Quite recently, I was chatting with a friend of mine about relationships and age differences. While I don’t really have too many answers on the subject, I do have some unique perspectives. Somehow, in my life, “relationship” and “age difference” have always been synonymous.
An interesting factoid about me that most people are surprised to learn is that I’ve never dated anyone younger than myself. Yes, I’ve had occasion to hook up with people younger than myself and gotten myself into complicated and confusing situations with people younger than myself, but even then, I have a 4-year rule. In my world, if you were in elementary school while I happened to be picking out colleges, it’s probably not going to work out.
It’s quite funny, because I’m one of the biggest advocates of the “age is just a number” ideal when it comes to dating people older than myself. On average, most of my relationships have been with those a decade older than myself, although strangely, the ones I tended to see working out for the long run occurred with people “around my own age”. While age may be just a number, the truth of the matter is that people go through phases of life, self-discovery, and maturity, Most people tend to go through these transitions around a certain age range in life (I’ve noticed, with very few exceptions, that 27-28 seems to be a time of chaos and struggle for most people, because it’s the time when your problems officially become “adult” problems. I don’t think it’s coincidental that there’s a “club” of famous and accomplished celebrities who have passed away at this point in time.) The idea of the college student finding himself, the young 20-something disregarding everything in favour of really heavy experience, the 27-year-old realising that she is finally the adult, the 35-year-old realising that he’s not only responsible for himself but for other people, the 50-year-old desperate to recapture lost youth…I think they are phases that happen to most people. If you’re in a relationship with a significant age difference, at some point, someone’s “phase” or growth process will come to matter a great deal.
For me, I think the difference is more pronounced when I encounter someone younger. I don’t have much patience for the shallow or for trying to emotionally connect with people who don’t quite know who they are. I never thought I’d be that person, that someone who was, well—old. I remember being in my mid-20′s, and getting a “here’s why we’re parting company e-mail” from a someone in my life, someone I admired greatly and probably idealised more than I should have. One of the things he said was “When you’re at the age you are now, life is all about heavy experience and figuring out who you are. By the time you reach your 40′s, you’ve already determined that. I’ve already gone through what I’ve gone through. You won’t go through what I’m going through now for quite some time. When you do, you’ll understand this better.”
This, of course, broke my 20-something heart. I’d always thought of myself as “old for my age”–certainly more intelligent, more experienced, more well-traveled. It seemed obvious that’s why I’d consistently bond with people older than me, because guys my own age were too self-centred, cared too much about sex and image, and didn’t know how to behave like the type of man I was looking for. But, in certain other ways, I wasn’t the girl who was ready to settle down, to make commitments, to stay in one place, to stay with one person. I’ve always been the sort for whom my intellectual age and experience surpasses my actual age, but in other ways, I’m exactly like most folks my age (at whatever age that has been.) The older I get, the more I see the person who sent me that e-mail didn’t intend to be hurtful—he was just giving me perspective on a journey he’d already taken, that I’d likely learn to understand in the future.
When I was 17 and in university, I dated a grad student who was finishing up his studies and getting ready to receive his doctorate. There’s something about the academic atmosphere that kind of makes you forget about age, particularly in the world of the arts. There’s a certain change in looks and personality that happens to most people after sophomore year, but for many, it can be difficult to forget there’s any difference between 19 and 29 when you’re working as peers in a collaborative environment.
It didn’t occur to me that I was 17 and dating someone who was nearly 30. It also didn’t occur to me that this happened because, far from being the ingenue, I kind of initiated the situation. I suspect he knew better than to get involved with me, but people don’t always listen to their better judgment, particularly when nobody is being hurt in the *now.*
When I went off to school, a director of mine told me to look up this guy, whom he’d worked with years back and always remembered. He warned me that the guy was talented, brilliant, but difficult in a way that bordered on narcissistic. I’m sure it’s not a surprise to anyone that this hardly dissuaded me from remembering the message. And, although I didn’t actively seek him out, I think the laws of serendipity were on my side, because he ended up in one of my dance classes.
