Dear Yours Truly,
You are such a good advice-giver! I read the posts, each one several times over, and it totally makes me want to jump on in with my own trials &c, splash a bit in the wise words of my wiser brethren.
I made a short list of major issues I could use a hand navigating, but what interested me is that the one that bobbed up first is something I hadn’t considered to be my most pressing problem nor is it one I’ve solicited any previous help from my buddies, therapist, or from any other online advice columns. Basically, the situation is as follows: I am a 30-something-year-old lady person dating a 50-something-year-old man person. Overall, we love and deeply appreciate each other. We respect each other and are increasingly building our lives together. For the majority of our past two years, our 19-year age difference has been something that we’ve attempted to incorporate into our lives without constantly attributing every difference in opinion or approach to it. For him, this has been pretty effortless, but in my case, a subdued awareness of it never quite goes away.
When we first began dating, our encounters in public would make clear to me on a fairly regular basis that outside of our 1+1 world, we were dealing with a public-level perception that was critical of our visible age difference, or the cliche or archetype of what we must look like on the surface, an older man with a much younger woman. This perception has been something I have noticed and been bothered by more than my partner, and it shows up in mild, numerous ways. For instance, we have gotten long pointed stares from primarily older female strangers. For instance, at my partner’s work-social engagements, my dialogue has been met often with polite silence or flat-out dismissals. At first, my partner was oblivious to these responses, but has now grown more attuned to them and can spot them in their happening, though he is still nonplussed.
Now, as our relationship evolves and progresses, I find myself caring much less about public perception and instead interacting with our age difference on a very personal level. One difference between then and now is that we live together now, and I’ve found that there are a lot of ways in which I feel disempowered with my partner (disempowered is the main word I want to invoke here, because it is not that I feel unloved or unconsidered or uncared for). The problem boiled to basics is that my partner and I don’t have a current solid method for making decisions or problem-solving together. When we are already on the same page, everything is awesome and we make for a great team. But when faced with decisions or problems that we have different ideas about reconciling, from minor- to major-league, we fight. Typically, this problem shows up like this. He says what his idea is, I say what my idea is, and he says “No, we’re doing my idea.” Then I get upset and angsty and explain why I am upset and angsty, which he is only willing to listen to if he knows we are going with his idea.
I can’t help but feel that this problem lies in a generational difference because I’ve never had to deal with straight-up refusals to consider alternatives in any of my previous relationships (of course I’ve experienced impasse before, but always after articulated and exhaustive debate). I would describe my partner with many words, but the adjectives pertinent to this discussion I would use are: obstinate, defensive, rigid, righteous, and previously wounded. I should add that we even have power struggles around things that are not to be reconciled at all, just matters of my own preference. Here, rather than cite from my own life, I refer to Mad Men S05EP06 when Megan Draper does not like the orange sherbet Don is vehemently insisting that she will love, even after she tries it and knows she does not like it. When I watched this scene, and even through a little bit of the reconciliation, I gulped in recognition of something familiar.
Overall, I would say that we are very committed to one another, and especially through rough times. We trust each other and as a result my partner has opened up a great deal over the course of our relationship, no small thing. So I guess my column questions are: how much do you think age difference affects the dynamic in a relationship? Overall, what is your gut response to this issue? Can an old dog learn new tricks? Overall, what advice would you advise me to tackle this uneven dynamic?
Thank you, my friend, for your great civic service!
Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number (and Sometimes Y)
First of all, what a simply great use of a Mad Men analogy. I’m sure everyone reading your letter got to that part and was immediately like “OK I TOTALLY GET WHAT SHE IS SAYING NOW.” That scene is so brutal!!! In future, when asking me advice, everyone, please try to include such a cogent referral to a pop cultural product. But anyway, now on to my rambling thoughts about refusal to change and gnarly power dynamics:
I’ve read your letter like ten times and I find it very interesting that you focus the majority of it on your age difference, when the problem you are describing seems to me to be totally unrelated to anyone’s age. You write all this stuff about people looking at you weird, and him slowly realizing people look at you weird, and then you getting more comfortable with people looking at you weird, but then when you finally get to your actual problem it’s that he acts like an asshole. How is that an age issue? How is that a generational issue? Was he born in the 20s and doesn’t believe women should have “the vote”? He’s not even a baby boomer! There’s no “generational” issue I’m aware of that would explain the way he treats you.
