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Thursday, December 29, 2016

Intergenerational Relationships Aren't Automatically Abusive

Recently, I boosted my post "Intergenerational Relationships Can Work" on the Tumblr counterpart to this blog. (And again, we are talking about ADULTS.) This prompted someone to anonymously message that Tumblr blog...
Oh, hey! Somehow I didn't notice you supported intergenerational relationships, and I checked your answers to common objections and there was no reference to it, so may I direct you to a couple of links you might find interesting? They are against intergenerational relationships, but they might have notions you haven't considered.
From what I could see, the objections to intergenerational relationships (generally meaning 20 or more years difference in age) or even just age-gap relationships (less than 20, but, say ages 18 vs. 24 or 30 vs. 45) were all variations on the "power imbalance" argument.


Now, before we go further let me say as I've said before that just because I think all consenting adults should be free to be together without criminalization, bullying, or discrimination, and this blog defends intergenerational relationships in general, that of course not every intergenerational relationship is a good thing, sometimes because one person is abusive or manipulative, sometimes for other reasons. This is true about any relationship, whether heterosexual or gay, interracial or endogamous, monogamous or polyamorous, open or closed; whatever variety. It also goes for friendships, business relationships, and any other kind of human interaction.

Let me also say that personally, when there has been a significant age gap in my own relationships, it has more often been with women older than me rather than younger than me. I'm older and wiser now and I still don't see the relationship I had with a middle-aged woman when I was an "adult teenager" as problematic. That relationship gave me some of the best times in my life, helped me through a lot of things, and improved me in many ways.
OK, with that out of the way...

No relationship is going to have perfectly equal power between the individuals. There is a power differential in just about any relationship, sometimes an enormous power differential. One person is more emotionally needy than another. One earns more than the other. One is more educated than another. One has more friends and family than another. One has more life experience than another. On and on it goes. Statistically, most women (not all, of course) who to choose to marry men marry a man who is physically stronger, taller, and bigger than them. Isn't that a power imbalance? On the other hand, there are many who say that since almost all men are born of women and many are breastfed and cared for by women, that emotionally, a woman married to a man has more emotional power over him.

Would it be wrong for a tall, 30-year-old woman who is a highly trained and experienced professional mixed martial artist, and wealthy as a result, who also has an MBA, to date and have sex with a short, 30-year-old man who isn't very toned and makes his living as a retail store clerk and has no college degree? It might be an impossible dream for such a man, but would it be automatically abusive and wrong for her to date and have sex with him, because of the power imbalance?

Some of the best and most enduring marriages in Hollywood are between a celebrity and someone who isn't famous, even though fame can bring someone much power.

How much power imbalance is too much should be up to the individuals involved. Sure, if you see that it is clear one person is abusing another, you can tell the abuser off and urge the abused person to get out of the relationship. Of course abusers should be called out, and if you witness anything like assault or what amounts to abduction or hostage-taking, you can report the abuser to police regardless of what the abused person wants. But an age gap doesn't automatically mean the relationship is abusive.

Age is only one factor when it comes to power. Should billionaires only date and have sex with other billionaires? Geniuses only with other geniuses? Models only with other models? Psychiatrists only with other psychiatrists? Weightlifters only with other weightlifters? Judges only with other judges? Governors only with other Governors? Also, being older doesn't always make someone more powerful in a social relationship. Someone can be 30 and have more life experience and more interpersonal skills and more relationship experience and more confidence than someone who is 50, depending on the lives they've lived, and this can be the case without the 50-year-old having anything seriously wrong with them. If we agree that, in general, a 38-year-old has more power than an 18-year-old, what about a 58-year-old with a 38-year-old? Or a 78-year-old with a 58-year-old? It isn't always so clear. Haven't we all known of middle-aged adults who are wrapped around the finger of their 19-year-old child, or defer to and cater to that grown child because of the child's personality or conditions? That is a problematic relationship, but it isn't because the older person is being abusively manipulative; the younger person is exercising more power.


You may not like the idea of an 18-year-old dating a 25-year-old or a 30-year-old or a 40-year-old, but if someone that age can consent to undergo major elective surgery, join the military, operate heavy machinery, or be sentenced to life in prison or even to death for their actions, how can we say that can't consent to love another adult the way they want?

No, in most cases, someone who is 18-25 years in age is not going to be "on the same level" as someone who is, say, 35-55 years old, and that can be OK. It can even be a good thing. We see this with things like having a professional mentor, or friend who is more experienced in a hobby or other interest you share, or when a new, young parent benefits from having neighbors who've just finished raising their kids.

The idea that the people in a dating/romantic/sexual relationship should be the same age, the same class, the same race, etc. is a throwback to thinking of relationships as all about marriage and marriage being solely about babymaking and a business deal to perpetuate a specific group. Tied into that is the sexist notion that women are somehow of lesser worth if they're unmarried or widowed and have "lost" their virginity, if they're not getting pregnant by a husband and birthing healthy babies; that they're of diminishing worth for each year past the age of 25 or the more partners they've had. In such a view, someone who is older is "using up" the young woman, as though she's a loaf of bread. And since it is about making babies for a man and definitely not about a woman enjoying someone's company (sexual or otherwise), an older woman should certainly not be scandalous by having a younger lover.

Thankfully, that way of thinking is literally dying out.

You can find relationship experts, therapists, and other mental health professionals and sociologists who will say that relationships with age gaps are automatically problematic. But there are also others who say not only that they aren't automatically problematic, but also that they can be good things. There are many mentally and emotionally healthy people in healthy, functional, mutually beneficial relationships that have age gaps.

If someone makes the claim that we should discourage all age gap relationships, they should be asked 1) for their credentials; 2) if they have personally conducted an evaluation of the individuals involved and the dynamics of each such relationship. Of course they haven't.

Of course these relationships should not be criminalized, but they should also not be otherwise discouraged as automatically problematic or abusive. Do not cite examples of abusive relationships as to why no age gap relationship can be acceptable.

Let people have the relationships to which they mutually agree.
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