Sunlit Water

November 10, 2006

No Thanks, Mrs. Robinson

Filed under: Personal — by teofilo @ 12:05 am

I don’t have a whole lot of hang-ups about relationships. Part of that is, of course, the lack of experience; there’s no way I could even begin to make up a list of people I won’t date, because I don’t even know what attributes I like and dislike. But it’s also that, as I mentioned recently, being alone has given me a lot of time to think about what I really want, and all that thinking has made me realize that there are very few things about a woman that would make me uncomfortable dating her a priori. Race, religion, educational background: not issues for me. There is, however, one factor that does make me a little wary, and that’s age difference.

I think a lot of this goes back to my family situation; my sister is 22 months younger than me but only a year behind me in school, so most of the younger girls I knew growing up were her friends (who I considered obviously off-limits to me for dating purposes). At the same time, there was a persistent tendency for girls to date older boys, so the girls my own age, the main objects of my affection, were always dating (sometimes much) older guys. I was hugely resentful of that at the time, and I felt kind of trapped because of it; I didn’t feel right dating younger, because of my sister, but I couldn’t date girls my own age because they weren’t interested. Obviously this wasn’t universally true–the one girlfriend I did have in high school was in my year, and there were others who I later found out had had crushes on me–but it seemed like it at the time, and I was mostly focusing on the hott girls, who were the ones dating the sketchy older dudes. I later realized that those girls were really obnoxious and I didn’t really miss out on anything, but it sucked at the time.

I once asked my sister why girls always wanted to date older guys, and she said it was because the older guys were so much more attractive. That was not a reassuring answer.

I never even considered dating older girls; I figured they would be totally uninterested in me given the dynamic I mentioned above. I never did find out if that was accurate. In any case, I was way too shy back then to make any bold moves against the prevailing mores.

When I got to college, at first I kept up with just going after the girls in my year, but after a few of my attempts were rebuffed and I realized that being so strict about the age thing was not helping, I started to branch out a little toward the upper end and ask some girls in the year ahead of mine. That didn’t work either, but they were better fits for me personality-wise and I ended up staying friends with some of them. I haven’t yet attempted going down a year or two (not as much of a problem now that my sister isn’t around), but I’ve considered it and still may. I’m a little skittish on account of all the rejection, though, so I don’t know when I’ll feel up to it.

One thing I find a little creepy, though this is mainly just my own hang-ups stemming from the other issues, is relationships with big age differences. This was recently brought up elsewhere. Older man/younger woman is obviously the more common of such pairings, but older woman/younger man happens too. I know there’s nothing wrong with such relationships as long as both parties are consenting adults who know what they’re getting into, but I can’t help but feel a little uncomfortable about them. Again, no offense to those who are in them; this is just a personal thing of mine. My sister met a guy this summer who was several years older than her, and although I found it a little uncomfortable to talk about I didn’t have any problem with it as long as she was happy. They broke up recently, but I haven’t talked to her about it so I don’t know if the age difference played a role or not.

I do, however, wonder how this sort of thing works. I’d appreciate some comments from people who have been in relationships like this; how is it different from being with someone your own age? Do people look at you funny? If so, how do you deal with that? And, for me the big one, what makes someone seek out this kind of thing? Because I really just can’t imagine it.

That is to say, I don’t see myself ever looking for someone more than a few years older or younger than me. In fact, that’s the one thing I can think of that would make me think twice about going out with someone right off the bat, and I think it would be hard to overcome. I don’t care what other people do, but I don’t think I’d be comfortable in a situation like that. But like I say, I don’t know about any of this from personal experience, so I invite any and all thoughts on this issue.

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39 Comments »

  1. Hmph. This post has me thoroughly stumped. I don’t usually notice age at all, at least not early on. I’m twenty-four, and my most recent romantic relationships (some spanning months, some weeks) have been with people who are twenty-nine, eighteen, twenty-four, and twenty-two (obviously not all at the same time, ahem). I never noticed funny looks, nor did I feel age-conscious in any of the relationships.

