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Societal and Familial Disapproval of an Age-Disparate Relationship

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ccangl asks:

I'm 21 years old and my boyfriend is 52. The age difference does not matter to me or to him but it bothers me that our families do not approve of the relationship. We love each other and even want to get married. Our sex life is great, we are on the same level spiritually and have lot in common. I just need some advice dealing with peoples' reactions to our relationship (family, friends and even strangers!). As far as family goes, his family does not tolerate me, they think I have some kind of conspiracy to hurt him. They think I'm going to use him and break his heart, they cannot believe that I truly love him. My family (especially my mom) is more understanding, he spends time at my house, etc. My biggest concern is that we will not be able to be happy (if we get married) because people disapprove of our relationship. I'm used to people looking at us and wondering if we're a couple or not but it bothers me when they try to make us feel bad by giving us the "look." How can we tell people to get off our backs about our relationship without being rude? Thanks for your help.

Lena replies:

I am glad to hear that you and your boyfriend are happy together. Finding a great partner can be a rare and wonderful occurrence, regardless of age! I have been mulling over your question for a couple of days and have a few thoughts to share. I will start by saying that I support your relationship based on the information you have provided. You are both legal adults and the dynamic between you two seems positive. I do have some concerns based on other things you've said here.

Hidden discrimination

I would put your age-disparate in a category of relationships that are sometimes seen as less socially in the mainstream. For all the talk about “waiting till marriage” for sex and what not, there’sa surprising number of disenfranchised people and groups who can’t marry due to legal barriers. For starters, there are the same-sex marriage bans and civil union debates that LGBT folks must deal with on an everyday basis. They must face large legal barriers, but I believe you can also extend this so-called relationship or “love” discrimination beyond legal issues to include societal disapproval. Depending on the place and the context, I believe you could include interracial, interfaith, and cross-cultural relationships. It’s only been 40 years since Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court case that legalized interracial marriage in the US. Fortunately, you two must not overcome such legal hurdles.

However, it sounds like the two of you are facing some pretty stark – and unfounded -- criticism in your personal lives. I am sorry about that.

Broken Record

Channeling the ghosts of classic advice columnists past, such as Ann Landers and Dear Abby, I would work on developing some stock answers for people’s unwelcome intrusions and unsolicited criticism. There are the overly polite answers such as, “We appreciate your concern but are very happy, thankyouverymuch.” or the “We know you care but would appreciate you keep your comments to yourself.” There are also the more direct replies, to include “That’s personal”, “Excuse me?” said with a look of your own or just the flat out “I can’t believe you said that!” Keeping your composure while calling them out on their overstepping boundaries is key, although it does take some practice.

As for dealing with strangers and their “looks,” people are always going to gossip or assume things, regardless of whom you choose to have a relationship with. Again, this is something that queer folk and people in interracial relationships living in less tolerant areas know all too well firsthand. As long as it’s not a safety issue, I would recommend trying to ignore their looks. It’s not easy but sometimes we must grow a thicker skin to survive. I currently live in a small-town, where people can be both kind and generous but also a bit overly curious. I realized this when I had to field some questions about a “new boyfriend or roommate” when my visiting dad dropped me off at work one morning. As someone so succinctly said, “If you’re with your dad, people will think you have a sugar daddy. If you’re out with your nineteen year old brother, people will think you’re robbing the cradle.” Either way, you can’t avoid the gossip but you can choose how you deal with it. Ironically, when people were much less interested and totally accepting when my actual boyfriend came to visit.

I also know from personal experience that sometimes I can jump the gun and assume people are thinking the worst when it's truly the opposite. When you’re used to negativity, it’s hard not to be defensive but often times, so-called unfriendly looks are signs that people are spaced out, having gas or thinking about something completely different. I can think of a personal experience growing up. I was in Roy Rogers, a cowboy-themed fast food restaurant with my mom. They had just changed their décor to include some larger-than-life photos of “cowboys” having a cookout at chuck wagon time; these pictures included a huge vat of baked beans stewing over a fire. Not yet a fan of legumes at the time, I thought it was yucky and loudly exclaimed to my mom: “Eww, that’s gross!” Being caught up in my own feelings about baked beans and the poster, I had not realized that there was an interracial couple sitting right below it. My mom got very upset and chastised me for saying what I did. “Don’t make statements like that before looking at your surroundings first. Don’t say such things or give more details. That couple may have thought you were talking about them and probably feel very bad and unwelcome right now!” She was right and, needless to say, I learned my lesson.