I remember approaching him, introducing myself, and really not planning for any friendship to emerge just because we once worked at the same theatre company. Yet, he was extremely friendly despite the obvious ego, and a friendship naturally developed. It didn’t develop terribly quickly; but I remember going to dance class one day and feeling disappointed that he wasn’t there that day. That’s when it occurred to me to notice, “Hey, maybe I like this guy.”
If I did, I didn’t do anything about it, and neither did he. He started inviting me to parties that freshmen wouldn’t be at. We started hanging out in a group with friends, and never once did he hit on me or make any sort of move. Yet, when I had a family emergency and had to leave for a few days, I was greeted with a bouquet of my favourite flowers, in my favourite colour. It was not an understated, “I went to the Korean grocery and picked these up” kind of move. I’m not sure, to this day, anyone’s ever given me flowers quite like that. It took effort.
Yet, he never asked me out. One Monday, I heard from a friend that he had asked out another girl who was a mutual acquaintance, an anorexic dance major known for her bubbly personality and lack of self-esteem (code for a fragile girl who had no qualms putting out on the first or second date.). It offended me on so many levels. I remember my friend saying, “I just thought you should know, because I thought you guys kind of had something going on”.
We didn’t, but I thought that at some point, we might. I thought naturally, pieces might fall into place. And it offended me that he’d spend all this time and energy on getting close to me, but ask out someone I saw as not even in remotely the same league as me. It didn’t occur to me that I wasn’t sending back the right signals, or the guy wanted to be a good guy by not messing with a 17-year-old girl, or that he might have other connections in his life outside of school and just wanted someone with whom he could have a good time. All I thought was, “I am absolutely heartbroken, because I am so much better than that, and he treats me like I’m special, but I’m not attractive enough for him to ask me out.”
So, in a fit of over-emotional Alayna drama, I pulled a passive-aggressive move that I knew would either work out tremendously well, or end up with me sobbing into my pillow for weeks. I sent a long, rambling e-mail about my feelings, followed by refusing to pick up the phone or staying away from anywhere he might be for days. It was a cause of great turmoil, accompanied by feelings that ranged from “I’m so glad I did that” to “OMG, I’m a fucking idiot, and it’s no wonder I’m going to die alone and without friends”.
Fortunately for the sanity of my roommate, it worked out well. He showed up at my door to “talk”, and the next thing I knew, we were seeing each other, and he’d canceled the date with a now perturbed dance major who didn’t much like me..
We dated for a while, but the reality of the situation was, not much changed. Looking back, I realised I had feelings for him, but didn’t quite understand them. We connected on the intellectual and emotional level I wanted, and we were the best of friends, but I can’t say there was any great passion there. In my mind, we had a relationship because we had a good time together, but I don’t I understood why that “magical” thing I was looking for wasn’t there. Simply put, I didn’t love him. He mattered a lot to me, but I didn’t love him, and he didn’t love me either. It was always as if there were some unspoken limitation.
Around Christmas, I had the opportunity to figure out what that thing was, and what my intuition was telling me. He had his best friend come and pay him a visit from her school in upstate NY. They were around the same age, had known one another for a long time, liked the same things, laughed at a lot of inside jokes, had deep conversation that bored me. I was still immature enough to conclude that she was no threat to me. After all, she was a foot taller and 90 pounds heavier than me. Her fashion sense was what could be described as “I don’t care”, and she came across more condescending than fun. In my mind, she was like a teacher, not like someone I had to worry about as feminine competition.
But that’s when it hit me: She looks that way to me because she’s 30, and she’s an adult. And so is the guy I’m dating.
I started to realise I didn’t want to be the only girl in my sorority who brought someone 13 years older than me to the Winter semi-formal, and when I did, how conspicuous I felt. I started to realise that all the things I found attractive, all the stories about the cool things he’d done in his life, were things I wanted to do and be—and that he would never want to do or be those things again, because he was moving forward. But mostly, I came to realise that the frumpy, condescending girl was indeed my competition.