    I guess my question is, how do you know how old someone is when you first interact? The eighteen-year-old girl I briefly dated: very mature, and she had been hanging around the broader social group for years. I assumed she was in her twenties, if not exactly my age. By the time I found out, I was surprised, but she’d already piqued my interest. Similar story with the twenty-nine-year-old: by the time age came up, I was already too interested for anything more than a “oh, really? hmph”-type reaction.

    (I suppose my experience corresponds to a post-university cohort, where age is less perceptible, so maybe it’s just that.)

    Comment by Stanley — November 10, 2006 @ 12:50 am |Reply

  2. Yeah, that’s probably a lot of it; in high school and college it’s always pretty obvious how old everyone is. Also, pretty much all the girls I ask out I’ve known for a long time already, so I already know a lot about them including their ages.

    Comment by teofilo — November 10, 2006 @ 12:57 am |Reply

  3. pretty much all the girls I ask out

    At the risk of going OT, I’m curious: what do you mean by “ask out”? Are these formal dates? More-informal “let’s get coffee”-type deals? Group outings at which you arrive “together”?

    Comment by Stanley — November 10, 2006 @ 1:09 am |Reply

  4. Generally informal “let’s get coffee” things. Misinterpretations have often abounded.

    Comment by teofilo — November 10, 2006 @ 1:13 am |Reply

  5. First of all: hey!

    I don’t see myself ever looking for someone more than a few years older or younger than me.
    Do you go looking? It sounds like you look around, unless you’re dismissing the older women you see around you. (And since for me, “a few” = 3, that removes just one age group from “younger than” you.) Don’t you need to befriend older women in order to observe whether they’d be a good match for you?

    Why limit yourself?

    Comment by ~Macarena~ — November 10, 2006 @ 1:20 am |Reply

  6. I mostly just look around at this point, but that’s not getting me anywhere and at some point I’m probably going to have to go looking. “A few” is probably 3-5 for me; I suppose when I get out in the world it won’t be as easy to tell someone’s age just by looking at them, but basically if it looks like they’re significantly older, I’m not going to bother.

    Why limit myself? I don’t know. There’s something relating to having broadly shared experiences about it, but mostly I think it’s just an illogical quirk of mine. Lots of people limit themselves in various ways, and this is mine.

    I’m finding these reactions a bit surprising. I guess I hadn’t realized how unusual this attitude is.

    Comment by teofilo — November 10, 2006 @ 1:25 am |Reply

  7. You’re making future projections. You don’t know how you’ll feel when you’re out in the world, much less over time. You’re ruling out populations with whom you are not familiar. My point was, right now, you probably wouldn’t date a 17-year-old, so you can only go four years younger, and you’re trying to limit even that.

    High school boys were painfully immature. Maybe it was just a social awkwardness, but that’s as much as I can give them, since the bastards didn’t approach or ask me out.

    I don’t know that it’s unusual, but it’s surprising because you didn’t mention there was an exception, and “Why limit yourself?” is an idea I learned from you. Coo coo cachoo.

    (Didn’t there used to be a Preview option?)

    Comment by ~Macarena~ — November 10, 2006 @ 9:17 am |Reply

  8. You know where I stand on this, I suppose. I’ve dated almost exclusively men who are older than me, to the point that my current beau, who is eight years older, comes as a great relief to my parents, who got used to thinking of all my boyfriends as 18-19 years older.

    Did people stare? Yes. They were incredibly rude. White women in their 40’s, especially, had huge hang-ups about seeing me with Max, as if I’d taken one of “their” men. His kids’ friends’ parents would come up to me at birthday parties and talk to me as if I was the whore they could get dirt from. “Oh, you must love Max. He bakes bread! It’s so erotic! Do you ever read to one another during sex?” It was gross and rude and I came to have a horrible loathing for bourgeois middle-aged white ladies.

    But other things about dating older men are really great. They aren’t as freaked out by body-stuff, for one thing. Sex is a lot more fun when you’re not worried that getting your period, finding a patch of cellulite, or making bodily sounds is going to scar the chap for life. Older guys are much better about this.

