What To Know About Potential Imbalances Of Power In An Age Gap Relationship

Open up even the most basic dating app and you'll likely find three standard search criteria to help you sort through matches: location, gender, and age. While most people are fairly clear on the first two, often choosing to stick to those who are nearby and of their preferred gender, age can be a bit more complicated when searching for a partner.

Dating someone much older or younger, referred to as an "age gap relationship," remains taboo in most modern societies. Still, May-December romances aren't exactly rare. Though the average age difference between couples in the U.S. is only around two years, according to the 2014 Current Population Survey (via FiveThirtyEight), an Ipsos poll discovered that 39% of American adults have been in a relationship with someone at least 10 years older or younger.

For some people, age gap relationships are even the ideal, and a partner in a different life stage is their go-to type (we're looking at you, Leonardo DiCaprio). However, some couples run into trouble when they're of vastly different ages, especially when there's an imbalance of power.

Power imbalances are common in age gap relationships

When people criticize age gap relationships, making comments like, "He's old enough to be her dad," part of what's often driving their ick is the potential imbalance of power. And though many age gap couples find healthy ways to manage power (more on that later), others struggle to navigate these differences.

"In some relationships where there is a significant age gap between partners, for example 10 years or more, there may be unique problems the couple can face, including power imbalances," Dr. Daria J. Kuss, Associate Professor in Psychology, explained to Cosmopolitan. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dr. Kuss added that older partners are more likely to wield the power, while younger partners are more likely to take on a dependent role.

TJ Walsh, a counselor and psychotherapist, agreed, telling Psycom that younger partners may initially enjoy feeling cared for by an older lover. Over time, however, the older partner may become overbearing, leading to a power struggle within the relationship.

The gold digger trope may be one exception, where the younger partner manipulates the older one for money. But keep in mind that this and other stereotypes associated with age gap relationships aren't a realistic portrayal of many May-December romances, no matter how often they appear in movies and TV shows.

Unequal power can come in different forms

If a couple with an age gap has an asymmetrical distribution of power, chances are their dynamic will be more like a parent and their child than that of two equal partners. This may affect just one or possibly several aspects of their relationship.

Finances can be one point of contention between partners of different ages, according to PsychCentral. Older partners tend to be more established in their careers and finances compared to their younger counterparts. In some cases, the older one may take advantage of this imbalance to assert control in the relationship.

Family planning, too, can be a difficult topic in age gap relationships, says BetterHelp. Older partners who already have children, or who are no longer fertile, may have more influence when deciding whether to start a family. Other examples of imbalanced power can occur in everyday situations, like when one person offers unsolicited advice or when a more sexually experienced partner calls the shots in the bedroom. Though some people may feel comfortable with these kinds of power dynamics, they can sometimes become a slippery slope to increasingly coercive behavior over time.

Red flags to watch for in age gap relationships

Any type of relationship, whether there's a significant age difference or not, can become abusive when there's an imbalance of power. For some who crave control, though, dating someone much younger may be especially appealing. "At their worst, [an age gap relationship] can be a predatory relationship where the investment doesn't come from a clean place," Elisabeth Shaw, a clinical and counseling psychologist, told Hack. "It's like, I've got this much younger person who I can mold who might be under my thumb a bit and in fact, I can direct what they do. [Their] vulnerability developmentally can mean I have more power over them, and that's the thing to watch out for."

Though this might sound like a rare, worst-case scenario, psychotherapist Dr. Jenn Mann told InStyle that she sees it often in her practice. So how do you know if an age gap relationship is approaching toxic territory? According to The Body, a power imbalance is problematic when you don't feel safe expressing yourself, your feelings and needs are ignored, your partner doesn't respect your personal space, you aren't allowed the freedom to make independent decisions, or you feel pressured to change yourself to please the other person.

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.

How to successfully manage power differences

Having vastly different birth years — and even having a slight imbalance of power — doesn't automatically spell doom for age gap couples. As sex educator Gigi Engle explained to Well+Good, few relationships have a perfectly equal distribution of power. "Pretending that there isn't [a power imbalance] is where you might run into problems," Engle stated. "It takes communication, self-awareness, and a lot of difficult and often awkward conversations."

Brandy Porche, a licensed professional counselor, suggested to PsychCentral that couples not skirt the issue once they notice it. "Younger partners can start the conversations by saying, 'I'm not sure if you realize it, but you just totally made that decision for me, and I would prefer to be included in the decision process next time,'" Porsche shared.

In some cases, calling in a third party might be the best way to bring balance to a lopsided power dynamic. A therapist or couples counselor can get to the root of power issues, while a specialist can help with specific disputes (for example, a financial planner can make recommendations when one person significantly out-earns the other). With some open discussions and healthy boundaries in place, May-December couples can be proof that age really is just a number.