How to have good boundries with younger friends
February 16, 2019 7:56 AM   Subscribe

Mid-30s man making friends with people who are in their early 20s. I'd like to do this right, and build healthy friendships, while also being mindful of the power difference, experience difference, and maturity difference.

I'm 33, male, bi, married, no kids, confident, attractive, and tend towards strong emotional connections with people. I've been in my new city for four years. As I've laid down roots, I have intentionally tried to make more friends outside of the office. That's gone quite well, with people of different ages and genders.

I am predominantly drawn to the artisan / creative / environmental / coffee shop space. I often meet people who are studying at one local art school or are in the local sustainability program at the university. These folks are easy to make friends with because they actually have time to hang out, they have great energy, and they are passionate about creativity and exploration, like I am.

However, I want to be mindful. There are a few men and women in their early and mid 20s who invite me to events and to work on projects together. I don't think there are crushes, infatuations, expectations, etc, and I want to keep things healthy.

I also have been thinking about what it looks like to others in this (somewhat conservative) environment. I grew up in a conservative culture where married men and women did not spend alone time together. Also people weren't friends much outside their age cohort. So I don't have a very good example of how this is done well, and I don't want to be seen as someone who pursues relationships with young people in an unhealthy way (regardless of the truth).

I would appreciate some advice about boundaries, emotional maturity, complicated situations to avoid, how to be helpful, how to be a good older friend, and above all how to correctly perceive the balance (or imbalance) in relationships like this.
posted by rebent to Human Relations (18 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Through circumstance I have plenty of friends and acquaintances about a decade older, and have had older friends since I was in my early 20's. The consistent thing that made it work was being treated as an equal...even if there was a decade of age difference, we're still all fully-formed adults with bills to pay, doctors appointments to make, opinions on art, politics, culture. There was no "oh let me pick up the check" business due to them being a little further along in their career or anything like that and I think that was important to making me feel like we were all level.

A good place to start would be not making assumptions that a 23 or 24 year-old is going to be that much more emotionally immature than a 33 year-old. Checking any paternal "oh you young innocent spring chickens" stuff at the door will be vital to making it all work.
posted by windbox at 8:31 AM on February 16, 2019 [21 favorites]

Agreed with what windbox said above. My whole life I have had friends much older than me and it wasn't weird, and now that I'm in my 30s, my friends in their 20s really aren't that much different than me other than some pop culture references I'm not familiar with and their ability to stay out late and wake up hangover-free. I don't feel like there's a power imbalance at all, because they are my friends, not my employees or whatever. Yeah some are more mature than others, but you can say the same for people in their 40s and 50s or any decade really. So agreed that just treat them like equals, shy away from the naive impressionable ones just because that's annoying generally, and don't overthink a plate of beans.
posted by greta simone at 8:38 AM on February 16, 2019 [4 favorites]

The way you have good boundaries is to have good boundaries. This question reads to me like you aren't actually seeing these younger people as fully formed adults -- there's a vibe here that makes me think you probably aren't actually in a place to have full, healthy relationships with these individuals. Like, if you're on the lookout for power imbalances, are worried about optics, and are thinking of your friendships in terms of age, this is not going to work. Just treat them like full people and you'll be fine. Stop thinking about them in relation to you. Friends are not reflections.
posted by sockermom at 8:39 AM on February 16, 2019 [21 favorites]

I’ll never forget when I was 22, a 50 year old manager treated me as if I was his professional equal. I learned more from him than anyone else.

Was going to echo sockermom - while you have good intentions, this comes across as patronizing. There are many mature 20 year olds and immature 30 year olds. If I was a 25 year old, I’d pick up on your too aware of our “power imbalance” vibe ASAP.

How to do it - treat 20 year olds as if they’re just as deserving of respect. It’s a good guideline for people of all ages, really.
posted by treetop89 at 8:48 AM on February 16, 2019 [8 favorites]

It's a little weird to me that you think this is a big thing and it makes me wonder if there isn't some underlying concern on your part that you're not quite
voicing. Like, what does it matter that you're bi and married? What does it matter that you're confident and attractive? Why do you think there's some kind of power imbalance between a 20-something and a 30-something in a purely social, shared-activity type context? Do you want to be friends with these people or do you want to fuck them, or what? Sorry to be so blunt but I'm getting that kind of vibe in this question.

The way you make friends with people who are younger than you is the same as how you make friends with anyone else. You relate to them as people, you do stuff together, you have fun together. You may have less in common because you are not part of the same age cohort and that sometimes may prevent you from relating/having fun, but only sometimes and if it doesn't then it doesn't.

