Is Your Age-Gap Relationship Toxic? Here’s How To Tell
They aren’t all bad.
Ten years after Taylor Swift first released Speak Now, people are still talking about her lyrics: “Don’t you think I was too young to be messed with? / The girl in the dress cried the whole way home.” Criticism of age-gap relationships, whether it’s due to unequal power dynamics (aka the “Dear John” effect) or cultural biases, is everywhere.
There’s a reason couples with age differences attract so many strong opinions. May-December relationships are often portrayed in popular media as fraught and messy — Swift and John Mayer (who were 19 and 32, respectively, when they dated) provide a real-life example, and plenty of fictional couples fit the bill (hi, Carrie Bradshaw and Mr. Big). Think of all the times you’ve heard phrases like “He’s closer to her parent’s age than her” and “When she was born, he was in college.” But beyond the stigma, there are logistical issues in age-gap couplings, too: mismatched power dynamics and generational differences that prompt questions about compatibility.
That’s not to say big age gaps can never work. Plenty of couples with a decade or more between them have proven their relationships can last — and even be considered goals. Just look at Chris Evans and Alba Baptista, George and Amal Clooney, and Kris Jenner and Corey Gamble. Sometimes, the age difference is NBD, couples therapist Meredith Prescott, a licensed clinical social worker, tells Elite Daily. “It really is a personal choice.”
So, what’s the distinguishing factor, and when exactly does an age-gap relationship become a bad idea? Below, therapists reveal how to tell if your difference in age is a problem.
You’re At Different Stages Of Life
According to experts, the number of years apart is not an issue by itself — age-gap relationship problems are typically more tied to differing life stages than anything else. “Stage of life determines everything,” Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., a psychologist and the creator of life coaching program Mental Drive, tells Elite Daily.
But a significant age disparity can place you and your partner at incompatible points in life: Maybe you’re still in school while they’re growing their career; maybe you still feel like a kid and they’re ready to start having some; maybe you’re prioritizing spontaneous adventures while they’re ready to settle down.
“The larger the gap, the greater the chance that life stage becomes a factor,” Klapow adds. Take Scandal, where Fitzgerald Grant and Olivia Pope’s 16-year age difference doesn’t stir up as many problems as the fact that he’s the married president of the United States (and she’s his much younger, single colleague who worked on his campaign).
Still, the fact that Fitz is already married with two adolescent children and ready to run for president by the time they meet — whereas Olivia’s go-to form of self-care is a dinner of popcorn and red wine — is indicative of just how far apart they are. It’s a gulf that continues to plague their relationship for several seasons.
Your Age Gap Is Over 20 Years
Life stage might ultimately determine whether a relationship works, but there are some age differences that experts see as a cause for concern, purely based on the numbers.
“It can be a problem when the age gap is great enough that one partner could be the same age as the other’s parent. Think 20-plus years,” Prescott says. “At that point, you encounter different challenges that other couples may not necessarily be navigating.” She warns that those issues can include differences in career, health, and social life preferences. TL;DR, a 20-year-old and a 40-year-old will typically have disparate ideas of money, health, and fun.
For example, take Modern Family’s Jay and Gloria, who are about 25 years apart. When Gloria gets pregnant at the end of Season 3, Jay has openly talked about his plans to retire — making her nervous to share the news with him. (It all turns out OK in the end, with both of them happy about their baby-to-be, but there was legitimate cause for worry.)
Less extreme age gaps will probably not involve as many of these issues. “Some people operate about 5 to 10 years younger based on emotional maturity and lifestyle habits,” Prescott says, so the couple might be closer emotionally and mentally than their literal age implies. “In those cases, age gaps may matter less.”
One Partner Is Very Young
Even a small age disparity can cause major issues if you aren’t on the same page developmentally. “A 20-year-old and a 17-year-old will face greater challenges on average than a 30-year-old and 33-year-old,” Klapow says. Obviously, the foremost consideration here is abusive behavior and the age of consent.
Fans saw these red flags on display throughout Aria and Ezra’s romance in Pretty Little Liars. Teacher-student relationships are inherently predatory, which is especially evident when that student is in high school and 16 years old, while the teacher is in his early to mid-20s.
While the show (somehow) ignores this dangerous power dynamic and continues to show the couple in a positive light, Aria’s parents are really the only voice of reason, kicking Ezra out of their house when he reveals his unhealthy relationship with their daughter.
You’re Ignoring The Logistics
Any blind optimism should also make you pause. “When we hear, ‘Age doesn't matter because we are in love,’ it raises a yellow flag,” Klapow says.
It’s true that love can make life’s challenges a bit easier to swallow, but romance can’t erase practical concerns. “As a general rule, if you have not experienced the same developmental norms as your partner (i.e. first love, career, school, living independently), or your partner has significantly greater life experiences (i.e. prior marriage, children, a career), the love part of the relationship will butt up against the different life stages,” Klapow says.
Notice how Big always calls Carrie “Kid” in Sex & The City? Each time, he’s not-so-subtly reminding Carrie that he’s about a decade older and more experienced — although Carrie remains blindly hopeful that they’ll manage to find their happily ever after, even when he leaves her at the altar.
Your relationship may be able to survive these hurdles, but it will take work, and thinking “love will conquer all” won’t suffice.
Still Can’t Tell? Ask Your Partner These Questions
If you aren’t sure whether your difference in age falls into the category of “bad idea right?,” start by having an open conversation with your partner. (That’s part of the reason being honest is so important in these sitches.) Prescott recommends talking candidly about your age disparity, specifically the ways it may complicate your relationships.
To get that conversation started, Prescott suggests asking yourself some questions: Is the age gap creating an unequal power dynamic? If so, how? Will it prevent us from doing shared interests together? How would that impact our relationship?
By talking it out, you can figure out whether your age gap is too much or just enough — and you can settle on the best path moving forward.
Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., psychologist and creator of Mental Drive
Meredith Prescott, LCSW, couples therapist