I met Bob at a restaurant on a summer afternoon in 2014. I was enjoying a glass of white wine and sharing an entree with a good friend when he sat down next to us at the bar. He introduced himself and inquired about what we did for a living. When I told him I was a writer, he became intrigued. He asked whether I ever offered coaching services, so I gave him my card. After we left, my friend warned me I shouldn’t have done that.
“I don’t think it’s your writing he’s interested in,” she said.
I thought back to the white-haired gentleman at the bar who was easily old enough to be my father and shook my head.
“He just wants my help,” I replied.
Over the next couple of weeks, Bob sent me several samples of his writing without a trace of any innuendo or flirtation. Eventually, we arranged to meet at a cafe near my apartment. At the meeting, we spent over an hour discussing his writing. It seemed as if my friend’s instincts were off, I thought.
But just as I was about to leave, Bob admitted that he was not that interested in me as a writing coach, but as a romantic prospect. I thanked him for his interest, but let him know that that wouldn’t be happening. He asked why.
“I want to date men closer to my age,” I said.
At the time, I was 35. Earlier in our meeting, Bob described moving to the area as a 30-year-old in 1978 – the year I was born. Yet when I rejected him, he looked stung and startled, as though he was completely unaware of our significant age difference. He asked me to reconsider and retain “an open mind.”
I felt frustration and anger boil up inside me as I looked at this man three decades my senior, who had manipulated me into a meeting under false pretences and then dismissed my refusal of his advances as close-minded. I told him I’d think about it. Instead, I ignored his emails until he finally gave up.
Being hit on by men who are considerably older was not new to me. But this was the first time it occurred in person and with such aggression.
Two years earlier, my relationship of nearly a decade ended. At 33, I found it much harder to meet men than it had been in my early twenties. When I set up a profile on OkCupid, I was inundated with messages from men in their late forties, fifties and even some in their sixties. While I did get some messages from men closer to my own age, they were in the minority.
When I actively searched profiles of men in their early- and mid-thirties, I noticed that many specified that they preferred women in their twenties. I was considered too old for men my age, but not for those with 15 years or more on me. As OkCupid founder Christian Rudder has said, this is quite common.
As with Bob, anytime I responded to the older men online, thanking them for their interest and reiterating my age-range preference (which clearly specified 31 to 42), I was offered a patronizing lecture on the value of an open mind and a laundry list of reasons they are young at heart, complete with winking references to their still-spry sexual prowess. I was also inundated with examples of famous couples with large age differences, in case I didn’t know them.
Such mansplaining is one of the many reasons I don’t want to date significantly older men. While sexism knows no age barrier, in my experience, the older men I’ve met are far less likely to treat me as an equal. Dating much younger women seems to stem from these men’s unhealthy and unrealistic obsession with youth – perhaps a way to stave off fears of their own mortality.
In fact, such a lopsided romance is my origin story. At 18, my mother met and married my 34-year-old father, who was a janitor in the building where she was an executive assistant. Fresh out of high school, my father had been her first kiss, her first sexual experience, her first love. At 20, she had me and for the next three years, my father harassed her over money (she made much more than him); he also let her know that, while she may have had straight As in high school, he, a junior high dropout, was the smarter of the pair.
By 24, my mother was divorced and saddled with a kid while my dad returned to being an eligible bachelor who continued dating young adults. Shortly after I completed college, my dad confided in me that he had never loved my mother. When I asked why he married her, he told me it was because he was ready to have a kid and she was young and pretty – and if he had a daughter, he wanted her to be pretty, too. (And though he constantly disparaged her for it while they were together, he also grudgingly admitted he chose her for “school smarts”, too). Plus, being so young, she was “more likely to put up with him,” he said. However, their age difference could not compensate for my father’s insecurity over being with someone who had achieved more academically and professionally than he had.
This revelation soured me against dating any man who was more than a few years older. Until recently.
Last year, after a hiatus from online dating, I decided to return. I specified that I would date men in their early thirties to early forties – “no exceptions”, I wrote. A few men didn’t listen, but I managed to weed out most of them. In fact, I made my profile so no-nonsense about age, I barely got any decent responses.
Then one day, an intriguing message lit up my screen. He was 43 and right on the cusp of being too old for me, but I responded anyway. It took two months for our courtship to bloom from casual dating to a committed relationship. I silenced the screams from my stubborn brain, let go of some of my older prejudices and opened my heart to him.
Nearly a year later, we are still together.
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