Help me not destroy a great thing!
December 6, 2019 8:46 AM   Subscribe

This is long, so just jump to the extended explanation if you've got a warm cup of tea in hand and some time. TLDR: new relationship after disastrous end to old relationship, pouring anxiety into age gap, that's a red herring, tell me what my brain is doing (and why?)?

Someone talk me through this. It's long, but I want to give some context. 

I'm a woman in my late 30s. Recently finished a very intensive professional/graduate program (all told, took about a decade). Was in a very serious relationship for about 4 years. That ended disastrously Christmas of 2018 (a few months before I got out of training)--we lived together, had plans for the future, and he dumped me over the phone, disinvited me from Christmas with his family, and then never moved back into the apartment we had shared for almost two years and refused to talk about why he left. We had also been together during the unexpected and tragic death of one of my siblings, and he saw me through that. It was a very hard relationship for me to let go of, and upon reflection a year later, I see there was tremendous love but also a lot of unhealthy dynamics. I was extra-pathetic for a while after the breakup, told my ex repeatedly I wanted him back, he told me no and that I was embarrassing myself.  (Then also did that stringing along thing for several months too of reaching out to see how I was, but with no real intent of anything. Just to get the attention I guess.) So I got on with it. Single for the first time in over 20 years. Got into therapy 2x week; got into great shape; secured an excellent job that I started two months after I got out of training; moved to a great albeit expensive city. Am making money for the first time in my life. Bought my first non-shitty couch! And my first bed frame! I also did not date for almost a year after the breakup because I needed to face the terror of being single (terrifying, also not that bad, also super sucks). (And a year later, ex came crawling back saying that leaving me was the biggest mistake of his life, he would always regret it, didn't realize what he had, and could we try again. Said he could give me marriage, kids, the whole thing. I said no, but not with any kind of satisfaction. Just a lot more sadness for how he had destroyed so much. I asked him to not contact me again because it was too emotionally fraught for me, and he has so far respected that.) 

My question (finally!): About 10 months after the breakup, I started seeing someone I thought would be a fling, but actually turned into something wonderful. I had already secured a job a couple hours away but we decided to try things long distance after dating for 2-3 months in the same town (we see each other 2-3x/month, sometimes more, are in contact all the time). And he's ... lovely. Like truly lovely. And I am dating for the first time in my life with eyes wide open. 
But! He's 8.5 years younger than I am. He's a grownup. He's in the same stage of life. He wants marriage, kids eventually. He can talk about these things. He has introduced me to his father; just invited me to a weekend to meet his mom. Excited to introduce me to his best friends. But I get stuck on the age thing and want to tell him to RUN and I don't know why. I feel like there is this insurmountable age difference, and one day he'll be 40 and I'll be 48 ALMOST 50 and he will be like, WHAT AM I DOING??? And then that will happen every single decade. It's so crazily fucking irrational.  

We have talked about fertility WAY more than you should ever do early in a relationship b/c I'm in the process of freezing my eggs. Those convos sucked and I stumbled a lot throughout them, but also were important and he could emotionally meet me there. (Everything in my timeline has been later due to my career switch, so kids will be later too. And I'm very informed and prepared for assisted reproduction in its many variations (as informed and prepared as you can be without having done it, but it's also part of my line of work)). I have made clear: if we had kids together, it may not be as easy as sex, pregnant, baby. It might be expensive and emotional and blah blah blah. Do you get that? And he does. He says he does, and so I have to trust that. 

But I don't. I feel like this big trick is being played on me and he's going to cut and run, and I am just being an idiot like I was last time. And I can't really figure out why. (Though as I write this all out, I see that a lot of my anxiety and mistrust with new guy comes from how unexpected and traumatic ending of last relationship was.) Other perspectives on why I can't just accept this and be happy? Literally I would not think twice about this age gap with any friend, family member, colleague, etc. But I am a complete asshole to myself about it. And I REALLY do not want to destroy this budding great relationship with a great person because of untrue shit my mind is saying to me. (My mind also says to me, why not just try to get back with your ex and then your life will be figured out! And I KNOW that is bad advice, so I do my best to ignore it. But it's there.) 

Final paranthetical aside: (I have mainly put the fertility conversation to the side b/c  I want this relationship to develop OUTSIDE of any pressure cooker. Yeah, I'm in my late 30s and want kids. But I'm also looking for a relationship with a human being, not a sperm donor. And if I end up deciding to be a single mom in a few years, so be it. I am lucky enough to be able to afford that financially at least.) 

