All Relationships Are U-Shaped

Hi, Loren.

Thank you for your article on age discrepancy in gay relationships. I am in my mid-forties, and until recently I had a partner who is twenty years younger. For most of our relationship, the age difference was never an issue; we accepted each other and were bound by love. Some of our friends and family commented on and questioned our relationship, but eventually they felt the love. Unfortunately, our relationship ended. He asked me to let him go so that he could take charge of his life. We still care for each other and will support each other, but being in a relationship now is not going to happen. I am seeing a therapist, meditating, eating well, exercising, throwing myself into my work, and leaning on my friends. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

All relationships are U-shaped and go through difficult times. I believe that fidelity is based on trust and loyalty rather than sex, so I would ask, If loyalty and trust are still there, can other things be done to save it? Don’t let go of it too soon.

I became interested in age-discrepant relationships when I was doing research for my book, Finally Out. I began to observe an abundance of these relationships. I listened to their stories and asked them questions. As an older gay man, I had a personal interest in it, too, because as I was beginning to feel old and discarded, I discovered that there are men who find attractive all the changes I was going through as I got older: white hair, ample belly, and slow (and sometimes unpredictable) sex.

I have also been interested in the dynamics of these relationships, with the older partner often serving as a kind of mentor and the younger seeming to have a high need to nurture the older. Often when the older person becomes old-old and fragile, the younger is committed to acting as a care provider. Often neither partner of the couple receives a lot of support from his peers and families, who always are suspicious of both of their motivations for being in such an “unusual” relationship. People frequently don’t trust that their relationship is based on love for the other person just as they are.

You mentioned that your age difference was not an issue for most of the relationship. That is what I often hear. I have written about how we have a chronological age, a physical age, a psychological age, and a sexual age and that these vary from one person to the next but also vary within the individual. What I find in age-discrepant couples is that they are often a similar “age” in terms of their psychological and sexual ages; it’s as if those ages meet somewhere in the middle. The younger person is often more mature than his chronological peers and prefers the company of older men, and typically the younger one isn’t into the one-off, slam-bam sex of youth. The younger partner often has a strong desire to cuddle both before and after sex, and ejaculation—and sometimes even a hard on—are significantly less important to him.

My partner is younger than I am, and, like you, we just don’t think about it most of the time. Then we developed a few issues related to retirement, some health issues, and differences in sexual desire, perhaps an effect of medications. We’ve been together thirty-three years and for the first time had some serious discussions about our relationship’s endurance. In our case, we made a commitment to get through that dark place and hang on because we’ve had so much history together, most of it good, but it did require renegotiating some of our original contract.

Perhaps it is too late, but I would ask, Are you certain it isn’t salvageable? You didn’t mention specifically how your partner feels he needs “to grow in ways that weren’t happening in the relationship.” He was young when your relationship began, so it is possible that he feels he has not yet explored enough of the world out there. Often this shows up in decisions about monogamy versus open relationships, but sometimes that seems like more of a metaphor for other conflicts, too. In Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me, writer and photographer Bill Hayes described how he and his much older partner, Dr. Oliver Sacks, maintained separate apartments in the same building to establish boundaries in their relationship.

Most of the young men look for security, wisdom, experience, and safety, which may have been something he really likes and wants, but it can also at times feel too controlling as the relationship begins to mature. For example, if one person is a rational decision-maker and the other is a more intuitive one, it can be difficult for the intuitive person to feel his opinions are valued.

It does sound like you’re doing all the right things to take care of yourself, and you really need that. But I hear in the tone of your message that you still love him and would like the relationship to continue on its prior level. Keep talking to him. Use your friends and talk to your therapist about how pissed off you are about the situation and your feelings of loss.

Don’t give up on love. You’ve experienced it. You know that you’re capable of love and deserve to receive it. Use the support system you have to help you through this difficult time, but if you still love him, maintain some level of communication with him.

Bottom line: I don’t see anything in your message to suggest that the primary issue here is the age difference.