Dear Melissa, I’m eight years older than my partner. (For reference, I am a cis het woman, and my boyfriend is the younger one.) When people find out, they’re constantly making jokes about our age difference or snide remarks about “robbing the cradle.” How do I handle this? –via Instagram DM
While this singular question came into me via DM one day, I have received dozens of messages from people echoing this concern. You’re older (or younger) than your partner, by five years, ten years, twenty years, and everyone seems to have an opinion about it. It really bothers you, so how do you handle this? Is it with a boundary? (Maybe.) Is it by ignoring, deflecting, or making a joke about it yourselves before they’re able to? Perhaps…
But that isn’t really getting at the heart of the issue. Let me tell you a story.
A few years ago, I fell trail running and dislocated my ring finger, popping several tendons off the bone. After six months of hand therapy, it was mostly healed, but not at all “normal.” My finger is permanently deformed, and the knuckle is huge compared to my other fingers.
People kept asking me how my finger was doing, so I’d show them… and the jokes would start. “Gross!” or “Dude, your finger looks creepy.” My hand was compared most often to that scene in Scary Movie 2, where Chris Elliot’s character is stirring the mashed potatoes and says, “I made them by hand.” (Google it, but not before lunch or you’ll lose your appetite.)
The thing is, it never bothered me. I knew my hand looked different, but it wasn’t creepy. I knew how hard I worked just to regain the mobility I had, and I was lucky I never needed surgery. So the jokes just bounced off me. I’d roll my eyes, say “fine, but I can deadlift again so OH WELL,” and we’d move onto something else.
They never continued the joke because it was clear I didn’t care what they thought about it, so making fun of me wasn’t very rewarding. Plus if they persisted, it would kind of make them look like an a-hole.
Do you see where I’m going?
The reason these jokes about your age difference are annoying is because YOU haven’t yet decided how YOU feel about it. If you were totally confident in the difference, like I was with my messed-up finger, those jokes would roll off you, it would be clear that you just didn’t care, and they wouldn’t persist.
But they DO bother you, because you yourself are not yet 100% comfortable with the age difference in your relationship.
You might not like me for saying that, but find the lie, said with so much love.
When you feel 100% secure in something, there is nothing anyone else can say that can sway you, knock you off your path, or make you question yourself. So if you really want to figure out how to navigate jokes about your age difference, start by talking about how YOU (and your partner) feel about it with each other, friends, or a therapist.
Here’s where I bury the lede… I’m eight years older than Brandon. And for a while, it really bothered me. I thought about whether his friends would make fun of him for shacking up with an old lady. I thought about what his parents would say when they realized I was so much older (and divorced, and with a kid). I hated the age difference, so when our friends found out and made jokes about me robbing the cradle or him hooking up with a cougar, it stung.
Then, Brandon and I talked about it. I asked how he felt about dating someone older. He asked how I felt about him being younger. I shared some of my insecurities (it turns out he had some of his own), and we decided together that it really didn’t matter because we were perfect for each other now, and we’re both grown adults fully capable of entering into a consensual mature relationship.
After that, the jokes didn’t bother me. And I’ll tell you something even more surprising… the jokes actually stopped coming altogether. Maybe it’s because WE stopped joking about it first any time someone asked, as a way to deflect the discomfort. Maybe it’s the way I started responding when people would (for some relevant reason) ask our ages—matter-of-factly without any hint of embarrassment or reluctance, like I was stating my birth month or height. For whatever reason, I can’t remember the last time someone made a joke about our age difference, and I firmly believe it has a lot to do with the energy I’m putting out into the world.
I’m comfortable with this. I own this. There is nothing in this that you can take away from me. So don’t bother trying. Once I decided how I felt about it, the rest was easy.
Now, our age difference is small enough that it’s not obvious when you look at us. Some of you mentioned a 20-year gap, which in some age ranges can be more obvious. And sometimes, people are just gonna poke the bear to see what happens. So here is how you can respond if you are faced with jokes or barbs about your age difference, while you’re still deciding how you feel about it.
DON’T: Make a joke about it first, or laugh it off uncomfortably if what they said actually bothers you. That is not clear, kind communication.
DO: Start with a pause. Let their words sit for a minute, as if it’s kind of… boring and predictable that they’d go there. A deadpan stare works well here. Channel your inner, “Sigh, yes, good one Frank, haven’t heard that one before.”
If they’re implying something rude, like one of you married the other for money or babies or anything else that is none of their damn business, start with a conversation disruptor like, “wow,” or “huh,” or “hm,” and follow it up with, “What do you mean by that?” Force them to explain the “joke” and it no longer becomes quite so funny, plus you’re now making it clear that you don’t find it funny at all.
Finally, like I did with my busted-up finger, just respond super matter-of-factly. “Yeah, the age difference just isn’t something we think about anymore.” Shrug. Move on. If they persist, you can yellow-boundary them with, “Still stuck on this, are you? I feel like that’s not my problem.” And if it’s a friend or family member that persists even if you ask them to stop, a clear and kind red level boundary is called for. “Every time we’re together, you bring this up. Please stop commenting on our age difference. You’re the only one who seems to care, and it’s none of your business anyway.”
In summary, the more confident you are, the easier these situations will be to navigate… and chances are, they’ll come up less and less for you (at least amongst those who know you). It all starts with YOU, which is honestly good news, because that’s where you hold all the power.