Is it Bad to Have a Relationship Age Gap?

Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

How many decades can your relationship handle? And is there an acceptable relationship age gap? There is still a lot of stigma around age gaps between couples, especially when the older partner is a hetero woman.

Kia Handley and The Sugar Doctor talk about navigating age gaps when you are dating or in a relationship.

[Full Transcript Below]

You can listen to the show live on Monday mornings from 9:30 am on ABC Newcastle at 1233AM or stream live here.

[Original recording on ABC website here]

Kia Handley is: Not a car! Presenter ABC Newcastle. Loves vintage, Eurovision & great stories.

You can also find the incredibly talented Kia Handley on ABC  Newcastle Mornings here, Twitter @kiahandley  Facebook kiahandleyjourno and on her podcasts: This Retro Life & Let’s Talk-  Rural Mental Health, PLUS even more amazing gems here.

Episode Transcript:

Kia Handley:

You can't help, who you fall in love with. It's a sentiment you hear in movies, TV shows, marriage equality, uh, conversations in daily life.

So what if you fall in love with someone a little older than you... 5, 10, 15, 20 years older...does an age gap matter when it comes to love? Tara Thomas, Relationship Coach with The Sugar Doctor, is here to talk about this.

Age gaps. They can cause some real drama -  people can get very judgey, right?

Tara Thomas:

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we have these preconceptions of what that means, and you see it often in particularly Hollywood, um, where there's this kind of trope of the much, much, much, much, much older man and the younger woman just being normal, actually.

So there are lots of, kind of the sorts of cultural, hot buttons around that as well. I think, um, in terms of marriage and dating and, yeah,  how big a gap is okay. So we have all of this baggage, I think, that we bring to the conversation.

A person from the waist down wearing a red dancing skirt next to a person wearing pants and holding a walking stick.
Image from Canva

Are Relationship Age Gaps Different for Famous People?

Kia Handley:

I feel like the Hollywood couple is sometimes okay, because they're rich and famous, but if your friend Ben started dating someone with that same relationship age gap, you might then start asking questions.

Tara Thomas:

Yeah. I was having a read, as I always do, of some different people's opinions before we did the show. And one of the, one of the comments that I read that I really liked and I would love to credit them, but I can't remember who it was. It was on Reddit. It could be anyone, um, was that, you know,

"a really big relationship age gap is a red flag, but that a red flag doesn't necessarily mean that something's wrong."

It's just a sort of, Hey, let's check this out. We need to talk, we need to talk about this.

And you know,  in contrast, something that I hear people say is, oh, age is just a number. It doesn't matter. And I think that that's being willfully naive. Of course it matters. And the bigger, the relationship age gap is, the more conversations you need to have because you have a different... your health is at a different stage. Your capacity to have children is different. Your careers are at different stages. Money is different for you even like pop culture and your frames of reference a difference. So you grew up in a different era.

Kia Handley: What do you mean you didn't watch Friends? [both laugh]

Tara Thomas: Rachel who? Right?! [both laugh]

Of course you're going to have these different perspectives that you do need to address, but that doesn't mean the relationship doesn't work... at any age you have to address those.

What Does it Mean to be at Different Life Stages?

Kia Handley:

Is that where a lot of the challenges come from is that it is the bigger, the relationship age gap, the very different parts of life you're up to, and maybe what you want is different?

Tara Thomas:

I think so, it's the life stage that is one of the biggest challenges... and the earlier that you move that relationship age gap. So if you're looking at someone who's 80 and 60, there's probably not such a difference in their life stage as if you're looking at someone who's 20 with someone who is 40.

Kia Handley:

Health comes into that though, there are some things.... health, travel, being able to get around....

Tara Thomas:

Yeah! Exactly: Can we do the things together in our future that, that we have always dreamed about? Like, can we, it, is, is that going to be possible for health or whatever? And like having said that, you know,

Kia Handley:

You don't know, the 80 year old might be fitter than the 60 year old, and you don't know that even if you're,

Tara Thomas:

We have a relationship with someone who is your age, that you're not going to have those same health challenges or life stage challenges. It's, I mean, it's a bit of a, um, a bit of a dice roll in life. Um, but, but it's more likely to be an issue with a big age gap.

A man with long brown hair and a beard with a woman with short white hair. They are smiling and looking at something together.
Image from Canva

Is There a Perfect Relationship Age Gap?

Kia Handley:

Is there a perfect age gap?

Tara Thomas:

I don't think so. You know, there's that old......half your age plus seven, to be able to, you used to be able to work it out....

Yeah. Like you shouldn't go out with anyone who's less than half your age plus seven, but I just don't think that that applies.

Because the idea that that age is sort of commensurate with you having a certain level of wisdom or experience or whatever is just patently untrue. You might have someone who's 40 and, um, and behaving like a, a 15 year old or someone who's 25 and really has their stuff together.

How Young is Too Young?