So yeah, it sounds like you have not really considered the way he treats you as being unrelated to his age, and maybe you should. 50-something people don’t all treat their girlfriends like this. 50-something people aren’t incapable of changing behaviors. Those two things are just straight-up facts. About the idea of change: My dad was 64 years old and suddenly started doing yoga and stopped eating meat. Don’t tell me old people can’t change their lives, can’t change the way they relate to other humans. The world is full of awesome old people having crazy revelations about themselves, the world, their children, whatever. What about all those old people whose kids turn out to be gay and suddenly they’re like flag-waving LGBTQ activists after a lifetime of creepy bigotry? My old man’s mother was terrified of international travel for her entire life, and then all of a sudden when she turned 50 she said “I’m tired of being afraid,” and started going to India, South Africa, Singapore, Italy, one epic trip a year. Challenging herself! And she’s stoked! She’s become so much more open and self-confident! It’s inspiring. Maybe getting older means getting more used to your routine but I will never believe it means you literally can not change your behaviors. Anyone who says that to you (and I don’t know if this is something he has actually said to you or not) isn’t too-old, he’s just lazy!
So to reiterate: I think this is a relationship issue independent of his age. I know tons of people who are the same age as each other who still struggle with this same issue, where one of them refuses to listen to the other one. Conversely, I know two relationships where the dude is like 17 years older than the lady, and they do not have this problem at all. I think there is a chance that by hanging this problem on your age difference you are letting him off the hook! I think that’s a mixed metaphor. But it’s almost like you want to be able to say, “he’s an asshole, but it’s because he’s in his fifties.” I think that is not really true. And really, even if he IS being an asshole because of his age, that doesn’t make it any more acceptable to you, as a girlfriend. I don’t know how much this changes the way you see the problem…maybe not at all, maybe a lot.
About power dynamics: The only way I might think his age was affecting things was…I don’t know, if I imagine dating someone that much older than me, I imagine it might be sort of easy to fall into a kind of lopsided power dynamic. In some cases maybe that’s even part of what’s attractive! I could see that! I don’t know if this is necessarily the case for you (or for anyone who’s with a significantly older person), but at least when I really picture it, I imagine feeling a bit cowed by him, a bit in awe of his greater life experiences or whatever, a bit more like an interloper in this decades-long life he’d been establishing while I was still getting my braces off or whatever. Are your feelings/worries about the age difference actually more about how YOU FEEL within a certain power dynamic (in which he demands all the power), than they are about wondering whether or not he’s too old to change? Because honestly, the answer to that latter question is that no one is ever too old to change. MY CALL!
For me this kind of issue comes down to one word: willingness. No one is going to become perfect, ever. Your partner is never going to never annoy you, or vice versa. But, when it comes to heavy-duty fundamental stuff that you require of them in order to be happy, they either have to show willingness to work on that stuff, or the relationship should probably end. Most people don’t follow this advice, including my own past self, so I accept that this is easier said than done. But seriously, if someone’s not even willing to TRY, what recourse do you have?
Willingness. Willingness means he listens to you respectfully. He hears what you say. He recognizes your humanity even when he disagrees with you. He acknowledges that it is actually scientifically not possible that he is always right, even if he is older, and a man, or whatever. Willingness means he doesn’t create a climate of fear where you feel scared to disagree with him. And willingness means he sometimes acknowledges wrongdoing, and then agrees to wholeheartedly work on something, and that after agreeing to do it, he actually does it, he makes efforts. “Efforts” does not mean he does one nice thing and then goes immediately back into old habits. “Efforts” does not mean he keeps just doing whatever it is that’s hurting you, but then apologizes profusely afterward. “Efforts” means some degree of actual change occurs, permanently. PERIOD!
Here’s the deal: everybody says “you can’t change a person.” But you know what? A person can change THEMSELVES, no problem. All they have to be is willing.
How many changes have you made, to yourself, personally, over the years? I bet it is one million changes. We start exercising, we start cooking at home instead of going out all the time, we consciously decide to be more social/less social, whatever. We go vegan, we give up gluten, we start or stop smoking, we challenge ourselves to learn new languages, we suddenly decide we are going to make the bed every day and then we do it, we go to AA and stop drinking, we stop taking x, y, or z for granted, we stop teasing somebody about something if they tell us it bothers them, we go to school, we learn how to do our own laundry, we used to hate dogs but now we love dogs, we always thought we were monogamous but now we’re giving polyamory a shot, we hate salsa dancing but our partner really wants to go so we agree to go once a week. Homophobics stop being homophobic. Soldiers become hippie peaceniks. We change our beliefs, our ideas, our habits, our way of relating to the world and to each other. We do this ALL THE TIME. That’s why a 30 year old person isn’t the exact same person as they were at age 10, and ditto a 70 year old/30 year old. We are changing all the time, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. We might not fundamentally change our personalities or desires, but when it comes to behaviors, habits, actions, we can change them–ANY OF THEM–whenever we want. Yeah it’s hard, but that’s not the same thing as impossible.
