People say “age is just a number” all the time, but do they practice what they preach? My experience says the answer is… sometimes. As far as relationships go, it can get complicated. Age signifies so much more than just a number: it can reflect your maturity, your stage in life, and your experience. At the same time, age can be deceptive. Not every 21-year-old is on the same playing field--some are already gearing up for the ninth inning while others are just jumping into the dating game. It’s often “different strokes for different folks,” as the old saying goes. The lyrics to an old TV sitcom—“Diff’rent Strokes” —often reminded me as I was growing up: “What might be right for you may not be right for some.”
Does it matter if men date younger women? If so, how much of an age gap is an acceptable one?
Many single men (LDS men included) supposedly go by this rule of thumb: “You can date someone who is half your age, plus seven.” As we get older, this allows for more flexibility in age gaps. Whereas the dating pool at age 21, for example, varies from age 18 to about age 26 or 27, it becomes a whole different dynamic for the mid-singles crowd. By age 31, the commonly accepted age range difference can vary between anywhere from those aged 22 or 23 to those in their mid-40s. And so forth.
Why is that exactly?
Our younger years are prime years for developing and learning much about ourselves. But, each year as we (hopefully) become another year wiser, we become more secure in ourselves and much more stable in our personalities. In fact, our psychological and physical development slows, meaning the mental gap between age groups narrows. Think back to your own experiences with your brothers and sisters. While a little sister two years younger than you seems completely annoying when you are seven, but 10 years down the road, she seems far less immature.
The other beauty about becoming more secure in our identities is that suddenly, society's judgments don't matter as much to us.
When I was 26 years old, I dated a girl who was five years younger than me. This was not a big, earth-shattering deal for either of us. She, in fact, asked me out first, which was a gesture I greatly appreciated and one that I later reciprocated. However, I remember that our age difference seemed to be something of a big deal to her sister. One day, this sister directed a snarky, can’t-tell-if-she’s-kidding, “robbing-the-cradle” comment in my direction. Even if she were kidding, there is always at least a glint of truth in every sarcastic remark.
Certainly, a five-year age gap would have made a significant difference to both of us just a few years prior to that time. As we were both in our 20s, though, it didn’t matter to either of us. Now that I am in my 30s, a five-year gap matters even less.
So if it's okay for men to date younger women, does it matter if women date younger men? What’s good for the goose is good for the gander—right?
Sadly, this is not necessarily so, and there tends to be more of an unfortunate stigma attached to older women dating young men. Many women who date younger men, whatever the age gap may be, find that they have the unfortunate label of “cougar” attached to them. It can give new meaning to the phrase, “Rise and shout, the Cougars are out!”
Some single adults have observed that age does matter to others in the dating pool.
“Unfortunately, the majority of society, at least what I know of in the LDS dating world, make (age) into a matter,” stated one female friend in my mid-singles ward. “Most guys I've met who are within one year or more younger than me refuse to consider me as a dating option. That has been the case since I was 23. I thought that would change as I got older and they realized it was just a number and that a few years didn't make all that much of a difference. But nothing has changed. I find the whole situation frustrating and ridiculous.”
I hope that this friend’s unfortunate experiences are the exception and not the rule. Either way, some misconceptions about dating apparently still need to be discussed and debunked. Among those misconceptions are perceived “deal breakers” in dating and courtship—petty and inconsequential to some and yet crucial to others—including hair or eye color; height difference; whether or not that person plays an instrument; sports affiliations; past sins or transgressions, (even if long-since repented of), etc.
Not long ago, I read a biography of Church President John Taylor and learned that his first wife, Leonora Cannon Taylor, was 12 years older than he was!
In other words: A few years really shouldn’t matter all that much in the eternal perspective.
So then, when should age become a concern?
Height, weight, number of Lord of the Rings figurines in his or her collection. While some of these numbers can be superficial and shouldn't tip the scales heavily in our decisions to date someone, age can raise some serious concerns.
No matter how much you love your grandma, no 21-year-old wants to be stuck with an eighty-year-old who just wants to sit at home and watch reruns of I Love Lucy. Since we should be dating people with the long term in view, future concerns such as limited mobility, sickness, or even increased chances of ending up alone in your old age aren't something to laugh at. Couples should openly consider and talk about these concerns. And you should seriously think about what you are willing to commit to on your own time. Marriage isn't a sprint; it's a marathon. You need to make sure you have the endurance and ability to cover the miles.
But remember: every person you date comes with baggage. All you have to ask yourself is, "Am I willing to carry their baggage for the full 26.2 miles?"
Maybe for you, the chance to be with this person for eternity is worth a few diaper changes or a couple of lonely years in your old age. Age shouldn't be your only grading critieria, but it should be a serious consideration.
So then, why do age gaps happen?
For many mid-singles (31 and older), it can feel like dating options become somewhat limited after attending young single adult wards and activities is no longer an option. While it is still OK to date people younger than you are, it also becomes more and more acceptable to date those who are more than a couple of years older than you, too. Statistically, the number of potential spouses of the same age decreases as the years go on. This is one possible reason why age gaps matter less later in life.
Not long ago, I went out on a handful of dates with someone more than a decade younger than me, while still following the half-your-age-plus-seven rule. In my view, the age issue wasn’t a first-date conversation, but I did feel prompted to bring it up after the third date so that she didn’t feel completely creeped out. Fortunately, it was also not a problem for her, and the age thing, in her words, was just “a number.”
But is having a large age gap between two people who are dating advisable?
To quote another well-known saying: “All’s fair in love and war.”
According to the majority of the members of my mid-singles ward, as well as married friends, the half-your-age-plus-seven formula is a valid one for both males and females alike. But it is not necessarily a rule of thumb. The most important question tends to be not one of age but of compatibility and maturity—both emotional and spiritual.
In Doctrine and Covenants 88:40, we read:
“For intelligence cleaveth unto intelligence; wisdom receiveth wisdom; truth embraceth truth; virtue loveth virtue; light cleaveth unto light; mercy hath compassion on mercy and claimeth her own.”
Speaking on this scripture, Elder Marlin K. Jensen of the Seventy taught, “If we pursue the goal of an eternal marriage with purity and with both our hearts and our minds, I believe in most cases we will eventually be rewarded with a companion who is at least our spiritual equal and who will cleave unto intelligence and light as we do, who will receive wisdom as we receive it, who will embrace truth as we embrace it, and who will love virtue as we love it. To spend the eternities with a companion who shares the most important fundamental values with us and who will discuss them, live them, and join in teaching them to children is among the most soul-satisfying experiences of true romantic love. To know that there will be someone who walks a parallel path of goodness and growth with us and yearns for the same eternal values and happiness is of great comfort” (“A Union of Love and Understanding,” Ensign, October 1994).