Blood is thicker than water... especially when it boils

I hope you can try some things out and find a solution that works for you. Dealing with family is a whole different thing, because these are people who you care about and who care about you.

Your mom is cool with the relationship, which provides you some welcome support. His family seems very much against it to the point of antagonizing you. Part of me thinks that time will show them your true intent and it’ll work out. However, part of me also wonders why this family is so involved when he’s in his fifties and why he isn’t shielding you more from their criticism, should that be the case.

Is this family of his parents, siblings or children? If the critics are his underage children, I would expect and hope he puts their needs and concerns before his own romantic interests. Granted, it puts you in a really unfortunate position, but I’d want a partner who put his kids first.

However, if the critics are extended family, does he share a residence with them? Why doesn’t he live on his own or can’t they respect his personal decisions? Have they always been this involved in his dating life? Honestly, that is the one thing that concerns me about all this. I know that major familial involvement at all ages is big in many cultures, but I think there needs to be some limits and compromises if both partners are not in agreement here.

Putting you first

Regardless of his family’s approval or not – and I’m assuming these people aren’t his children, which would be a different scenario, does he stick up for you and protect you from their criticism? Family is really important to me, but I’m also ready to put the future of my partners ahead of my family’s interests if that is what it takes. For example, if my family were not to accept a potential partner due to his race or religion, I would stay with that partner but also try to protect or at least shield him from family contact and criticism. (Fortunately, my family is very accepting.)

While you can’t change how his family feels about you – overnight at least, he can choose how he deals with them. If his family’s approval is truly most important to him, then it would only be fair to you to end the relationship. It’d be sad but the best, because being namby pamby is unfair to you. I would also argue that you’re never going to have unanimous social or familial approval of any partner or decision; realizing and accepting that is important. It might help to explore why others’ approval is so important to you. However, should you truly believe that you cannot be happy without more people’s acceptance of your relationship, I would reconsider having the relationship. I want this relationship to work for you, but I also want you to be happy with yourself and those you care about, first and foremost.

Seeking allies and advisors

Regardless of what happens, I would recommend seeking allies and advisors locally and beyond. It could be other couples in such age-disparate relationships, understanding friends, or a professional relationship counselor. I am sure there is a great support network online as well and there are many people who could offer great advice and share common personal experiences. I also have the background of personally knowing a few couples with a similarly large age difference from work and university. I was became a fan of My Fair Brady during reruns; if you aren’t already familiar with the show, it might be interesting to watch and compare because former Brady Bunch star Christopher Knight and America’s Top Model Adrianne Curry are in the same boat.

I hope his family comes around to accept you; for many less-expected relationships, I believe time is what it takes to show people it is real and good. However, while you can’t change people, you can change how you react to them. Again, it’s not about your being accepting by his family but his readiness to put you first and protect you (and himself) from their judgment.

I wish you two the best of luck and hope people come around and things work out for you. No relationship is “easy” but some are just harder due to extenuating circumstances. I hope you can overcome those barriers to realize the long-term, lasting relationship you aspire to.

Additionally, here are some resources you might find interesting:

Note to Readers: While this relationship is legal (both are legal adults) and there seems to be a dynamic of equality, Scarleteen regularly hears from teens involved in age-disparate relationships that are unhealthy. Often, an older boyfriend is manipulating or hurting a younger girlfriend, such as his pressuring her to have risky, unwanted sex. In that case, the age difference can be just a handful of years, but the implications and complications huge. Therefore, we recommend the following links to those interested in more information:

written 19 Apr 2009 . updated 23 Jan 2014

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