When You’re a Lot Older or Younger Than Your Partner
Here’s what Sean Barry knew from the start about Sarah: She owned a house. She managed a bustling coffee shop. She was assertive; on their first date, she asked a stranger at a bar to move over so the two could nab seats next to each other.
So he was startled to learn that Sarah was just 23. She felt the same shock when Sean revealed his age: 47. “I thought, ‘Oh, that’s pretty old,’” she remembers.
But the age gap didn’t deter them. Six years later, they are married, living in the Philadelphia house they rehabbed together, and raising two children: a 10-month-old daughter and Sean’s 16-year-old son from a previous marriage.
“Most of my life, I’ve tended to gravitate toward people older than I am,” Sarah says. “Age is just a number. People say we were in such different stages in life. I never felt that.”
Sean likes to joke that the two “meet in the middle,” where Sarah’s ambition, drive, and planning dovetail with his live-in-the-moment temperament.
She taught him to text; he schooled her in classic rock. When they travel, Sarah relies on Google maps to get from here to there; Sean showed her the pleasures of wandering in an unfamiliar city.
And when they began talking about having a baby, Sean said he was all-in. “I look at this relationship as a do-over, a start-over, a completely clean slate. I want to be here for as long as I can, as energetic as I can be.”
Taking Turns With Life’s Marking Points
It’s easy to name common challenges in a relationship where there’s an age gap of 10 or more years.
Older and younger partners don’t share the same cultural reference points: movies, music, historical events. There may be uncomfortable power dynamics, with the older partner assuming more authority over finances, child-rearing, and day-to-day decisions.
“One of the challenges in an age-gap relationship is that you’re hitting life stages at different times,” says Sara J. Corse, PhD, a staff therapist with the Council for Relationships in Philadelphia. She’s referring to things like career development, midlife, retirement, and health crises that become more common as you get older.
But that challenge can also be an advantage, Corse says. For instance, the couple may have more flexibility for one person to pursue a job change while the other’s work is more stable. And when partners go through periods of intensity, such as caregiving for elderly parents, at different times, “it creates some spaciousness,” Corse says.
According to the 2017 Current Population Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau, 6.6% of married couples involved a husband who was at least 10 years older than his wife. The reverse — a wife who was older by more than 10 years — comprised only 1.8% of married couples.
Janet Morrison, PhD, RN, a sex and relationship coach based in New Hampshire, wrote her dissertation on that small subset of age-gap relationships. While the usual challenges of a large age difference remain — the older partner is ready to retire and travel when the younger one is working full-steam – Morrison’s research found more equity in older woman/younger man relationships.
There are no statistics on age gaps in same-sex or queer relationships. But Corse says the same life-stage challenges occur, especially if the partners came out during very different cultural eras.
“With the [increasing] acceptance and visibility of queer and nonbinary people, there can be challenges just to understand the world in which your partner matured into their sexual identity and orientation,” Corse says.
Key Question: What Can We Create Together?
In age-gap relationships, as in any partnership, communication is key. Corse helps struggling couples take note of their own developmental stages — Are they considering parenthood? Raising teenagers? Thinking about retirement? — and their partner’s relation to those life-markers.
She explains differences between partners through the image of a Venn diagram: “Here’s what you think is funny; here’s what I think is funny; here’s what we both think is funny.” And she encourages couples to notice where their interests and values overlap.
“Then that translates to: What kind of world do you create together versus what time do you spend in separate circles?” Corse asks.
Sean and Sarah say they’ve each gleaned perspective from the other and from each partner’s age-peers. From Sarah’s pals, in their late 20s and 30s, Sean has learned about class disparities, systemic racism, and other issues that weren’t part of his upbringing in a largely white suburb of upstate New York.
And Sarah has come to appreciate the simpler rhythms of Sean’s youthful years, a time before texting and the internet, when friends gathered in backyards and entertained each other with music and conversation.
Because there remains a social stigma against relationships with large age gaps — especially if the woman is the older partner in a heterosexual pair — those who choose and sustain such relationships have the advantage of commitment, Morrison says. “You find someone you really care about and love and want to be with, and despite what society thinks, it’s worth the risk.”
Sarah agrees. “The biggest plus is that you’re with the person you want to be with; you’re with the person you love.”