Just treat them as peers, because they are. You're all adults; there's no rank or heirarchy. Maybe you have something to teach them, maybe they have something to teach you. Be kind and generous and don't do anything that would be inappropriate if you did it with anyone else. The age is irrelevant.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 8:50 AM on February 16, 2019 [16 favorites]

Ok, um. These are not the responses I was expecting. Maybe I can clarify...

For starters, I'm the type of person who does ask his doctor before starting a diet or exercise program. I'm cautious.

I've read a ton of ask me questions about hurtful relationships, and the age difference often comes up as a factor. That's why I'm asking this.

The stuff at the top, about being bi married attractive etc - that is me trying to identify my privilege because i have seen answers saying "well of course this happened, you're so much richer" etc. I don't know that it matters. Thus this question.
posted by rebent at 9:01 AM on February 16, 2019 [4 favorites]

Don't be paternal, don't give unsolicited advice, don't hit on your younger friends or flirt with them. Just be a good friend: communicate clearly, reciprocate invitations/gestures of friendship, ask them how they're doing, be there for them, send them things you think they would be interested in or amused by. If you notice they're really immature or acting too young, they maybe they're not compatible with you for friendship, gently fade away/be "busy".

A good thing to ask yourself if you are looking for actual friendship here and not people to hit on or flirt with or whatever is: would I be treating this person this way if they weren't attractive (or potentially attracted to me)? If the answer is I don't know, or no, that's a sign you need to pull back and re-evaluate how you're interacting with your "friends."
posted by zdravo at 9:14 AM on February 16, 2019 [4 favorites]

I don't want to be seen as someone who pursues relationships with young people in an unhealthy way (regardless of the truth).

I think, truthfully, some people are going to see it as unhealthy that you're specifically perusing friendships with younger people, and appear to be uncomfortable about yourself in doing so, regardless of how you approach it.
posted by OnefortheLast at 9:23 AM on February 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

I've read a ton of ask me questions about hurtful relationships, and the age difference often comes up as a factor.

I think if you were specifically seeking out younger friends, it would be different, and I would want you to examine the reasons why you were doing that. Or if you were specifically choosing to spend time in scenes or communities where everyone was younger than you, I'd want you to examine that.

But pursuing your interests, and showing up one day to realize you're the oldest person in the room, is something that happens to literally everyone sooner or later. On its own, it's not a red flag. Don't date people too young for you, don't be obnoxious, don't exploit people's inexperience, and you'll be fine.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:25 AM on February 16, 2019 [8 favorites]

I think the answers above were really great, very on point for maintaining good, platonic peer-to-peer relationships among people with different kinds of privilege. I'm concerned, and wondering why, you don't think they are good answers. I'm concerned that you believe your personal magnetism is All That. I'm concerned that you want to maintain the power dynamic of "older friend" while not having any negative repercussions of wielding it.

If you want to be a mentor or an "older friend" instead of a friend who is older, that's a power imbalance. If you can't handle treating people quite a bit younger than you like equals, maybe you shouldn't hang around with them.

Or is that the advice you want? Like how do you do it? How do you not be a mentor? You put your "authority" and "wisdom" and "experience" in your hip pocket and you sit on it and you don't offer unsolicited advice or make any judgemental remarks. Instead, you just give them the same kind of air to breathe and space to live that they grant each other. You don't suffocate them with your wisdom or whatever. You don't dominate conversations, frown at things you are sure are foolish, etc.

I'm in my 50s and I have friends who are teenagers on up to really older folks (which is extremely common when you do theatre or other arts related things), though usually I'm the oldest person at the parties I go to. I don't judge people, don't advise, don't lead or direct. I enjoy their company.

That's it, it's a peer-to-peer relationship.

Anyway some of the "kids" who are like 18 are super fucking wise and have tremendous energy to make change in the world, I would hate hate hate to say anything to dampen their enthusiasm with any of my assumptions. Just be chill, can you do that?
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:28 AM on February 16, 2019 [11 favorites]

Something about this question feels funny to me. Do you have healthy friendships with people your own age? Do you have healthy friendships with people ten years older than you? Healthy friendships with people ten years younger than you look like that. If they look different, in my experience, it's because the older person is not setting appropriate boundaries with a younger person who is not socially experienced enough to push back in whatever way an older person would.

