Age gaps: how much is too much?

 

The legal fraternity has been sent into a state of tongue wagging gossip, after it was revealed that 63-year-old Victorian Magistrate Rodney Higgins was set to marry court clerk Ashleigh Petrie, close to 40 years his junior.

Some people find it very difficult to understand what a young girl in her early 20s could find attractive in someone old enough to be her grandfather.

Without suggesting the Higgins-Petrie union is motivated by anything than love, some people will inevitably question whether other motivations, such as wealth, fame and power as being the motivator to such relationships.

While that may be accurate when we look at couples such as Jeffrey Edelstein and Gabi Grecko, or Woody Allen marrying his stepdaughter, there are also many relationships with significant age gaps, like Jay Z and Beyonce (12 years) and George and Amal Clooney (17 years) that are happy and successful.

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So, is there a maximum age gap that should not be exceeded?

When we are dealing with matters of the heart, there can never be an exact number. Love is love, no matter the age, height, sex or any other differential.

Court clerk Ashleigh Petrie and Magistrate Rodney Higgins in a photo from Ashleigh's Facebook page.
Court clerk Ashleigh Petrie and Magistrate Rodney Higgins in a photo from Ashleigh's Facebook page.

That said we are human and when we look at age differences of 40 years plus, particularly when there is a young girl involved, it can be a difficult relationship for us to understand.

This is what Mr Higgins and Ms Petrie are facing today - questions raised through media, colleagues and undoubtedly family and friends. It will severely test their love for each other.

If their couple bubble is going to survive, then they are going to have to deal with outside forces that are frowning upon the relationship.

Some people ask whether the younger person in a relationship is looking for a father figure or a mother figure.

The same pattern of behaviour around dating can develop with the loss of a parental figure early in life.

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For Mr Higgins, who has held a position of respect within his community as a magistrate for many years, will find that facing scrutiny of that role will be tougher than the undoubted whispers occurring about the age difference in this relationship.

These outside forces can be crippling to the strongest of relationships.

Jay Z and Beyonce at a premiere of Disney's ‘The Lion King’ in London in July. Despite their 12-year age gap and reports (and musical insinuations) of infidelities on his part, they remain strong. Picture: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for Disney
Jay Z and Beyonce at a premiere of Disney's ‘The Lion King’ in London in July. Despite their 12-year age gap and reports (and musical insinuations) of infidelities on his part, they remain strong. Picture: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for Disney

These are only the beginning of issues one faces when they seek a relationship well outside their own age range.

Lifestyle can be a key issue, with someone younger wanting to be more active and keener to party, which can be quite exhausting for someone older who prefers time at home or a quiet dinner with friends.

Then there is the issue of children. If someone has already had a family with mature children, this can lead to conflict if the younger partner is keen on creating a new family.

Speaking of how children are created, there is a reality, despite the denial of men and the development of Viagra, that once men hit 60, they are more likely to suffer from issues with their libido.

Which can become problematic when dating someone many years younger than themselves, in the prime of their sexual life.

When I think of these types of broad age gaps in relationships, I think more to the gap in maturity, than the gap in age.

As we mature, we develop through life experience the ability to more easily negotiate difficult issues than we did in our youth.

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What can occur in some instances when there is an extreme gap in age is that a clash develops or an unhealthy dominance in who decides how issues are resolved.

Generally speaking these relationships tend to have to deal with not only outside forces but also issues of unconscious insecurity with each other.

For the older member of the coupling, they can become convinced that their partner will scamper off with someone closer to their own age, or if there has been a pattern of dating older men, a slightly less vintage version of themselves.

Amal and George Clooney in Rome this year. Their 17-year age gap is a source of much gossip magazine speculation. Picture: Elisabetta Villa/Getty Images
Amal and George Clooney in Rome this year. Their 17-year age gap is a source of much gossip magazine speculation. Picture: Elisabetta Villa/Getty Images

Likewise, in some cases, as the younger partner ages, they can become concerned that the older partner may seek to trade them in for someone more youthful.

These threats, coupled with the influence of the outside forces and ridicule can create a concerning dynamic in some relationships, as the couple attempt to negotiate their way through the difficulties and hurdles the relationship faces.

The gap in maturity can create a parent/child style relationship, where the older of the coupling takes on a parental role around decision making.

For any relationship to thrive, regardless of the age gap, it must be an adult/adult dynamic in relation to dealings with each other and decision making.

That to me is the most important question: are the maturity levels the same, or is one party far more immature than the other?

Melissa Ferrari is a Psychotherapist and Relationship Counsellor.



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