Dating an older man stripped Tina Rodia of much of her youth and self-esteem.
While adults should be free to be in a relationship with whomever they choose, including younger or older partners, I dare to argue that teenage girls should never date older men. However, the hardest people to convince would be the girls themselves.
I was one of those girls. But I was also most unlike what we assume that girl to be. I wasn’t troubled, promiscuous, or from an unhappy home. At 16 years old, the allure of a 24-year-old man felt exciting but also responsible. We entered into a proper relationship, with resigned and hesitant consent from my parents, and having an older boyfriend felt truly adult. In painful hindsight, this relationship led me 2,000 miles from home, and into depression and alienation from friends and family. All of this to cater to an emotionally immature, headstrong, confused young man.
I was a good kid who made poor choices—at the time they were exciting and forward-thinking choices. In Lynn Phillips’ 1999 Planned Parenthood study Recasting Consent: Agency and Victimization in Adult-Teen Relationships, she highlights the admissions by women in their 30s who came to regret the choices they made as teens. Women who once defended their choices as responsible and as a mark of their own superior maturity cited regret, depression, and a sense of manipulation that was not clear to them at the time.
That is at the center of what is wrong with these relationships. An older man, while comfortable in possible emotional proximity of their ages, is the most motivating factor of the relationship by simply being older. Despite her own understanding of her emotional maturity, a young woman will always be aware that she is with an older man, and that allows her the benefit of a sense of maturity, but one that exists only in the context of her relationship. It can be argued that men don’t know the effect they have on being with a younger woman. In my case, my boyfriend certainly had no idea about me, who I was, and how much he molded my personality.
For women like me, the relationship was the factor that defined a superior sense of maturity. “I’m with an older man, that makes me so much more mature than my peers.” Being with an older man was my only stake in self-esteem, which plummeted as I grew up. Little did I know that my relationship was the reason it plummeted.
When I moved away from home with my boyfriend, I went to college, fell into a deep depression, made no friends, and was homesick for my family. While I did well in school—pursuing a women’s studies degree—I was completely unaware that, even while steeped in feminist theory, the choices I made were his alone. I was without friends and family in a place I had no connection to, and existed just to be a companion to a lost and unhappy man.
By the time I was 22, I had only known being the girlfriend to an older man, and moved another 1,000 miles to be with another older man, 13 years my senior. It took years before I came to shed that role and undo that relationship. I wonder who I would have been had I not started with an older man at 16?
That is a huge chunk of a life to wish away. I made my headstrong decision at 16, and my cloudy, needy decision at 22, to be with those men, and the sense of regret is often overwhelming. I don’t blame my parents for letting me have an older boyfriend and for letting me leave home with him. Because they were progressive parents, and I was a good kid, they made the painful decision to let me do what my boyfriend wanted me to do. At the time I would have been furious had they tried to stop me. Perhaps they knew I would have left anyway.
What they couldn’t have known was that for as mature and adventurous as I thought I was, no amount of growth or maturity can escape the eclipsing influence of an older man. Girls who grow up in this kind of relationship may never know who they might have been had they been left alone, or with a peer. The missed potential of all that I could have been weighs heavily against the only thing that I was: The girlfriend of an older man.
As I consider becoming a parent now, I know that I will not be a permissive parent. I will be the kind of parent that I would have rebelled against. This may be the one thing we should not let teenage girls learn the hard way.
Tina Rodia is a freelance writer and small business owner in San Francisco. She grew up in Connecticut, and has a B.A. in creative writing and women’s studies.