Any and all wisdom is so appreciated. 
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
A key for you here is definitely differentiating intuition and anxiety. I.e., is your brain is saying, "This guy will cut and run!" because you've been scarred by past experience, or because he's sending a legitimate signal—that your intuition is picking up—that he's a repeat of a pattern? (It certainly seems like he's a great guy from your description, but you know better than us on that one, or will.)

You mention that part of you that always knewthat your last relationship had unhealthy dynamics—that was your intuition talking, of course. Some ways to tell the difference: intuition has a different physical feeling than anxiety—it's more calm, assured, and centered (even when the news is bad) with a slower pulse, where anxiety is chatter-y, frantic, prone to catastrophizing and has rapid heartbeat, etc.

If you can get in touch with that still, small voice of your intuition on this subject—in the usual ways like meditation, exercise, journaling, therapy, etc.—then you'll be better prepared for whatever comes next. Also: it sounds like you are doing phenomenally well in life in general (yay for breakups that become a catalyst!), so you certainly know how to listen to that voice when it comes to career, etc. Trust yourself here in that same way!
posted by gold bridges at 9:06 AM on December 6, 2019 [11 favorites]

Oh, and just a side note: the age difference is not a big deal deal, but you know that already! As you said, red herring. Reverse the genders and you see just how not-big-a-deal it is. Also: women in their 50s are HOT.
posted by gold bridges at 9:09 AM on December 6, 2019 [12 favorites]

I was married, for 12 years, to someone 19 years my senior. The relationship didn't end because of the age difference. Some people will talk, sure, but they always find something to talk about. Honestly, we all have some cultural programming telling us--perhaps subconsciously--that an age difference is a bad thing, or suggests impropriety. As you two get to know one another better, you'll be able to discard those feelings pretty handily.

I see that a lot of my anxiety and mistrust with new guy comes from how unexpected and traumatic ending of last relationship was.

This seems like the hardest, truest part of the feelings you're having. You've had a painful split in the very recent past, of course you'll still be aching and confused and prone to second-guessing. Of course you'll be trying to preemptively sight red flags--your sensitivity dial has been turned up to maximum, and it's exhausting. You're doing a good thing by going to therapy, and it sounds like you're paying close attention to how you feel. As best as you can, I hope that you can keep communicating these feelings to/with your man. Don't hide them, share them. This is a time to share your burdens, so that you can both relax in your shared company. And that, in itself, is building intimacy and trust that really directly extinguishes some of those fears.

Congratulations to you, you've made it through a crucible and are made of a stronger alloy than before.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 9:35 AM on December 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

I think what's getting to you really is just cultural programming that any age difference at all is weird if the woman is older, it really wouldn't be a big deal at all in the other direction, but there's nothing to do but consciously examine the feeling of weirdness and try to dismiss it to the extent you don't endorse it. I'm in a relationship where I'm woman three years older than my male partner, and even that, which is hardly a difference at all, gave me a weird jolt when I found out his age.
posted by LizardBreath at 9:52 AM on December 6, 2019 [5 favorites]

I guess I would maybe advise to pull back from the newish relationship a bit? Not in a catastrophic way, but you have a lot of stuff going on, and maybe instead of hurrying the intimacy up, let it cool a bit.

Like, it's good that he knows what your plan for having kids is, but imagine breaking up and then never talking to him about it again. He would still know all that stuff about you.

If he's in, that's great. You have time to let things unfold.

This is of course advice you may not find useful, or may feel isn't responding to the true situation. I offer it only as one possible technique to calm your anxiety, since maybe what you're responding to is a mismatch on some level between what you want from a relationship and where you actually are in this one.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 10:07 AM on December 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

My sister (age 57) just buried her husband (age 75) after thirty years together. She has no regrets.

Eight years is nothing in the long run.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:22 AM on December 6, 2019 [6 favorites]

Well, anybody that you meet and like might "cut and run." This is not a knowable thing. If he's not bothered by the age difference, then he probably will not leave over that. It sounds like he probably won't leave, full stop. But you can't do anything to stop people leaving who want to leave. Any people! Not just the really good excellent seems-like-a-miracle-that-you-even-met-much-less-fell-for-each-other people but ALL people. We just are not safe, and there is no way to make ourselves safe. So it's fine to just say to your desperate wounded brain, "Brain, please stop caterwauling for one minute and listen. The last guy was very mean and hurt you. I am sorry. This guy is nice so far. He may also do something to hurt you one day; we can't know. But it also hurts you to be alone, and so far he seems likely to be kind to you for the foreseeable future. I understand that you are afraid and are going to need to yell about that. That is okay, but I need you to know that we are going to go ahead with this, brain. None of your howling that we are on a precipice of doom is going to stop that. Buckle up, brain. Here comes life."
posted by Don Pepino at 10:27 AM on December 6, 2019 [19 favorites]

I've been the younger in the relationship in two long-term relationships, once 15 years younger, that lasted for 7 years and broke up when she was 45 and I was 30 (we're still Facebook friends, it wasn't acrimonious, just headed different directions), the other started shortly afterwards, she's 7 years older than me, and it's still going after 20 years; I'm 51.

