I’m about four hours into a date and the ice in my vodka soda’s skating around my glass nicely, when — entirely by accident — I become Mrs. Robinson. From across the cushioned loveseat, my date has just revealed that he is not 38, as I had so imagined, but a mere 30 years of age. When he guesses my age — 36 — I beam, then (still recovering from the shock) tell him the truth: I’m actually 10 years his senior. I do not tell him that I will be 41 in a matter of weeks.
Either 40 really is the new 30, or I’m in need of bifocals. When it comes to telling a potential lover’s age, it seems some of us are less competent than others. I take solace in the fact that I’m not alone. While she was on a travel tour of Southeast Asia, 35-year-old Sarah met Sanders, a Dane in his mid-to-late 20s. He was, well, “hot” (as she puts it) and incredibly fun. Then, a couple of days into a 12-day fling, the two were trying to book a flight together when it came time to fill in the blanks. As Anders stalled and scrolled to the birthdate menu, Sarah couldn’t look away. When he finally plugged in his birth year, she nearly fell off the edge of the bed. Her “28-year-old Dane” wasn’t even past the U.S. legal drinking age yet!
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Why do some people seem younger (or older) than their biological age?
According to counseling psychologist Linda Young, Ph.D., it’s not entirely uncommon for older women to find themselves attracting younger men — or for either sex in any age bracket to be not exactly as they seem. It’s the reason why that’s so interesting. “If someone has a youthful presentation — partly physical, partly personality — their energy, exuberance, their mindset, and their maturity level send a message that belies their actual age,” says Young. Here’s to good, clean living and a healthy appreciation for dance music!
According to Young, some people also unwittingly attract people in a different age group than their own. And because they’re attracted to younger or older lovers — consciously or not — they’ve also learned what attracts those people. Oftentimes, too, they go where that younger or older crowd hangs out.
Of course, the reverse is also true. If a twentysomething single has lower energy, dresses stodgy or frumpy, can repeat every Talking Heads song ever verse-for-verse that’s appeared on a cassette tape, then that person’s naturally going to appear older… and likely attract an older mate. And if that 25-year-old is hanging out in your cocktail lounge with a glass of scotch rather than clutching a 40-ouncer in a paper bag on the nightclub floor, it may be no surprise when you find yourself in the arms of someone with whom you share a significant age difference.
“If a 25-year-old is carrying himself in a way that is more typical of a 35 year-old — and if the 45-year-old is carrying herself in a way that is more typical for a 35-year-old —there you have a 20-year age spread,” says Young. “Meanwhile, each [person] thinks the other is somewhere in their 30s.”
How to discreetly gauge your age gap
Sizing up someone’s age isn’t necessarily easy. While bartenders may recognize people who are passing for legal drinking age by how comfortable they are at the bar or by what they order — a drink that sounds like their father would prefer, for example — mere mortals might have less luck. Dropping social and cultural references to the recent, distant or decades-ago past may help. For example: Was his first album purchase by the Jonas Brothers, the Pet Shop Boys or The Beatles? Or was 9/11, the Challenger blowing up, or the Apollo landing her first major memory of a national televised news event?
It’s a game that Stock Stockhausen and his wife Sarah (who is nine years his senior) like to play. “When Star Wars came out, it was a pivotal film in Sarah’s high school years,” Stockhausen recalls. “I was three years old, and when the Jawas picked up R2-D2, I yelled: ‘They shot R2!’ and burst into tears — and was carried out of the theater.”
Dating older (or younger) can have hidden benefits
A little age gap isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it doesn’t guarantee relationship failure. Kelli Agodon knows that firsthand. When she was just 18 and still a college student, Agodon met Rose, a 28-year-old fireman. Rose told her his age early on, but Agodon didn’t believe him. “Even after showing me his driver’s license, I thought he was kidding,” recalls the poet. “I was like ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, everyone has a fake ID.’” By the time the two were married six years later, she believed him. The couple celebrated their 19th wedding anniversary this year — and she likes being married to an older man.
“Women need to be married to an older man just for the maturity level,” Agodon says. “The fact that he had already — well, I hate to use the cliché, but sown the wild oats he’d had his 20s — was great.” She says that being with someone older was also nice because she and her husband had different life stories and experiences to share with each other. “It’s interesting; he had a whole different background, and older people tend to be a little wiser,” Agodon recalls. “It helped me while I was making decisions in my 20s.”
Act the age you feel, and the rest will follow
And for those who want to date in a different age bracket than their own, here’s some good news: People can learn to appear older or younger by the way they present themselves to the world. “Their level of fitness, their diet, their energy level and how much they are engaged with the world says something about the youthfulness of their spirit, and that goes across decades,” asserts Young.
The bottom line is this, she says: Act how you feel instead of your chronological age, and you’ll attract people in your emotional cohort — regardless of when they were born.
Julie H. Case is a freelance writer based in Seattle. Her work has appeared in magazines such as Sunset, Alaska Airlines Magazine and Wired.