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In the world of film and television, there’s no shortage of relationship age gaps. Pretty Little Liars showed the (very illegal) relationship between 16-year-old Aria and her 22-year-old teacher, Ezra. Friends paired mid-20s Monica Geller with mid-40s Richard Burke. And don’t even get me started on the 161-year age difference between Elena and Damon on The Vampire Diaries. But while these relationships may have made for some iconic plotlines — and while dating someone older than you can be exciting — it does raise a few serious questions. When considering a relationship with a significant age gap, it’s important to be aware of the power dynamics at play and the potential for friction around your different life stages.
Before you can take those considerations to heart, the most fundamental element of any relationship is consent — and, according to Claudia Johnson, a Seattle-based sex and relationship therapist and member of the PNW Sex Therapy Collective, major relationship age gaps can make it challenging to ensure true consent between all parties.
Anyone younger than the legal age of consent is not legally able to consent to sexual acts. But, as Johnson points out, the “age of consent is different for every state,” varying from age 16 to 18. “And what does it even mean for a 17- and 18-year-old in a relationship?” Johnson adds. “It’s just really murky territory.”
In part because of these ill-defined rules, Toronto-based sexologist Dr. Jess O’Reilly, host of the Sex With Dr. Jess podcast, said the cultural taboo surrounding relationship age gaps is rooted in concerns about exploitation. “Much of the cultural disdain toward large age gaps between partners is fueled by fear — the fear that relationships may be transactionally driven by money, sex, power, and lust,” she wrote in a blog post titled Do Age Gaps In Relationships Matter?.
But a large age gap doesn’t automatically mean that the relationship is transactional or exploitative, as long as there’s mutual respect and clear expectations between partners. Below, experts weigh in on everything you should keep in mind before committing to a relationship with someone significantly older than you.
Clear Consent Is Key
As Johnson points out, the first thing to consider is the age of consent in your state. If you haven’t turned 18 (or 16, depending on where you live), then you cannot legally consent to a sexual relationship with your older partner. But of course, consent isn’t just a legal matter; it’s a personal one, too.
To determine whether a relationship with a major age difference (and really any relationship at all), feels healthy, some introspection may be helpful. To establish these parameters, Johnson looks to the work of sexual health psychotherapist and author Douglas Braun-Harvey, co-founder of The Harvey Institute, whose work centers around six principles of sexual health: consent, non-exploitation, protection from STIs, honesty, shared values, and mutual pleasure. According to Braun-Harvey, true sexual health is a balance between sexual safety and sexual pleasure, never compromising one for the other.
Johnson says that all of these sexual health principles can be applied to relationships and should be considered when dating someone with an age difference. As an example, she describes a relationship between two people, where the older partner is providing the younger partner with financial support. Depending on the situation, this dynamic could be considered exploitative of either person in the situation, she says. “I’m not saying that’s positive or negative, it’s just important to think about those things.”
Public Perceptions About Age Gaps
Once you’ve determined the relationship is built on clear consent, Johnson recommends asking yourself a few other questions before diving in too deep: What feels good about the relationship? What, if anything, doesn’t feel good? When asking these questions, she recommends taking dominant discourses and patriarchal influences into consideration: There are plenty of stereotypes about older men with younger women, from the “gold-digger” trope to the problematic assumption that a person who dates an older man has “daddy issues.” But for the most part, the older-man-younger-woman dynamic is culturally normalized. When the dynamics are reversed, however (when an older woman is involved with a person of any gender) she runs the risk of being categorized as a “cougar” — a predatory figure who’s often cast in a less flattering light.
“It’s important to recognize those layers that are at play,” Johnson says. “Ask yourself what [this relationship] says about you. If you are with a partner who is a lot of years older or younger than you, what do you think that says about you, and is that — in all of its ways, shapes, and forms — resonating? Or are you totally not vibing with it? Is society telling you that you’re a ‘cougar’ and you’re like, ‘I’m not! I have this really incredible connection with this person and I see this going long-term, and we’re both consenting.’ You know what you have, and I think checking in with yourself will provide you with good information.”
As for the possibility of feeling judged by family members or like you have to explain your relationship to your friends, remember that the opinions of others shouldn’t interfere with your happiness. As O’Reilly told the Canadian news program The Morning Show in 2017, “It’s none of their business. You don’t ask them about how they manage their differences.” If your loved ones have issues with your older partner, it’s their own baggage they need to deal with, not yours.
Aligning Your Lifestyles & Goals
Partners at different stages of life risk having misaligned priorities — something that makes any relationship vulnerable. “Lifestyle shifts with age: sleep, energy levels, hormonal shifts, and work responsibilities all play a role [in your relationship],” O’Reilly told The Morning Show. “Kids, of course, can be the primary bone of contention. If you’re 28 and you’re dating a 50-year-old, your expectations with regard to childbearing and parenting may differ significantly.”
The best way to combat this asymmetry is to maintain your boundaries. “Like all relationships, you need to have separate lives as well as a unified life,” O’Reilly said. “When you allow your partner to grow and explore on their own regardless of age, you’re more likely to have a happy relationship. Fewer problems will arise if you acknowledge that you can’t fulfill every one of your partner’s needs — you cannot be their everything.”
Johnson and O’Reilly agree that dating older or younger doesn’t have to be such a big deal if you don’t want it to be. “How is it any different from dating outside of your culture or your race?” Johnson asks. To that, O’Reilly adds, “People make marriages work with big income gaps, political disparities, cultural differences, and even geographical separation — we can manage an age gap if we’re willing to put in the work.”
As long as there is open communication between partners and clear expectations, relationships with large age gaps can succeed just as well as any other type of relationship. And if your relationship is founded on consent and mutual pleasure, it doesn’t need to be a whole lot more complicated than that.
Dr. Jess O’Reilly, sexologist and host of Sex With Dr. Jess
Douglas Braun-Harvey, sexual psychotherapist and author