Kia Handley:

Someone's called in and said, it's all about chemistry. John Lennon's father married a 19 year old. They had children. They lived happily ever after. It's just about chemistry. Is that right? Chemistry, connection.

Tara Thomas:

I mean, I think a chemistry is part of it. Um, and it might be one problematic part of it actually is driven by chemistry where you do have that predatory kind of behavior. I mean, 19 to me.... in my opinion anything less than 25, you really don't know where you're going in life.

Kia Handley:

And that's, I had a question around that because I think if a 16 year old is dating a 26 year old there's red flags, if a 26 year old is dating a 36 year old, it's a little bit different. So it does really depend on age and where we're at, like at 16, even a three-year age gap can be considered too much.

Tara Thomas:

So because you're.... you know, your brain isn't even fully developed at that stage of life. You don't have the capacity to calculate consequence. You don't really understand the implications....

As someone who did date much older men and looking back... I think Yikes! That was not really, um, appropriate on, on their part. They could have known better, um, or could have done things differently. Right. And I was very grown up for my age, but I didn't know what I was doing.

Kia Handley:

So when those red flags come up or when it's very clear that there is chemistry with someone who is older or younger than you, how do you go about doing that in a way that creates that open, safe communication, moving forward, whatever it ends up being.

A woman with medium white hair is arm wrestling a younger man, there are a group of people behind the table cheering them on.
Image from Canva

What Happens to Power Dynamics with a Relationship Age Gap?

Tara Thomas:

Well, I think the first thing that's really important is to acknowledge that there is,  there is issues with the power dynamics in the relationship because one of those partners very likely, not always, but very likely will be older, will be better established in their career.

They will have had the opportunity to do a lot of the things as a, as a younger person, make a lot of the mistakes, you know, pursue a lot of different opportunities in their life, um, that the younger partner maybe hasn't had the opportunity to do yet. So they've, they've, they've lived more than they perhaps have hold a little bit more power in that relationship.

So it's important to acknowledge that before you can then address that power balance. And then beyond there, like any relationship, talking about what are our values and beliefs -  are they shared? Do we have a shared vision of our future? How are we going to address some of the things that might come up? Like, are we going to have kids? Is that physically possible? Do we want to travel? All of those things, all of the, all of the normal conversations that you should be having,

Kia Handley:

So It doesn't sound any different from a normal relationship, even if you are the same age.

Tara Thomas:

Yeah. I think you're exactly right, Kia, but I think that when you're the same age and you're going through those stages at the same time, the conversations are more likely to arise naturally and...

Kia Handley:

Then come out of conflict...

Tara Thomas:

Rather than come out of conflict. And they're more likely to be addressed from sort of a level playing field rather than perhaps if you're older and you see a younger partner, um, doing something ridiculous or something that you think, oh my gosh, they should know better.

Well, maybe they don't, you know, maybe it's it. Yeah. So there, there are a lot of things that I think, um, I guess they're just put under a spotlight moreso, with a relationship age gap, than if you're bumbling through together.

What are the Benefits of a Relationship Age Gap?

Kia Handley:

What are some of the benefits of having that relationship age gap?

Tara Thomas:

Huge benefits! I mean, if you are going in with your eyes wide open, then you have the benefit of that wisdom and you have the benefit of experience, and then you also have the benefit of,  very contrasted eras. I don't know if that's the right word, but, but, you know, very contrasted opinions... have been raised very differently.

And so you have this really.... this richness to draw on for your conversation, for your opinions. And you can really  bring together a much, a much bigger picture of the world and of life from your different positions, you know, opposites attract right, or diversity creates depth.

Kia Handley:

When you can learn from people like, you know, a long-term relationship you're constantly learning. So to have those differences is how you learn.

Tara Thomas:

Absolutely. You have this fresh sort of open mindset where anything is new and possible, and maybe someone who has a bit more experienced than that might be different. It might, you don't necessarily the older partner isn't necessarily the one who has all of the experience in every area of life. But when you can share that with each other, then that becomes really, really beautiful.

How Does Gender Influence Perspectives on Relationship Age Gaps?

Kia Handley:

10 minutes away from 10 o'clock here with Kia Handley on ABC Newcastle, Tara Thomas is in for our regular relationship chat today.

We're talking about age gaps when it comes to heterosexual couples. Do you think we still, when we think relationship age gaps, straight away, we go, the man is older?

Tara Thomas:

Absolutely. Yeah. And that's much more acceptable in our, in our culture.

Kia Handley:

Let's talk about that because I know that when the French president Emmanuel Macron was running and looked to be successful, there was no talk about policies, it was all that his wife was considerably older than he is. Why do we make such a big deal when the woman's older?

Tara Thomas:

Well, there are a whole bunch of reasons. One is we're not used to it. And one of the reasons we're not used to it is because all of the media that we consume is packaged to make us believe that it's normal for a man to be older. And it's normal for a woman to be younger to the point where like significantly older men are playing younger roles. So they might be 50 playing a 30 year old. Um, so we just have this perception that that's normal and okay.