With this in mind, we start realizing that when a person flat-out refuses to change a behavior that is destructive or that is ruining their relationship, it’s because THEY DON’T WANT TO CHANGE.
Maybe they don’t want to change because they like the way they are, or because they’re scared, or because they’re lazy, or stubborn, or they’ve built up a whole elaborate personal identity based on being the way they are, or whatever. But the bottom line is, if a person refuses to change, that’s a decision they are making. And I think once you realize that, the situation seems gnarlier. Because, why?
Why would a person refuse to change when someone they say they love makes a very reasonable request of them? You aren’t asking him to lose 100 pounds or move to Finland or to change his sexual orientation. It sounds like all you are asking him to do is literally to just listen to you when you have something to say that he disagrees with. You are asking him to not just relentlessly and on principle force you to ascribe to all of his ideas and desires. To me, what you are asking for is a pretty fundamental human right. I mean, real talk, I wouldn’t even be FRIENDS with someone who didn’t grant me that right, much less life partners. Do you agree? Think how quickly you’d ditch a supposed friend who just told you you were stupid whenever you disagreed with them, who simply flat-out refused to even entertain the possibility of doing something your way, ever. It is exhausting just thinking about it.
I don’t mean to harsh you out. I know things are complex and that I can not understand everything that’s going on. Also, full disclosure: my personal emotional makeup is such that there is VERY LITTLE that gets my blood boiling like a dude who won’t listen to a lady, a dude who thinks he knows what a lady wants and needs better than that lady knows herself. Ugh! Ugh! It is thus very hard for me to not just gnash my teeth and say TO HELL WITH ALL THAT. Like, I am way too old to sit here listening to some dude tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about–I get enough of that in the great wide world, you know? How dare you tell me that actually I do like orange sherbet?? HOW DARE YOU?
So that is just me. Trying to look at the bigger picture–which is that not everyone is me, and also that I don’t know all the nuts and bolts of your life–I understand that you obviously get a lot of good things out of this relationship, or you wouldn’t be here. I get that. And “how much is too much” is a question everyone has to answer for themselves. One man’s mild flaw is another man’s dealbreaker. Everyone’s relationship is a bit of a mystery to everyone else–I’m sure there are people who would hate dating me, or my partner. Because, to each his own! So, while I react really violently to this situation you describe (specifically, to a woman using the word “disempowered” when describing how a man who supposedly loves her makes her feel, ugh!!), I also get that it’s always more complicated, more ooky and personal, more intertwined with feelings and issues and positive things and good sides than anyone else could ever understand. You aren’t crazy. You are trying to navigate through a lot of difficult, conflicting feelings and experiences, and that is very, very hard to do. It is ALWAYS easier for an outsider to see things as obvious and black-and-white than it is for the person actually involved in the situation.
Your letter is really eloquent. You sound like an incredibly thoughtful, precise person who has considered this issue very carefully, which is to your credit as a human being. Here are the words you helpfully used to describe your partner in this situation: obstinate, defensive, rigid, righteous, and previously wounded. To me, these are all related to one word, which is FEAR. He’s not too old to be nice to you, he’s AFRAID of being nice to you. Due to whatever his past reasons or experiences are, he’s afraid to trust, to be tender and vulnerable with you. Obstinate defensiveness, rigidity, self-righteousness, the refusal to communicate, to listen, to understand, these are all about a terror of recognizing others’ humanity, because of the sense that it will make his own humanity permeable or changeable. If Megan doesn’t like the sherbet, it means that Don’s predilections aren’t universal truisms but merely personal idiosyncrasies, which in turn is terrifying to him, because how can he know what is True and Right if they aren’t just whatever he happens to believe? Which is obviously crazy, but I think a very common attitude, which is why so many relationships involve so much yelling.
So, lets consider the concept of Trust: You say you trust each other, but I don’t think this is 100% true, if this is how he’s acting. What do you mean when you say there is trust between you? When someone trusts someone else, he doesn’t treat their every difference of opinion or desire with this unilateral arms-length defensiveness. And also, I should point out that you don’t actually trust him either, since your letter is all about how you can’t trust him to treat you respectfully in disagreements, which must be frightening. More fear. So even if at other times (i.e. when you are agreeing with him) you feel trust, there is nonetheless a breaking of trust here, a problem of trust, and it’s a problem created by him being fearful and cowardly about opening up his heart and making some damn changes in the way he perceives you, communication, women, himself, relationships, who knows what-all?
