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A photo collage of celebrities Kate Beckinsale and Pete Davidson surrounded by heartsGetty images / BBC Three

Should we even care about age gap relationships in 2019?

What is it about inter-generational love affairs that seem to set tongues wagging? Two people share their experiences

Moya Lothian-McLean

A famous couple sits together at a sporting event: is this headline worthy? How about if they grab some dinner? Then they’re spotted at the same party?

If you’re English actress Kate Beckinsale and US comedian Pete Davidson, doing any one of these things is enough to make you a hot topic on news sites and Twitter alike. But why? Because they have a 20-year age gap between them (Davidson is 25, while Beckinsale is 45). Since the pair went public with their relationship earlier this year, there's been a lot of internet chatter about them

Reaction has been much the same for (rumoured) couple Naomi Campbell and Liam Payne. The idea of the supermodel and former boyband star becoming a thing has sparked a wave of shocked reactions - all owing to their 23-year age gap.

In 2018, researchers from Oakland University found that people automatically view age-gap relationships with suspicion because they believe that an element of exploitation is always present - especially when the older party is a man. Interestingly, older individuals were more relaxed about the prospect of age-gap couples than young people were.

“Age-discrepant couples capture people’s interest," says dating expert Tiffany Wright, who agrees that there's often an assumption that these relationships involve some form of trade-off - like sex in exchange for a certain lifestyle.

“What’s actually important is that the couple – regardless of their ages – have the same desires for the future. If you don’t, then the relationship will undoubtedly fail. It’s common in age-gap relationships for one half of the couple to want children, whereas their partner might have a ‘been there, done that’ attitude. These sort of things need to be discussed in advance to make you’re on the same page.”

So, should we still be talking about age gap relationships in 2019? Two people give their take, from personal experience.

Zahra and StepanBBC Three

NO: 'My relationship's authenticity has been questioned'

Zahra is 23. Her husband, Stepan, is 37.

I met Stepan in the café of a bookshop when I was 22. I was revising for my university exams, and he came over to ask if I’d watch his bags while he went to the toilet. Then he wanted to borrow a laptop charger. Finally, he gave up all pretence and struck up a conversation. I was really confused - I’d never been approached in that way before. I wear the hijab, which usually acts as a deterrent, whether I want it to or not. But Stepan was unbothered.

Even though alarm bells were ringing in my head because he was a stranger, the conversation was really comfortable. We ended up going for a three-hour walk and revealing very personal things. Before we parted, he said: “If this was a French movie, I wouldn’t take your number.” I told him: “It’s not a French movie. You should take my number.”

The very next day we went on a date to the Tate Modern and I knew this was something I wanted to pursue long-term. A year later, we were married.

When we met, I was 22 and Stepan was 36. It was a much bigger gap than I initially thought. I’d had an inkling he was older because he’d made a joke about studying ‘years ago’. Finding out he had 14 years on me didn’t affect me in a negative way though - my parents have a 10-year age gap and I’ve never been into boys my age.

Stepan was also at a point in his life where he was ready to settle down. Culturally and religiously it was a necessity for me to get married and, whereas someone my age may not have been prepared to do that, he was. We talked about marriage from the very start - he knew this would be a serious relationship and wasn’t scared of it. He converted to Islam before we got engaged, 16 months after he first asked to borrow a laptop charger in that café.

Zahra and Stepan weddingBBC Three
Zahra and Stepan on their wedding day

When I told my family, after a year together, there were a few concerns because of his age, although my siblings were really encouraging – they said it made a “lot of sense”. My friends also expressed concern, but I knew it all came from a place of care. At the end of the day, I’d already made my own decision. I think the age gap seemed like a bigger deal to people because I was in my 20s – if Stepan was in his 40s and I was in my 30s, it wouldn’t be such a striking difference.

The only place the age gap manifests is in our experiences. At times, it’s frustrating that Stepan’s already been there, done that, bought the t-shirt. Catching up is impossible - I can’t get a master's overnight or clock up the same amount of air miles he has. He’s been in about 20 more relationships than I ever have – or ever will be now. By marrying him, I am aware I’ve cut myself short and that’s a big responsibility. Sometimes, I feel inadequate that I’m not older and more accomplished, that I’m not someone who might be a better fit for him on paper.

