolerance, understanding and an easing of social stigma is one way to kickstart and facilitate people reaching out for help if they do need it.
The team of therapists Sheri oversees have noticed a generalised trend of increased tolerance towards age gaps over the last 10 years but there are occasions when that stigma has worsened, too, by being more invasive in our everyday lives. "Therapists often say that their clients can be easily ruffled by what is said on social media," Sheri explains. "There’s always going to be someone who's going to make a snarky comment or judgement, like 'look at that age gap' or 'gold-digger' or 'sugar daddy' or something of that nature."
One couple which has gained a large TikTok following during the pandemic faces comments like these every day. Michael Justin (44) and Emily Downing (25) have been together for almost two years at the time of writing and quarantined together during the pandemic. "We meet in the middle," Emily says. "I'm not saying age-gap relationships fix every relationship problem. Obviously every relationship has its stuff but it really works out well for us."
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Though they recently told me over Zoom from LA that their TikTok comments are now pretty positive, a quick scroll through their feed reveals it wasn't always that way. "Daddy issues" is a comment that used to get chucked about with some regularity on posts that Emily appears in, which they refuted with quippy comebacks or simply ignored. The worst comment Michael seems to get is "silver fox".
This speaks to the power dynamic imbalance that so often (rightly) accompanies conversations around May-December love – something that my mum was really concerned about when I first entered into a relationship with an older person. I was just starting my 20s, he had already lived his. Your 20s are pervasively seen as your identity-finding years – this isn't a nuance I want to brush over or dispose of. It’s a thought I sit with often. Power imbalances must be interrogated by those in the relationship and also by those around them. Not just through the veil of financial power or physical control but the power of ability to self-identify and grow.
This being said, is it always right to assume that age innately carries power and youth innately doesn’t? The situation will differ from person to person. I fell in love with an older person, which has resulted in a decade of shared joy and, despite the 13 years between us, a sense of growing together. For us, finding ourselves happened in tandem and at different moments in our lives.
Sheri says: "Love isn't forbidden, and it shouldn't be forbidden or off the cards for anyone, as long as you both fully understand what you're getting into." As a very senior colleague said to me once, when I drunkenly revealed my age-gap story to him at an office Christmas party: "Age gaps just aren't that interesting." Maybe he's right.

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