Is it age difference or just too different?
July 10, 2010 5:36 AM   Subscribe

I'm mid-thirties, my partner is late twenties - I'm having a hard time reconciling our difference in age/experience when planning for the future.

We met just before I moved out of town. What started with him pursuing me for what I thought was a fling grew into something more and we've now been together for three years. Two were long-distance and we've spent the last year living together. During the first year we split up twice at my instigation but missed each other and drifted back together. He is very loving, accepting and caring and we have good communication but the eight year gap is making me feel increasingly anxious about the future and I don't know what to do.

The decision to move in together was mostly practical - I live in a ridiculously expensive city and when he got a job here my previous lease was ending so we decided to give it a go. It was hard at first but now we have a pretty happy home life. My friends and family like him - it's just me that's wavering. We get on really, really well, but we don't seem to share a common outlook. I've got a lot more life experience - love, travel, jobs etc. I'm also further on in my career so I earn a lot more and have savings. I do want to carry on exploring but with more focus now.

Most of my friends have been settling into relationships/marriage/parenthood/home ownership with partners of similar age since we turned 30 and I do feel left out. I feel alarmed that I can't seem to plan anything 'grown up' because his views and resources are unfocussed and limited (eg he has ideas but no plans for execution). He doesn't want marriage or kids. I'm ambivalent leaning towards no about both, but I'm not sure if this is in general or just in regards to us. I feel wary about cutting off my options with someone who's plans are so much more flexible, especially over kids.

Maybe some of this is projection - I've grown and changed hugely since my mid-late twenties. I've always been very independent but I understand my limitations and strengths better and I have ideas about the future, some concrete, some not so much. I just don't feel safe trying to factor him into them. He's grown too since we've been together but it sometimes makes me feel more like a mentor than a partner.

We've talked about this many, many times and nearly broken up for good as a result but something always stops us. I've been a serial monogamist for years and I'm tired of going through breakups and get-togethers. I do love him, and he loves me very much and is very supportive. I'm pretty unconventional and he isn't fazed by anything I do or say. I can be emotionally volatile when stressed and he talks me down when I'm losing sense of things. He has a solid job and we're both involved in and supportive of independent creative activities.

We have a great relationship in so many ways and I'd hate to throw it all up in the air for such intangible reasons - none of which it seems would be an issue at all if the genders were reversed.

Does this resonate with anyone? Is the age just a red herring? (Using sock puppet account so please MeMail if anonymity is required).
posted by socksister to Human Relations (21 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
If you're fundamentally incompatible, then even if you were born a couple of minutes apart, you'd still not be able to get along.

Why are you with this guy? If it's because you're sick of breaking up and don't want to be alone, then perhaps that's not a good reason to stay together. If you really love him and want to make it work, though, then something as meaningless as an age difference shouldn't make any difference. If you're compatible, then you're compatible. If you aren't, then you aren't.

If he's as amazing as you say he is, then he sounds like quite a catch. It sounds like you could get a lot out of the relationship if you tried. Also, why are the genders an issue? It sounds like you're looking for reasons that can't be altered as excuses to break up.
posted by Solomon at 5:48 AM on July 10, 2010

To me, this doesn't sound like a relationship problem at all; it sounds like a personal crisis that you're projecting onto your relationship. You're flirting with changes in the way you live your life and the way you picture your future. It's normal for that to be uncomfortable. Your boyfriend is not making it uncomfortable.

Try and dial down the anxiety. Talk openly about these thoughts and changing ideas with your boyfriend. There is no need to throw away a perfectly fine relationship because he might someday not be enthusiastic about something you might someday want to do. Cross those bridges when you come to them.
posted by jon1270 at 5:51 AM on July 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

We get on really, really well, but we don't seem to share a common outlook.

