Ava* collapsed in front of him, full-fledged panic attack, eyes begging for him to get up and help her. He sat on the living room couch, staring, cigar lit and brought to his lips, and he waited.
She asked him why he didn’t do anything and his response was: “I didn’t feel like handling your childish tantrum.”
Taylor Swift ,31, has released a 10-minute version of her song “All Too Well” along with a short movie that reveals the messy realities behind what many speculate is the singer’s relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal,40, whom she dated at 20 years old.
The short movie, starring Dylan O’Brien , 30, and Sadie Sink ,19, visualises the relationship and several fans believe that the age gap between the actors was entirely intentional.
As a response, many women have started to open up about their own experiences when age differences in relationships go south.
Studies found that 7% of heterosexual couples have a 10-year age gap between partners and in 90% of these situations, men are the older ones. The theory behind why women seek older partners is believed to be rooted in the traditional idea that men have more financial and emotional stability to support their needs.
Yasmin Shaheen-Zaffar, a BACP-qualified psychotherapist, also notes that people may seek older partners to fill a gap in their lives.
“Relationships are transactional and not just romantic or intimate,” she explains. “Someone could have lost a parent quite young and the older partner would be able to provide emotional stability, security, and the quality of life experience that the younger person is seeking.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has also introduced a new concept of emerging adulthood – a state of being in between adulthood and adolescence. Lockdowns have led to young adults moving back in with their parents and completing their work or studies from their childhood bedrooms. This has halted their ability to develop in maturity which leaves them in a more vulnerable emotional state despite being above the age of consent.
At the age of 18, Ava started a relationship with a man that was 12 years older than her. She was a university student completing online courses in the midst of a pandemic and he was working full-time - well-off, confident, and secure.
“My age was the selling point. He liked the fact that I was so mature in the beginning but he would later on use it against me,” Ava remembers as she reflects on this relationship at 19.
“He thought that I wouldn’t be able to handle listening to any of his problems because I was the immature one in the relationship. He used his power and status to his advantage so that he can speak over me.”
Age gaps in relationships can become toxic when the older partner starts to use emotional abuse tactics against their younger partners.
“A controlling relationship could be mistaken for caring. Some red flags would be isolating you from their friends and making you dependent on them emotionally and financially,” Yasmin adds.
Alex* met her ex-boyfriend at an art café at just the age of 21. He was forty years old.
“One boundary that he used to break intentionally is yelling during arguments which I repeatedly told him to stop doing because it would trigger me,” Alex recalls. “He said that he doesn’t care and that he will express himself the way he likes and that I should just be a big girl and deal with it.”
“We were arguing once and I couldn’t help but have tears rolling down my face and he just looked at me like ‘why the fuck are you crying?’ instead of expressing any sympathy,” she adds. “He was patronising, he invalidated my feelings, and he kept yelling at me to use my words.”
The relationship lasted for a year and seven months before they officially broke it off because she was moving away. Alex, now 24, said that by the end of the relationship it was evident to everyone around her that she was emotionally exhausted having tried to crawl out of the relationship for so long but incapable of finding the strength to do so.
The term grooming refers to a situation where someone starts a trusting or emotional relationship with a young person in order to exploit, abuse or manipulate them. While the term is typically used to describe situations where the younger party is underage, it can also exist in adult relationships.
At 23 and working an entry-level full time job, Layla* was faced with this situation last year as she comes to terms with the aftermath of a month-long relationship that she had with a man 12 years older than her. Soon after the relationship began, he would start to “gaslight” her – making her questions her own beliefs and sense of reality.
“I had to hide my mental illness from him because he would say things like I was too young to have depression or seek therapy,” she recollects. “One thing he used to say is ‘if you’re this mentally ill at your age, what will happen when you get to my age’?”
“It completely ruined my self-esteem. He always made me feel like I am less than because of my age and because I did not have the same responsibilities as him. It’s something that I had to spend a lot of work on myself to get through and heal from,” she adds.
Counsellor Yasmin Shaheen-Zafar says that it is possible to have a healthy relationship with a big age gap as long as there is support on both ends and clear communication.
“There needs to be awareness that the young person will probably be changing a lot faster and in different directions because they’re still developing and the older partner needs to allow them to grow,” she stresses.
It is also helpful to have a support network of friends or family to seek advice from and to be surrounded by as not to risk falling into an abusive relationship by not noticing the red flags.
The age of consent in the UK is still at 16-years-old but people in the past have petitioned to raise it to 18, arguing that it does not make sense that people at that age cannot buy tobacco products or alcohol but it’s perfectly legal for them to consent to having sex with older partners.
Even if the age of consent was raised to 18, young adults can still be vulnerable to being abused by older partners but because they are considered legal, they feel as though they cannot call out this type of behaviour and society turns a blind eye instead of openly disapproving it.
So it is the case that comes down to encouraging more people to be careful with the difference in power dynamics and to stop glorifying the idea of needing to seek an older partner in order to satisfy their needs without acknowledging the dangers that can potentially come with it.
“How does it make sense that when you’re 17, you’re still considered a child and incapable of making your own decisions but the second you turn 18, you’re mature enough to handle dating someone 10 years older than you?” Mercy says.
*Some names have been changed at the request of the sources