Age difference coming to a head?
June 10, 2009 2:28 PM   Subscribe

I'm struggling to cope with my older boyfriend... I'm 21 and he's 36. He jokes that we are both "really" 27.

I'm 21 and he's 36. However, we are unconventional 21 and 36-year olds. I just graduated from college, with a job working at a charter school waiting for me in August. He has been a bartender for years.
We live together currently and are both moving to separate states in August.

We have been together for over a year. He is the first man that I've lived with and is wonderful and completely supportive in every way. He treats me just as well as I could ever hope for.

The problem, I guess, is that I think of myself as pretty ambitious and motivated and sickly idealistic. I'll be working at a low-resource school, trying to use my education to change a little part of the world for the better. He, however, has always lived sensually and has been very lucky to come from a wealthy, sheltered family without much reason to escape his "bubble." Now, don't get me wrong; I do NOT feel like this makes me a better person than him, I just recognize that our priorities are different.

Since living with him, I've felt myself become more and more complacent.. Whereas before I may have gone to a lecture, now I'll stay at home with him and watch TV. Furthermore, instead of renting a documentary, we will watch UFC. This wasn't troublesome to me because I saw it as "relaxing" after 4 long undergrad years and before starting a very taxing job.

How can I reconcile this difference between us? He has expressed a desire to move with me to Boston, but I've been so hesitant because I can't stop feeling like I'll slip into this complacent, relaxed coma. I would like to have him come with me to Boston, so long as he could UNDERSTAND and support my desire to implement even a little bit of change. Thus far, it might be best to just let him go even though I would be losing an emotionally nourishing person - he isn't challenging or ambitious to me.

What can I do? Is this an age issue? If so, how can I deal with being the "older" one?
posted by brynna to Human Relations (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
How can I reconcile this difference between us conflict within myself?

This has nothing to do with him. He hasn't changed, after all, you have. You don't like being "complacent," so don't be. No one's forcing you to sit on the couch. If you participated in [whatever] without him before, why can't you continue to do it without him? wonderful and completely supportive in every way.... long as he could UNDERSTAND and support my desire to implement even a little bit of change...

wait, what?

Is he supportive or not? Is he telling you NOT to be a teacher? Just because he doesn't share your goals doesn't mean he doesn't understand or support you.

Is this an age issue? If so, how can I deal with being the "older" one?

Honestly, by assuming that he's the one that should change, it seems like you are the less mature one. It sounds like you're just incompatible and I wouldn't ask him to make the move unless you can accept him exactly as he is.
posted by desjardins at 2:35 PM on June 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

You're moving to separate states in August? Just enjoy this relationship and end it when you move apart.
posted by Happydaz at 2:44 PM on June 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't know if it's an age issue, but they do seem to be "what qualities/environment are important to me and I want in my life" and a "what specific aspects do I want in my partner" questions. I think both are super important.

Perhaps you value people in your life that challenge you in terms of ambition (they are ambitious around issues that also matter to you, that energy feeds you, etc) - not just support you (in that they agree/accept what you are doing, but may not have that energy themselves). Is it possible for it to be sufficient that your friends and family are the ones that inspire you to action? Or do you feel it is central that your partner have a significant role/be on the same wavelength in this?

I ask because it's kind of like the gym (apologies for the friend reference. I'll keep it short). I have a friend who after pregnancy wants to get back in shape - she wishes her and her husband would go to the gym together, but when he gets home, he pretty much sits with the baby on the couch, and is unfit, and content. She's super frustrated, because that joint effort is important to her, and it feels like extra effort to get herself up. But she does it. Because this is what she wants. And she gets her "get up and go" energy from friends. She gets something else from him. But thats her.

So I think when I've seen it work (staying with your partner), it's when the person either gets that energy from someone else, or finds it within (AND feels that's sufficient). But if you think this is something that you need from your partner - and there is nothing wrong with that - then I think you just accept that too, and act accordingly.
posted by anitanita at 2:46 PM on June 10, 2009

Since living with him, I've felt myself become more and more complacent

And this will probably continue if you stay with him. That's not necessarily a terrible thing—most people become less intensely idealistic as they get older—but if your desire to "change a little part of the world for the better" is really important to you, more important than your relationship with this guy, you may want to reconsider the relationship.

