So-called May-December relationships, in which there's a big age gap between the partners, can be rewarding -- and also challenging.
The good news is those issues can be handled, just like any other relationship issue -- regardless of age. You just have to know how. Here are five common problems that can happen, and how to address them.
One of the first barriers you may face is the reaction of your family and friends. For instance, they may say stereotypical things about "cougars," if the woman is the older partner, or "trophy wives," if the man is the older partner.
"This certainly is one of many kinds of pairings that may look odd to others, but when you start to know them it makes sense," says Rebecca Sears, LPC, a couple's counselor at The Imago Center of DC in Washington, D.C. "There is something about every couple that makes sense once you get to know them."
The trick is to help others understand why you "make sense." Some tactics Sears recommends are:
- Don't force your partner on your family, but make sure your family knows he or she can't be excluded from family functions.
- Realize that your partner may want to be connected with his or her parents even if they aren't accepting of you.
Gayle Luster, MA, a licensed counselor in Irving, Texas, adds:
- Tell your family you understand their concerns, but don't get caught constantly defending your partner.
- Be a team. When you're with family, don't leave your partner alone for long periods of time if you're concerned about avoiding uncomfortable situations.
- If all else fails, keep family visits short.
To Have, or Not Have, Kids
For May-December couples, having children can be an issue. If a woman is older, she may not want, or be able, to have kids. A man may not want to start over when he's older.
This doesn't have to be a deal breaker, but it's wise to address it early on in the relationship.
"The clock tends to tick faster for this couple -- one that marries at 27 has some time to be together before they start a family," says Sandra Caron, PhD, a professor of family relations and human sexuality at the University of Maine. "This couple won't have that luxury (especially) when she is older."
If one partner wants kids and the other doesn't, Luster says you may be able to work through the issue with counseling and acceptance that your idea of a family may have to change.
If you're the older partner, you may already have children from a previous relationship. Luster, who is married to a man 15 years her senior, experienced this.
She says it is important to be respectful of the children -- they didn't ask for a step-parent, much less one who may be near their age.
It can help to spend time alone with your child. Just make sure they know your partner is there to stay.
Helen Fisher, PhD, an author and biological anthropologist with Rutgers University, married a man 21 years older. She says it's important not to try to win the children over by acting their age. She seemed to take on a role more like an aunt or older sister with her husband's children.
"It was a nice position in the family," Fisher says. "There were times when I understood his kids better than he did and I was able to work between them."
Another major challenge can be dealing with health issues an older partner might have. But again, there are ways to work through this.
"It just changes how you have to operate as a couple," Luster says. "If you are planning to be in something for a long time, those things happen."
If the health issues are minor, Luster has some tips for coping:
- Let your partner keep doing what he or she enjoys, without making him or her feel guilty if you can't.
- If you can no longer do something with your partner, support him or her. For instance, if your partner is running a race and you can't join, cheer your partner on and be there at the finish line.
- If you're younger, don't judge your partner for his or her health challenges.
Major health issues -- such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's diseases -- can't be predicted in advance, but Sears says to have these discussions before you get married.
Talk about what you would each do if one were to get sick. What resources will the other person have to deal with it? How would you both handle it if someone is disabled in some manner? Are your wills up to date?
Every couple, young or old, may eventually face health challenges. But the timeline is different for May-December couples. A big age gap puts the health discussion on a faster track, because those issues may become reality sooner than they would for a younger couple.
For some people, age can bring changes in their sex drive or sexual performance.
This is one of the things most people don't like to talk about, but it doesn't hurt to talk about it. "Just because you don't think you will ever have erectile dysfunction doesn't mean you will never have it -- even if you are the most potent man alive," Luster says.
If sexual issues happen, don't ignore it. Look for a solution, talk openly about it, and get help, if you need it. And stick with it; it may take some time to work things out, Luster says.
Don't Blame Age
Being in a committed relationship is not always a bed of roses -- at any age.
"If you look at problems you are having as being due to the age gap, it can very likely hang you up," Luster says. "Age is the only thing in a relationship that you can't change."
Remember, many couples who are close in age are dealing with the same issues. There's often more to it than age.
Address your issues -- with professional help from a counselor, if needed -- but also focus on the positive. What's great about your relationship? Remember all the good things you both bring to the relationship, whether it's the older partner's knowledge and life experience or the younger partner's energy and vigor.
"When you fall in love with someone, age does not really matter," Fisher says. "I always tell people that it's great to date someone older. Our culture may be somewhat uncomfortable with it, but life in the home won't be uncomfortable at all."