This strangely abstract. I feel like I want to hear an anecdote, or some concrete examples of how this problem plays out in your everyday life. Thinking about people in their twenties and then thinking about people in their thirties, I can imagine some problems you might have but it's just that, imagining.
posted by BibiRose at 6:02 AM on July 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think you need to totally unhook the age disparity as you look at compatibility/incompatibility. If you're truly compatible, you'll look back on this later in life and 5 or 6 years' difference won't seem like a thing at all, as it diminishes relatively with your actual age over time. You may have other actual differences from one another, but ascribing them entirely to age may not be the best idea. Who knows how either of you will grow and mature, and to expect your partner to grow and mature into someone you might be more compatible with in the future could be a recipe for a lot of wasted time. Watch out for selfish expectations.

Overall though, he sounds like a mature, balanced man. They're apparently a little rarer than you might think, so make sure that the differences between you two aren't just normal things that make you individuals and don't let them become a gulf, if it really is a good thing you've got there. Accepting imperfections in your partner is a mature thing to do sometimes, if the imperfections aren't harmful to either of you.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:18 AM on July 10, 2010

I'm 8 years older than my wife -- 37 and 29. When we started dating she was 24. We have a lot of the issues you mention; at different places in our careers, in many ways raised in different cultures, etc. Hell, even apart from the age difference we are very different people. These differences are a source of endless amusement rather than a strain on the relationship, because we love each other.

Practical issues -- like if you want to be married and he doesn't -- are one thing. But the age difference itself is, as you say, a red herring.
posted by bjrubble at 6:30 AM on July 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I feel alarmed that I can't seem to plan anything 'grown up' because his views and resources are unfocussed and limited (eg he has ideas but no plans for execution)

Really? OK, you can't plan a wedding or childbirth unless he is interested too. But I'd make sure you aren't blaming him for a lack of focus that you've acquired, because it's easy to be a little bit lazy when there are two of you doing it. Do you have ideas? Do you have plans for execution?

If you want more focus and he isn't interested, work out what you want to focus on and go for it! You said he's loving and supportive... for all you know he'll jump on board and get involved with your plans. At worst, it will be a litmus test and you'll discover that your ambitions really aren't compatible with him.
posted by emilyw at 7:07 AM on July 10, 2010

The age is not a problem. I have friends with that age gap (female to male) that have been happily married for years.

The problem is you may be incompatible otherwise. If you want kids this is not the dude.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:14 AM on July 10, 2010

Most of my friends have been settling into relationships/marriage/parenthood/home ownership with partners of similar age since we turned 30 and I do feel left out.

Is it not the relationship itself that's bothering you, but maybe the unconventionality of it? Do you feel like you don't "fit in" as a couple with other couples?

My partner is 19 years older than me and I confess to feeling that way at times. The fact that sometimes other people can be a little wierd about it doesn't help either. But-- I'm a pretty unconventional person, and the truth is that I've never been drawn to "normal" situations. I've had to learn to accept that about myself. :-)
posted by cottonswab at 7:47 AM on July 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

The age difference you describe is so small that I'm surprised anyone you know gets excited about it. As for differences in experience, everyone has different experiences in different things. Has he led a sheltered existence? Does he not enjoy traveling? You don't say what "grown up" things you're missing out on with him, aside from possibly marriage and children, but I'm not sure what gives you the idea that someone in his late twenties is not grown up.

Plenty of people get married and start families before they hit 30. If you're reconsidering whether or not you want children, that's normal, but it's not something that can be blamed on your boyfriend. He sounds like he knows what he wants.
posted by wondermouse at 8:45 AM on July 10, 2010

It really doesn't sound like age is the issue here.
And the experience thing is a red herring-experience differences are common when entering a shared life together.

It sounds like this: "his views and resources are unfocused and limited (e.g. he has ideas but no plans for execution" is more likely the problem.
posted by SLC Mom at 9:47 AM on July 10, 2010

Well, I think the kid thing needs to be decided on your part before you do anything. We had a thread on here a few days ago about that, about whether or not you actually want a conventional life or if you do just because you are supposed to. But you do need to think about if you were with a different guy (i.e. older/more conventional), or alone, would you want a kid. Or are you just ambivalent-leaning-towards-no just because of this dude? If he wasn't a factor, would you want one? If so, then you know what you have to do.