Note to desjardins and anyone else who might go off half-cocked and start insulting the poster: she is not saying it is the boyfriend's fault, so you don't need to leap to his defense; she is talking about what she's like when she's with him.
posted by languagehat at 2:49 PM on June 10, 2009

I think this is the sort of issue that comes up in any long-term relationship, no matter what the ages involved. There's always some -- usually quite a bit -- of dealing with different approaches to life. One person saves every cent, and the other loves to buy things. One person wants to travel, the other likes staying close to home. If it wasn't this, it'd be something else, and that will be true in any relationship you get into.

Desjardins pretty much hits it on the first sentence. This isn't a couple issue, at least not yet. If you want to go to lectures, go to lectures. If you want him to go to lectures with you, let him know and be prepared to compromise.

And if what you really want is a partner who shares your interest in intellectual stimulation and who gleefully pores over the free weeklies in search of new adventures, that's okay too. Just remember that when you find someone like that, there'll be something else you'll have to compromise on.
posted by lore at 2:50 PM on June 10, 2009 [7 favorites]

this doesn't sound like an age issue at all. it might be a class issue or a priorities issue - but certainly not age. trying to blame it on that just keeps you from seeing the forest for the trees.

you say he's a bartender who likes to stay home and watch UFC. you are a go-getter with a degree who likes to go to lectures all the time. you like the emotional comfort of staying in and cuddling, but you feel guilty for not being more proactive in your off time.

as has already been said - this is a problem with you, not him, and not an "us" (you+him) problem. if you want to go to a lecture, go. if you want to stay home, stay home. if the issue actually is that you want him to want to go to a lecture instead of stay home, then you should find a partner that wants to go to a lecture instead of stay home.

oh, another thing - you say you don't think you're better than him, but you spent half your post disparaging his job, his leisure activities, and his upbringing. it's ok to feel you're on a different level than someone, but when you start lying to yourself about those emotions, everyone ends up miserable.
posted by nadawi at 2:50 PM on June 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

I dated that guy right after college- for us, it wasn't an age issue, just a values issue. We broke up and that was so the right thing for us.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 2:53 PM on June 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

It seems painfully obvious that he's not your type. You have an image in your head of the kind of guy you'd like to be with, and it's someone very different from him.

Seconding happydaz: since you're already going to move away from each other soon, this seems like a good time to break up. And seconding desjardins: it's not so clear that you're the more mature one if you're hoping to change basic features of his personality.

I also find it odd that you've framed this as an age issue, but the real substance of your question doesn't seem to have anything to do with age. You may be using the most conspicuous surface difference (21 vs. 36, wow!) as a distraction from the more significant underlying issues with your relationship.
posted by Jaltcoh at 3:02 PM on June 10, 2009

As I've gotten older, I've become more comfortable with my own little zone and my own little schedule. He seems to be in the same boat.

What I mean by that is, he's lived for a while and figured out that he likes staying at home and watching UFC. That's probably more exciting to him than lectures, believe it or not.

This wasn't troublesome to me because I saw it as "relaxing" after 4 long undergrad years and before starting a very taxing job.

Think about how he might be "relaxing" after 15-odd years as an adult.
posted by hpliferaft at 3:03 PM on June 10, 2009

For me personally, a relationship is a lot more fun when my partner and I like going to the same sorts of things. There's some give and take when our interests diverge and when that happens we compromise.

From the way you've described it, you have cut back on your interests to comply with his. If he isn't making an effort to do some of the things you like, he doesn't actually sound like he's particularly supportive. You're young, you probably are curious to try things out in the world. Consider dating this guy one of those life lessons and go find someone who wants to explore with you. Or even better, try a little exploring on your own first.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 3:57 PM on June 10, 2009

I just left a relationship where I was in the same situation as you - i was (formerly) more active in my community and social circle, but he was all too happy to sit at home, which started to influence me too. Not the reason we broke up, but it sure felt like there was something important missing in my life towards the end. Though it's been only a week or so, I already feel a lot more like my old self again. On your own, you'll revert to what kind of person you like to be.

It's certainly not an age issue, merely a difference in personalities. It seems you're hoping for a lot of "togetherness" and sharing of interests in your relationship, whereas in this current one you would be much happier if you could stand to be more independent from him. So he's not Mr. Right, that's ok. 21's definitely a good age to be adventurous, wholeheartedly pursuing your interests and dreams, and at the same time you'll be in a fine position to meet other guys who are like-minded and find one who does match you better. Lots of fish in the sea.
posted by lizbunny at 4:05 PM on June 10, 2009

I would weigh in about the age issue for a minute, because it was part of your question, and no one has mentioned much about it specifically (since I refreshed).

