In early December 2013, my boyfriend and I had our first date. Notice that I didn’t say we went out on a date, because I actually broke every dating rule out there, and invited him over to my house to watch a football game and share dinner. Also note that this was not because I had some notion that we would end up together long-term, but rather because I was embarrassed to be seen in public with him because of our age difference. I'm now 40, and he's 27 (going on 28).
At the time, I thought that people would judge us and stare, or even worse, someone might mistake him for my son. In reality, strangers hardly know there is much of an age difference between us, and they're almost certainly unaware that the difference is about 12.5 years — an age gap that is taboo in our culture.
Before I realized the depth of others' judgments about our “taboo” relationship, I first had to get over my own insecurities about being with someone over a decade younger. I went through all of the issues in my head thinking, Why on earth would he want to be with me? I have wrinkles … I have cellulite. What could he see in me?
Sometimes, I'd actually pick fights out of insecurity, just so I could utter the lines, “Maybe you'd be happier with someone who for certain has all of her eggs,” or, “Perhaps, you want someone who isn’t on a timeline of starting a family.”
I am not a “cougar," the horrible label given to women who date younger men. When the roles are reversed and an older man dates a younger woman, the men are often congratulated and revered. What is the equivalent of "cougar" for a man who has a younger partner? (Correct: there isn’t one.)
So, after grappling with my own insecurities and the societal taboos, there were also the judgments of friends and family. At the beginning of our relationship, my friends were concerned that his age automatically revealed his readiness to have a long-term relationship and plan a future together. People in our lives also expressed the fear that if we were to stay together, we may never have a “normal” life.
And, although we've been together for more than a year and a half, live together, and are planning a future with one another, individuals still find it difficult to understand why we have chosen each other. My age has been a huge barrier for some to open their minds and hearts and get to know me simply as the person whom he loves.
My boyfriend and I are not immune to the effects of these judgments. Just a month ago, we had to have another talk about whether or not we should stay together or break up — simply because of the pressure put on us from hearing so many critical opinions about our relationship. We've had to ask if it's worth listening to other people’s opinions to potentially give up the best relationship we have both ever had.
It amazes me that even as the world seems to be progressing and we're now openly embracing many life choices, most of us still aren't comfortable with age differences in relationships. Ultimately, my boyfriend and I have concluded that our love is too deep, intense, and “once-in-a-lifetime” to let it go.
There are days when the weight of it all leaves me immobilized, sad, and unable to focus on anything. So, how do I cope when the judgments become overwhelming? I have learned a few things to help me get by, and to remind me that our love is worth fighting for:
1. I remind myself that no one can predict the future.
People say to him, “But what if she can’t have children?” Or, “What if you have to take care of her when she’s older?” The fact is, he could be with someone his own age, and she may not be able to have children. No one can predict what lies ahead, and no one knows if they will be with someone forever, however long “forever” may be.
2. I believe that this is someone else’s issue and not my own.
I am aware that people often judge what they do not understand. This is not the choice someone else may have made, they may have gone down a different path, or chosen a different type of partner. I know that this is something for them to process, and not for me to have to explain. Their fear over our choice to be together in actual fact has nothing to do with our loving relationship and us — it is their problem to solve.
3. I love him more openly.
In times when I ask if it is all worth it, I look at him and know that I have found the person I do not want to live without. He is the kindest, most compassionate, funniest individual I have ever encountered. Those are the times when I want to hug him tighter, tell him I love him, and just show the world that this can and will be a love for as long as we are lucky enough to have each other.
4. I have now resolved that it is not my job to win other people over.
I now realize that it is not my role to win over family, friends, or anyone else who may wish to make a statement about our relationship. I know that I am a wonderful person, and if they are too close-minded to see me as what I am — a human with feelings, thoughts, stories, and love to give, then it isn’t my job to convince them otherwise.
5. I choose to act with courage and grace.
I have studied human behavior for years, and can pick up subtleties and nuances in people’s reactions and body language. When I read or see negative behavior toward me, I sometimes want to scream and cry. Moreover, I often want to hide away — to avoid family functions, social outings, and not have to face people eye to eye. But I know that hiding, crying and shouting does no good; I must show up as myself, courageously and yet graciously, and be the best person I can be.
For those of you reading: the next time you begin to judge a relationship that looks “different” because of age, race, disability, or something else, catch yourself and stop. Be a catalyst for change: start with yourself and aid others in shedding stereotypes.
And for those readers who are in a similar position and find your relationship judged because of religion, race, sexual orientation, age, or something else, be proud of what you have. Love harder, stronger and with more passion and show the world that love can prevail.
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