When I met my boyfriend Jesse, I was 28 and he was 24 — not too much of a dating age difference in the grand scheme of things, but to hear some of my friends at the time tell it, you'd think we were Harold and Maude — or at the very least, Ashton and Demi. In the early days of our relationship, I got a lot of a lot of exasperated eyerolls, "you go, girl"s, and questions about whether I was technically old enough to be a cougar. I also had a lot of friends who couldn't believe how dumb I was — didn't I remember how difficult it was to get a guy to commit at age 24? Why would I want to go through that again?
Of course, I didn't "go through that again," and five years into our relationship, no one really cares about how old either of us are. But the experience has made me think about how women are discouraged from dating younger men — especially women in their twenties.
Although the idea of a "cougar" who dates much younger men has a certain cultural cachet, being a woman in your twenties who simply chooses a partner who's a bit younger is often viewed as weird, desperate, or deluded — basically, anything besides what it is, which is totally normal. People have a much easier time, it seems, getting on board with the idea of a woman taking a younger partner for purely sexual reasons than they do with the idea of a woman in a serious relationship with a younger partner.
So if you're thinking about getting together with someone younger, don't listen to anyone who uses words like "cougar," "cradle robber," or "Samantha Jones;" instead, consider the five points below.
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1. Age And Maturity Are Not Necessarily Related
In your twenties, especially in the years immediately after college, an age difference of just a year or two can make you feel like you're a world apart from someone. Which makes sense — in the course of 24 months, I transformed from a college senior who'd never lived on my own and subsisted primarily on bagels stolen from the school cafeteria to a financially independent adult who worked a serious job and subsisted primarily on bagels stolen from work. I felt like I was racking up new life milestones every day, and couldn't imagine relating to anyone younger than me — and so I became fixated on dating older guys, because I thought it was the only way I could find someone who would be mature enough to make me happy.
But this kind of thinking conflates practical responsibility with emotional maturity — which isn't really accurate. We might think that certain concrete markers of adulthood — a prestigious job; a working knowledge of personal finance; properly assembled Ikea furniture —signify a related degree of emotional maturity. And sometimes, they do; sometimes someone who is older really is more emotionally intelligent.
But often, there is no correlation. Heck, we've even developed a terminology to describe people who look like adults on the outside, but are basically middle schoolers on the inside — that'd be that scourge of the dating world, the "man-child" or "woman-child."
In my own mid-twenties, I dated a 30-year-old, expecting to find someone ready to get serious sheerly based on his age and professional accomplishments; instead, I found an immature trainwreck who made rude comments about my weight and cheated on me basically every time I was out of earshot. Lots of women who've dated around have similar stories that prove that there's no concrete relationship between being older and actually acting like an adult.
2. The Idea That Women Shouldn't Date Younger Men Is Sexist
In our culture, dating an older partner is often seen as a status symbol for younger women — we're often told that older partners will be more financially and emotionally stable, which is why being courted by an older partner is often seen as a compliment, a confirmation that you, indeed, have your act together and are desirable. This is probably why heterosexual women's age preferences in partners tend to skew their own ages of higher (while heterosexual men's tend to skew younger). God knows that's what I felt, while dating the above-noted older dude — I felt like his desire for me marked me as more mature and interesting than my peers.
To date someone younger is to consciously reject a lot of this. For this reason, being a woman with a younger partner is often viewed in a negative light. You're supposedly an immature doofus who can't attract partners your own age, or maybe a delusional narcissist who can't cope with aging (I've heard both!). Again, all these ideas are based on stereotypes — primarily, that youth is one of the only valuable traits a woman possesses when dating, and that to take a pass on using it as a bargaining chip to find a more desirable mate is insane.
Does that sound terrible? If so, good! We can fight this totally gross line of thinking by agreeing to view younger people that we have chemistry as real possible partners — and by not constantly "joking" about any woman we know who happens to have a younger partner. (But, of course, if calling yourself a "cougar" gets your rocks off, then more power to you, my friend.)
3. Younger People Can Have Serious Relationships, Too
There's another myth out there that dating young people means that you'll never get serious — that dating a younger guy or girl means that you're signing on for a relationship purgatory full of half-assed plans, a lack of emotional commitment, and being introduced as "this girl I'm kinda hanging out with" at parties. In an interview in Shape, psychotherapist Robi Ludwig claimed that, “In some cases, a younger guy is developmentally in a different place...he’s not ready for all of the pressures and responsibilities that go along with a committed relationship because his emotional maturity is not fully developed yet.”
Again, this is generalizing that conflates age with a specific set of romantic values — plenty of people of all ages aren't interested in serious relationships, and plenty of people of all ages are interested in serious relationships, too. Ludwig isn't necessarily describing a younger guy; instead, she's describing a guy who isn't interested in a serious relationship, a kind of dude who comes in all ages.
In my own anecdotal experience, I've found no correlation between age and interest in a serious relationship. One of my closest friends recently married a guy five years her junior, after years of dating commitmentphobic dudes her own age and older; and Jesse was more open and interested in pursuing something serious with me than anyone I'd ever dated, despite being an age when he was supposed to be more interested in "playing the field." Some people are never interested in playing the field, and some people never tire of playing the field — and you can't tell who is who just by looking at their driver's licenses.
4. You Don't Always Have More In Common With People Your Own Age
Jesse wasn't my first dip into the younger dude pool — we connected after I'd had a handful of casual things with guys four or five years younger than me. I'd just gotten out of a long-ish relationship with a guy who was fixated on achieving "appropriate life milestones" — marriage, kids, stable jobs — and the experience made me realize that I wasn't on the same page about that kind of thing as a lot of people my own age. At 28, I was only just beginning to explore my true desires for my career and life — which made me have a lot more in common with a recent college grad than someone who'd had almost a decade since graduation to figure out what they wanted.
Sometimes, certain experiences or personality quirks make us have more in common with people younger (or older) than us — and not giving those people a shot romantically because they're not the same exact age as you is nuts.
5. A Young Person Isn't Young Forever
The line of thinking that all younger guys are total scrubs dances around the fact that all older guys were once younger guys — and that younger guys will soon be older guys. Our personalities remain more consistent through the years, but the window dressing of maturity tends to change pretty darn quick — which is how, despite having the same age gap, my once "scandalously young" partner is now seen as pretty age appropriate for me.
Sure, if you date someone younger than you, you may get to help them figure out some basic life admin stuff for a while — but it won't be a pure "teacher-student"-type relationship, not just because younger people still have plenty to teach us, but also because people figure that stuff out relatively quickly. The window of time when I was helping Jesse learn about credit reports and negotiating a salary was brief, while he continues to teach me new things about love and commitment every day (I know, barf).
To act like youth is an eternal state — that a person who is currently 23 and not totally sure about how to pick a good bottle of wine or operate their dishwasher, will exist in that state forever — is actively denying the facts of our own lives. As noted relationship therapist Stevie Nicks put it, "Times makes you bolder/ Even children get older/ And I'm getting older, too". We're all aging, and life is too short to not date someone who's younger than you just because society has psyched you out about it.
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