As a very long-term (28 years) specialist in therapy for gay men, I’m asked often for gay men’s relationship advice, especially how to overcome some of the most common and classic challenges in gay relationships. Among these are questions about gay relationship situational difficulties that have to do with where and how we live, such as my previous article on gay men coping with a long-distance relationships. The other question that’s also common is about how to handle an age difference in a relationship.
Age differences in gay relationships add another layer of potential stigma to gay relationships. We know that, despite marriage equality, gay relationships do not have the social validation in lots of ways that heterosexual couples do, which is why heterosexual privilege in society is a real thing. However, even straight relationships can be “looked down on” if there is a big age difference between the partners. There, the “dirty rich old man” is being exploited for his money, while the “gold-digging bimbo” is being exploited for her traditionally-attractive looks as a “trophy wife”. Both of those partners can have their true feelings invalidated by a social stigma, and that’s even with heterosexual privilege. So, a gay male couple with an age difference can have the same stigma, of the older, wealthier “daddy” objectifying and exploiting a twink for his youthful looks, and the daddy is being exploited for his money by the twink who just “wants the best of everything” as a defense against any self-loathing for being gay. But I don’t like to put much stock in these kinds of negative stereotypes, because despite the fact that we can find evidence for them, straight or gay, every relationship is different, and consenting adults have a right to form the relationships they want, regardless of any social approval from irrelevant parties.
Age differences in gay relationships can be just like any other variable. I’ve done previous articles on cultural differences in gay male relationships, and how to cope with them, as well as gay men navigating other differences, such as income or certain psychiatric disorders. But age difference is a lot like a cultural or national origin difference, where it has to do with a world view and outlook based on the phases of life that each person goes through.
Gay male relationships already “challenge convention” that gay boys grow up with a pressure to be heterosexual, so in coming out, we “buck tradition” to begin with. When we choose a partner who is much older, or much younger, than we are, we are “bucking tradition” again of what might be expected of us by parents, friends, and colleagues (same with interracial relationships). But gay men need to basically ignore the nay-sayers and proceed with a consenting adult relationship that we want, even with an age gap. Gay men worldwide have a strong sense of kinship; we can be different races, ethnicities, social classes, nationalities, and cultures, and we all still love Cher. There is a commonality to gay men that brings us all together as peers, and it is this mutual recognition and brotherhood that creates our gay community and can transcend age so that two gay men with an age difference might still experience each other as peer members of the broader, global gay community.
Stages of Life
Where the challenges can come up in gay relationships with an age difference has to do with the two partners going through different stages of life, which has been outlined by many theorists, including Erik Erikson. Erikson basically stated that humans go through a very predictable set of stages in life, very roughly corresponding to each decade, wherein there is a “challenge” that we face to overcome, and a “reward” that we get. When a gay relationship has an age difference, the two partners are probably going through different life stages, and so their outlook, priorities, and values can differ.
When these differences in life stage don’t jibe, it can cause friction in the relationship. When they work harmonically, like a yin/yang, they can create a sense of collaboration, perhaps a mentee/mentor dynamic, and complement each partner’s valuing and admiration for the other. While not universal, many times in age difference gay relationships, the younger partner keeps an older partner from growing too stagnant, offering spontaneity, youthful energy, modern cultural literacy, sexuality, and personal growth, while the older partner can offer stability, structure, a sense of historical identity, other cultural values, inspiration, guidance, and sustainability.
Risks of Friction
There are many potential areas of friction or conflict, and it is often these kinds of problems that age-difference relationships want help with in couples therapy or relationship coaching. I’ve seen many and helped couples with them, but here are a few:
- Social life differences and different peer groups – If one partner is in his 20’s, and his partner is in his 50’s, they might have different social groups. Guys in their 20’s tend to “run with a pack” in a larger group of friends that they do things with. Being out frequently (like on a weeknight) might be common, whereas an older partner might have fewer, but closer, friends whom he sees more infrequently. Sometimes, a therapist needs to help the older partner understand and accept that a younger partner might need to be more socially active, without the older partner feeling that he is being abandoned by the time and attention his younger partner spends with his peers.
