A few months back, one of my close friends told me that she had entered into a relationship with a man who she has been good friends with for many years—a man who is also eight years her senior. I wasn’t shocked to hear this as I knew how close they had been for a while; this honestly seemed like the natural next step for them. What I didn’t think about was how people who didn’t know them as well as I did would react.
My friend is 19 and in college with me, and her boyfriend is 27, already graduated, and living outside of the city with a full-time job. This age difference comes as a shock to nearly everyone who hears about it, and it causes a lot of distress for my friend and her boyfriend.
This distress often causes my friend to avoid mentioning her relationship to her peers at all. She feels uncomfortable because she immediately gets bombarded with questions. The first one she always gets is whether he goes to our school, and when she says that he already graduated, they assume he just graduated recently. At this point, she has to explain to often near-strangers how much older he really is, and she says she feels like she has to defend her relationship to them. She knows that she has nothing to be ashamed of, and she knows that these questions aren’t meant to be rude, but she feels like people judge her because of the large age gap.
On the other side, her boyfriend has to deal with judgment as well. The people in his life are divided into thirds—one-third disgustingly supports the fact that he is “scoring” with a 19-year-old college girl, one-third thinks the relationship is just plain weird and a little creepy, and one-third supports it. He has a difficult time dealing with first two types of people, just as my friend has trouble with some of her peers.
The question I had after talking to her was why this age gap is seen as such an anomaly. It is not particularly unusual for people to have parents who are 7 or 8 years apart. So why is it seen as so strange for a 19-year-old to be dating a 27-year-old?
After discussing this many of my peers, I came to the conclusion that it’s not necessarily the age gap that seems strange but the different stages they are at in their lives. Someone who is still in college hasn’t quite yet reached full adulthood—they may have more responsibilities than they did in high school, but they are still for the most part living, studying, and working in a controlled environment. On the other hand, someone who has graduated and is living and working on their own appears to be on a far different maturity level than a college student. Take the same relationship ten years from now, and it wouldn’t be seen as so strange because both parties would be at similar stages in their lives.
It seems to me that the judgments people pass about couples with large age gaps are based solely on stereotypes. They hear that a 19-year-old girl is dating a 27-year-old man and immediately assume there is some sinister motivation behind it. They don’t take into consideration the actual maturity level of either party, nor do they consider their history together. They don’t even consider that maybe it is not their place to judge another person’s personal relationships. While some people may genuinely be curious, there are many others who make offensive comments, like that a man “scoring” with a younger woman, because they are largely unfamiliar with the idea that two people who are at vastly different stages in their lives may actually be able to engage in a healthy and meaningful relationship.
I have to admit that I am not innocent of making these stereotypes either. If I didn’t know my friend as well as I do and if I didn’t know the details of their history together, I probably would have found it strange as well. I am grateful that I was able to see it through her eyes because I realized that it is completely unacceptable to pass judgment about other people’s relationships just because it is different than what we’re used to. As long as we have no concerns about the health and well-being of either party involved, it really is not our place to judge.
This is something as a society that we struggle with because we inherently assume that anything different than what we’re used to is weird. Just because one person is heterosexual, doesn’t mean that homosexuals are abnormal. Just because one person has premarital sex, doesn’t mean that people who want to wait until marriage are abnormal. Just because one person prefers the birth control pill, doesn’t mean that people who get IUDs are abnormal. Similarly, just because you are used to relationships that have a year or two age gap, doesn’t mean that people in relationships with larger age gaps are abnormal. We could all learn to be a little more accepting of those who are different than us.
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