If you've got the kid thing decided as a no and that's not the issue, then maybe you just need to talk it out with him if you do want to get married or not.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:51 AM on July 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Is it that you don't feel "safe" making plans that rely on him still wanting to be with you?

If I were in this position, I would marry him, or leave him.

I know some people don't want marriage for whatever reason, but it seems to me that you're not going to feel secure or like you're on solid ground to make big decisions until you have something more concrete and permanent from him, something that will help you both weather any changes he's going to go through.

I certainly would never give up the possibility of having children for someone who wasn't interested in marrying me. It's too much to give up for someone who won't give up their singleness in return.

Of course, you might feel like marriage and commitment are not one and the same, in which case--what would make you feel like he's committed to you?
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 10:25 AM on July 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks all, your comments are really helping me clarify the issues.

I think SLC mom has hit upon a key issue.

One example: Two years ago I stopped job-hopping to take a post I knew I'd hate but that would enable me to save for house deposit/pension. My boyfriend is disinterested in finance beyond paying the bills and enjoying city life, he also has a considerable amount of student debt so my savings are like abstractly unbelievable riches to him and I feel bad talking about how to build/manage them.

Another example would be: he wants to go off to live in another country, great! Except I did that five years ago and while it was fantastic I don't want to do it again - at least not until I have a base set up here. I'd love for him to go do whatever he wants, but it makes it hard for me to factor him into my plans when they are so disparate.

I just can't help feeling twinges of envy when friends are combining resources to attain shared ambitions, be they procreational or otherwise. Basically, if I want to do any of those 'life stage' activities within the next few years I'm going to have to do them on my own, or forego the chance altogether. I do love him, but I seem to have a more pressing need to get on with stuff than he does at present and I don't know if that's a deal breaker.
posted by socksister at 10:58 AM on July 10, 2010

Be your own partner. By that I mean that even if you do break it off with this guy, you will be by yourself. And you will have only you to rely on to achieve your goals. So commit to yourself. Decide what you want to do. Make goals. Tell him what they are and what you want. Let him decide what he wants to help with and what he wants to work around.

He can do the same. When he wants something, he can make a plan to get it. You are not responsible for his goals or his plans. If he wants to go live in another country, he has to decide it and do it. It's not your job to make sure he gets what he wants--it's his job. You're both grown-ups and you both have to advocate for yourselves. Trying to manage or be responsible for him getting what he wants out of life WILL make you feel like a mentor or a parent--you don't have to do it.

Make peace with the fact that in the end, each one of you is solely responsible for getting what you want.

(Also, if you do want a kid, you can have one with or without him. Get some sperm, hire a great nanny, and go for it.)
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 11:23 AM on July 10, 2010

My boyfriend is disinterested in finance beyond paying the bills and enjoying city life, he also has a considerable amount of student debt so my savings are like abstractly unbelievable riches to him and I feel bad talking about how to build/manage them.

This is something that some people never outgrow. There are a lot of couples out there where one person is the financially responsible one and the other just spends whatever they have after contributing to rent/utilities/whatnot. Some people make it work, some people don't.

As for these "life stage" things you talk about, be conscious of getting caught up in what seems to be stuff that everybody else does and letting that be the main reason why you want to do it too.

Just remember that it's not his age that's the issue here. He is a grown man. The issue would be incompatibility due to different values and very different things you want to do in the next few years.

Sit down and have a serious talk with him about this. At least maybe you can come to an agreement about what you both want and see if anyone is genuinely willing to compromise for the sake of the relationship. The last thing either of you wants is the feeling that you're holding each other back, which will only lead to resentment.
posted by wondermouse at 11:51 AM on July 10, 2010

Gosh. My husband is uninterested in finance beyond paying the bills and enoying city life. But we've joined our lives, so insurance and pensions are now part of those monthly bills that he's comitted to paying out of our joined assets. I don't care if he's interested; only one of us has to be in charge of steering money. I care that he's supportive of the fact that these things are important to me and I'm doing them for us.