Like, this kind of thing, about younger people: "These folks are easy to make friends with because they actually have time to hang out, they have great energy, and they are passionate about creativity and exploration, like I am"

Plenty of people your age fit that description. So I feel like that kind of thing sometimes is code for "older people set better boundaries and don't let me run roughshod over them, which is what I like to do, so I seek out younger people who will let me" And it does feel sexualized, in an unnecessary way: who cares whether you're attractive or married or bisexual in the context of this question?

I'm not saying that's you. I don't know you. I'm saying that it sounds like something someone who is poor about setting and obeying boundaries could say about why they prefer being friends with younger people. What someone could ask, who was interested in not being identified as a creep when they are doing vaguely creepy things.
posted by Kwine at 9:44 AM on February 16, 2019 [13 favorites]

I'm going to cut you some slack because there currently is a thread of "OMG ANYONE WHO INTERACTS WITH ANYONE FIVE YEARS YOUNGER THAN THEM IS A PEDOPHILE!!!! YES, EVEN IF THE YOUNGER ONE IS 45!!!!" in leftist pop culture circles. (If you're a person who hasn't seen it, count your blessings.)

But're 33. You're talking about interacting with, like, 25-year-olds. That's just people interacting with other people. It's only weird if you get weird about it, or if you obtain some position of power or authority. As everyone is saying, treat them like fellow adults.
posted by praemunire at 9:59 AM on February 16, 2019 [8 favorites]

yes, it does feel uncomfortable when all your friends are younger than you, even if only by five years or so, and the various frenzied counterreactions are not very useful if and when you perceive that difference. some people do not believe it is egalitarian for a (relatively) older adult to accept any increased sense of responsibility for anything as the years slowly press us down into the earth. don't worry about that. trying extra hard to behave correctly may not be as necessary as you think, but you are not going to harm anyone by thinking about this, including yourself. are you all equals before the law? yes. should everyone have learned something about emotional regulation in the long decade between 23 and 33, no matter how calm they were at 23? also yes.

But discomfort shouldn't be bothering you unless all your friends are younger -- find or maintain friendships with a few 35/40 year olds and it'll help a lot. if you were never the token young person in a group of glamorous older people, that explains your nerves now. but it's not too late. give it a try, it is a very valuable experience. the perspective teaches you a lot of things that can only be learned directly.

the main thing you can't do when you're hanging around with 22 year olds is rely on them for sloppy emotional support the way they may do with each other and make grand emotional displays in the same way they may do with each other. you can be close friends, you can be frank and open with them, you can share secrets. really, the only difference is that 22 year olds can look to each other as models of social behavior, and you can't. partly because you shouldn't need models of social behavior anymore in the same way that very young adults do.

your 27+ friends are basically your age and there's nothing in particular to think about with regard to them.
posted by queenofbithynia at 10:55 AM on February 16, 2019 [18 favorites]

[A few comments deleted. Folks, if you think the asker is a creep asking from bad motivations, just pass this question by and don't help them. Otherwise please just take this at face value, that the asker is trying to be extra conscious and careful to avoid badness, and they're looking for constructive suggestions about avoiding potential pitfalls they may not have foreseen.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 11:38 AM on February 16, 2019 [7 favorites]

First, I think this is a completely valid question, and see absolutely no malice or patronizing tone from the OP. In fact, the fact that so many people have insinuated that he is a creep for having asked is proof of how valid his concerns are! Even if we'd like to live in world without hierarchies, they do exist. Maybe we don't personally see any difference in the power structure of a particular relationship; however, the other person or people do, and we must be mindful rather than ignorant for our own ego. I totally remember feeling awkwardness about age difference when I started working at my school at age 23. My colleagues were all older and amazing but it's a huge change from college or high school when most of your friends and co-workers are peers and have a lot in common.

Suddenly, you can be friends with people 23 and 63 and there's an adjustment period. Sure, they all saw me as their equal, albeit one with less work experience, but I felt like such a greenhorn at first. I have friends of all ages now at age 35 but, frankly, I find my younger friends sometimes ask me for advice just as my older friends give me advice. The reverse is true, too! The US can be weird in that we're not a culture that respects our elders in the same way many others do. This has pros and cons: there's less pressure to yield to those older but we also know that, for most, with age comes wisdom and we are grateful to learn from those before us. Additionally, I feel for you in that, yes, having friends of different genders is wonderful but also a new concept for many who don't grow up with that precedent. I doubt, or at least would hope, that MeFites would be kinder were the OP to be from a foreign culture very different from the US. The US has many cultures in and of itself but so often we forget in our progressive ignorance, right?