- Income differences – I have another article on this here, but in general, there can be friction when younger men are newer in their careers, have less professional experience, and just earn less, which can make an older partner feel like “I have to pay for everything” without feeling like his partner is making a reasonable (key word) “equal contribution” to the household. Part of the solution for this is discussing what seems “fair” in their house; maybe if the older partner works longer hours and pays the bulk of the rent or mortgage, maybe a younger partner with more free time does more of the household work as a non-monetary contribution.
- Risk of mutual exploitation – The concern of many people “looking at” an age difference relationship from the outside can be about a certain “mutual exploitation” risk, where the younger partner is invalidated for any professional skills or acumen and, in bad situations, is treated like a pretty sex object, whereas the older partner can be treated like a walking ATM who is “made of money” and is obligated to give a lot of it in exchange for the younger partner to make him look good on his arm. I’ve seen this dynamic, but I think it’s more rare than the negative stereotyping of gay age difference relationships might suggest. Instead of it being seen as a mutual exploitation, it can be reframed to be seen as a lovely mutual-support system, where each partner gives and contributes what makes them special to their partner. Also, there are plenty of age difference relationships where the older guy is the “pretty one” and the younger guy is perfectly well-off financially; these relationships, despite some assumptions, are not always “a match made at the bank.” But these couples should discuss this risk, and talk openly about what their hopes and fears are, given their age difference, so that any concerns can be aired and be subject to compromises.
- Medical Issues – As an age-difference relationship progresses over the very long term, such as if a relationship begins with one partner at 45 and the other at 25, and 20 years goes by, the partner who is now 65 might start to have more health concerns overall, and these would progress the longer they are together (assuming they still are). This question, or fear, comes up as early as the 45/25 stage, of “What’s going to happen when my older partner gets even older?” However, this is what therapists call “anticipatory anxiety”, which is worrying about something now that might be a challenge (and might not be) many years into the future. The very short answer is, “you cross that bridge when you come to it.” The fears of either partner that the older partner might “become a burden” in older age to the younger partner tends to be a fear fantasy. There are so many variables about long-term health, personal and environmental circumstances, and events in the relationship, that worrying about a 45-year-old becoming an infirm senior citizen are very premature, and even a little ageist. I try to re-direct partners (either one) who have this concern to much more present, realistic challenges that need their time and attention (and good communication skills) today.
From my perspective as a specifically-trained sex therapist and a member of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT), sexuality in age-difference relationships can have many dynamics. Sometimes, younger partners can be especially invested in a very “romantic” or idealized idea about relationships and can be very adamant about strict monogamy, even being uncomfortable if his partner uses porn in masturbation, as it can trigger abandonment feelings. An older partner might have some anxiety about his younger partner appearing desirable to many, and may be insecure because of his own internalized ageism, assuming that “everyone” would prefer his partner to him. Differences in libido or even sexual dysfunction (such as erectile difficulties) can occur, and these might be more prone to hit the older partner (but I’ve seen plenty of exceptions to this). Sexuality in an age-difference relationship is its own topic, apart from other dynamics, and often needs its own attention in treatment via qualified sex therapy. What is key is keeping communication open, and decisions about monogamy versus Consensual Non-Monogamy (CNM) (which I am also specifically trained in, via the Sexual Health Alliance) might differ at various times in the relationship, and that’s OK. Sexuality discussions of what “feels right” can evolve over time, and keeping both partners on the same page to make an agreement (or series of agreements) takes candid communication and bravely addressing the physical, emotional, domestic, and social implications.