Another part of that is this perception that men's sexual desirability is forever and a woman's is, not. A woman's is finite, a woman's sexual desirability finishes when she's 30 and beyond that you know, old maid on the shelf, put us out, put us out to pasture.

So there's all of these kind of cultural tropes, I suppose, that play into that. But in, in actuality, there are many successful and beautiful and wonderful relationships where that dynamic is different.

I've read some statistics actually that say in same-sex relationships, the percentage of couples who have a bigger age gap is much higher. And I'm curious about why that might be, I don't know, I don't know what leads to that, but perhaps it's a more open mindset already, you know, you've already had to address a lot of issues and they don't.... it comes back to really...

Kia Handley:

Really so much that, that, that chemistry, that connection you, you probably, I think I know from a lot of my friends who are in same-sex relationships, they work harder at it.

Tara Thomas:

Yeah. And you have to start because your, your, the odds are stacked against you from the very start. Um, so where I think where people are looking more at falling in love with the person, rather than the demographic than that, that works a lot better.

Age gap couple

Listener Stories & Famous Examples

Kia Handley:

Tanya texting from Muswellbrook saying "I married my soulmate, my best friend, David we're 10 years apart. Dave is older. We have two amazing children aged 26 and 21. We've been happily married for 27 years and together 30 never been happier".  I love that. I love those stories.

Tara Thomas:

I love it too. It's beautiful.

And I would love to hear even more of those stories, because I think the more that we share them, the more normalized it becomes and the less shame people hold that, you know, they don't want to say how they met or what their age gap is, because they are already thinking that they're going to be judged in the public eye. So there is...

Kia Handley:

Still that stigma, you think for age gaps, especially bigger ones

Tara Thomas:

I think there definitely is particularly when it's a woman, um, there's that whole 'Cougar' vibe going on and, you know, it's, um, all of those things, I think are a bit petty.

We don't have that, that language for men. Do we, we don't, we definitely don't. And one of my favorite couples who I often use as a, as a really great model of excellence, because I just think they're beautiful is  Hugh Jackman and Deborra-Lee Furness. And they have a 13 year age gap, and they've been very happily married for a long time. Um, I think one of the keys to their success is they are quite private. So you don't see them. I mean, you might see them in the media having an interview, but they don't splash around their private life,

Kia Handley:

But they even, don't always walk red carpets together often they're at their own separate events because they're both so busy that they're doing their own things. And then together time is very separate from them.

Tara Thomas:

Exactly. Right, exactly. Right. So there, I mean, that's a great couple....

Kia Handley:

I don't bring my husband to work with me every day! So that simple stuff is good.

Tara Thomas:

Well, and, and that's another key, I suppose, to a successful relationship is having... supporting each other to achieve your individual life goals, which means not always being together necessarily.

So another couple recently who I have been keeping an eye on, who I really love,  haven't been together for a long time, but they have a 30 year age gap.  Sarah Paulson and Holland Taylor, who are both actresses,  Holland Taylor is now I think, in her seventies and the way that they speak about each other is just beautiful. So they really have brought that chemistry and they often speak of the poignancy of the relationship, knowing that it's finite because of the age gap.

Kia Handley:

Another text has come in saying "I met my husband 12 years ago. We both freaked out when we realized our age gap is 19 years. I thought I was older. He thought he was younger. Sometimes I worry about his health, but truth be told he's probably fitter than me. And he's does the bulk of the day-to-day stuff with the kids so that I can focus on my career."

So again, that's just conversations around what are our priorities, how will this work for us,

 

When Are Relationship Age Gaps Problematic?

 

Tara Thomas:

Exactly that and navigating it together. So I think when it becomes really problematic is when you see someone who's consistently doing it. So maybe they're dating someone who's 20 years younger and then their partner ages out and they go and find another partner.

Kia Handley:

That's what my husband says to me every birthday time to get a younger... [both laugh]

Tara Thomas:

Younger model. That's right. It's a bit of a joke amongst couples often, but you do see that happen. And I think that's when it becomes really predatory and problematic. Yeah.

Kia Handley:

Uh, do we need to be less judgy sometimes around relationship age gaps when our friends find a partner that might be older or younger,

Tara Thomas:

It's nice to keep your eye on the safety and wellness of a friend... but maybe, you know, bring a different lens to it.

So maybe don't come in with the, with the judgment... just see, how are they, do they share values? Are they happy? What do they love about each other? How are they with each other? And if everything looks really great and your friend is happy, then go for it, man. Yeah.

Kia Handley:

Again, they're the same sort of red flags that you're looking for. No matter if there's an age gap or not.

Tara Thomas:

Exactly. Right. You know, are they happy? Are they being treated well? Are they a good couple as are? Do they work well as a team?

I mean, if all of those things are, you know, big ticks on the checklist, then, then do move on.

Kia Handley:

Yeah. Enjoy it. You do you! Thanks for doing you in the studio this morning. We'll catch up with you next week. Tara Thomas there our Relationship Coach from The Sugar Doctor.