But it sounds like the real problem here is that you don't feel you and your boyfriend have joined lives. That may be an issue with your perception or it may be reality. But you should know that you can have very different lives, income, education and all of the things you've detailed and still have lives that feel and behave in very cohesive ways.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:12 PM on July 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

I agree the age difference thing doesn't seem like the real issue. I think the real issue is that it doesn't sound like you feel like a member of a team with this guy. I can only speak from personal experience, and obviously every relationship has its own rules and norms, but for me, that seems like a pretty big problem.

My husband and I talk about it like this: there's my identity, needs, and goals, his identity, needs, and goals and the identity, needs, and goals of our partnership, of the Unit we have formed together. All three sets of needs are important, but when push comes to shove, the needs of the Unit are the tiebreaker. We don't know what we want to do for the rest of our lives, whether we want to live in our current city forever, whether we want to have kids. But we both know down to our bones that our Unit is strong and safe, and can roll with whatever punches life throws our way.

There's a real sense of security and peace that comes from that confidence. It's not just that we love each other, it's that we love and value who we are as a team. Part of that is making concrete plans for the future, and part of it is just the feeling of our goals and values linking together like two sides of a zipper.

From what you've said, it doesn't sound like you feel that with this guy. You don't know if it's safe to make plans or set goals because you don't know if he'll be beside you, and it's causing you some anxiety. I think you've got to sit down and start hashing this stuff out with him. It's not just do you want to have kids or not (although that's important and possibly a deal breaker), it's finding out if the two of you are travelers on parallel roads who can link up and find love and security in traveling together.
posted by mostlymartha at 2:30 PM on July 10, 2010 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I could've written this exact post, so I feel like I completely know where you're coming from (or am projecting). I'll share my story in case it's useful, but if you want actual Advice, I can be more abstract. Our ages are reversed, so I agree that's irrelevant. (I am in my early 30s, and he's four years older.)

For me, after trying unsuccessfully to get my boyfriend of four years to think about buying a house together, I worked two jobs, saved up, and bought it on my own. It wasn't that he didn't want a house; he liked the idea; it just seemed too distant and impossible to make happen, so spending time on it seemed pointless. Then suddenly, I was signing closing papers. But since I had planned it on my own, and budgeted it solely on my income, near the end I realized it was so small that we might not even be able to live there happily together, at which point it became clear to me the extent to which "be your own partner" drives a wedge between you and your actual partner. It's good advice, better than completely putting life on hold to wait for him, just not as good as actually having a partner who is motivated to pursue the same goals. I am extremely glad I kept moving, though. It kept me from feeling completely stuck, and now "buying a house" isn't an abstract thing; I have an actual house and pay an actual mortgage, so we can start thinking about buying a house together without it seemng like some abstract fantasy. (This approach would obviously work less well for goals like marriage or childbearing, however!) So that's how this has played out in the external world.

But even in the internal / interpersonal world, what you're talking about seems very real and very reasonable to me, and I don't think you can solve this solely by adjusting your personal attitude or perspective. This is something that has a reality and deserves to be taken seriously. Someone above suggested you dial back your anxiety, but for me, this was the main source of anxiety in my life, and it spilled into other realms where I had traditionally been unanxious. It was extremely stressful feeling like time was ticking by, knowing I wanted a partner for undertaking major life projects, not being able to evoke any interest in these projects from my current "partner," but not wanting to break up either. My internal pressure rose higher and higher until I dragged us into couples counseling. 