And you know, that’s sad. That’s sad for him, that he’s so afraid. That he’s so afraid of being vulnerable in that way; that he’s so afraid of trusting someone in that way. And it’s sad that he’s so terrified of letting go of aspects of his identity that he feels make him who he is. It’s sad that even the bad parts of our characters can come to feel like a security blanket. I can tell from your letter that you have this amazing well of compassion for him, and I commend you for being such a decent person. YOU’RE really seeing HIM, it sounds like, and trying to understand where he’s coming from, and being willing to be vulnerable in front of him if it means understanding him better, which is what people should do with each other, because then we’d have no wars (exaggeration). And he’s not doing you this same service in return, and that is honestly sad. You’re offering him this possibility for cool change, for enlightenment, for new life and growth as a person, learning to communicate better and share himself more fully, which is actually really exciting and wonderful, and he’s refusing it. And he has to know that eventually it’s going to drive you away. You can’t be with someone forever with whom you can’t communicate in this very basic way. And even knowing this, he still can’t make these changes. And yeah, that’s sad. But “previously wounded,” I have to say, lots of people have terrible things in their pasts and they still manage to treat their partners with a baseline human respect. Lots of people turn past hurts into lessons in compassion, not into licenses for eternal defensive assholery. Again, I don’t think you should let him off the hook too easily.
You know, lets discuss semantics for a second. A relationship isn’t “good” just because it’s good when it’s good. Did that make sense??? What I’m saying is that in a sense, your description of the good stuff is a tautology. Like obviously “when you’re on the same page,” it feels good. That’s what being on the same page means! Of course you’re a good team when you’re in agreement. But that’s not what REALLY make a good team a good team—a good team is good because the team members are good at listening to each other and taking ideas from each other and resolving conflict in a way that moves the team forward, that makes the team greater than its individual parts. A good team isn’t a good team if just one team leader makes all the decisions! That’s not a “team,” actually, it’s more like a military unit or something. It’s like you’re just saying “when things are good, they are good.” Tautological! The good parts are, by definition, good. But a good relationship, a holistically good all-around relationship, means that even when you disagree or fight or are mad, it still feels fundamentally good, because you are essentially communicating and understanding and getting better together. Because you know you’re allowed to disagree and he will still treat you like a human being. Because you aren’t scared or defensive. Because you know that keeping things “good” isn’t contingent on you swallowing every single dissenting opinion you ever have. In a good relationship, even the bad parts are good, somehow. Whereas, the bad stuff you’re describing doesn’t sound good at all. You say that you feel considered by him, except when he doesn’t consider you. What does that mean?
A Helpful Pizza Analogy:
You wouldn’t say “this is a really good pizza except that there’s a big pile of dogshit in the middle of it.” Like, at a certain point, the fact that the edges of the pizza are really unusually delicious isn’t enough to overcome the fact that it’s a pizza with dogshit on it. You’d probably rather have a slightly-less delicious pizza that didn’t have the dogshit. Right? And if you take it back to the pizza place and say “sorry but I don’t like dogshit” and they say “YES YOU DO,” well, then, you’ve got a major problem on your hands. When what you really ought to have is your goddamn money back!
End of Pizza Analogy
So then unfortunately it all comes back to you and your own ooky feelings. IF he legitimately can’t (i.e. won’t) change, THEN what will you do? If you imagine this situation never getting any better, what do you think you’d want your future self to do? Is this a cross you’re willing to bear–being meek in the face of this man’s refusal to listen to you? And/or exhaustedly fighting tooth and nail for every single dissenting thing you want to do/say/feel/eat/whatever? Are the good aspects of this relationship worth sacrificing your desire to be allowed to voice opinions and have them respected?
We all make compromises in the face of long-term relationships. We all give stuff up. And we should do it joyfully only when we feel that the bargain is good. What’s the tradeoff for you, and is it worth the sacrifice?
I have only given you advice about, like, “how to conceptualize the idea of change” or whatever. I haven’t given you any real-world advice for actually making your relationship better. That’s because, frankly, in a situation like this, it’s not on you to make it better. At least from your description (which, to be fair, is just your side of the story, of course) it sounds like it’s up to him to make it better, and it’s up to you to decide if you want to stay with him if he doesn’t make it better. The only way this relationship can be better is if you clearly articulate these issues to him, and he hears them, and then he changes the way he relates to you. It’s fundamentally very simple but in reality very hard to accomplish, tragically. There’s really no other way things can get better–if he can’t start treating you with respect, then I’m not sure there’s anything you can do, unless you’re willing to just give up your desire to be respected, which I really hope you don’t choose to do.