    I don’t date younger guys for a lot of reasons, not least of which is I am not interested in being anyone’s sexual tutor (though, take heart, America, I think there are quite a few ladies who are). Secondly, I am the “older woman figure” for a lot of my young, male students. While I’m glad they are capable of seeing intelligent women as sexually interesting, I am not going near that stuff, and it’s best to keep lines clearly drawn.

    There’s an ugly dichotomy, I think, between young women with older men (which confers status and respect on the man) and older women and younger men (which makes the woman look trifling and selfish). Make of that what you will.

    Comment by A White Bear — November 10, 2006 @ 9:53 am |Reply

  9. 7: True, I don’t know how I’ll feel when I’m out in the world, and it’s quite possible that this will change. I’m not putting this forth as an ironclad rule for how people should behave or anything, and I think I’ve put a lot of caveats in the post about how this is just a personal idiosyncrasy of mine. This post isn’t really meant to mean that I’ll never expand my horizons, I’m just describing something about myself and my approach to relationships that’s a little unusual (though I hadn’t realized quite how unusual). I guess I had sort of assumed that lots of people feel this way, and those who don’t are the exception, which would explain the tone of my questions. It now seems like I’m the exception and people who are comfortable with big age differences are the rule. Interesting.

    (Never been a preview button. It would be nice to have one, but it’s not in the template and there’s not much I can do.)

    Comment by teofilo — November 10, 2006 @ 10:21 am |Reply

  10. 8: Yeah, that’s pretty much what I figured about your situation form your previous comments. How do you feel about this generally? Do you think my attitude or yours is more common?

    Comment by teofilo — November 10, 2006 @ 10:22 am |Reply

  11. Probably yours, Teo, or something in between. I imagine most people don’t think about it much because dating outside their own age-group is more difficult than dating people their own age. I am apparently rather unattractive to men 30 and younger, so my age-thing might be a practical decision as well.

    Comment by A White Bear — November 10, 2006 @ 10:44 am |Reply

  12. I think this is complicated, in your case, by the fact that you’re still very young, which makes age differences larger. IMO, the problem with age differences either way is the power differential — that older people tend to be emotionally stronger and more self-assured than younger people, and can therefore dominate their partners. (Which explains why, as AWB says, older man relationships are better thought of than older woman relationships — dominant men are strong and manly, while dominant women are castrating bitches.) And I don’t think relationships with large power differentials are likely to be good ones.

    But where your age comes in is that very small age differences make a huge difference when you’re in your teens and early twenties. A seventeen-year-old is likely to be much more emotionally mature than and able to push around a fifteen-year-old; a college senior likewise with a college freshman. The older you get, though, the less difference age makes — I met Buck when he was 29 and I was 24, and it’s always felt like a peer relationship, without a significant difference (although I bet it wouldn’t have if I’d met him either a year or two earlier). And by the time you’re thirty or so, I think you’re pretty much as emotionally together as you’re going to get, making age difference fairly unimportant from that point on. (Barring annoying bullshit about gender-based differentials in perceived attractiveness between older men and older women, but that’s really a separate issue.)

    So, while at your age, I pretty much agree with you that significant age differences are a bad thing, I also think that that’s a factor that will rapidly grow less important as you age a couple more years.

    Comment by LizardBreath — November 10, 2006 @ 11:40 am |Reply

  13. “either a year or two” s/b “even a year or two”.

    Comment by LizardBreath — November 10, 2006 @ 11:41 am |Reply

  14. Yeah, I’ve thought a lot about the fact that this matters a lot more for younger people (although I didn’t mention it in the post). My attitudes will probably change as I get older. For one thing, as I mentioned in response to Stanley, when you’re in an environment like high school or college it’s very easy to tell how old everyone is, either by physical cues when people are still growing or by external factors like what classes they’re taking. I assume this changes once you graduate and enter the real world, where age cues are not obvious at all with very broad ranges.

    Speaking of which, I’d like to clarify something that I think most people are picking up on but some might have missed: when I talk about age differences in the second half of the post, I’m basically dividing people into two groups. These are (a) those who are around my age and (b) those who are not. Within group (a) age differences don’t matter at all, and indeed are hard to detect. Group (b) (which given my age is basically people older than me) is where I start to get uncomfortable. This would be people who are older than me by a large enough margin that I can tell that at a glance (though I may not be sure of their exact ages). So I think situations like Stanley’s aren’t really what I’m addressing here.