Since then, things have gotten much better, but it has been a year and a half (to find a good counselor and see an impact). Couples counseling is great for helping people understand their partner's feelings as something separate from themselves, so instead of feeling defensive when I talked about this, he finally just understood how very, very important it was for me. Paradoxically, it took the pressure off of him to help meet that need. There we were, two people, one of which really wanted some things, the other one who was not really ready to act on those issues. Then we could start to think about how to deal. Here's where our story may diverge from yours, in that he did like these ideas, but he just had other barriers internally. If he had said "truthfully, I just don't want this," then we would've been in a different situation. In our case, we instead spent time thinking about those barriers that existed for him. The process also reduced my anxiety somewhat as that worried part of myself got to stop being some dirty angry secret that threatened to destroy our relationship, and instead came back to being a valuable part of myself whose concerns were known and acknowledged as real and serious (and less angry, finally absorbing something that is obvious and that I'd known mentally but hadn't understood more deeply, that he had his own life and reasonings and was entitled to do whatever he wanted). Just having him fully understand where I'm coming from and acknowledge that it might be hard for me when his actions took him in a different direction made it a lot better. (Not that he was defending taking a different direction; he was just showing an awareness of impact.)

We are still halfway there, and I admit I still feel like the team captain instead of a teammate at times, but he has stepped up lots, and as that has happened, I've begun to see how our skills will be balanced. 

That's my story, and I hope it helps in some way, but if you want to chat more or think through what you should actually DO, memail me. (This is a sockpuppet account for me, too. I can share my usual handle privately but publicly want to protect my bf's anonymity since some of his friends know my username.) In any case, best of luck.
posted by ruff at 3:56 PM on July 10, 2010 [5 favorites]

there are some really great, long, and thoughtful posts here. my only addition is to urge you to consider not living together. i know it can seem insane to not live together: when everyone you know is settling down together in the traditional way, when you already live together, and when money is always going to be an issue for most of us it can seem like silly madness to move out instead of moving in. myself, i am in a happy, healthy relationship with similar age dynamics to what you describe and the thing that has saved it (this time around -- we've dated in the past and i've left for reasons that echo some of yours) is not living together. it may be unconventional, but if it works who i am to complain?
posted by tamarack at 9:06 PM on July 10, 2010

if you live together in order to save money with the hidden agenda of goading him into marriage and children, even subconsciously, it will fail.

Think of all the marriages you've seen (and if you haven't... you will) that ended in divorce just a few years - or worse, months - after the couple lived together for a really, really long time first. Eventually one of the couple issues an ultimatum or wears the other one down. Good marriages aren't founded on waving a white flag.

I realize how insane this sounds in our fucked economy, but unless you're committed to someone on a long-term level, you don't want to be financially dependent on that person. And your statement about being a mentor instead of a partner is AN OMG HUGE RED FLAG.

You want to parent and mold your partner into an ideal husband somehow, and I don't think you realize this. You better reread what you typed here and think really, really hard if you want to have a child and try to co-parent with someone you already regard as needing life lessons from you as it is.

You've already instigated two breakups. To me, this is a sign of behavioral training/setting boundaries, then not adhering to them yourself/"practice" ultimatums for forcing him to adhere to your relationship timeline, which he does not currently share.

If I am reading this wrong, I'm really sorry; it's just resonating with me strongly as a 38-year-old woman who's seen most of her friends divorce after near-identical behaviors. These marriages and relationships failed regardless of the age or gender of the partner involved, gay or straight, children or no children. As others have said, these things are what you'll blame for the eventual breakup later when your incompatibility was the real culprit all along.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 9:46 PM on July 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: It's six months later and we're still together. The answers here helped. I did some work on clarifying my goals and we discussed it all at length. We've both grown a bit in the intervening months, in good ways. The child issue is off the table - I just don't want kids it seems, which is a good thing to know about myself ;), and everything else is negotiable. It seems we're compatible when it comes to compromise, and that makes the age-difference feel much less of an issue than before. Thanks guys.
posted by socksister at 1:09 PM on January 5, 2011

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