The only thing I’d really suggest in a situation like this–where compassionate, specific, repeated requests have resulted in no change–is an ultimatum. Ultimatums don’t have to be dick moves, even Dan Savage agrees. Ultimatums can be very loving. Think of the ultimatum “stop being a junkie or I’m going to leave you.” That’s not only a perfectly reasonable thing to do/say, but it’s also loving! Because if it works, hey, you’ve made somebody’s life better! Yeah, people only change when they want to change, but at the same time, being in love with someone doesn’t mean you just accept literally anything they do, any behavior, any choice. That’s actually just called “enabling.” The reason partnered people statistically live longer than un-partnered people isn’t for any spiritual reason, it’s because partnered people fucking hector each other about shit like drinking too much and eating pizza while lying down in front of the television. You know, the classic wife who’s like “The doctor says you can’t have bacon! You have to eat this wilted carrot instead!” and the husband’s like “Awww nuts!” and then the audience laughs. But news flash: thanks to his nagging wife that guy’s not going to die of a heart attack! If my old man was suddenly like “I am a born again christian and I got a tribal tattoo and from now on we can only listen to Blues Traveler in our home” I’d be like, well, maybe this isn’t going to work out anymore. I feel that is totally fair of my hypothetical future self. And certainly if he just yelled at me all the time for sometimes having a different opinion from him, I’d think it was perfectly within my rights to reconsider my commitment to him. It’s just like Megan said to Don that time he didn’t appreciate her surprise party and then she made him watch her clean the house in her underwear and then they had sex on the floor: “every time we fight like this, it diminishes what’s between us.” I don’t think that’s the actual line, but remember that scene? She’s right!!!!
Disagreements have to be PRODUCTIVE, they can’t just endlessly repeat themselves with no change. And one person doesn’t get to unilaterally decide everything. That’s not a relationship, it’s a dictatorship. And dictatorships don’t end because the populace just says “well that’s just the way it is, he can’t help it.” They end with bloody revolutions and somebody’s head on a fucking pike! I’m getting so sidetracked!
The only thing about ultimatums though is that you have to mean them, and this is the hard part and where most ultimatums fail. You have to say “if x, y, and z don’t truly change within x amount of time, I am literally leaving, FOREVER,” and you have to mean it. Because if even one time you back down on an ultimatum, then he sees that you don’t really mean it, and he knows he doesn’t have to make the changes. This is hard, because obviously you don’t want to break up or you wouldn’t be writing me this letter. However, if you sit down and really acknowledge that if these changes can’t get made, then you no longer want to be in the relationship (if that is indeed how you feel–maybe you don’t, maybe you feel like this relationship is worth staying in even if he literally does not ever change), then I recommend very specifically, calmly, and even somewhat brutally telling him this and then holding yourself to it. Give yourself a deadline and if shit isn’t ENORMOUSLY DIFFERENT–if it isn’t well on the way to becoming better–then bail. You’re a grown-ass woman with a million skills and hobbies and friends and people who love you. You’ve got work to do in your own damn life–you can’t spend your life tip-toeing around this guy, changing so many of your behaviors in order to fit quietly and gently around his refusal to change his own. Why should you have to do all the changing, all the capitulating?? It’s not fair! And honestly, if you continue doing all the capitulating, it’s going to result in the relationship ending anyway, because no one can survive that kind of building-up of resentment. So the ultimatum is actually trying to salvage something before it’s too late.
Everyone is complicated. I’m sure he is a really lovely man in so many ways–obviously he is, if you are with him in the first place. I believe you when you say that in many ways this relationship works. Obviously that’s true, or you wouldn’t be in it! But, getting back to your basic question–no, I don’t think his age is what makes him act this way, and I don’t think his age means he can’t make these changes. I believe everyone has the capacity to become a better version of themselves, at any point in their life. But if they refuse to do this, then what they’re doing is telling you that holding onto those behaviors is more important to them than you are. And that sucks.
Being firm is hard, especially if you’ve fallen into a pattern of docility or capitulation with him. I think also being brutal and firm is hard when you’re essentially a gentle, generous person, as your letter makes you seem. But being brutal and firm is the only way out of this situation–whether that means leaving him, or whether that means holding him to actual change. I know that you can do it. I know that you have the strength and the wisdom to know what to do and how to do it, to deliver the brutal ultimatum, to speak your heart boldly, to know what is best for YOU–not for him, for YOU. Reach out to your friends, keep talking about it, keep pinpointing your own feelings and needs, and keep believing that you deserve to have those needs met. Because you do! You are not being unreasonable! HE IS!
DEATH TO ORANGE SHERBET