She didn’t like me, or if she did, she didn’t act as if she did. Mostly, she seemed largely indifferent to my presence. The closest we ever came to bonding was singing musicals together in the car. But, it became awkward to me that when she was in town, my boyfriend would invite me to a party or an event or a show, and it was unspoken that she’d be there, too. I felt oddly like I was dating a couple.
I didn’t say anything about any of these things, and the guy and I were still dating when Easter came around, and his best friend returned for another visit. I studied them very intently; they never flirted, held hands, gave any indication of being a couple. She never seemed jealous of me or put out by my presence. But there was something that upset me, a way they acted that seemed like they just understood one another, that their whole relationship was this endlessly amusing inside joke of which I could never be a part.
One night, we all went to a party, and we all ended up drinking too much. I asked her why it seemed she didn’t like me, and what I’d done to offend her. Her reply was, “I don’t dislike you. I just feel a little sorry for you sometimes, because I know what it’s like when you’re with someone who doesn’t love you.”
It was a painful thing to hear, but not vicious. She was simply a straightforward, cut-and-dried kind of person. It was mostly painful because she said things aloud I’d thought in the back of my mind for a long time. Yet, I never had the courage to ask her the one thing I most wanted to know: “Why are you always here? Why are you this necessary part of our lives?”
One night, on the same visit, my boyfriend and his friends went out to a bar. I couldn’t get into the bar, because they carded, and I was far from either being legal or looking it. Rather than leave with me, he stayed with this out-of-town friend and a few other people I knew. Someone else drove me home. The next morning, we were all going on a road trip, but I wasn’t excited, and I didn’t sleep.
Instead, I just cried. I cried for hours. I realised the simple truth: This guy won’t ever love me because he’s already met his soulmate. I’m just the temporary distraction while they have to be apart. I allowed myself to be the paranoid, jealous person I can be on the inside, and rarely let out. When I called his phone at 2 AM and got no answer, I assumed they were sleeping together.
I’ll never really know what happened, and it’s irrelevant. I know she was at his house in the morning, and had stayed there the night before, whereas they had to come and retrieve me for the road trip. I know I was so hurt I couldn’t even pretend to smile and be amiable. It wasn’t until we got to where we were going, and I met up with other people, that I became even the slightest hint of myself again. People seemed to go out of their way to make me laugh and smile, although nobody asked what was wrong. It was as if everyone knew but me, and I don’t know if I was more hurt by not being loved or by being humiliated in front of others. A good friend of mine was present that day, a guy my own age who got me through that terrible weekend and many other difficult situations over our years together, and I think it was having him there that kept it all together. On the way back, I didn’t even ride in the same car as the guy I’d supposedly been dating, and I don’t even know how much he noticed.
After that, he attempted to act as if everything was fine, and we were great friends and nobody had to be hurt. I couldn’t do it. If I spend a night or two crying over you breaking my heart, we will probably never be great friends. I am still not a big enough person for that. Oddly enough, we never broke up. We simply stopped calling each other, we stopped hanging out in the same groups together, and my friend asked him, “So, are you guys broken up now?”, to which the reply was, “I guess so”. We still had to work together, but we stayed out of each other’s way. I gave a polite smile when we ran into one another. One day, the friend who had rescued me on that horrible trip and I were running around the theatre, attacking each other with newly painted duct tape, laughing like difficult children. We were not a couple, as he was dating someone else, but we were unofficially “sneaking around” in the most unsubtle way ever. Armed with duct tape and laughter, I went into the green room, and saw my ex sitting there. I think there was a collective lightbulb that went off, that said “This is what was always missing, because we couldn’t connect that way”. I don’t know if it had to do with personality or age, or both, but the way we related seemed as if it should be right—yet never was.
At some point, my ex called me up to hang out, and we ended up over at his place. I thought we could be friends again. He’d just broken up with the promiscuous dance major, and was looking for a booty call, which I was still too naive to see. We had a lovely day together, and when I wouldn’t sleep with him, he drove me home. We never saw each other socially again. I think I realised that maybe I could make him a part of my life again if we reconnected physically, but the truth was, nothing about it felt right. I knew I’d miss him terribly, but it couldn’t ever be the thing either of us wanted.