    Comment by teofilo — November 10, 2006 @ 11:49 am |Reply

  15. Yeah, this is all also complicated by the fact that lots of people don’t find power differentials unseemly, but actively seek them out — that’s why a norm is high school senior boys dating high school sophomore girls, or men in their forties dating women in their twenties. (And to analyze AWB’s dating career without having been asked, age differences can also be used to equalize perceived power differentials. I wouldn’t be surprised if her tendency not to end up with men her own age were explained by a perception on their parts that she had a more powerful personality than they could feel like an equal in a relationship with, while older men are less intimidated by a strong personality.)

    Comment by LizardBreath — November 10, 2006 @ 12:05 pm |Reply

  16. I think the power differential thing is the main reason this stuff bothers me so much. I can’t stand the thought of being in a relationship where there’s any power differential at all. I suppose in practical terms that’s impossible, but I really want to minimize the potential for it.

    Comment by teofilo — November 10, 2006 @ 12:21 pm |Reply

  17. 14: I was thinking about this more this morning, and I realized that my experience doesn’t include examples of perceived age difference, which is what it seems you were really getting at. Also, I think LB’s ideas about power differentials are spot-on.

    Comment by Stanley — November 10, 2006 @ 12:29 pm |Reply

  18. That’s a more elegant formulation of what I’m talking about than my two groups.

    Comment by teofilo — November 10, 2006 @ 12:53 pm |Reply

  19. [de-lurks]

    I think the impulse to stay close in age is basically sound. The most important thing about a partner is that they are looking for similar things in life, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that people at or near the same point in life’s arc are going to be there. As life unfolds, experiences are had together: settling on the geography that works for careers, buying a house, decisions about children, figuring out where to vacation, what social groups to be in, and the rest. Obviously this isn’t required at all, but there’s a logic to it as a default position.

    I agree with LB about the power differential, and see it playing out to the serious detriment of a number of women I know. It’s undoubtedly an artifact of who I know, but the power problem I see most often is strong smart women that men are apparently too scared to date. It’s awful. What are they supposed to do? Play dumb?* For this reason, my reaction to the notion that one should try to minimize power differential is ‘don’t limit yourself.’ At least as regards women whose apparent power — including strength of character or personality — exceeds your own.

    * One problem with finding a man old enough to have sufficient power from mere age to overcome or equal the woman’s power from personality/intelligence is that for a number of women this really runs into the issue in the first paragraph. I’m thinking about a colleague of mine: 36, whip smart, clever, fun, attractive (but not vain about her looks). In a rational world, she’d be fighting off suitors. As it is, men her age are too intimidated by her intelligence, and men who wouldn’t be — say in their 50s — aren’t as interested in starting a family. For which, for her, the time has more or less arrived. One can hope it’ll all work out, and I really wish I knew suitable men with whom to set her up.

    Comment by CharleyCarp — November 10, 2006 @ 1:31 pm |Reply

  20. Aw, and I thought I was your SnackyCakes!

    Comment by heebie_geebie — November 10, 2006 @ 3:10 pm |Reply

  21. You will always be my SnackyCakes.

    Comment by teofilo — November 10, 2006 @ 3:19 pm |Reply

  22. Yay! I’ll hold you to that, when I’m 64. Next month.

    Comment by heebie_geebie — November 10, 2006 @ 3:43 pm |Reply

  23. I’ve always been attracted to women older than I. Most of the women I hit on in college were a few to several years older, and did not reciprocate; a few were the same age or younger, and mostly did not reciprocate, and the few that did led to brief, troubled relationships. Finally got lucky with my current (and first) wife, who is 2 decades my senior.

