My first real boyfriend was quite a bit older than me. It’s weird to think that I am now older than he was then, because in my head he was an ‘older guy’ – that suave and sophisticated category of person who set our high-school hearts aflutter – and I certainly don’t feel like an ‘older guy’ just yet.
I may moisturise with the rigour, discipline and humourlessness of a German military officer, but I still just feel like me. I guess it’s one of the tragedies of growing older that we see it more in how other people treat us than how we feel inside.
That first boyfriend of mine was 26 at the time, and I was 18. Measured across a lifetime, an eight year gap isn’t all that large – but it was enough to get my father calling emergency conferences with my mother (they are divorced and don’t usually speak) to discuss how to free me from the grip of creepy, lecherous old men.
Dating someone eight years older than me seemed like the most natural thing in the world to me. It felt normal to have an older guy showing me how to be a sexual adult. I looked up to him to be the one who had figured it all out; the one who would have a flat for me to go to and a car to pick me up in, an interesting perspective on life and glamorous friends to idolise. It also suited my refusal to do anything but bottom. Sexual versatility was still a few years off, which makes me think that perhaps the Ancient Greeks were onto something when they invented pederasty.
In retrospect I think it added a power dynamic to our relationship that he was uncomfortable with. I have since been in relationships where I am the older partner, and it has allowed me to look back at that first one with clarity and make sense of the signs that I just assumed were rejection or lack of interest. I have also been expected to be the guy who has his shit together, and it does not sit well with me. I think that is the primary risk of dating with an age gap: it introduces an uneven balance of power.
Being gay should be liberating. Right up near the top of the lists I compose about why straight people should be jealous of us (just above couples getting to wear each other’s clothes but beneath never having to search for the G-spot) is the fact that we don’t have assigned roles. We don’t have thousands of years of gender conditioning and patriarchy pushing some of us into being housewives and others into boardrooms, concentrating power and powerlessness. In most cases we start out on an equal footing. “…what happens when the younger of the two reaches an age where he’s tired of it? How does a relationship survive a post-twink revolution?”
But age gaps can mess with all of that. What is the power dynamic between a twink and a bear, for example? Older partners are often more dominant. I suppose that’s fine if both partners are happy with it – but what happens when the younger of the two reaches an age where he’s tired of it? How does a relationship survive a post-twink revolution?
Surely for one partner to be dominant implies a lack of respect for the other? And it’s not even the hot kind of no respect. This isn’t the lick-my-rugby-boot domination fantasy kind of stuff; it’s the insidious and patronising belief that one of you knows best. It might even extend to your friends treating your toy-boy like he’s not going to stick around, or like you have to humour his opinions. It sure as hell isn’t healthy for a relationship.
A lot of what makes people feel like they click, I think, is shared experience. It’s seeing the humanity in someone’s story over that first awkward drink, or recognising your own feelings about life in a situation they describe. It’s being able to share what an awful day you had because your boss treated you like shit again and to know that your partner understands. It’s pretty difficult for him to understand if he’s never had a boss because he’s still studying, or if he barely remembers what it’s like because he’s been someone else’s boss for the past few years.
An age gap makes it hard to find that common ground. Where are the shared childhood TV shows to reminisce about? What do you get for your boyfriend’s nieces and nephews when the closest you’ve ever come to thinking about kids is a Hello Kitty tiara for MCQP?
But, weirdly, an age gap can also be really good for both partners if it is large enough to shatter any delusions of being in the same life stage. It stops being about awkwardly trying to connect and becomes about providing balance and perspective. It is refreshing for older guys to have the carefree energy of younger guys around. It reminds them that life is not always so serious. And the stability of older guys can offer reassuring escapism for those who feel like their lives are too full of drama.
The trick, of course, is to be sure that you both want the same thing. Age gaps will introduce a tension between settling down and partying it up. They will introduce a tension between who pays for dinner and who feels taken for granted. But a good honest flow of communication is all it takes to make sure those tensions don’t get out of hand.
Besides, aging isn’t all it used to be. The rigid expectations of different life stages are falling away. Our baby boomer parents are not marching off to get purple rinses and hair curlers in their old age. They are going on adventures and travelling the world. My mother can drink me under the table any day.
As society lets go of its Victorian obsession with appropriateness, people are freer to be themselves at whatever age they find themselves. Maturity and wisdom no longer mean never having any fun. And young people with old souls no longer have to pretend to enjoy going clubbing till 3 a.m. if they don’t want to.
Sure, dating across an age gap may make things a bit more difficult. It may slow the process of getting to know one another a little. But it doesn’t mean that people can’t enjoy happy, fulfilling relationships with others who watched different TV shows than they did as kids.
And I know that because I’m wise. At the ripe old age of 28.