I am the oldest of four girls, a pack of sisters who descend in age like uneven stair steps, from 31 to 29 to 26 to 23. As the eldest of this pack, I am a consummate older sister — bossy, with a tendency towards lecturing, and a fondness for teaching “lessons.” In the context of my family, this dynamic has its place. The traditional roles of birth order are said to be fluid, but mine never is. I am eternally a big sister, and this dynamic has bled into my love life.
There have been a few aberrations here and there, but for the most part, the men I’ve dated are within my age range, give or take a year or two. I like it this way, because there’s something nice about common ground when it comes to relationships. My last relationship, however, was the exception. He was 25 and I spent a lot of time telling myself it was not going to be a problem. For a time, that was true.
Sex with a younger dude is bananas, in a good and bad way. The energy they have harkens back to late-night dorm room fumblings in stamina and enthusiasm, but their moves often lack the panache you’d get with someone who had been around the block just a couple more times. You might have to explain to them in no uncertain terms that touching your ladyflower like they’re trying to get the last bit of peanut butter out of a jar is not a solid seduction move, and that is not a pleasant conversation to have.
The relationship didn’t work out for a variety of reasons, and I now see that his age was one of the biggest factors. When I graduated high school, he was just starting his freshmen year. When I was bumbling around making dumb life choices and skipping class in college, he was in 10th grade. In a decade or so, this age gap would make no difference at all, but at the moment, he made me feel old. The fact that he was the same age (at the time) as my most stubborn and self-assured sister somehow made it worse. It was mostly my fault. I approached most discussions we had from a place of experience, but also from a place of someone who had spent years of her life telling younger siblings what to do.
Something as simple as a discussion about an email exchange between him and his boss left me putting on my big sister hat, dishing out strident advice that was both unsolicited and unnecessary. I met his earnest struggle to figure out how he should live his life with bemusement instead of the genuine empathy that it merited. For some reason, I couldn’t escape this weird sense of responsibility that I felt to tell him what to do. Instead of trusting that he was grown enough to pick out a restaurant for a date or handle his quarter-life crisis, I was compelled to provide guidance instead of just listening like I probably should have.
Twenty-five is when you finally feel the musty breath of the second half of your 20′s on your face, but it’s young enough to still do things like eat an entire Papa John’s pizza for dinner and tell yourself that that’s fine. It’s the age where you are just figuring out how to be a little more grown, and the attendant stresses, anxieties and insecurities make for a big old mess. I’ve barely gotten myself together and I’m 31, but I’ve at least gone through the majority of the messy work of figuring myself out. For me, standing by while someone else was going through it, compelled me to offer help in the only way I knew how, and for a relationship, that isn’t the way to handle things.
In the end, his maturity was the issue. We spoke often about work. Both of us are writers, and he’d mentionfriends who had achieved great success in the kind of work he wanted to be doing, wondering aloud at how they got there.
“It’s called hustle,” I’d tell him, switching into lecture mode. “If you want to move up from where you are, you have to hustle.”
His attitude sometimes was that of an expectant child, hoping for the world and all its wonders to be waiting on his doorstep. This is not the way the world works, and it drove me crazy.
It came to a head last New Year’s Eve. Our relationship was on the way out, and I was already plotting a breakup speech in my head. Under the influence of too much champagne and not enough dinner, we went about our night. The next morning, he was withdrawn, quiet, sitting at the brunch playing Words With Friends on his phone, and being a silent, moody, weirdo. I chalked it up to a hangover, but then dragged myself to ask him what was wrong.
“You talk to me like I’m a child, sometimes, or like I’m one of your sisters. I’m not your sister, I’m your equal,” he told me.
“I’m sorry,” I said, but my apology was half-hearted.
We broke up a few weeks later on friendly terms, and when we did, my sisters sighed with relief.
“He was too young!” they crowed, a Greek chorus of tangled limbs sitting on the couch watching TV. “It’s for the best.”