After a few months, things thawed out, and we were cordial again. He graduated with a Ph.D next to his name, as did his friend in upstate NY. They moved to Austin to start a theatre company, and offered me a job if I wanted to come down during the summer.
My junior year, I went into the green room, and looked at the bulletin board that had casting notices, call times, and the like. There was a wedding invitation, and that’s how I learned my ex and his so-called “best friend” were getting married.
I had one in my personal mailbox, as did the friend who helped me through that horrible time. Dignified as ever, I e-mailed them both with congratulations I didn’t mean, and informed them that of course I wouldn’t be attending. I asked them both point blank if they’d been seeing each other during the time we dated, and they both denied it. She actually said “It didn’t even occur to me that I already had what I was looking for until I saw him with what he wasn’t.” (She was always kind of a bitch, come to think of it. )
He was far more gracious, and also denied it. Yet, whether they were sleeping together or romantically involved or not, I knew that she was what made him emotionally unavailable and why I could never connect in the way I wanted to. Sometimes, you just *don’t* know, until you do. Other times, you’re the kind of person who is willing to play people. It’s naive of me, but I still choose to think these people fell into the first category. In the last e-mail we ever exchanged, he wrote, “Things just work out better when two people are at the same place at the same time, and want the same things. That would never happen for us. You had to have known that from the start. You’re always going to be too young for me. You’re going to see and do things you haven’t even thought up yet, and when you do, I hope you’ll tell me about them.”
I never did, of course. Although he was right, I couldn’t let him have the last word, so instead of the traditional wedding card, my UPS-ed gift included a sympathy card, addressed to her. I never spoke to either of them again, but I know they’re happily married forty-somethings with all kinds of degrees, living and teaching and directing in Austin.
Ironically, The Guy I Am Currently Dating is around the same age as this guy, which I have no doubt he’d find amusing. Most of the time, I don’t consider the age difference as—well, a difference. Yet, there are times when my irresponsibility and insistence on always going out and doing things and tendency to be a little emotionally draining gets to him, and we have arguments. Likewise, there are times when I know he’d rather go home early or falls asleep at midnight on a Friday, and I can’t help but feel restless and bored. There are times when I recognise that when he was going through early adolescence, I was busy being born. Sometimes, I think it’s necessary for both of us to bond with people closer to our own age, people who can relate to problems and experiences and cultural references.
As you get older, it is possible that age becomes less of a big deal. When you’re a freshman in high school, dating a senior is a big deal. When you’re a freshman in university, dating a grad student is a huge age difference. When you’re 30, dating someone who is 50 is typically a challenge. However, I try to remember that when I’m 63, it doesn’t matter if the person I’m with is 59 or 79. We’re all just going to be old.
As much as I’d like to say age is irrelevant, it’s not. The professors who date their students aren’t going to marry them. The cougars who pick up 18-year-old boys aren’t looking for love and connection. There are exceptions, but as a general rule, people need to be able to relate to one another—and part of that is being on the same part of the path in your journey. Can people of different ages do that? Of course. But I think the age itself matters. Someone who is 21 isn’t going to have a clue who they are compared to a significant other of 31, and it is this growth process, rather than age, that causes things not to work out.
Almost serendipitously, I met a guy from London in a bar the other evening. He attempted to chat me up, and was pleasant enough company, but I had to laugh when I found out he was 21. The friend he’d brought with him was 19. He likely considered it a compliment to tell me that I reminded him of Lena Dunham in “Girls” (note: being compared to an unattractive celebrity is not a compliment.), but I think it’s also very telling that he chose that as a cultural reference we might share. It made me remember that when I was his age, I was watching “Sex And The City”, and he likely has no idea who the hell Carrie Bradshaw is.
I left him laughing, because part of me wonders if in 10 years, I’ll totally be into the idea that a 21-year-old is trying to pick me up. Somehow, I suspect that won’t be the case.