Words by: Kiera Eardley
It’s a phrase that’s all too familiar for women who grew up quickly, matured early, felt ahead of their years as a teenager: “you just need to meet an older guy”. All the shortcomings of the seemingly clueless boys our own age could easily be attributed to immaturity and slower brain development, so the obvious solution for us was to date older. With age comes inherent maturity and life experience and security, they say, and that was an appealing prospect as a young girl whose eyes glazed over at the mention of any testosterone-fuelled pastime. But when the age gap is substantial, is it really all it’s cracked up to be?
Given that we grew up with age gaps (or maybe more aptly, age chasms or canyons) aplenty in pop culture, we can’t be blamed for our fascination. Everywhere you looked, there was a fictional pairing with a not-insignificant number of years between them. Think about it; from the glamorisation of crushes on older teachers in young adult novels, to the well-worn “middle-aged man leaves middle-aged wife for much-younger woman” trope (Alan Rickman in Love Actually, I’m glaring angrily at you), the entertainment industry loves to romanticise an older man and younger woman. Hollywood is also prone to casting unrealistically younger women with its biggest male stars, with age disparities like Bill Murray (52) and Scarlett Johansson (17) in Lost in Translation so common that we hardly think twice about it. We seem to collectively turn a blind eye to these strange pairings in cinema, when in reality they’d be cause for uproar. Imagine your friend walking into Friday night drinks with her brand-new boyfriend, and he’s old enough to be one of your dad’s friends — that’d be cause for a major intervention, How I Met Your Mother-style.
It’s not to say that there’s something inherently wrong with all relationships with significant age gaps, but the concept itself does beg some questions. For the younger party, the appeal is logical; your older partner has more life experience, more maturity, better stories to tell, and they can share that wisdom with you on a daily basis. For the older partner, there are more question marks. Is it about energy, lust for life and vivacity? There might be an element of osmosis, that just being around someone younger makes you feel younger by association, which appeals to the Peter Pans among us. Or is it more to do with ego? For these Leonardo DiCaprio types — at 47 years of age, Leo has never dated a woman over the age of 25 — one can only assume that there’s an aesthetic appeal involved, where a younger partner’s youth and beauty reflects positively onto themselves. Personally, the aspect I’d find most difficult about dating someone far older than me is the lifestyle mismatch. Finding someone my own age whose schedule and habits fit easily around my own has been hard enough, but doing the same with a man in an entirely different stage of life would be a whole new (read: far trickier) ball game. Power to the people who can make it work, I say.
There’s also an inherent power dynamic in these pairings, both on-screen and in real life. It’s true that Hollywood boasts some impressive celebrity couples with age gaps who have gone the distance, like George and Amal Clooney (17 years), Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds (11 years), and Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones (25 years). Yet the list of failed celebrity couples with over a decade between them is growing, and we can see the evidence of toxic dynamics in a lot of them. Take our girl Taylor Swift, for example. In late 2021, she re-released ‘All Too Well’, which is essentially a 10-minute roasting of Jake Gyllenhaal. He was nine years her senior when they dated, and the lyrics contain such gems as “the punch line goes, ‘I’ll get older but your lovers stay my age’”. And don’t get me started on her 2010 song ‘Dear John’, the most brutal (but justified) portrayal of a shitty relationship I’ve ever heard put to music. This all paints a not-uncommon picture where age gaps in relationships are flaunted by the older partner abusing the younger’s lack of experience, in order to get away with subpar behaviour and emotional ineptitude.
Gender expectations in relationships are another important facet of this phenomenon. Men dating younger women is generally accepted as the norm — to account for that gap in maturity, apparently — but what happens when a woman dates a much-younger man? Well, society doesn’t tend to like it, like Demi Moore being labelled a cougar in denial of her age during her six-year marriage to Ashton Kutcher (15 years her junior). The concept of a man being with an older woman flies in the face of the intrigue, innocence and virginal value of the younger woman which has been built up over centuries. It’s why we wear white on our wedding day, and it’s why women are depicted as holding less value as they age; we still don’t really know how to rationalise older women and romance.
At the end of the day, though, age gaps aren’t the be-all and end-all in relationships. Yes, they’re everywhere in popular culture, and yes, they can be controversial, and no, dating older is categorically not the solution to every straight girl’s dating woes. Ultimately, we should probably all just mind our own business — love has no age, and if two people are happy together, then that’s the only thing that matters.