    Comment by The Modesto Kid — November 10, 2006 @ 3:57 pm |Reply

  24. What is it that you generally find attractive about older women, if you don’t mind my asking?

    Comment by teofilo — November 10, 2006 @ 4:03 pm |Reply

  25. Hm, interesting.

    I realized recently that most guys I’ve dated (and certainly the ones I think of most fondly) have been my age, or up to five or six years younger than me. I don’t find myself that attracted to older men and I find besides that they tend to be miore aggressive, bossy and cranky than younger guys. IME, older men aren’t necessarily better in bed, either. And if they’ve come out of a long-term relationship, they’re sort of “imprinted” with the tastes and proclivities of the person they were last with, so they often have to be retrained (icky word, but I can’t think of how else to say it).

    One of my best friends years ago was 28 when she started dating a 64-year-old retired steelworker. She wrote an article about it that got published in the Globe & Mail: “When I first started going out with him, he asked me, ‘Where have you been all my life?’ I answered, ‘Well, for the first 35 years I wasn’t born; for the next 16 it was illegal for you to touch me; then you were married; then I was in a relationship, and now here we are.'”

    Comment by dagger aleph — November 10, 2006 @ 7:00 pm |Reply

  26. That’s a very funny line.

    34 — Well it’s hard to answer that. In a way it’s like trying to explain why I like (say) orange juice; and it’s also quite different from that. If I were to try answering it, I’d probably end up saying something like “the air of maturity and wisdom/experience that older woman for whom I have fallen exude (or which I perceive them to do) works on me like an erectile-dysfunction drug” — but that would not be quite what I meant you see.

    Comment by The Modesto Kid — November 10, 2006 @ 10:31 pm |Reply

  27. (BTW has anyone here seen “Cleo de 17h à 19h”? It is what I’m watching right now and it is blowing my mind.)

    Comment by The Modesto Kid — November 10, 2006 @ 10:32 pm |Reply

  28. (See my latest blog entry for a bit quoted from that film.)

    Comment by The Modesto Kid — November 10, 2006 @ 10:33 pm |Reply

  29. I may as well weigh in. When I was 21, and new to New York, 27 year olds seemed to hail from empyrean heights. I only ever hooked up with them, didn’t attempt relationships, though if I had I’m not sure that I wouldn’t have discovered pretty quickly that they put their pants on one leg at at time; I’m not sure that the power differential would have persisted. On the internets, I explicitly excluded men who were older than 34 or so for a long time. Right before I started dating Graham, I went out with this guy I met in meatspace and was surprised, and a little discomfited, to find out on a second date, after we made out, that he was 35. I don’t remember what prompted me to jettison age restrictions (actually, I think I must have done so before I met the 35 year old, because I’d gone out on a date the previous winter with a 42 yo). On the first date with Graham, I relied heavily on my inability to eat to signal to me that I was attracted to him, because my conscious mind had trouble getting past the fact that he really looked middle aged. I mean, I think most people would say Graham is handsome for a (then 46 year old), but he doesn’t look younger than his age; he has wrinkles, gray hair, a belly, the whole bit. In fact, when I first described him to people I emphasized these attributes, and then people met him and said, “he’s, uh, really cute, which is not how I pictured him from your description.” Anyway, I didn’t sense that much bitchiness from people in my immediate environs about the age gap, though I can be oblivious, but it does kind of bother me, when–and this happened on Unfogged–people throw around the term “creepy” to describe a category, rather than a dynamic. I was largely such a happy little clam with him that it mildly irritated me that other people were asserting some aesthetic of coupling that I wasn’t conforming to. As for the internal relationship dynamics, I think I may irrationally attribute some of the positive things to his age, when really they were just his personality traits. He is very emotionally mature and deals with conflict in a loving way. In this respect I thought he was sometimes my teacher, of a sort. I would see him being loving and patient in the middle of a fight and eventually it felt absurd not to emulate him. Of course, there were times when he was horribly babyish. That mostly related to alcohol consumption. And maybe some of that was age, but it doesn’t follow that I could reliably find those things in someone else his age. I was discussing with my therapist how babyish the man who kicked me out after sex because he would freak out about intimacy if he saw me there in the morning was being, and I said “I would expect a 42 year old man to be more grown up” and then I corrected myself to say, “Maybe I wouldn’t expect it, but I would hope” and my therapist said, “I was gonna say…”

    Graham and I did have some parental dynamics in our relationship, but neither of us particularly minded that. He liked being caretaker; I liked being taken care of. (Obviously this sometimes reversed, but it was that way more often than not.) It didn’t translate into one of us having more or less power than the other.