Kids are also on my mind, while they might not have been on my radar with a younger partner. I have to adjust my plans and think about putting my career on pause in five years or so. Stepan is keen to have kids but I’m not there yet, and he gets that. But I do understand that our reality means I need to think about having them sooner rather than later and that feels really big. I’m 23 and not prepared yet - I want to be in a stable position with my career and mental health before tackling children.

Overall though, we work. People have a lot of negative misconceptions; I’ve had questions about power imbalances or the authenticity of our relationship, which are really insensitive and belittle my marriage. Age-gap relationships are sensationalised in the media and if there are cases like a skewed power dynamic, or being gaslighted, then I think shining on a light on them can be helpful. But it depends on each individual relationship - mine has only been a positive and equal experience.

Sure, he doesn’t get Instagram or like the same music I do. But, when we first met, Stepan compared our age-gap to being at different ends of a swimming pool. I’ve got all these things ahead of me and he’s really excited to see me swim towards him.

YES: 'Age-gap relationships can create unhealthy power dynamics'

Alex* is 27. When he was 19, he met Sam*, 35. 

It was one of those instant attraction things with us. I was back from university for the Christmas holidays and had gone to this cheesy nightclub in my hometown. Sam and I both looked at each other and smirked. I said, “Who the hell are you?” in this flirty, playful way. And we went from there - later that night we were getting off in a muddy front garden.

It was mid-December in a Welsh town and the weather was freezing. But, when I asked why we couldn’t go to his flat, Sam replied, “Because my boyfriend lives there.” I was shocked, but he was so handsome - and I was so flattered - that I just ignored it, especially when he said things weren’t working out with his partner and he wanted to break up with him.

Alex and JamesBBC Three / iStock
Posed by models

When we met, I could tell Sam was much older than I was - he seemed suave and debonair. At the time, I was still closeted and I’d only lost my virginity a few months before, during Freshers' Week at university. Sam had this square jaw and good looks, while I was this skinny little lad - having someone so charismatic and so much older show interest in me, at a time when I wasn’t out as a gay man in my hometown, was validating and intoxicating.

We carried on our affair every time I came home from university, for about two years. There was this thrill to it at first; he worked in a cocktail bar that was almost too cool to be in my town and would slip my friends and me free drinks.

My mates didn’t know about us – or I thought they didn’t – so we’d flirt outrageously in front of them and then I’d make some excuse to stay behind. Sam would close up the bar and then we’d stay there and fool around. 

Growing up, I’d only ever fancied straight men and I’d lost my virginity to some horrible guy I wasn’t attracted to at all. Meeting Sam was hugely formative - suddenly I was having this relationship with what seemed like a really sophisticated older man who I was actually sexually attracted to and could enjoy sex with. It helped me realise I wasn’t doomed to unrequited love for the rest of my life.

Then it came crashing down. On one of my uni holidays, I met another guy in our town’s unofficial gay bar and we got chatting. I mentioned I knew Sam and he said, “Oh, he’s such a dickhead. He’s so hot but he broke my heart.” My own heart sank.

Alex and James heartbreakBBC Three / iStock

“We were seeing each other,” my new acquaintance continued. “He made me feel really special and that he was going to leave his boyfriend but then he just tossed me aside. He’s done this to almost every gay lad in town.”

It wasn’t a total heartbreak but it did make me feel terrible. I realised Sam was just a small town lothario - what had been special for me was just a pattern of behaviour for him. 

In hindsight, I also wonder if I made him feel better. To me at the time, as a 19-year-old with little experience of the world and gay scenes in general, Sam was an impressive figure. But, in reality, he was a 35-year-old man working in a cool but failing bar and living in a small town. Maybe having the adoring attention of younger men was a way of alleviating that - or perhaps it was just harder to impress people his own age.

I did confront him about how hurt I felt. I can’t remember his exact response as I was drunk - but it obviously didn’t stick, because we messaged on and off for another year. But there weren’t any more passionate meet-ups. 

I’m single now and, since then, I’ve always dated older men, except one partner. I don’t know if this was because Sam set the tone. I like relationships with men who will dominate me and, although I don’t think my affair with Sam is completely responsible for that, I do think it reinforced me seeking out those dynamics.

To my mind, age-gap relationships can sometimes create unhealthy power dynamics. There can be something really rewarding being with a quasi-mentor figure who helps you out and offers wisdom - I've seen friends of all genders benefit from this. But I just wish I hadn’t ended up feeling so used by Sam.

*Names have been changed

Originally published 1 April 2019.