I’m 21 and recently graduated from university. My best friend Sam is 23. Sam struck up a very close friendship with a 43 year old married man named Chris. I’m concerned because:
1. They spend 3-4 days/week together in a larger social group setting and alone.
2. They often stay out for hours and hours till 4-5am while Chris’s wife Judy sleeps at home. Sam says Judy doesn’t want to go with them.
3. Sam says her name has come up in un-related fights between Chris and Judy.
4. Chris said his mother thought their friendship was odd in the context of an, “older people just don’t understand me” conversation.
5. Within the first HOUR of meeting Chris, he made two separate slights toward his wife (who was not present) in the form of, “Oh, Judy would never come out to something like this” (swing dancing) and, “Oh, Judy isn’t one to try new foods”.
6. Chris commented to a different mutual friend once that sometimes he “thinks he married the wrong woman”.
7. Chris goes to Sam for emotional support, especially when he has a fight with his wife.
Sam doesn’t see anything uncomfortable or inappropriate with this dynamic but I have foreboding feelings. It feels weird and I can’t seem to separate their age discrepancy as a factor that’s magnifying the weirdness. When I talked about this with Sam, she told me I’m acting ageist.
Flash forward several weeks to the person I was dating recently, Mike. Mike and I met online and hit it off right away. He was kind, funny, feminist, and WONDERFUL. We discussed problematic masculinity on our first date (THE ACTUAL DREAM!). Sleeping with him was a pretty big deal for me because it was my first time and I had been waiting to have sex with someone I felt “all in” about. Mike’s profile said he was 27, which was fine because I’ve dated a lot of guys my age who are so nervous that I feel like I’m babysitting. Things with Mike were going well until, unexpected plot twist, I found out he was actually THIRTY SEVEN. He claimed 27 was a typo online but that he looks and feels like he’s a twentysomething (he’s in university), and that he thinks I act very “maternal”, so it shouldn’t be a problem. When I talked to Sam about my misgivings, she said I’m acting ageist again.
Can you help sort out my feelings about all this? Am I really being old-fashioned and ageist in these situations? How much is too much of an age difference to date someone? Do the rules and dynamics of friendship change if there’s a big age difference between friends?
The Adults Are Not All Right
Dear Not All Right:
There’s a line in Tana French’s In The Woods where our protagonist detective who has made a giant hash of his life goes on a few dates with a colleague. She dumps him, as kindly as possible, telling him “There’s a fine line between interesting and fucked up. You should date younger women; sometimes they can’t tell.”
People of different ages can be friends and men and women can be friends. But I think your instincts are dead on, and that Chris is almost certainly laying the groundwork for an affair with Sam. (The disparaging comments about his wife when she’s not around are the telling detail here, where he’s typecasting her and typecasting other women he meets as attractive foils to her. I also bet he has wicked mentionitis at home.) However, it takes two to have an affair, and you’ll insult Sam if you insult her motives when she is not pursuing this person romantically or thinking of him that way. If Sam’s not uncomfortable, Sam is the boss of Sam. It isn’t on you to do anything about it unless Sam asks for your input. Sam will make her own choices and mistakes. If you want to take a little bit of care of Sam without being intrusive to Sam, do what you can to make sure Sam always has an option for getting home from events that is not Chris. She can choose to take you up on it or not, but that way she’ll never be stranded with him if at some point she doesn’t want to be.
People of different ages can have successful romantic relationships. However, Mike’s “but I feel young!” and “you act very maternal, so it’s okay” line of complete bullshit made me throw up in my mouth. He likes you. He likes sleeping with you and probably wants to keep doing that. If you’re enjoying yourself, then keep enjoying yourself. But the most likely explanation is that his dating profile age was not a typo. This smells to me like the deliberate work of a dude who wants to sleep with women 15+ years younger than he is (and can get away with it most of the time without being found out), so guard your heart and your health around this one. Especially beware the “fairness” or “ageism” arguments when they’re used to convince you to do something you personally feel is skeevy or distract you from the fact that this person lied to you. Has he actually ever apologized to you for that, or taken into consideration why it might bother you, or did he skip right to “But it’s cool, because you are so mature and special, not like other girls” (aka The Older Douchebag’s Magic Spell of Obfuscation)? If it was an honest mistake, he should be able to understand why you’d be wary and give you an actual apology and some space to process.
You are smart and have a good heart and good instincts.
P.S. Sam, while pure of intentions and heart, might not be the best advisor about matters of the Middle-Aged Heart/Peen right now.