I felt the panic rising in my chest. I’d just done the math. Again. After spending a few days trying to adjust to the fact that the handsome co-leader of my small group was seven years my junior, I had just realized that he was actually eight years younger!
I don’t know why this one year made such a difference to me. I guess it was because I’d heard two or three stories of the woman being seven years older, so I’d sort of decided that was the outer limit of age difference acceptability. But the fact was, I was 30, and he was 22. (And I would hit 31 a month before his next birthday.)
Feeling defeated, I sat at the small wooden table in Starbucks, where I was meeting Kevin for the first time since my startling discovery. My mind was reeling. This will never happen, I thought. What was I thinking? Eight years is just too big of a difference. Then he approached the table with the same winning smile … and I thought, or is it?
In case you’re wondering, I married that guy eight months later. A question I receive often is, “How did you make the decision to date and marry a younger guy?”
While it’s fairly common for a woman to marry an older man, the reverse isn’t as much of a social norm. Just ask Leah.
Travis and Leah, who have been married close to 20 years, met while attending the same six-week missions organization training. “Telling our story never gets old,” Leah says, smiling. “It feels like it wasn’t that long ago.”
When Leah, a national of Singapore, first got to know Travis, who was 10 years her junior, she was attracted to him, but “I tried to tell myself it wouldn’t work because of the age difference. I fought those affections like crazy.”
But as an undeniable connection formed, Leah finally made a bold request: “I told the Lord, unless I hear Travis say, ‘The Lord has laid it on my heart that you are to be my wife,’ I will not move forward.” The night before the two gave a group presentation together, they met to pray. “After we prayed, Travis took up the courage and said those exact words!” Leah said. “That’s what I had been waiting for.”
Although many of the questions I receive are from women who are considering whether or not to date a younger man, many of the same principles apply to the decision-making process regardless of who’s older. (For the sake of this article, we’ll define an age difference as five years or more.) Here are four things to consider:
Leah says one of her biggest concerns when considering a man 10 years younger was whether he had the maturity to understand her needs and take care of her. “I had surpassed him in some areas — I had been in the workforce for 12 years when we met and held leadership positions in church.”
I had similar concerns when I met Kevin. From our first conversation, I could tell he was very mature for his age. I guessed he was about 26. Once I learned his actual age, I was concerned that he might not be ready to settle down and have a family, when I definitely was. Even some 30-something guys I knew didn’t seem ready.
But as I observed how he interacted with people at church and did his job, my fears were alleviated. At one point, he even confided that it had been his dream to have a wife and family since he was a young teen. I realized that Kevin was an “old soul,” and we were ready for the same things.
Also consider how you get along with the person’s friends, because these people will also be part of your life. Johanna said she found it a bit awkward to connect with her boyfriend, Paul’s, friends, even though he was only three years younger. “I found it hard to relate to them. I felt removed from their age and current life stage,” she says. She and Paul married anyway, and over time the difference in maturity dissipated.
2. Life stage.
A friend once told me that the acceptable age difference was half the older person’s age plus seven. While I don’t think it’s important to adhere to an arbitrary formula when considering age in a potential relationship (interestingly, when I met Kevin our age difference was exactly this ratio), I think it can be a good rule of thumb to help you consider if your relationship is appropriate. (A 37 year old dating a 25 year old is different from a 30 year old dating an 18 year old.)
I often tell people that Kevin and I met at the perfect time. He had graduated from college two months earlier, so we were both in the workforce fulltime. Even though Kevin didn’t have as much life experience as I did, our daily lives basically looked the same. If he had still been a “college kid,” I might have had a hard time feeling like we were equals.
And while the same life stage can seem to erase an age difference, Willy Wooten, a licensed marriage and family therapist, who has been counseling for over 30 years, encourages couples to think ahead. “Things may be good now, but think 10 years down the road,” he says. “What will be different?”
Wooten’s own father was 17 years older than his mother. “My dad always loved sports, but he was not physically able to engage with me in sports,” he says. “Think about your interests. If you hit it off because you both love rock climbing, consider if that’s something that will be part of your relationship for years to come.”
3. Effect on the marital relationship.
Another concern Leah had was whether she could submit to Travis as a spiritual leader. She says, “I asked myself, ‘Will I be willing to submit even if his leadership is not as mature as I would like?'”
Leah also worried she might not always be able to meet Travis’ physical needs and wondered if he might one day regret marrying an “old woman” who couldn’t keep up with all of his activities.
If you’re considering getting serious with someone significantly older or younger than yourself, these are important things to discuss. How will you address potential challenges, such as being on different biological timetables, one of you ending up a caretaker, the timing of children, or dealing with gaps in maturity?
Before I began dating Kevin, a woman I worked with in children’s ministry frequently asked me about him, seeing potential from the start. Finally, one day I blurted, “But he’s eight years younger!”
“Ah,” she said lightly, waving her hand, “My husband’s four years older, but he acts younger. Age is just a number.”
As Kevin and I broached some tough topics in conversation (at the advice of wise counsel), something occurred to me. The problems we were talking through — for example, what if someday our sex drives didn’t match up? — were issues that could happen in any marriage. We were just going to be more proactive about them.
The bigger question was whether or not God was drawing us together. And while we could exercise wisdom in thinking through some of the unique challenges we might face, we could also trust Him with the details.
4. God’s will.
Travis was also tentative when he first developed feelings for Leah. He explains that during his years at a Bible college, he gave his desire for a spouse over to the Lord and asked Him to determine who his wife would be.
After God prompted Travis to say the exact words Leah had been praying for, the answer seemed obvious. “God brought us together, and once we knew that, the other factors didn’t really even matter. We wanted to be obedient to Him,” he says. The couple still serves together in ministry and has two teenage sons.
When Kevin learned I was eight years older than him — by seeing pictures of my 30th birthday party on Facebook — first he didn’t believe it (bless him!), then he decided to pray specifically for peace moving forward. “My biggest question was, ‘Why was she still single?'” he says. “But that worry didn’t stop me from getting to know her. And as we spent more time together and I prayed about it, my worries disappeared.”
Ultimately, Kevin and I decided that the evidence pointing to a promising, God-ordained relationship was overwhelming. This evidence came in the form of confirmation from godly friends and family members, a shared heart for children’s ministry, the natural discovery and deepening of our like-mindedness, and peace. For Travis and Leah, God provided specific confirmation.
In truth, every couple should seek confirmation that their relationship is God’s will. An age difference is just one factor to consider. Looking back, Travis says, “I think our cultural differences have been a bigger challenge than the age difference. But God brought us together, and He has sustained us.”
My friend may have been right when she said, “Age is just a number.” God is a lot bigger than that.
Copyright 2015 Suzanne Hadley Gosselin. All rights reserved.