Shirin Mehrotra feels regret and a kind of betrayal about her last relationship. Her former partner, who was eight years younger than her, could not tell his family and eventually broke up with her to marry someone of his parent’s choice .”It affected my emotional health in a way that, for a certain period, it made me feel that as an older divorced woman, this is how all my relationships would end,” says the 40-year-old food writer from New Delhi.
Relationships are difficult. When age differences enter the picture, they can become even more complex.
Take the example of Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio whose relationships are always a matter of speculation. When the 48-year-old star’s photograph with 19-year-old Israeli model Eden Poliani recently went viral, social media was abuzz with many comments verging on ageism.
As the older partner in many of his relationships, Sharif D Rangnekar has often dealt with the same issue. “I have heard things like ‘cradle snatching’ or ‘you will be in the old age ward, and your partner will be in paediatrics’,” says the 54-year-old author, who is currently dating a 29-year-old man. Initially, he believed what people said about the age differences. “I felt at times that [the age difference] is the reason why some of the relationships didn’t work. But that wasn’t the case actually,” says Rangnekar. He believes relationships are based on the connection between the two people involved and says that his boyfriend has a strong sense of self and does not care about the age difference.
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Stigma and society
However, society’s expectations, assumptions and preconceived notions can affect one’s mental and emotional health. According to Bengaluru-based psychotherapist Sindhu Wadhwa, relationships are often impacted by societal stigma and opinions.
In the Indian socio-cultural context, ageism is particularly pronounced when the woman is the older partner, according to Ahmedabad-based psychotherapist Purnima Gupta. “A woman is expected to first prove herself worthy of having a partner and then justify all the credentials of her partner as well,” she says.
Gupta is categorical: there isn’t anything particularly different about a relationship in which the persons involved have a large age gap. “Cognitive maturity or emotional maturity doesn’t come with age. It comes with self-exploration and understanding,” she says.
Wadhwa says that as with any other relationship, it is important to be aware of your own mental and emotional well-being, your sense of self and your attachment pattern.
Many people are often unclear about their expectations from their relationships, says Gupta, adding that expectations, responsibilities and memories often amalgamate when we find someone because we have been conditioned to believe that once we find a romantic partner, all problems will go away. Having realistic expectations from a relationship as well as open and clear communication about one’s needs and desires goes a long way towards the success of a relationship.
Besides the struggle with managing individual expectations and countering societal perception as well as ageism, Wadhwa says that there are a few other areas where the age gap can create some mental and emotional health challenges.
The first is a power imbalance. “[When any] relationship, irrespective of the age gap, is in a state of imbalance, [it] will invariably lead to power, control, potential emotional coercion, abuse, loss of autonomy, and the loss of connection over time,” explains Wadhwa.
Further, the variances in physical, emotional and mental states and differences in social and financial equity owing to the partners being at different life stages can be difficult to navigate.
Another aspect is the frame of reference: the two people have grown up in different times and have been influenced by different political movements, social mores, music, books and idols. “If [you] don’t address this in time, it could become a huge gap in the relationship,” says Wadhwa. However, it is possible to find common ground and shared values.
Building a better relationship
So, what can one do to manage all these factors in a relationship and maintain one’s mental and emotional health?
Gupta reiterates that you need to have clear expectations. “If I have certain expectations, my partner would also have certain expectations, and we have to find a space where we can balance this relationship,” says Gupta. And yes, a bit of sensitivity is important to understand that a person is a product of [their] mind, their experiences and learnings, she believes.
It is also important to acknowledge how your relationship is different, especially when you have a variance in age, says Wadhwa, adding that it would be good to prepare for changing roles and responsibilities in parenting, caretaking, and decision-making at the beginning.
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“Make decisions together, respect the other person’s difference and their world view,” says Wadhwa, adding that the older partner should be aware of not taking a more powerful position. It is important to remember that intimacy attunement and deep satisfaction from a healthy relationship can be built together by two willing parties. “So, talk to a therapist [or] a counsellor,” she says.
Anmol is an independent journalist who writes and reports on gender, health, social justice, and culture from an intersectional lens.