I dated a gal nine years younger when I was 27
and a girl seven years younger when I was 29.
In both cases, we did not define the world in the same way.

Obviously, YMMV as with just about anything thinkable, but a certain crucial point seems to be the actual age-- not playfully figurative age-- of 27 (give or take a year) when certain things kind of click.. what I mean is it's a milestone in developing and defining your personality and values, and that number floats right in the middle of the rift between your ages.

My worldview has changed drastically a few times over since I was 21-- again, most notably around age 27. Of course, I don't know you or your boyfriend, and certainly have no context for making gospel advice to anyone (or prescribing some kind of wacky age chart that says "this will happen to you at this time", for that matter), but I'm speaking from personal experience and, fairly consistently, I think, that of folks I know as well (family, friends).

Odds are he's been through some significant lessons that have shaped his worldview and his view of himself-- lessons only available through experience-- and the disparity that you're feeling may be due in part to that.

In the case of my previous relationships, it was definitely a weight that wouldn't lift, and it encompassed our communication styles, our priorities, our goals.. you get the idea.

it sounds like you may be moving in different directions.
posted by candyhammer at 4:09 PM on June 10, 2009

you'll outgrow him. seriously. at 36, he's pretty much defined his various ideals, passions, habits and, barring some extreme event, is unlikely to do much more "growing".

you, on the other hand, are just getting started.
posted by philip-random at 5:01 PM on June 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'll offer this as a counter-point to most of the comments so far. You could look at all of it like this: He offers balance in your life. Just as it was nice after a long day at school to come home to him and relax, that will be true with your job. Balance can be wonderful.

Maybe, you aren't the "older" one in this relationship. Learning to relax and enjoy simple pleasures can be difficult for some people. That "fired-up" feeling you have now can mellow in time, or can drive you into being a work-obsessed Type A person. He may be the perfect counter to this (and, you may influence him to be more intellectually stimulating after hours, or more driven in his work pursuits).

Another thought: You choose your actions. So, every evening does not have to be in front of the UFC -- that's your choice. With a balancing partner, you can sometimes choose to do something different than your partner. Or, you can even ask him to do something different with you, splitting time between the UFC and documentaries (to use your example).
posted by Houstonian at 10:34 PM on June 10, 2009

@philip-random. Sorry mate, that's just rubbish.

I've dated people 14 and 17 years younger, and Ms 14 year younger was as stuck-in-her-ways as I'd have expected a 90 year old to be. Ms 17 years younger, on the other hand, was always exploring new things.

It just depends on the person.

OP, you and your man need to talk, and be honest with each other. You say he's supportive, but not challenging enough. It could be that of the two types of people in the world, he's a giver, you're a taker. Why don't you then take his support and challenge *yourself*? Take some risks, and show some appreciation that you HAVE his support, that he'll be there when or if you take a risk and it all goes to hell. Why are you expecting him to give more than what he has obviously already given?

What have you given back to HIM?

Like many women, in my experience, you seem to want to have things both ways. If you don't want to compromise, then leave. But if you value the rapport you have, and the support he has given to you, and the life you have made together, then I think you need to take a good, long look at yourself before you start trying to get other people to fit your ideas of what they "should" be.
posted by flutable at 3:39 AM on June 11, 2009

Most of the men I've dated have been older than me. Everything you've described, except your difference in age, tells me that this problem isn't your difference in age, it's the difference in your personalities.

Men older than 21 don't have a set way of behaving or something. And I wouldn't consider 36 that old anyway.

Imagine he's your age and consider everything you've said here. Does that answer your question?
posted by fan_of_all_things_small at 5:29 AM on June 11, 2009

However, we are unconventional 21 and 36-year olds.

I know a lot of 36-year-olds that behave like your boyfriend. I don't think his behavior is unconventional, unless there are a lot of details that you are omitting. He works in the service industry and likes to watch TV. Sounds about par for the course.

You mention a lot about being the 'older' one in the relationship, and I disagree. Go-getting and ambition aren't traits of age but of personality.

He sounds like a wonderful guy - emotionally supportive, kind, et cetera. If you decide to stay with him, you are the one who needs to make your ideals happen. Find friends who work at your school and make plans to attend lectures. See documentaries with people that you volunteer with. Include your boyfriend in your plans along with something in return (i.e. "hey, if you make sure that I make it to generic save the world speech X, I'll do the dishes two nights in a row" or something like that). Let him know that you need pushed out of your complacency and enlist him to help.
posted by amicamentis at 2:49 PM on June 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

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