I still can't tell which of our challenges are age-difference related and which are life experience and expectation difference related. I do know that I have a lot of gay friends who have long-term relationships that are on the 15+ years age difference range who are still going strong, even as the older has had all of the long-term issues of aging (I know several in their late 50s or 60s who've buried their partners who died much older, with dementia or what-have you).

I suspect that the tendency towards open relationship and larger community caregiving (in part brought on by the devastation of the AIDS crisis) makes some of the aging-related issues easier to deal with in the gay community.
posted by straw at 10:31 AM on December 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

There is almost a seven year difference between my husband and me. We got together not long after my marriage ended and he was 28 at the time. It's now 2019, we've been married for seven years. He's 40 and I'm 47 ALMOST 50 now and I am actually infertile and he's still here!

And yes, sometimes I ask myself: how is he still with this woman who looks in the mirror and mentally squawks "Croooone!!!" at herself? How has he not tossed me aside for a 30 year old? It's because he's a solid guy and a good egg (along with being my favorite person) and as long as we don't talk about "oh man this song reminds of when I was in high school" topics, the age difference melts into nothingness, and people don't even pick up on it unless we tell them.

Now if they we do tell them they're always amazed and I'll get some "hey cougar" comments but icy glares usually end those tangents tout de suite.
posted by kimberussell at 10:47 AM on December 6, 2019 [5 favorites]

I don't think your panic needs any deeper explanation than the one you already know: you have trauma from a previous breakup. It was extremely shitty, and it blew up your life, and it hurt you tremendously. But, you might not be the person you are today without it, so for better and worse it's a part of you. You are smarter now about certain things because of it, and you are probably going to be more cautious in certain ways, which is not entirely a bad thing.

Anxiety is very, very good at making arguments that seem extremely reasonable. It's targeting the age gap because that's such a fraught subject, it's an easy target. But you sound like you have done as much due diligence and soul-searching here as anyone can reasonably do. There's no guarantees, there's only informed choices and it sounds like you are 100% on point there.

Of course you could be wrong, or something unforeseeable could happen and change everything. That's always going to be true. Learning to go with what's happening right now for now is a muscle you will have to strengthen, and the sooner you start the sooner you'll be more comfortable.

As an aside: I'm almost 48 and most of my friends are in the 38-50 range and aside from a few formative cultural gaps (formative music/movies, presence of internet as non-adults) and stuff like menopause where the 38 year olds don't know what's about to hit them, it would be hard to tell us apart by age in a room. I think our differences at this stage of life are more directly driven by career arcs and personal experiences. If your concern specifically is suddenly being thrown over for a younger model, I think you're actually really well poised to tell today if he's the kind of emotionally limited person who can't mature alongside a partner and will bail when she grows into her "not taking society's shit anymore" years.

He sounds like a good egg. He sounds like he's not a manbaby. I think you should keep giving this relationship a chance until he does or expresses something that you find truly incompatible with how you want to live your life. You've got time to sort this out, you know what your Plan B is, try embracing and enjoying this thing for a little while to see how that works out.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:57 AM on December 6, 2019 [6 favorites]

From your timeline, the last relationship ended less than a year ago (Christmas 2018) and you started seeing this new guy 10 months later, which is about a month, month and a half ago.

Maybe you can give it a little more time before you start making decisions about his suitability to father children with you.

As for what is going on with your brain, we are coming up to Christmas again. It is not surprising that your subconscious is anxiously looking for signs that New Guy might leave you unexpectedly just like the last one did less than a year ago. Seasonal associations, especially with holidays involved, can be really strong when you've had a traumatic / seriously unpleasant experience.

Congratulations on all the things you've been doing to get yourself in a better place, it sounds like you are doing really well. Just don't make any major decisions till the new year when any anniversary-related anxieties aren't at play.
posted by Athanassiel at 11:37 AM on December 6, 2019 [7 favorites]

He wants marriage, kids eventually.