In addition to the concerns about the long-term health of the older partner can be existential concerns, with the older partner considering his younger partner to be his last partner in this lifetime, while the younger partner might survive him and have other partners after the first one passes away. This also comes under the idea of “anticipatory anxiety” or “anticipatory grief”, and while we don’t want to dismiss relationship concerns through crass denial, we also don’t want to address tomorrow’s “only possible” scenarios today. Concerns like which partner might survive the other might be important for legal planning, wills, advance health care directives, or last wishes, requiring a will, trust, and other procedures, assuming that the older partner will pass away first is not necessarily true. While I’m all for helping couples plan for the future, the very big existential issues like that can afford to be deferred in favor of taking care of each other right now, which can involve a referral to a gay-affirmative family lawyer or certified financial planner.
Families of Origin
In gay age-difference relationships, some couples will experience support of one of their Families of Origin, both, or neither. An older partner might even have children from a previous relationship who could be the age of their younger partner (this happens in straight age difference relationships often). An older partner might be closer in age to his partner’s parents. But part of the Four Levels of making a relationship work (my article on that is here) involves “Managing The Other”, and that can mean managing the attitudes, reactions, and dynamics of each partner’s respective in-laws. Hopefully, all relationships enjoy support from their broader Families of Origin, but this is not a requirement. All couples need to do what’s right for them, regardless of outside influence from friends (who can actually be quite problematic) or family. Even if the families “don’t get” why the partners are together with such an age difference, it is still solely the prerogative of the partners, and sometimes these boundaries need to be asserted by the partners involved through Assertive Communication Skills, which I sometimes role-play with my clients in session.
Reactions to an age-difference gay relationship can vary even among the respective partners’ friends, or Families of Choice. Single friends can be jealous that you have a boyfriend at all (I experienced this to an extreme) and can be hostile to your new relationship. If you’re unlucky (or just have questionable “friends”) they can be resentful if your new partner has assets like appearance privilege or class privilege. Sometimes, friends can “act out” by being openly jealous of your perceived “advantage”, or just witnessing your relationship can bring out their own bitterness, resentment, jealousy, or self-esteem challenges. But, hopefully, both the friend-set of the younger partner and the older partner recognize each partner’s right to form their own adult relationships, and will be supportive, even if their own tastes don’t involve being “into” older or younger partners themselves. I’ve found that older/younger couples really find out who their true friends are when they start their relationship, and again, this might involve assertive communication or even setting limits with peer friends.
Self-Empowerment in Relationships
A good rule of thumb for gay men in age-difference relationships is to remind themselves to practice self-empowerment (the name of my book, available here). As consenting adults, the partners have a right to choose their partner, choose their style of relationship, choose how they spend their time/money, and assert their very personal rights to the home they want to create.
Age-difference relationships can be part of the beauty of the broader gay male community. They can show that our fraternal compassion (or romantic/sexual passion) can go beyond barriers in age, income, ethnicity, and culture, and can model for everyone that we can celebrate our diverse community and world. Our capacity to love is broad. Modeling this capacity to love can be an inspiration to others.
When gay men with various forms of difference (age, ethnicity, culture, national origin, spirituality, profession, etc.) come together, as friends or in relationships, it strengthens our community from the inside, which protects us socially when there are still those “out there” who work very diligently to oppress us, dismiss us, and strip of us our most basic civil rights, including in some countries the right to life itself.
When gay men in age-difference relationships apply the key skills of Commitment, Communication, and Compromise (my article on that here), we evolve in our relationships in ways that give our lives enhanced purpose, meaning, and enrichment, at every phase of life.
Just as when we assert that “love is love,” gay or straight, we also assert that “love is love” when the demographics of the partners differ. This is an important part of gay men experiencing themselves as fully-realized adults, and we assert this for ourselves as individuals and then share it when we form loving relationships.
If you need support for any of these topics in your age-difference relationship, please consider couples counseling or relationship coaching. My colleagues and I at GayTherapyLA would be happy to help. Call/text 310-339-5778, or email me at Ken@GayTherapyLA.com for more information on our services.