Age Gap Relationships

Why do we worry about age gap relationships? What is it about them that can be a problem and can there be a good one?

Lots of readers here at BISH tell me that they are in relationships with someone who is a few years older or younger than them. Typically it’s around 4 or 5 years and they are usually asking me about the legal aspects of this (more about Under Age Sex here and here’s an Ask BISH about Under Age Sex and the Law). This article is about what people get out of having a younger or older partner. We’ll also think about what might make this an unhealthy or harmful relationship and what we might do about this.

What people get out of them

What the younger person might get out of them

For the younger person, they might like the maturity that an older partner might bring. We all have different levels and experiences when it comes to sex and relationships. As we get older the differences tend to even out a little as most people will have experienced relationships and may have had various ups and downs in that time too. These differences in maturity are often greater at a younger age. Maturity here means, knowing how to maintain and care for a relationship. How to have conversations about likes and dislikes. They may also have learned how to relate to their bodies and other people’s bodies that feel good.

Of course with age there are more access to resources which can make having relationships easier. Money is a big one, but also access to private space. It’s harder and harder for young people to have spaces where relationships can emerge (we used to have youth clubs and spaces where young people could hang out without being hassled). So the younger partner might also find it easier for a relationship to emerge when the older person has the resources to enable it.

What the older person might get out of them

The differing maturities aspect of this is also true for the older person. Perhaps they got into the idea of sex and relationships a bit later in life. Or just weren’t interested in it when a lot of their peers were. Perhaps they might now find that they are not quite as experienced with intimacy with people their own age but might be more attractive to people a little younger.

They may also find that being an older person who can help the younger person to discover new things to be an attractive thing. Being able to take responsibility for certain things because they know what to do or have had experience in something before can be an attractive quality. This might play out in a relationship where there is a clear ‘Top and Bottom’ dynamic playing out.

Additionally if the older person has more money or access to space (which isn’t always the case of course) they might just really enjoy sharing this out. Mutually enjoying any of our advantages, or privileges, is a way of making use of resources.

Why people aren’t into age gap relationships

A lot of people prefer to be in relationships where they are much closer in age. There perhaps might be a difference in maturity (as we’ve covered) but for them being closer in age might work better for them. For one, if you’re at school with someone in the same year group then you can spend more time with someone. It can sometimes just be a lot easier to go out with someone if you have a similar timetable and geography.

Similar age gap relationships might also work really nicely if they emerge from a friendship group, which often consist of similar ages. So this means it’s easier to hang out, do nice things together, and also maintain friendships whilst having a more romantic relationship. Remember, it’s not great to put dates before mates.

Other people also prefer there to be more evenness of power relations when they have relationships. One person might not feel able to take the lead on doing something, which might be tricky. However there can be fun and excitement from slowly figuring things out together. Feeling like it’s a joint project and you are in a team. Perhaps it might be a bit more bumpy, but it might also make it easier for there to be more freedom in the relationship. We might be more able to learn how to do us if we are being slow and cautious.

Why we worry about age gap relationships

Lots of people get very worried about a big age gap in relationships, including people like me.
Young people lack the confidence, experience and knowledge that older people have (that is what being young is about). Sometimes older people can use this to their advantage.

Young people often have less experience of healthy mutual relationships. If we haven’t ever really felt what being nurtured in a mutual relationship feels like then we might be more vulnerable to someone who might not really care about us much.

The older person, if they have more experience and more access to resources, might have more power in the relationship. They might use this power, either intentionally or recklessly, to get what they want from a younger person, or someone with less experience or resources. This might result in, persuading the younger person to do things that they are not comfortable with. Perhaps to go beyond their boundaries sexually, or to have other experiences that they might not usually have chosen. Maybe they might be persuaded to drink or take drugs.

And in more serious cases …

There have also been extreme cases where the younger partner is made totally reliant on the older person. Where it turns into an abusive relationship or a ‘grooming’ relationship. In these kinds of relationships the younger person has been coerced into being in a relationship with the older person and made to do things ‘because if you loved me you would’. Things like making them have sex with them, or other people, when they don’t want to. Or to be involved in non-consensual sex work like having sex for money or web-cam work.

Age gap relationships can be a problem when there is also a direct other relationship causing a power imbalance. If a teacher is in a relationship with one of their students for example (which is illegal in the UK if the student is under 18). And of course sometimes it’s not just the age that causes the power imbalance but what comes with it. In a lot of the #MeToo cases it’s been with very powerful people in organisations or industries where they could make or break someone’s career if they spoke out.

Make sure it’s healthy

However just because someone is older, doesn’t meant that they are evil. Some relationships with age gaps work well. Any relationship which has trust, safety, communication and independence as well as sharing good times and fancying each other can work out. However when you are in a relationship it can be difficult to step back and observe what’s going on.

So if you are in a relationship as a younger person think about these things:

  • Are you being treated like an equal, or are they treating you like a kid?
  • Do you feel you owe your partner anything (for example in return for gifts)?
  • Do they let you do your own thing?
  • Are you doing things you don’t like or think are wrong?
  • Do you trust that they aren’t going to hurt you?
  • Have you met their friends (or has your partner met yours?)?
  • What do your parents say? Does your partner discourage you from talking to your parents about the relationship?

How do you feel about the relationship now?

More resources

For more on this you might want to try my Relationships Graph. There’s also my resource on being in an abusive relationship or what to do if you think your friend is in one.

Please leave a (nice) comment below if you like or ask me a question here.

© Justin Hancock, 2024 Find out more about me and BISH here.

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I’ve been a sex and relationships educator since 1999 (with a background in youth and community work). In that time I’ve taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. I’ve worked with many charities, local governments, schools and youth organisations facilitating training and workshops. My two books, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and If You Want To) and Can We Talk About Consent? are widely available around the world. I’ve been on the telly and the radio and have written articles for newspapers and magazines. I’m also a member of the World Association for Sexual Health. Read more about me and BISH here. Find out about my other work here Justin Hancock

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2 thoughts on “Age Gap Relationships

  1. I guess it’s not so much about the age, but rather the level of maturity. My girlfriend is 4 years older than i am, but i don’t really feel the age difference as i am quite a mature person.

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