by Dara Poznar
Editor’s Note: We’ve been studying relationships for the last four decades, but we still have so much to learn. Through the individual stories and experiences shared in Real Relationships, we aim to paint a more realistic picture of love in the world today. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and are not necessarily based on research conducted by The Gottman Institute. Submit your Real Relationship story here.
I had given up on love. At 36, my decades-long dream of finding my person and having a family was replaced by a new dream of living a full and happy life as a single woman. I imagined traveling the world, hosting dinner parties for other singles, enjoying the unconditional love of shelter rescues, and pursuing my lifelong dream of writing. Behind me would be the endless disappointments, unmet needs, and invisible feeling that characterized my past relationships. True love, as it seemed, wasn’t going to find me. I surrendered and moved on.
Then one day, I found myself craving a sandwich. I stopped at a deli I liked on my way home from work. He made my veggie on wheat, hold the banana peppers. “Are you a vegetarian?” he asked. I told him I was. He told me about an interesting documentary he’d recently watched on campus about the health benefits of eating plant-based. I admired his tattoos and noticed his sexy voice. Surmising that he was 25 or 26, I considered it a shame that he was too young for me. I was 36. Up until then, I would have thought 35 was too young for me.
A few days later I got another hankering for a veggie sandwich, along with another glimpse of the handsome tattooed sandwich-maker. I was having a good hair day and I felt like flirting. That day I found out his name: Austin. For the next two weeks, I was eating veggie sandwiches like it was my job. Each time I saw him, the nervous energy grew. We were two fumbling idiots interacting with one another. His nervousness fed my nervousness. I could feel my face imitating a tomato whenever he looked at me. My heartbeat sped up. There was an obvious mutual attraction and it was a lot of fun. During that time he had Googled me, read my blog, and found me on social media. He wrote me a message to compliment my writing.
One day he was ringing up my order and asked me when he’d get to see me again. Taken by surprise, I said I was in there all the time and he’d see me in a couple of days. “You know what I mean,” he said, “not here.” I told him to message me. He did so two days later and I gave him my phone number. He called the following day while I was driving down Charlotte Street. I appreciated his approach—showing clear interest but not being overly eager. I‘d prepared to let him down easy. “I’m freshly out of a relationship,” I told him. “I’m not ready to jump into something new. Besides, I’m certain you are too young for me.”
“Souls don’t have an age,” he said.
“Ok, fine. How old is your current human incarnation?” I asked, teasingly. He laughed.
“I’m 21,” he said. I nearly drove off the road.
“Like I said,” I continued, “you’re too young and I’m not looking to date right now anyway.”
“Ok, how about we be friends then? I just want to know you.”
I was a bit reluctant but made plans to have a drink with him “just as friends” the following Sunday afternoon. We met at a restaurant called The King James. The conversation was seamless. He had such depth to him and a beautiful openness. After 20 minutes we had our first kiss and I knew I was in trouble. An hour later, I was in love.
I didn’t believe it could last. Yet, there was just something so alluring and captivating about him that I could not resist. The connection between us was so immense that I decided it’d be worth riding it out until it crashed and burned, which I was sure it would, and soon. And when it did, I’d collapse into a heap of ashes then put myself back together and I’d have no regrets. To feel this adored, to have this passion raging inside of me, to be this engulfed in pure ecstasy, even for a week or two, was worth having my heart shattered into millions of pieces. I loved who I was when I was with him—vulnerable, playful, generous, and care-free. I gave it two months tops.
Four years later, he is lying here beside me watching a documentary on his iPhone as I type this. We have plans to be married in 2020, a year from now. But before you begin to imagine that it’s been an ongoing state of bliss all this time, allow me to set things straight: this has been the most painful and challenging relationship of my life.
For several months we were obscenely obsessed with one another, spending long periods of time staring into each other’s eyes and expressing, with a great deal of emotion, how lucky we both felt to have found one another. “Who are you?” I’d ask him. “Where did you come from?” he’d ask me. We were mesmerized by and enamored with each other. It truly was a full-blown addiction. We were “that” couple—the one you love to hate.
Even so, I spent the first two years waiting for it all to fall apart. I was afraid to be all-in, daily scanning for signs that it was bound to fail. I believe it was Thoreau who said, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” Every time I saw in him a quality that drew me in, I searched for two that repelled me, and of course, I found them. Yes, he’s deep and heart-centered, but he takes too many naps and plays video games. Sure he’s willing to learn and grow in relationship, but he is forgetful and overly-sensitive. He’s wonderfully observant and tuned-in, but he is moody and doesn’t save any money. And on and on.
This behavior almost became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I risked losing it all and never really knowing what might have been. I came dangerously close to that. I was ruled by fear and woundedness rather than love and wholeness. I hadn’t yet learned how to love, only to feel love. And I hadn’t yet healed the wounds that produced maladaptive patterns in me, caused me to deeply hurt the person I love, and resist and push away the thing I wanted more than anything in the world—a raw and uninhibited love, a safe and trusting union, a beautiful and unbreakable bond—with him.
Realizing how much I wanted a life with him terrified me. It felt cruel that it was possible for me to want this man, THIS man, 16 years my junior and who I believed was sure to abandon and hurt me. And so I tried to destroy my desire by collecting any flaw, error, and inconsistency I could find and hurling them at him one by one. The deeper I fell, the more fearful I became, and the more I looked for imperfections to point out and criticize. I thought I might stop loving him if I realized just how deeply flawed and immature he was. Instead, I had given him good reason to leave me, and I was more fearful than ever that he would.
