Sure, you may tell your friends that your new girlfriend is a few years younger, but once she whips out her license, it’s certain there’s a Grand Canyon sized generational gap. What do you do? Do you panic? Do you downplay the age difference? Or do you decide to celebrate feeling connected to another person? I commonly hear couples express both excitement and anxiety when entertaining the idea of an intergenerational relationship. If this sounds like you, this newsletter will help you identify common anxieties that often occur in these relationships and how to handle those concerns. The term intergenerational refers to interacting with others from a different generation. When this is applied to dating the life experiences of the individuals will undoubtedly influence the relationship, in both positive and negative ways. Many people worry about the judgments of others, stages of life differences, and their partner’s ability to understand their priorities that often change over time. There can even be a power struggle in the relationship between one “knowing more through experience” and the other feeling judged for their novel experiences. Finding a new way to view the differences can transform an obstacle into a benefit.
Imagine the following…20 year old Shoshanna is dating Amy, who is about 15 years older. Shoshanna, being 20, loves the nightlife and stays out clubbing until the wee hours of the morning. Amy lost interest in clubbing and finds her girlfriends stage of life to be “immature.” Instead of criticizing Shoshanna’s behavior, Amy decides to redefine her attitude towards her girlfriend, by realizing it was that same enthusiasm and lust for life that sparked an attraction in the first place.
Whatever the dynamic, it’s important to take a step back and also look at the similarities in the relationship. Do you both enjoy hiking, cover bands, or cooking Indian food? It can be the similarities and the differences that bring strength to a relationship. Sharing knowledge, fresh ideas, and changes in sociopolitical attitudes over generations can enlighten and enhance a relationship.
Identifying the benefits of having an intergenerational relationship can be invaluable. If one partner is a financially stable, established, career woman, and the other happens to be a whiz at all things Apple, there’s a tradeoff where you’re both enriching each other’s lives. It’s these differences that can create magic in the relationship. More often than not, I see that age differences can add an extra spark to the relationship.
The bumps in the road can be minor if both parties accept the inherent differences that come with age differences, rather than letting them become divisive. I’ve met couples that initially had a hard time adjusting to the age differences in their new relationship. This often means mingling with a much older or younger crowd than what you’re used to. Entering these situations with an open mind and saying positive statements (and reducing judgments) before attending an event can make these situations less stressful. If you notice that you’re judging yourself or being judged by others, imagine letting those unhelpful thoughts (or comments) just drift away like a cloud. This mindfulness technique actually helps you to accept the moment without becoming overly critical of yourself or others.
An important factor to remember is that every relationship is unique and everyone plays a role in a relationship, whether there’s an age difference or not. Below I’ve listed common themes I hear women discuss when in age disparate relationships and healthy ways to cope.
Common Anxieties & Solutions when in an Intergenerational Relationship
Judgments from others: Many people can be concerned with the perceptions of others, especially if this is your first experience with an intergenerational relationship. Stereotypes from society, friends, co-workers, and family can increase anxiety and at times, take a toll on the relationship.
Keep in mind that every relationship has stress, if it’s not one issue, it’s another. If you keep a confident attitude when you introducing your new partner to those you care about, you will decrease their ability to critique the relationship. This is not foolproof, but people are less likely to judge negatively if you are not feeding the fire by acting ashamed or embarrassed. Many people in age disparate relationships find that over time these judgments bother them less and less, and they learn to focus on what makes their relationship special. By having a healthy, happy relationship with an age difference you can help break stereotypes and lay the groundwork for future intergenerational relationships to be more accepted.
Health & Energy: Having different health concerns, levels of endurance (afternoon naps, etc), and varying interest levels in sex (due to hormonal changes throughout the years) can all become areas of concern. Having open communication regarding these issues and problem solving new ways to readjust your relationship around these issues can help reduce anxiety and bring you closer together. Consulting with a doctor may also be beneficial. I’ve worked with several women that were going through menopause and had a low sex drive. Once they received hormone replacement therapy they were able to increase their libido and re-spark their love life.
Ulterior Motives: Especially at the beginning of the relationship, both parties, young and old may have concerns that the other is taking advantage of them. Is the younger partner looking for financial gain or is the older partner only interested for sexual reasons or a piece of arm candy? Be smart. Take it slow and don’t put yourself in a position of being taken advantage of. Over time you will realize her intentions and see if she is genuine. If she is a fraud and you don’t give her what she is looking for, she will soon move on to take advantage of someone else. Remember whether there is an age discrepancy in the relationship or not, there are opportunistic folks out there.
Autonomy: The younger partner may feel anxiety regarding their sense of self, changing goals, lack of experience, and being less financially established. It’s likely that her older girlfriend would have a stable career, be financially established, and possibly on more solid ground in terms of their relationships with family and friends. It’s also possible that she may have been out longer and built more quality relationships over time. The younger partner may feel inferior at times because she is still finding her place in the world, and she is dating someone who has already established her identity. Another common concern I’ve heard from older partners is their fear of holding their younger partner back from experiencing the world, and stifling their development. Being empathetic with your partner as they go through milestones you may have already experienced is incredibly important. Allow enough room for them to learn things on their own, this includes not always trying to fix their problem or exerting your opinion. Ask them what they think is best and support them as they take risks or learn more about themselves.
Granted, I’ve just discussed the tip of the iceberg, as each relationship is unique and has its own way of operating. I hope this quick review of common concerns can reduce your anxiety and help you realize you are not alone. Just remember there are always ways of finding solutions to problems that can ultimately create a happier and stronger relationship.