Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number (?)

Nick Cannon Mariah Carey

In “How Stella Got Her Groove Back”, Terry McMillan’s book and movie of the same name, forty year old Stella Payne meets and falls in love with a man twenty years younger than she.  Inspired by Ms. McMillan’s real life romance and marriage to a man half her age, the story line was sexually and socially empowering, however her pairing with a much younger man was (at least for me) more titillating than inspiring.  (Perhaps because I was 28 at the time of the film’s release couldn’t identify with the lead character).  While critics panned the film, “Stella” got Black folks talking about the omnipresent double standard that exists for women dating younger men. Nobody batted an eyelash when Nelson Mandela married Graca Machel on his 80th birthday–a woman 27 years his junior–but when Demi Moore linked up with Ashton Kutcher the tabloids went wild.

Intergenerational relationships (also referred to as age gap relationships) are those in which there is a decade or more year difference in age between two partners.  This ten year timeframe is significant, as societal and cultural differences develop every ten years or so that affect the values and behaviors of each new generation.  This “generation gap” or difference in values and attitudes between one generation to the next really does exist, for age is one the way we experience common life milestones, which help us to better relate to each other.

It is said that love knows no limits, including distance, gender, lifestyles, and time. Still, a lot of people won’t feel comfortable with the fact that their romantic partner was graduating high school at during the same year that they were potty trained.  Middle class Black people in particular seem to be particularly judgmental of age gap relationships.  As progressive as Black culture is in many ways, relationally we are (at least on the surface) fairly conservative.  We’re urged to marry for love, but only to a mate who is within or above your socioeconomic strata and in your generation.  Black women are less likely to marry outside their race and women overall are less likely to partner with a man significantly younger.

Age is nothing but a number until there is an age gap of more than 10 years between partners, at which time the “gold digging” and “dirty old man” jokes start to fly. The potential lack of support from families and the community is always a possibility, so try not to expect that everyone is going to be over the moon about your new hottie patottie.

Marriage statistics back these values. According to a 2002 U.S. Census report entitled “Number, Timing, and Duration of Marriages and Divorces: 1996”, brides are an average of 2.5 years younger than their grooms for first marriages.  For second marriages, both husbands and wives are more likely to be 5 or more years older or younger than their spouse.  Studies show that age difference doesn’t necessarily contribute to higher divorce rates in first marriages in which there is an age gap, however it is worth speculating that perhaps one of the reasons why second marriages have a higher failure rate than first ones is due to the effect of generation gaps.

I’ve dated a couple of older men (as in 15 years +) and have found that one recurring theme is that there was always an imbalance of power due to my lack of life experience and wisdom.  Younger partners need to be aware that sometimes an older partner’s choice in picking a younger mate is not based upon a desire for an equitable partnership, so much as a way of boosting his or her self esteem as they approach middle age.  And older partners need to realize that their youthful paramour may be more interested in the material advantages associated with dating someone older and more established than the actual person themselves.

With that being said, if you are interested in someone who is substantially younger than you, there are definitely pros and cons:

The Older Man

Pros:  Sexual experience, sophistication, worldliness.  Depending upon the man, financial stability. A mentor in business or in life. Can be a guiding force and a bulwark against life’s inevitable storms. 

Cons: Propensity towards controlling behavior, waning sex drive, competing interests (such as ex-wives, children, etc.) that prevent him from giving you a significant amount of his attention.  Also, can be set in their ways and have substantial emotional baggage from prior relationships. It is unlikely that this will be a relationship of equals, as your older partner will probably have the greater resources, and therefore the greater degree of control in the relationship.  

The Younger Woman

Pros: Tight skin, youthful energy, more mentally flexible, interests are still being formed so she can adapt to her partners lifestyle, attractive innocence, more sexually adventurous. A younger woman usually has less ties to the community that would prevent her from relocating or devoting the majority of her time to you or your shared children. 

Cons:  Immaturity, lack of life experience can be frustrating when trying to complete mutual goals, lack of financial independence, unresolved “Daddy Issues” that she tries to work out on you, her Daddy substitute.

The Older Woman

Pros: Sexual confidence, wisdom, independence (financial and emotional), sexual experience, maturity.

Cons: Emotional or circumstantial baggage, financial insecurity (particularly if she has been raising a family alone or without support), menopause and its accompanying mood swings, depression, anxiety and physical changes, more accountability is expected from their partner than with younger women.

The Younger Man

Pros: High energy, open minded, playful, high sexual stamina, more passionate and less jaded, and with less baggage than a man closer to your age.

Cons: Immaturity, wanderlust (physically and sexually), career ambiguity, possible financial dependence, lack of financial or professional stability.

One thing that all intergenerational relationships must take into consideration is the reality of mortality and other types of end of life issues. An older husband may not live to meet his grandkids. A younger wife has to face the fact that she and her husband will never sit side-by-side in a nursing home. When their peers with age are sailing on together into mutual retirement in their golden years, one partner will always be a decade or more away from what could be a shared and comforting experience.

Intergenerational dating has its unique set of challenges, however if you enter into the relationship with your eyes wide open, these relationships can be just as successful as their more traditional age differenced relationships.

Case in point: my friends The Davis’. When Kery married his wife Samantha 19 years ago, some gossiped because she was ten years younger than his 32.  Now, two children and a shared life later, their marriage is one that defies many of the stereotypes of an older man/younger woman pairing.  They have an equal partnership that is based upon love, respect and friendship and after two decades, they are still lovers and life partners. “One thing I know for sure, I will be married to Samantha Davis until the day I die.” Kery is fond of saying.

The bottom line: If you find yourself in an intergenerational relationship, make sure you have common life goals.  Bear in mind that the larger the gap between you, the more difficult it may be for you to find common ground on important life goals.  Incongruence in maturity or life experience doesn’t have to break a relationship’s long-term potential, but it does require that you be especially aware of each person’s future goals, background, culture, family, career, personality, and sexual chemistry.


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