DEAR DR. JENN,
My best friend started dating a man that is old enough to be her father. I gotta say, it creeps me out. I can't say that to her though. She is happier than I have ever seen her. I know celebrities do this all the time... but I'm skeptical about how well this can work. Does age really not matter? —Old Enough to Be Her Father
DEAR OLD ENOUGH TO BE HER FATHER,
In three decades of being a therapist in private practice in Beverly Hills, I have seen my share of "age gap" relationships. "Age gap" relationships are typically defined by unions where one person is 10 years or more older than the other.
We all know celebrity couples who have done it:
Priyanka Chopra & Nick Jonas (11 years)
Chris Pratt & Katherine Schwarzenegger (10 years)
Ellen DeGeneres & Portia de Rossi (15 years)
George Clooney & Amal Clooney (17 years)
Blake Lively & Ryan Reynolds (11 years)
Jay-Z & Beyoncé (12 Years)
Adam Levine & Behati Prinsloo (10 years)
Jason Statham & Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (20 years)
Matt Bomer & Simon Halls (13 years)
Heidi Klum & Tokio Kaulitz (16 years)
Michael Douglas & Catherine Zeta-Jones (25 years)
Sarah Paulson & Holland Taylor (31 years)
David Foster & Katharine McPhee (35 years)
Florence Pugh & Zach Braff (21 years)
"But those are celebs," you may say. But what about regular people? How big of an impact does an age gap have on the quality and longevity of a relationship? Well, according to a study of age gaps and marital satisfaction, the larger the age gap between the two members of a couple, the more dissatisfaction reported. That's not to say it isn't possible to have a healthy relationship with a significant age gap, but it is certainly more challenging.
Now keep in mind, there is a very big difference between a 20 year age gap between a 20-year-old and a 40-year-old versus a 50-year-old and a 70-year-old. As we get older and have more life experience, the gap does seem to close a bit.
Why is it that there is a challenge to begin with? There are a few significant reasons.
Power gap. The most significant issue that I see over and over again in my clinical therapy practice is that with a significant age gap, typically one person in the couple has far more life experience, and often financial means. That gap creates a big power difference. It is very common, in my clinical experience, that an older person with a significantly younger partner tends to want to be in control. And while it may feel great for that younger person in the beginning — to feel cared for emotionally, financially, and otherwise — eventually, it usually feels controlling.
Frame of reference. When there is a significant enough age gap, your frame of reference becomes very different. In the movie When Harry Met Sally, Harry is talking about a younger woman he is dating and comments to a friend that when he asked her where she was when Kennedy was shot she replied, "Ted Kennedy was shot?" A uniting question of one generation can be confusing to another. Small things like this can point out big differences between people. Pop culture references, life experiences, and past times all are often different and make it harder to find common ground and connection.
Societal pressures. I have known quite a few age gap couples who have had family members disown them because of the age gap between them and a partner. Friends, family, coworkers, acquaintances, and society all have strong opinions about age gap couples. This can result in the couple being isolated and lacking a support system.
Mommy and Daddy issues. This has become almost a cliché. But sometimes clichés become known for good reason. It is not uncommon for a person who has not worked through their issues with their mother or their father to unconsciously seek to re-create that dynamic in a romantic relationship. The unconscious does not know the difference between past, present, and future and is always trying to heal all the wounds in current time. Having a father figure as a romantic partner can sometimes be an attempt to heal the wounds from that old relationship.
In Hump Day, award-winning psychotherapist and TV host Dr. Jenn Mann answers your sex and relationship questions every week — unjudged and unfiltered.