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To the older man I dated in my 20s, I’m sorry for torturing you

Actors in films make older men/younger women relationships look so easy. Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard in An Education. Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in Pretty Woman. Bogie and Bacall, in their films and real life (the two were married until his death in 1957). All of these couples are intellectual and emotional equals. They effortlessly trade quips and banter and have off-the-charts sexual chemistry.

As someone who was attracted to older men in my early 20s, allow me to reveal a side to these relationships not often discussed: As long as you’re young enough to not be thinking about children yet (because, if you are, I would advise dating someone who shares your family goals), a relationship with an older man can be a win for you — but a total loss for him.

Until about age 22, I didn’t have a lot of life experiences. I was raised by extremely loving, but fearful parents, who put a premium on safety above all else. This instilled in me a burning urgency to experience everything at as rapid a pace as possible. I felt I had a lot of catching up to do. When I met and fell in love with *John, who was 12 years my senior, I now had the perfect excuse to break out of my shell and start living an “adult” life.

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Here was a handsome man who had his own swanky apartment (and didn’t live with roommates he found on Craigslist), a good job that didn’t call for him to go on Starbucks runs for bosses and a collection of smart, sensible brown and black shoes that hadn’t been endorsed by a single sports figure. On our first date, we went to see a movie and then swung by Gristedes to pick up yellow curry, basmati rice and chicken so we could whip up dinner together at his place. Contrast this with the date I had two weeks prior with a 23-year-old guy who made me pay for my Pabst Blue Ribbon (you guys, they were like $2.05 a can back then) and moaned for an hour about how no one at his record label job appreciated him, and you might understand why John was like an alien from planet Holy Crap, This Is What Adulthood Can Look Like.

I don’t know what in the hell John thought he was going to get from our relationship. I was young, yes. Skinny, sure. My breasts have never been massive, but may have been bouncier, I guess? But John wasn’t old. He was in his 30s and women in their 30s are as intoxicating as a Jo Malone musk. Had he been 15 years older, I’d say, oh, he was just a sugar daddy. But that wasn’t the case. I, in that delightfully ignorant way many of us carried ourselves at 22, assumed John and I were embarking on a partnership of equals.

To prove how equal I was, I moved out of my family’s home within three months of meeting him, without so much as a plan, and moved into an apartment I had no business renting because God knows I couldn’t afford it. I bought classic cherry-wood furniture using a credit card that sent me bills that would remain unopened on my kitchen counter. I started drinking Pimm’s and soda. These swift changes were to serve as proof in a court of law that I was a very grown-up person indeed.

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Of course, there was no way to cover up certain cracks in my facade. After our second year together, I developed a sudden desire to go out — all of the time. But I resented telling him which restaurant or bar I was clocking hours in, and checking in with him reminded me of being under my parents’ roof (and thumb). So, instead, I rebelled against him, treating him like the very opposite of my equal, and stayed out all night with friends. I then turned into a diva when he so much as questioned my whereabouts. How dare he? We’re equals!

After three years of dating, when he spent the night at my family’s house during the holidays, I still insisted that he sleep in a different bedroom — because my parents couldn’t know we were having sex. He was lovely enough to go along with it without protesting, but here was a 37-year-old man being forced to sleep in a twin bed beside a painting of all of the characters from Disney’s Fantasia. John never called me out on it, but my truth was the elephant in the room: I cared about him deeply, but I was using him to help me live out an imaginary concept of adulthood that I had — one where I could remain the “good” daughter, take a nice apartment and fancy dinners out without earning them and be “free.”

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After almost four years of dating, as we were undergoing the painfully long and drawn-out process of breaking up, another brick of realization hit me in the face. John got to enjoy a few perks from dating a 22-year-old. I was the woman he didn’t have to take seriously because I didn’t yet take myself seriously. I was the woman who wouldn’t ask for babies or even marriage. I was the woman who didn’t know how to pay all of my bills in one month without going into debt — but as long as I was OK with keeping the important parts of our lives separated, he could view my behavior from a distance and call me “quirky” and a “free spirit.”

Me turning 26 drove home the reality that “quirky free spirits” who rely on their partner to be the adult do not make for good roommates or life partners. Our relationship dissolved because it had to, because he needed to move on and because I needed to feel real fear, the kind you experience when you find a cockroach under your bed at 3 a.m. and there’s no one to call. The kind that you feel when you apply to a school you’ve always dreamt of attending and have to navigate the student loan process knowing there is no one there to foot your bill if you miss a payment.

I dated a wonderful older man who helped me grow up by refusing to be with me. And I’m forever grateful to him for that.

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