Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Dismaying Story #42: When an Age Gap Doesn't Work

Dear Andrew,

I am a child of divorce. I divorced myself after 3 years of marriage and two children. I am now 34 and I have pretty much not had a healthy successful relationship in say, oh, NEVER. I feel lonely a lot and even though my life is very full with my kids who are active in school and community activities I have felt something missing in my life for quite some time. I am a very attractive lady and have been on MANY dates with many nice men. But I have yet to find someone that I want to spend forever with. I recently started seeing a man I met at work and I have fallen very hard for him. I can’t stop thinking about him and I want to spend every moment with him. I am good at keeping it in check around him and I don’t think he realizes how I feel. Here is the problem. He is 20 years old. Logically I realize this can never go anywhere and I am just trying to ride out the storm. I want to know why this happened to me. Why couldn’t I have these feelings with someone my age that I could possibly have a future with? I am SO confused. I think about him all the time and I STILL feel lonely ALL the time. HELP!!

Sincerely, Lonely Old Lady

Dear Lonely,

First of all, you are far from old. I suspect many readers of this site would dearly love to return to thirty-four. I know that's unlikely to help you, though. You FEEL like life is passing you by. You very much want to share life with someone special and the best you seem able to manage is to yearn for a much younger man. I can understand the feeling but nonetheless it must be said -- you are still an attractive woman with a long road ahead of you.

Can relationships possibly work with such an age difference? Certainly. We even have a common term for them, the May-December romance. In your case it's more like March-June, though. One of the most well-known relationships of this type is the 2005 marriage of Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, who at the time were 42 and 27, respectively. There is even an online dating service for people seeking age gap relationships, which is now apparently the more politically correct term.

Most people tend to be uncomfortable with such age gaps, however, and your letter makes it clear this is the case with you. Technically speaking you are old enough to be his mother. You realize many people would look askance at this relationship and the young man is also unlikely to see much of a future in it. More than that, you have not consistently sought out age gap relationships in the past. This is an anomaly for you. You didn't ask: "How can I make this work?" Instead you asked: "I am in yet another dysfunctional relationship and would like to know why."

As always, I cannot come to a definitive conclusion based solely on a letter. I can, however, make a few educated assumptions and hopefully point you in the most likely direction.

One term keeps popping into my head as I review your letter: fear of failure, where "fear" is the most salient word. You have experienced several failed relationships, including your parents, your marriage and a string of dating attempts. I suspect you have an extremely low opinion of your ability to make a relationship work. You have become conditioned to expect relationships to fail, especially those involving you.

After a while this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you begin dating someone you ask yourself if he could be the one. Is it worth going for it? Should you roll the dice and really try to make this one work? The answer is tied up in whether you think this relationship has a good chance of succeeding. After all, who wants to invest all that time and effort if the result is likely to be failure and pain? Unfortunately you believe failure is likely for virtually every guy you meet because every such relationship involves one fatal flaw -- you. That scared part of your inner self huddles in the corner of your mind, shaking with fear because of the relationship trauma you have suffered in the past. You keep waiting for that perfect guy to show up, the one where the fit is so incredibly right that this relationship MUST succeed, regardless of your ineptness.

You never meet that guy, though, because he doesn't exist. Every potential partner is human and therefore imperfect. Every relationship involves compromise and adjustment to make it work, all the skills you are convinced you will never possess. Meanwhile the elevator music playing in the back of your mind is a constant litany of "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" and "Breaking Up is Hard to Do." I suspect this has a lot to do with why you have dated many nice men but have never decided to attempt a serious relationship with any of them.

Your co-worker is different. For some reason he doesn't threaten you the way the others did. I can't be certain of why, but I have to wonder if the unworkable nature of this relationship is also a large part of its appeal. You don't have to worry that you will be the reason for this one failing. It is already pre-destined to fail because of factors that have nothing to do with your perceived inadequacies. If (strike that -- when) this one goes down the tubes, your traumatized inner self reasons, it will not be yet another knock on your self-esteem. This one will not be your fault. It's because of your ages. So ... no pressure. Enjoy the ride for a while. Unfortunately, regardless of the reasons, you can see where you are going to end up and you don't like the view.

Your fears pose extra challenges for you in any relationship. If you become involved with a guy, you look constantly for signs that the dam is about to burst. Any turmoil may be interpreted as affirmation of your fear. "See? There we go again, failing. I better bail before things become too awful." Again, you create exactly that which you fear.

A more secure person often reacts to relationship turmoil differently. "This sucks. I know I can make everything all right again, now I just have to figure out how." For this reason, a confident person can have a better chance of sticking with a relationship for the long term.

I suggest the first step in making any relationship work is to heal yourself. You need to work past the effects of all that negative conditioning. Ideally you would like to develop positive expectations about your ability to succeed. This is a steep hill to climb alone. You may want to consider seeing a professional who can help you work through your fear. Behavioral psychologists are often qualified to help with this sort of issue, and may also be a source of help for learning confidence-boosting relationship management skills such as effective communication, conflict management and cooperative negotiation. A wide variety of self-help books are also available on these topics.

I suspect you will be in a much better position to assess potential partners once you develop more confidence in yourself. It will be like looking in the display case at the pastry shop: "Yum! I know I can handle that!"

All the best,

If you haven't already done so, don't forget to check out this week's Ask the Faithful Readers question. I will post my favorite response next weekend with a link to the winner's blog. Also, if there is anything you would like to know about me or this site, now is your chance. Your interview questions are needed so I can be interviewed online. You can find the details here.