Before long, we were caught up in a destructive and painful pattern. We would send sweet texts during the day, call to check in, “Hi baby, how is your day going? I miss you so much. Can’t wait to see you. What can I do for you? I’m so grateful for you.” Then we’d be up all night fighting—“You only care about yourself! Nothing is good enough for you! You don’t listen to me! Leave me alone! I can’t do this anymore!”
In the morning he’d reach out from his side of the bed and gently touch my back. I’d turn around and we’d hug and apologize profusely to each other. We’d talk about how awful it is to fight like that and how we’re done doing it and we’re just gonna love each other and be kind and gentle. “I love you, you’re everything I’ve ever dreamed of and I’ll love you forever. I hate you, you’re my worst nightmare and I’m gone.” That became the bipolar tone of our relationship that tortured us both for over 2 years.
My main fear has been “can I really trust him or will he abandon me?” His has been “can I really trust her or will she keep doubting me and us?” From day one, he has believed that we are soulmates and that we are destined to find our way and be together. He claims he knew I was “the one” immediately. I came into the relationship somewhat more skeptical about ideas such as fate and destiny. Whatever differences between us have been revealed, he has been accepting. The only thing he’s ever criticized about me is the way I’ve judged and criticized him.
This is the first relationship I’ve ever been in that has forced me to heal myself and become more conscious. He is young, but also very solid. He knows who he is, what he needs, and what he wants. He is secure and maintains healthy boundaries. He has immense faith. He is romantic and melancholic, stubborn and emotional, artistic and wild. When he’s carrying any, he always gives cash to the homeless people he passes on the street. Sometimes he prays with them. The biggest surprise I’ve encountered is how much I have had to mature and grow in order to create something lasting with him. I can’t become complacent with him. I can’t take him for granted. He won’t have it.
Last year I went into counseling to address my unhealed pain and to learn how to love. Since doing so I have made the courageous choice to choose him and this relationship fully. I have learned to intentionally lift up and admire what makes him unlike anyone I have ever known and absolutely irresistible, and to accept him for everything that he is, including much younger. I’ve matured emotionally and psychologically. This process for me has been one of growing up enough to be able to surrender to what is true for me: I’m crazy in love with a much younger man and I’m scared to death. I’m so lucky to get to love and be loved like this, and I need to honor and cherish this man and what we share.
The fear that the age gap will eventually catch up to us never leaves me. Neither does the untamed love I feel for him. I get excited when he calls. I look forward to our time together. We dance together, goof around and laugh hysterically, cry together during sad scenes in movies, and baby talk to our two dogs, with whom we are both grossly obsessed. Being with him brings me an unrelenting joy on a daily basis. We fight about the typical things: laundry, cleaning, money, and the rest of it. We have a normal relationship in most ways. He’s young, but home most nights, not out at the bars night after night like many of his peers. He tells me that he’s not like most people his age.
There is some humor that comes with the age gap, like when I had to explain to him who The Cranberries were, or when I don’t understand some of the slang people his age use, which he finds adorable. He really likes it when I say something is “dope.” We allow ourselves to be influenced by each other. I think this really helps. We hang out with one another’s friends and listen to each other’s favorite music. I feel young and alive with him. He is very proud of being with an older woman.
Loving and planning a future with a much younger man is, for me, the happiest and most brutal thing I have ever experienced, as well as the most transformative. What I’ve always wanted is right here, and now I have so much to lose. We read together, listen to podcasts, and watch videos about how to build a healthy relationship. We have deep conversations about life, spirituality, and love. We both enjoy a wide range of music from various decades. He wants to take dance and cooking classes together. We praise each other. We make each other better. He also plays video games, likes to get high, listens to gangster rap, and had never done his own laundry or scrubbed a single toilet before we moved in together.
He reads Jesus while I read Jung. I drink coffee and he drinks sweet tea. I binge watch Gossip Girl and he binges dinosaur documentaries.
It’s all quite terrifying and fantastically elating.
There have been numerous times when I would wake up at 2 or 3 a.m. and been overcome with the grief of when it would be over. I would look over at him and try with all my might to just fully appreciate that at that moment he was right there. He was with me. We were together. Right then I had the greatest love I could have ever hoped to know. This gangster rap loving, video-game playing, dinosaur-obsessed man makes me giddy as hell and I want him with me forever.
I don’t know what the future holds for us or where we’ll end up. I do know our love is real. It’s been tested. Things got really, really bad, and we’re both still here. And I know being with him is what I want. The love between us lives on and has even become stronger. We talk about how perplexing it is that our feelings for each other just seem to continue to grow and grow, unhindered by familiarity, immense hardship, or fear. We can’t explain it, but we’re so grateful for it.
He’s 25 now, and I’m 41. While I no longer fear people are going to look at us funny when they realize we are a couple, I still worry that one day, as we age, as I grow older, age won’t just be a number but a reason the relationship can no longer work. I’ll realize it was too much to hope to spend the rest of my life with him. Or maybe I’ll learn that love really does conquer all, even a 16-year age gap relationship in which the woman is the older partner.
“Love is trembling happiness,” wrote Kahlil Gibran. Those words resonate with me so deeply that they are now permanently inked on my back.
Relationships are about giving up control and surrendering, which is terrifying. And while doing that isn’t a guarantee it’ll work out, it gives us our best chance. No matter what, I’ll have no regrets. I’m all in ‘til the end.
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Dating a Man 16 Years Younger Forced Me to Grow Up