    I used to have huge problems with men finding me intimidating; they would say as much; I never find that to be the case with older men, although I find it (maybe this is me being neurotic) perhaps less likely that I would intimidate anyone because I’m a
    less intellectually fertile than I was when I was closer in time to the period of my life when I had lots of challenging work. Also, older men seem more attracted to me, and there is something comforting when there’s a huge age gap, because it means that even if I don’t pay a ton of attention to my weight or my clothes, I get to be the hot one. OTOH, I may just be noticing less when men my age express interest, because I am unconsciously screening them out. I’ve had a bit of a “replace Graham” impulse since we’ve broken up, and my lizard brain wants someone older and someone with his body type.

    Also, an age difference isn’t a bad accessory for power exchange sex, since it comes with all sorts of connotations of power differentials.

    Comment by Tia — November 12, 2006 @ 12:01 pm |Reply

  30. Strangely enough, Teo, I’ve also felt that men my age were unattainable, because they were too busy dating younger women. I’ve only ever dated older men (with one exception–I had a brief fling with a 22-year-old when I was 24, which was not one of my better experiences), but not with huge margin. My four serious boyfriends have been 5, 7, 6, and 2 years older than me, respectively. I think all the other men I’ve hooked up with have been older as well.

    I think in my case, going for older has to do with the power differential/intimidation factor. I don’t know if it’s a particularly gendered thing, I think if I were a lesbian, I would be dating older women, too. Because I have accomplished a lot for my age, and at least am more intellectually (and I hope emotionally) mature than people my age, I tend to be friends with and date people all older than I am. But, that’s mainly my personal perspective.

    Comment by m. leblanc — November 12, 2006 @ 5:59 pm |Reply

  31. Interesting. What I’m basically taking from all this is that the power differential is the important thing about these relationships (at least when the man is the older partner), and for some people that’s a benefit while for others it’s a turnoff.

    Comment by teofilo — November 12, 2006 @ 6:35 pm |Reply

  32. (at least when the man is the older partner)

    As a data point, I dont think there is precisely the power dynamic that Tia is talking about going on between my wife and me.

    Comment by The Modesto Kid — November 13, 2006 @ 8:10 am |Reply

  33. Technically, you know, I said neither of us had more power than the other in the relationship, only that there were associations to power dynamics.

    Comment by Tia — November 13, 2006 @ 1:07 pm |Reply

  34. It’s the associations I mean; obviously not every relationship like this actually has imbalances of power, but that’s the way they tend to be perceived socially, so even in ones that don’t there are associations like that.

    I’m increasingly thinking something else is going on when the woman is the older partner. I think I’ll do another post about that.

    Comment by teofilo — November 13, 2006 @ 3:38 pm |Reply

  35. Haven’t read the thread, but…

    most of the younger girls I knew growing up were [my sister’s] friends (who I considered obviously off-limits to me for dating purposes)

    *travels back in time to bang head against wall*

    Comment by Matt Weiner — November 13, 2006 @ 9:32 pm |Reply

  36. Yeah, I’ve since realized that was probably a bad call.

    Comment by teofilo — November 13, 2006 @ 9:42 pm |Reply

  37. I am like TMK in that my wife is close to two decades older than me. The funny thing is that I didn’t go looking for an older woman, and before my relationship with her I don’t think I had even given the idea much thought. She looks much younger than her age, and it was some time into our relationship before I found out exactly how much older than me she was. The somewhat surprising thing is how unimportant our age difference is, to me at least. Most of the time, it is easy to forget that there is any difference between our ages.

    Comment by My Alter Ego — November 15, 2006 @ 11:01 am |Reply

  38. Most of the time, it is easy to forget that there is any difference between our ages

    This, exactly.

    Comment by The Modesto Kid — November 15, 2006 @ 2:34 pm |Reply

  39. Huh. I guess I just have a hard time imagining what that would be like. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone that much older than me who had that much in common with me.

    Comment by teofilo — November 15, 2006 @ 3:07 pm |Reply


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