© Bruce Koff, MSW, LCSW. All Rights Reserved.
As my spouse Mitchell and I approach our 27th anniversary, our 7-year difference in age is much more prominent to us than it’s been for some time.
At age 56, I am envisioning slowing down, relinquishing work and ambition, enjoying my down-time more, and pursuing unexplored aspects of life. In contrast, Mitchell, age 49, is investing in his career, setting goals that match his ambition, and finding satisfaction in expanding a sound professional reputation.
He notices the shift in my thinking. It is new for both of us, and we both worry about how we will manage the change. Will he envy my less pressured approach? Will I feel guilty? Will our different life stages trigger greater conflict about priorities?
In contrast, couples who are just starting out with a significant difference in age face other questions. The older partner who is more settled may wonder if he/she can adjust to the younger partner’s periods of uncertainty and need to explore. A younger person may feel competitive with or overpowered by an older partner’s greater financial/career status, or the older partner may feel intimidated by the younger one’s youth and attractiveness.
Of course, myths about age difference in same-sex relationships abound, and they probably have existed since the Greeks and Romans glorified them. For example, older may mean wiser, but not necessarily. Younger LGBTQ folks may be more at ease with themselves and less troubled by internalized homophobia, given their exposure to so much more positive information about themselves than previous generations. Younger people may also be open to differences than their elders.
I also do not presume that there is an unbridgeable cultural divide between younger and older partners. Tastes in music and culture vary, but it is not unusual for couples with 10 or 20 years age difference to influence each others tastes significantly.
Stereotypes also persist about such couples: the younger partner is a “trophy,” the older partner is a “meal ticket,” one is the “parent” and the other the “child,” or the older partner is engaging in some sort of “rescuing” drama. While there may be some truth to these in particular situations, and exploitation by either partner can occur, unchallenged assumptions can demean and diminish the notion that deep love can exist between two people of different ages.
Still, age differences matter, and it is probably a good idea to anticipate the challenges.
Here are some key arenas to consider:
1) Where are we in life? Are we in significantly different stages now, or will we be at some point in the future? How willing and able are we to address the inevitable differences in the actual aging process, and the potential dependency of an older partner on a younger one?
2) How do age differences enhance or inhibit our ability to share power fairly in the relationship? Does the younger partner exert more influence by virtue of his/her youth or attractiveness? Does the older partner do so by virtue of career and income? How do these characteristics influence the way we make decisions, and how can we correct for the imbalances that might emerge?
3) How do age differences contribute to our appreciation for each other? What can I learn from my partner that someone of my own generation may be less likely to provide? How do I respect and incorporate some of these differences, while simultaneously maintaining my basic integrity and sense of self?
4) How will we address the sometimes inevitable negative judgments of others, especially peers and family? Will we be defensive, or can we approach such instances with dignity and self-respect?
Healthy relationships between same-sex partners of divergent age can and do exist. In many respects, they require the same skills as any other relationship, but with greater attention, obviously, to the impact of age. Perhaps, as life expectancy increases, as we stay healthy longer, and as same-sex relationships continue to find legitimacy and support, many more such couples will thrive. Hopefully, the greatest of them will offer all of us insight into the capacity of love to foster strength, vitality, and mutual respect through the experience of difference.
© Bruce Koff.
Bruce Koff, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and COO of Live Oak, a group of psychotherapists and consultants who provide counseling and educational services that enhance the emotional and psychological well being of individuals, families, organizations and communities. Bruce specializes in clinical practice with LGBT individuals and their families, is co-author of Something To Tell You: The Road Families Travel When A Child Is Gay, and writes an online column for Windy City Media Group. Bruce has been a pioneering advocate for LGBT concerns in the fields of social service and mental health since 1977, and is a recipient of the City of Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame Award. Visit his website at LiveOakChicago.com.