I get a lot of praise in reviews and editorials for how I handled the age difference between Hades and Persephone. There’s a reason. I lived it. My husband is five years older than me. We started dating when I was sixteen.
My husband and I work on a lot of levels, even more so now, but even back then we just clicked in ways that are hard to explain. At sixteen, I would have said it was because I was so mature when we met. I had a job that I balanced with my regular high school classes as well as the college courses I took at CSU. My mom went out of town for days at a time so I was completely responsible for getting myself ready, fed, and taken care of. I was responsible. I literally never drank, did drugs, smoked, partied. People called me mature and I believed them.
Then I turned twenty five and looked back. I did balance all of those things but I was also an entitled, bossy, brat who was way too stubborn, had an incredibly narrow perspective in life, believed everything was black and white, and expected way too much out of the people closest to me. I literally cringe when I think of myself back then. I don’t like the person I was much but I can’t regret her because that stubbornness, that inflated self worth and entitlement is actually probably why I didn’t collapse under the self doubt that dating someone older creates.
My husband and I worked. We balanced each other out. I was driven where he was aimless, he had perspective where I didn’t. My every fault seemed to be his strength and vice versa. But our relationship was by no means a walk in the park. The age difference came up. A lot. And not just by well meaning family or friends. But in literally every argument we had. I don’t remember how often I had to point out that no, fill in the blank (issue changed frequently) wasn’t stupid, or silly, or unimportant to me. Maybe I’d be past it one day but I wasn’t there yet and belittling it wouldn’t make that day happen faster it would just make me doubt myself. He was awesome about realizing that, by the way. It still came up a lot but he was at least aware of what he was doing and constantly self-correcting. And there were tons of issues where he had to point out, yeah, this is actually important, it just doesn’t feel like it to you yet. But we were lucky because we took the time to have those fights and come to those conclusions. But it was really hard to suss out which issues we were fighting about because of age and which issues we were fighting about because we actually did have completely opposing values and opinions on them. It took years. But that constantly having to defend yourself and analyze whether or not you’re upset about something because you’re being “immature” can crush you and it did crush many of my friends who dated older guys. Their every thought and feeling was constantly being invalidated by their more experienced counterpart. Their boyfriends weren’t being evil jerks, they weren’t trying to crush my friends’ confidence. They probably still don’t realize they did it. Go have a conversation with someone in a completely different life stage than you. Watch how long it takes for you to do the same thing or feel the same way. I’ll wait.
Back to those well meaning family and friends. That’s a whole other layer of pressure that you don’t want to add to a relationship. I’m not even going to pretend to speculate on the impact constantly having to defend himself against really horrible accusations had on my husband. I couldn’t vent about fights with my boyfriend for fear of getting an “I told you so.” I couldn’t ask advice. I couldn’t talk much about it at all. So guess who I could talk to? My older boyfriend. That put an entirely different level of strain on our relationship and it was isolating. Friends are a huge part of having a successful relationship and being a happy person. I’m part of a mom’s group now and I have a great circle of friends that I can talk to, vent with, and connect with on a level that you just can’t with your boyfriend or husband. It’s important. And I can measure how important having people to talk to other than him was to me as a teenager because after about a year about half of my friends who’d been so worried about me started dating older guys. So I had people to talk to about my boyfriend again.
But most of them weren’t so lucky. I’d only identify one of my friends boyfriends as a predator. The rest were just people. They weren’t sitting there, rubbing their hands and going “mwah-hah, I’m going to corrupt that one.” They didn’t seek out a relationship with a teenager. It just happened.
One of them ended up in an abusive situation, others slowly had their confidence eroded, a few ended up on the opposite side of the spectrum. Their boyfriends might not have made them feel small for being younger, but they spent their entire time in high school stressed to the breaking point about finances and jobs and professional relationships and in some cases kids. And I know there are a lot of high schoolers who have to worry about stuff like that and even more complex, adult issues in high school. But not because of a relationship.
Dating an older guy when you’re a teenager is complicated. People like to reduce it to extremes. Guys interested in teenagers are predators, plain and simple. There’s a reason they’re interested in someone so much less mature. Evil guy, girl victim. And I’m not saying that doesn’t happen. And it is absolutely something girls should be wary of and watch for warning signs. My point is even when it doesn’t. Even when the older guy is a genuinely nice human being who genuinely cares about you, even if every bit of your relationship is one hundred percent real, even if you are the mature and smart and strong and amazing person everyone keeps telling you that you are (by the way, all of my friends were all of those things), age differences make a relationship complicated. And I hope, I really, really hope, that I captured that in Persephone.