I have made clear: if we had kids together, it may not be as easy as sex, pregnant, baby. It might be expensive and emotional and blah blah blah. Do you get that? And he does. He says he does, and so I have to trust that.

Yeah, I'm in my late 30s and want kids. But I'm also looking for a relationship with a human being, not a sperm donor. And if I end up deciding to be a single mom in a few years, so be it. I am lucky enough to be able to afford that financially at least.

It's great that you've been clear from the start about your plans for kids and the possibility of assisted reproduction.

If you have a timeline for when you'll be starting assisted reproduction, regardless of whether he or any partner is around, you should be really clear with him about that timeline. Does it mesh with what he means by "eventually?" If so, great. If it might not, then be aware of that as part of your "dating with eyes wide open."

You clearly have a greater understanding than he does of the details of what may be required for reproduction, and what timeframes, expenses, and limitations there may be. Have you given him the benefit of your knowledge on that topic, or have you glossed over details? As a teacher or trainer, asking "do you get it?" will elicit a lot more "yes" answers, compared to asking "what are the percent chances for a woman of x age, and approximate dollar amount for y procedure if needed?" and trying to elicit answers that demonstrate knowledge and understanding.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 11:50 AM on December 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

Do you think he can rub your arm in 38 years? Will he still look good in his flannels in mine and a half months? Will you still have dumb days out when he's 64 and you're 73? I think yes.
posted by parmanparman at 12:22 PM on December 6, 2019

You might have already seen this, but I read this insightful and wise (although unfortunately titled) essay a few months ago on The Cut and it seems like it might speak specifically to some of your anxieties: Darkness on the Edge of Cougartown.
posted by stellaluna at 12:27 PM on December 6, 2019 [5 favorites]

As another point, I am about the age of your partner, and would date someone your age if it was as lovely as you say it is. the most important thing is that you are both full adults, in the same stage of life, with similar relationship wants. And you have that! Relationships aren't "marry at 23 and then die together" anymore. Life isn't "graduate at 24 then work the same job forever" anymore, and you're proof of that. People's lives are (thankfully) less beholden to the "standard script". Do what is good for you now.
posted by FirstMateKate at 12:39 PM on December 6, 2019

(Did you mean you and your ex broke up two years ago, not one year ago? The timeline is a bit confusing.)

Okay, so I'm a cis woman in my mid-40s, and my partner is a cis man in his mid-30s, and the difference is more than a decade. Before I was in a long-term relationship with someone 12 years older than I am. I also recently seriously dated someone who is my age within a few months. (Including all this to be clear that I don't have any particular pattern about age differences in dating.)

I get why this is weird. I'm a feminist and yet still subscribe to the notion that my male partner should be at least slightly taller and older than I am. Patriarchy does a real number on all of us. But I am starting to think that dating a younger man can be feminist, in part because it's a subversion of what's regarded as normal. (I don't think it's inherently feminist to date a younger man, but working towards rejecting the idea that it's wrong is.)

I've also heard a lot of women say they like dating younger men because women tend to be ahead of men emotionally and politically, so when we date younger men, we're more likely to find men whose emotional intelligence and thoughts on feminism and women match our own. Women also tend to be healthier and take care of ourselves a bit better. I'm not sharing this as arguments for why you *should* date younger men, but why it can work. (Also please do take it as a compliment!)

But I think there are bigger issues here: one, this is a pretty relationship (though the timeline is a bit confusing) and it's long distance and you are working yourself up into a tailspin incredibly soon. You are still in new relationship ga-ga honeymoon limerance. That's a super fun time, but please know that you aren't quite seeing the full him yet and things should settle down in a few more months. Right now your brain is playing all kinds of crazy tricks on you because of all the hormones/mating hormones flooding your brain.

The other issue is that you might find something to stress about in most any new relationship because vulnerability is scary, even though it's required for real love and intimacy. So, yes, you are taking a risk. I'm not sure you are taking more of a risk because he is younger. (Also, younger guys have grown up with fewer hang ups about older women.)

It's not clear if your anxiety is something that would happen regardless or if you are responding to some spidey sense that something is off and not working. This is something to journal about and explore in therapy.

Also, try to cultivate an abudance philosophy about dating. Sometimes when we've been hurt, we get this idea that we have to fully heal and recover and only then can we start dating. So we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to get it exactly right when we do start dating again, to prove to ourselves that we healed the right way and now we know what we are doing... so then any possible hurt or failure becomes doubly hard to feel because we start to think we didn't heal right.