  1. As per usual Andrew, great answer.

    I am totally of the opinion that age is of little relevance in an adult relationship. My husband is a few years younger than I am and I was quite bothered by that in the beginning. We were so compatible in other ways that it didn't take long to figure out that age is really of little significance so long as we were both on the same page with everything else.

  2. speaking from experience - you hit the nail on the head ,as they say...

    i was a person who was fearful of relationships..my ex left me with two small children to raise and no job - one day he was there and the next he was not...i resolved to never be dependent on another man...sigh, and this lastest for over 20 years...

    even now, in a good relationship, i question if he is good for me

    however for me, it's not the fear of failure but the fear of getting hurt again...the pain kept me safe...and until i let it go and realized that all relationships are good and bad/pain..just like the ones with the kids were when they were teens - grin

  3. I really don't think 14 years is as big of a gap.

  4. Thanks for dropping by - I like your blog - you seem very perceptive - I love psychology - that college in Florida had a 4 year counseling program, heavy on family systems, but i only got two years before it closed - also an AA in Multimedia Production later on. Don't think IT and counseling are a bit odd together - balances out both sides of the brain!

  5. Once again, nice advice Dr. Andrew. I wish the letter-writer the best of luck.

  6. My husband is 10 years older than I, age is not an issue. Happiness is an issue.

    The thing that struck a chord with me in the letter, is my memory of the same feelings.

    When I was first left alone with 3 children, I was also lonely and lost. It is hard to raise 1 child alone, anymore and you are just trying to stay above water.

    The load that is on your shoulders as a single parent day in and day out, is so large that you feel it while you sleep. If child "a" gets in trouble, you have to go "alone" to face the music. It is a humiliating experience and without the other parent it is an all consuming life issue.

    What I am so clumsily trying to get at, is that life is so "large" for a single parent. This size thing interfers with every conceivable working of a persons mind. Sometimes the need for a "break" or "help" is so over bearing that you begin to see escape paths through the wrong people. I personally recall this.

    Looking back, I see the error, but at the time I thought it was the right thing. A younger man, is innocent in comparison and as I see it have a in grained desire to help. This brings down our walls, at least mine, and brings us these feelings that are sometimes misleading.

    This is what I hear in the writers voice - probably clouded by my past. But, possible.

  7. This story was about me. Not the age difference, but the part about making relationships a self-fulfilling prophecy. Just replace the gender.

  8. I have been in several relationships with younger men. I have one rule. You must be older than my oldest child and younger than my father. Okay, so it's a broad rule! I wound up dating a man who was twenty years my junior a few years ago. I should have kept it at a casual level, but he pressed for more seriousness. I don't think age is really an issue, but his lack of experience with relationships did cloud his thinking and his responses. I make it clear to every man I date, once it seems we might be dating awhile, that I don't intend to get married, that I am financially retarded and will be of no financial use to him as a partner, etc. This young man, after a time, thought I either changed, or would change. This I do attribute mainly to his immaturity level (not that age has anything to do with maturity). When he realized I wasn't changing, he became verbally abusive and I ended the union immediately. His response to that was bitter and it turned very ugly. So I say it's best to be carefuly that, no matter how charismatic a man (or woman) is, you have some real open communication and understanding about expectations.

    I'm 46 years old now (and by the way, I don't think I'm one bit old ~ neither would I want to be one minute younger ~ I've earned every bit of my life and I ain't givin any of it back!). I have been in a committed relationship with a man for a year now. He is eleven years younger than I am. (I can't really go out with men who are my age. They can't keep up with me!) But the relationship works because, although it is exclusive, we do not live together. We do not share any manner of living expenses or really, anything at all! He takes me out. He pays for dinner and entertainment(although sometimes I do, and I almost always leave the tip) and it's like being in a constant state of dating. There is absolutely no stress. People ask me if we are going to move to the next level and move in together or something to which I say, "What? And add stress to the mix? You're outta your mind!" Now whether or not this man will enjoy this forever, I have no idea. But it's enjoyable while it lasts. I have no desire to necessarily find someone who will be my forever. I have a full and happy life, whether there is a man in it or not. I am happy alone and I am happy with someone. It's of no matter to me. The only man who has ever really and truly been there for me no matter what, is my father.

  9. Lonely old Lady3:02 PM

    From the letter writer:
    I have no idea how, from one letter, you can nail me down that precisely. That is truly, truly amazing. I thank you for your advice. I am going to put myself in therapy and hope that some day I can conquer this fear of failure. Thank you so much Dr. Andrew, you are truly insightful.

  10. Dear Lonely Not-so-old Lady,
    This site takes several hours a day to maintain. Comments like yours make all that effort completely worthwhile for me. I'm glad if I was able to help. Good luck!

  11. Anonymous1:57 PM

    14 years is a not a big age gap at all. I know a place named Agelessfriends.com , where people are seeking relationsips of more than 10 years age gap.

  12. Anonymous2:52 PM

    Your 4o odd and dont want to be a day younger? Thats really weird, I'm 19 and want to be younger. I feel ancient now. By the way is it ok for a 19 year old to go out with a 16 year old if they havent had any realtionships themselves and have no real money power, as the issue of control does not exist? Cos I do not really like the demands that would be made of me emotionally or practically by folk of the exact same age, n i also dont want some girl pestering me, I know Im imature yet in the things that really matter I am a lot mature. I aint streetwise either. Naive definately so is it morally ok?