A funny thing happened when the cable guy came by to hook up my digital converter box the other day. He asked me out. Now, normally this wouldn’t be a problem: The guy was cute, funny, and fairly knowledgeable about old movies (which I happen to love). But he was also 22 years younger than me. And, yes, I asked.
When I told my friends, they were excited. “Go for it!” they told me. “If Stella could get her groove on, so can you!” But I was less enthused about the prospect of dating someone who was born while I was away at college. After all, there a lot of things to think about when it comes to dating outside your decade. Herewith, the good, the bad and the ugly of dating young.
Dating someone younger keeps you young, says Jane Ganahl, former singles columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle who’s currently working on an anthology about older women and younger men. Plus, there’s that whole sexual-compatibility thing. “If we can believe that nugget that women and men hit their sexual primes at different times, then a 25-year-old man and a 40-year-old woman is the best of all possible worlds,” she says. “We’re talking enormous amounts of sexual energy.”
Roberta, an over-50 marketing director from Long Island, says she experienced that energy when she became involved with a 27-year-old she met at a karaoke bar (she was 44 at the time). “He had a body like the guy from that Diet Coke commercial,” she says. “The one who takes his shirt off and all the ladies gather to watch from their office window. At first, it was all love, romance and passion.”
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Roberta and her young man — who looked like a “young, well-built Sinatra” — dated for three years, during which time she took up clay sculpture, inspired by her boyfriend’s love of art (and, perhaps, his hot body). She also found herself falling into a mentor role. According to Ganahl, this is another upside to dating young. “The younger person tends to be in awe of you because you have more life experience and a lot of the things that maturity brings, like power and money,” she says. “And it’s fun to share those things, to not only be a lover but a mentor.”
A lack of life experience can be both a blessing and a curse, though. On the one hand, it means your date’s baggage compartment is more likely to be free of ex-wives and kids. On the other, they may still be on close terms with their inner child, a laundry-impaired brat who can’t get enough of video games and/or Family Guy. Sharmen, a 37-year-old motivational speaker and author from Irvine, CA, ended her relationship with a 24-year-old guy a few months ago because of his immaturity issues. “He once called me at 3:30 in the morning wanting me to get out of bed, go to his place, and bring him a pizza,” she says. “The things young guys try to get away with are insane.”
Roberta, too, says she finally ended things with “Frank” after growing tired of constantly being the wise grown-up. “As time went on, I felt like I was his teacher, then his aunt, and finally, his mother, which was creepy,” she says. “The passion faded.” Age incompatibilities can take their toll in other ways, says Ganahl. “Some young men are 23 going on 35, and others are 23 going on 24,” she says. “But if you are interested in the guy for more than just a fling, you have to choose well. Otherwise, you risk being with somebody who says things like, ‘Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?’”
None of us dates in a vacuum, of course, and remarks by friends and family can have a souring influence on even the sweetest May/December romance. “When I was 45 and dating a 30-year-old, there was a lot of teasing,” says Ganahl. “I remember his sister once asked if he had to cut granny’s meat for her when we went out to a steak dinner. The comments were all said with a wink and a smile, but it didn’t make them any less painful. There’s still a stigma that makes it seem like an older woman dating a younger man is unseemly or desperate.”
Men have to deal with “vicious” comments, too, says Michael, a 29-year-old web developer from Union, NJ, who’s currently in a relationship with a woman 10 years his junior. “My friends adore her, but they make fun of me constantly,” he says. “They say I’m going to trade her in for a ‘newer model’ when she turns 21. My previous girlfriend was younger than me, as well, so that just adds fuel to the fire.”
And then there’s that whole cougar thing. Julie, a 52-year-old income tax professional from Overland Park, KS, who’s been dating a 32-year-old guy for the past two years, says she’d never even heard the term before people started using it to refer to her. “I find it offensive because a cougar is a predator in the animal world, and I am not now nor have I ever been a predator of younger men,” she says. “I prefer men my own age, but for some reason, it was love at first sight for both of us.”
And let’s not forget nature’s cruelty. “At the end of the day, the 30-year-old I was dating really wanted to get married and have kids, and I wasn’t interested in that,” says Ganahl, who documented this and other relationships in her memoir, Naked on the Page. “I already had a daughter in college. So that’s another downside. You can’t really ‘work on’ the fact that you’re older.”
The big picture
Dating someone older has its challenges, too. Men raised in a more traditional era can be controlling and/or unwilling to accept independent behavior. And society makes certain assumptions about the older man/younger woman match, too. “I was treated as if I was a young, gold-digging trophy wife and he was the successful, rich older man, but I was the breadwinner,” says Sharmen, who was married for three years to a man 28 years her senior. “Plus, his mother was very chilly and called me the wrong name for the majority of our marriage. Every significant age gap has its issues.”
But despite the issues, there are couples that make it, says Sarah, a 36-year-old reporter from Seattle who’s been married to a man 10 years her junior for the last four years. “When we got together, friends told me that it was very unlikely it was going to work out,” she says. “They said younger men don’t want to commit and that we’re at different places in our lives. But he’s committed to me and I’m committed to him and I think we’re absolutely a good match. We’re not divorced yet!”