But dating around, and dating lots of people, can make you feel less anxious about any one relationship. Given the confusion around the timeline, I'm not sure if this is truly a new relationship where it might make sense for you all not to be long distance and exclusive, and of course it's hard to unwind monogamy, and I know you are feeling the pressure of fertility concerns right now, but ... breathe, relax, enjoy this lovely man. What would it take to be able to do that? Is there something you need from him or from within you?
posted by bluedaisy at 1:36 PM on December 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

Mod note: This is a followup from the asker.
Hi, all--Original poster here. Wanted to clarify timeline since a few people have asked. I tried to change some details in my question to anonymize it as much as I could, but I was sloppy and bad with math! New guy and I have been dating about 4-5 months, couple months in the same city, 3 months long-distance (2h away). So not 6 weeks, but still earlyish. (But also long enough that I felt it was important to make my own future personal goals clear before we kept moving forward--that's why we have talked about my ovaries. If he wasn't generally interested in what I was interested in, didn't feel like plunging ahead.) But also be assured I was working myself into this anxiety tailspin in the very beginning too.

Finally, thank you to everyone for their wonderful advice.
posted by cortex (staff) at 1:57 PM on December 6, 2019

First off I want to second that excellent article from The Cut that stellaluna linked above - so good, you should definitely read it!

I'm 41 and my husband is 36, so not quite so big a gap, and when we met (at 35/30) we were both "maybe/probably" on having kids but now we are both on team "no kids for us, thank you!"

I hear what other people are saying about not rushing in, but I also think that sometimes, especially when you're a grown-up, you really can meet the right person and "just know." I hope for both of you that this relationship is as good as it seems right now and that will last - just keep your eyes open in case there are signs that it isn't and shouldn't. The age gap is *not* one of those signs. Being upfront about your future plans for having kids/your timeline for that plan is good - if that's going to be a problem for the relationship it's good to deal with it sooner rather than later.

I think as a woman who wants to bear her own biological children you may end up in a situation where your options are "break up with this guy who I love but who is not ready to have kids" and "postpone having kids until it's too late." That would suck, obviously! Some decisions do suck! But you sound like you will be able to make that decision if/when you need to.
posted by mskyle at 2:20 PM on December 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

Sometimes I need cliche but quite adorable celebrity examples to counter the cultural programming of my whole life:
Meagan Gale
Hugh Jackman
posted by hotcoroner at 6:25 PM on December 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

There are no actual red flags in any of this except for one important word: "eventually."

I agree you need to be honest about your kids/family timeline. Sure, it's a pressure cooker and adds some strain to a relationship that's relatively new. But fertility is 100% real.

You need to know his timeline. And he's beyond old enough to be thinking and making grownup decisions about his own timeline, and "eventually" is too vague. That lackadaisical answer is not an OK answer when you're dating a woman in her late 30s who wants a family. If he wants to date someone older he needs to have given this some serious, not idle/vague, thought. His gender shouldn't let him off the hook for this.

If his timeline doesn't match, you don't want to waste another year wishing it were different. Talking about a timeline certainly doesn't mean you have to start trying to conceive NOW, but you should be thinking about how long you're willing to give a relationship that may not head in that direction within the timeframe you need and chances are that pragmatically you want to maximize potential within your next 5-7 years, knowing the later you go out, the tougher it might be. There's no shame in breaking up with someone lovely who you really like because the timing doesn't work out. It happens all the time.

Sorry. Nature's math is ruthless. You need to know what you want and act on it. And it's OK to ask the same from him, and part ways amicably if it's not where's expecting to head at this moment in his life.
posted by Miko at 5:29 AM on December 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

I started seeing someone I thought would be a fling, but actually turned into something wonderful

Just waving to you from the other side of this! Not long after my Long Relationship ended, I started seeing a guy who I thought was so lovely it was too good to be true. I literally told him on our first date that he was out of my league. I told myself just to go with it and have fun because why not. And I assumed he'd be on his way at some point, especially when I told him I wanted to move out of the city and have kids (which I did, five weeks into dating).

Anyway we're married now, and moved out of the city, and have a kid and it turns out I was used to relationships ending because until you find The Good One, they all kind of do.

If your new guy is a good egg, if you fancy him and he makes you happy, then who cares about the age gap?? It's not even that big??

And I mean consider this question your Useful Reminder To Go To Therapy because we all should be doing it now and again and one of the things it's the most use for is making sure you don't replay bad things again and again because you think that's all there is.
posted by greenish at 3:44 AM on December 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

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