I agree that it's important to be mindful of factors like attractiveness, marital status, sexual orientation, and the like. Over time, as the friendships are established, these become unimportant but, at first, it can be like: "Wait, are they hitting on me?" "Should I invite their spouse to hang out, too?" I took time building a friendship with a younger colleague whom I was mentoring, because I didn't want things to become awkward or stressful for him. Now we can joke about anything but I remembered how some older male colleagues felt they could flirt or joke carte blanche because they were older and married. Um, no?!

Finally, I remember being 27 and dating someone, not from work, who was 35. I felt so much less life experienced and rather intimidated at first, despite his kind claims that he did not feel the differences. (OK, there was one time he was patronizing about my age but that was it! No one's perfect, right?) Now 35 myself, I totally see where he was coming from as someone who's dated younger and older. However, that doesn't invalidate my genuine feelings at age 27!

rebent, kudos for asking this question. I feel you are absolutely on the right track in terms of being open and mindful. Please don't be afraid to have little check-ins with those new friends at times if and when it feels important or beneficial. After all, the best way to ease awkwardness and worry is to be vulnerable about your own awkwardness and worries. We've all been there, and the bravery to be direct is a relief to all and way to grow a relationship, whether professional, platonic, romantic or beyond!
posted by smorgasbord at 12:49 PM on February 16, 2019 [8 favorites]

This comes up with me all the time!

I'm a woman in her early 50s who, because of personality and other things, has more free time to hang out and do things with people of different ages including younger people. I figure older people who are hanging out with me sort of understand things. I do not always assume that younger people who I spend time with are clear that I'm in a partnered happy relationship but I also like to do a lot of one-on-one things with different people. The big deal with me is making sure this stuff doesn't look like dating (while also understanding that even dating is a totally different thing for much younger people). And that I'm clear at all times that

- my relationship isn't open
- my partner and I are happy
- I am interested in their partners and romantic life too but not overly so

There's nothing wrong with having strong friendships with people in different age bands (and I will second what people have said, the age range you're looking at doesn't even strike old-timer me as much of a difference). And some of this has to do with your marriage too. If it's more open you probably need to get good at communicating that and thinking about that idea (if it's not it's a little easier to just say "I'm married" and have people draw the default conclusion). And being aware that no matter what you say about your monogamous relationship (if true) that can go out the window if you seem to be projecting smoldering intensity towards someone who might otherwise be interested in you. So make sure your words AND actions are at least more or less in sync.

And I think the major thing in my world has been that you and your wife are, should be, on Team Us, which means you don't use these new friendships to get your own relationship advice because that can send the wrong message about why you're forming an intense friendship with someone. Involve your wife or not as you both see fit, but just make sure that you're clear that your wife is the primary relationship (again, presuming you're not in a poly setup you haven't mentioned) and make sure that is what you are projecting as well as saying. Younger friends can be a great opportunity for mentoring if that's what you want, and also hanging out with people who have a lot of energy (this seems to be one of the reasons I have younger friends in my peer group, they show up to stuff!) and a new perspective on... stuff.
posted by jessamyn at 2:07 PM on February 16, 2019 [5 favorites]

I don't think it's about age; it's about stage of life. If you are married and in your own home with a stable job, and they are living with their parents, or room-mates, having lots of casual relationships, and unemployed or studying, there are a lot of places you might just disconnect on things, and also some potentially problematic practical stuff.

Like, when I was a broke student in my early twenties and friends with a couple in their late twenties who worked as management consultants, they would invite me over to dinner parties, and I just could not reciprocate. I lived in one room in a crappy shared house way out of town, and had no money even to suggest we go out to a restaurant sometime.

Or in the other direction, I was once hanging out with a friend of a friend who was 18 and I asked if he wanted to get a drink, it turned out he was living with his parents still and had to ask his mother if it was okay. And then we had to organise it so that his parents could pick him up after. And this was just so alien to me that I found it hard to see him as an adult anymore after that.

So yeah, I think this can work if you try to connect with people who are at a similar life stage to you in at least some ways, no matter what their age, and if you are good at keeping some of the disparities between how you live out of the equation. But I don't think you are wrong to ask about potential pitfalls and to consider them in advance. That's just smart.

Finally, yes it is weird if all your friends are a lot younger than you. Try not to be that guy.
posted by lollusc at 3:03 PM on February 16, 2019 [2 favorites]

just don't be clingy with people who drift away as they grow and change and don't try to fuck anyone who sees you as a mentor and you should be good bro
posted by prize bull octorok at 3:56 PM on February 16, 2019 [2 favorites]

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