Just how important is age difference in a couple? And what are the unique challenges?
Jack was forty-eight, Elizabeth twenty-five. Three years ago, when they were newly married, they would sit gazing into one another’s eyes, seeing the ageless souls inside the different-aged bodies. The twenty-three years that separated them may as well have been twenty-three seconds. Now, however, Elizabeth was resenting Jack’s “control,” and Jack was frustrated about Elizabeth’s “constant rebellion.” They were sure it wouldn’t happen to them, but now they felt stuck in a father-daughter kind of relationship.
Gail was fifty-three, Rob thirty-two. Same kind of thing in reverse. In the beginning of their relationship, age differences felt irrelevant. Now they were painfully showing. Rob felt at times like he was once again living with his mother. He resented how often Gail checked up on him, even feeling interrogated by her. Gail described having to take care of Rob and missed the feeling of a man taking care of her.
What is a significant age difference? It depends somewhat on the age of the people involved. A ten year difference between a sixty and a seventy-year-old may be insignificant, but between a twenty and a thirty-year-old can become irreconcilable.
We have found that the way the couple relates with one another is far more important than the age difference, but the age difference can magnify an already existing, but unconscious, dynamic. For example, even from the beginning of their relationship, in many ways Jack treated Elizabeth as a daughter. He helped her with many of her decisions, he took care of all financial matters, and they lived in his house. Elizabeth contributed to this pattern by allowing, and even asking, Jack to take care of her, but then feeling helpless, dependent, and frustrated.
Does it matter which partner is older? Yes, but only slightly. Older men and younger women seem to fare slightly better than older women and younger men. Perhaps this has something to do with women in general being slightly more in touch with their feelings, but it is never good to generalize. We, personally know several older women successfully paired with men much younger than them.
For this kind of relationship to work, there needs to be a conscious effort to balance the obvious parent-child patterns. The older partner will naturally tend to the parent role. He or she brings more life experience to the relationship, and unless watchful, will slip into the role of teacher or parent. The younger partner often gravitates to the student or child role, and becomes subservient to the older partner.
But here is one of relationship’s best-kept secrets: hiding behind the more visible father-daughter relationship, is the less visible, but equally present, mother son relationship. And hiding behind the outwardly-obvious mother-son relationship is inner father-daughter dynamic. We asked Jack about his emotional and even spiritual need for Elizabeth. At first surprised, tears came into his eyes when he finally felt the little boy part of himself. The father part of him was so much on the surface that it obscured the child part of him.
Elizabeth was not in touch with the mother part of herself, the part which had the capacity to be strong and to nurture. She didn’t trust herself enough.
Gail was very uncomfortable with her dependence on Rob. She was abandoned by her father when she was eight and compensated by becoming strong and independent. When we encouraged Rob to hold her in a session, she broke down and cried like a little girl.
For those of you who are paired with someone significantly older or younger than yourself, you need to pay closer attention to parent-child balance. If the older one of you is not showing enough of your need for the other, your relationship will suffer. If you both can show your vulnerability, including your fears, and especially your need for love, you can have a deeper love.