Is a Couple’s Age Difference Important

When I first looked at Patricia and Gary as they entered my office, I wondered if this was a mother and son wanting healing on their relationship. I was surprised to quickly learn that this was a couple. She was fifty-three. He was twenty-six. Aside from the age difference, what made their relationship especially difficult (and confirmed my initial feeling) was the way they were stuck in a mother-son pattern. Patricia did most of the talking, including talking for Gary about what he was feeling the way a dysfunctional mother would. Gary was stuck in the role of a son, unsure about the direction of his life, confused about his relationship, and blocked from his feelings.

Although both of them were in some ways clear about their unhealthy dynamic, Patricia hoped to transform Gary from a son into a man, an equal partner. What she resisted and did not understand was an important missing step in the process: allowing Gary to be a father for her. Her own father was mostly absent during her childhood and, when he was there, was emotionally abusive through harsh criticism and judgment. She learned quickly how to fend for herself and developed a strong protective shell of apparent self-confidence, sophistication and strength. Underneath, however, still lay an innocent little girl needing her father’s love and support.

Even in that first session, I had Patricia lay her head in Gary’s lap as a little girl in the lap of a father. At first Gary was confused about Patricia’s sobbing and hiding her face with her hands. He thought he had again done something wrong. It took him a while to realize what was happening had nothing to do with him, and then access the nurturing part of himself, so accustomed was he to receiving Patricia’s nurturing. But in the end he was able to be a loving, caring father for a little girl hidden in the body of a middle-aged woman.

For this relationship to work, it will require diligent work on this imbalance of roles. If Gary doesn’t allow his nurturing fathering to emerge, and if Patricia doesn’t allow herself to be a little girl needing Gary’s love and protection, then they have little chance of making it as a couple. While this may be true in any relationship, the particular age difference in this case makes it all the more important. Over the years, we have noticed the unique hazards of age difference in couples. It seems that the greater the love, the greater the obstacles that must be overcome. Like all other obstacles blocking the way of loving relationship, age difference can be overcome. It takes willingness and work. Although Gary and Patricia’s age difference is a bit extreme, we have found an older woman and younger man to more often have a difficult time than a younger woman and older man. And, we have seen couples with no apparent problems despite their age difference.

Let’s look now at an older man partnered with a younger woman. As we said before, this is usually not as big of a problem as the older woman/younger man couple. But there can be problems. The tendency here is toward the father-daughter imbalance. A younger woman may gravitate toward an older man to receive the fathering either she misses or never received from her own father. Initially, she may feel protected and secure, and he may feel needed as a caring father. Inevitably, however, a daughter must fulfill her destiny as a mother or nurturer in order to become a full woman, and a father must reclaim his hidden inner son and allow himself to become nurtured so that he can become a full man. If this can happen within the relationship, the couple will be able to remain together and find a deeper peace.

If the man resists opening to his inner son, his need for nurturing and love, the well of his fathering love will dry up and he will have little to give. His partner will feel unloved and unprotected, no matter how much money or material comfort is showered upon her. Likewise, if the woman resists expressing her mother/nurturing self, her self-esteem will go down, and she will become bitter and resentful toward her partner.

How much of an age difference is significant? There are no clear rules here because of the complex variables involved. In general, a ten year difference later in life may present no difficulty, while in the twenties or thirties it may be a big problem. Again, it’s not so much the number of years as it is the issues behind the years, the unhealthy attitudes preventing true equality in the couple.

For any relationship to be fulfilling, it requires a balance of energy, a balance of giving and receiving, nurturing and being nurtured, parenting and receiving parenting. Although age difference can challenge a couple, if this balance is made conscious, the couple’s love can and will triumph.

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