When I was 18, I had my first proper relationship. My boyfriend – a wholly inappropriate word – was 54. Which meant he was three times my age. Our relationship lasted four years and ended about six years ago.
Last week, when Dennis Quaid, 65, proposed to Laura Savoie, 26, it all came back. Every snide comment about them reminded me how stigmatised age-gap relationships are; how they can drive a wedge between you and your friends, family and everyone who judges you for the person you love.
There is a discussion to be had about what it means for an older man to date a younger woman. I find the graph (joked about on social media) which shows how Leonardo DiCaprio’s age keeps rising (he’s 44) while his girlfriends never pass the 25-year mark, as disturbing as the next person. If someone consistently dates people far younger than themselves, that raises questions about the value society places on a woman’s youth, as well as the power dynamic at play.
But when it’s your relationship being dissected, it’s incredible hurtful. I spent hours defending my relationship because my boyfriend James* was older, while friends with horrible blokes went unquestioned because they were the same age. When you date an older man it comes with a slew of assumptions. He’s rich, you’re materialistic; you’re dumb, he’s shallow; during sex you lie back and think of England.
I hope Savoie isn’t reading the snarky remarks about her engagement, because I know how it feels to have people assume you’re a gold-digger. My ex wasn’t loaded but he had the confidence that comes from life experience, which went a long way to explaining his attraction. I’d also spend weekends at James’s house, revelling in the luxury of having no housemates and a fridge full of wine – all things the boys around me couldn’t provide.
It’s something Sophie*, 28, a PA who’s dating a 45-year-old can also relate to. ‘It’s a cliché,’ she says, ‘but he is so much more mature. I don’t worry about being ghosted. If I want to see him, I message him. He has his own place, a car; he’s got his life sorted. Yes, it’s sad that if we stay together he’ll be an older dad, and elderly before me, but that seems like a fair trade for having a partner who actually wants to be with me and doesn’t consider a fun night out to be a drugs binge.
Of course, age-gap relationships come in shades of grey. There is a difference between dating a man who has previously dated women his own age, and one who has only ever pursued young women. Quaid seems to be operating a sliding scale of age difference. His previous wife, Meg Ryan, was eight years his junior, while Kimberly Buffington was 17 years younger. Only he and Savoie can know what their relationship brings each of them.
Lola*, 31, a writer, recently ended a relationship with a man 25 years older. ‘there were age-related issues, it’s true,’ she says. ‘He gave advice as if he knew best, and I felt he should take care of me financially because he was wealthier. But when we split, it was because of his behaviour, and that would have been a problem whatever his age.
In my case, behind closed doors my relationship with James was easy.
We were just two people who couldn’t get enough of each other. But once we stepped outside the house, the age gap was impossible to ignore. Initially, I liked shocking strangers by kissing him in public. By the end, the withering looks and assumptions that I was a sex worker rankled. My student friends were accepting of him staying over at our house, but it felt weird to watch him drinking wine out of a jar in our kitchen wearing a shirt and jumper while teenagers wandered around getting ready for a night out. We all pretended that his visits were comfortable, but they really weren’t.
There is a difference between dating a man who has previously dated women his own age, and one who has only ever pursued young women
My family were also less than thrilled about the relationship, which I hid from them for the first year. They were concerned I was being taken advantage of (which was fair enough, but equally could have been true if I’d been involved with a younger man). While life experience – with its career and financial advantages – can tip the power balance in the older person’s direction, that’s not necessarily the case.
Our own dynamic was not straightforward to call. As for the inevitable kids question, it was never on the cards, as my ex had no interest in being a dad. But for other couples it’s very much an option. Chris Noth, aka Sex And The City’s Big, is set to become a father for the third time, at 64, with his 37-year-old wife.
Of course, an older man may likely be a father already. Lola’s ex-boyfriend had a daughter only a couple of years younger than her. ‘In the end she was really cool,’ says Lola. ‘But I was nervous about meeting her. My ex was open to having more kids, but he said I wasn’t ready. Realising that he could entertain the idea of having another child in his sixties made me aware of the massive biological double standard between us.'
And if you do end up starting a family with a much older man, how does that feel for his grown-up children? Katie*, 35, a lawyer, has a stepmother who is 38. ‘I try to see the funny side,’ she tells me. ‘But I think it’s doomed. She wants to have a family and he’s done with having children – or at least I really hope he is.
Still, generally speaking, society is more accepting of unconventional relationships these days, so it seems strange we’re still shocked by age gaps. Interestingly, as women make strides in the workplace (making them less dependent on men as ‘breadwinners’), we are increasingly seeing successful women in relationships in which they are the older partner, so perhaps attitudes will shift.
As for me, recently someone asked me whether my experience was good or bad. Well, it was complicated: we loved each other, hurt each other, made great choices and bad ones; and our ages had a huge role in how our relationship was treated by others. No one was willing to believe that our problems were unrelated to our ages, and that was incredibly lonely. When we broke up, everyone assumed it was because of the age gap. Ultimately, there was a host of reasons why we split, of which our ages were the least important. That’s why, though I eventually married a man closer to my own age, I am reserving judgement on Quaid and Savoie – and wish them the best of luck.