Everyone grows so much in their four years of college, but should you date someone who is in a different stage of their growth?
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The other week my friends stumbled upon an Instagram post in which a guy we know had posted a photo with the girl he’s apparently been seeing. The reason this post drew our attention was not because he was with someone, but because he is 22-years-old and she’s 18. Most of us found the coupling a bit uncomfortable.
All of us are 21 or 22-year-old seniors at the University of Florida. So, we began to think back on our time as freshman, saying if a senior had approached us we probably would’ve felt like the baddest bitches at the bar. But, now as seniors, the thought of being with an 18-year-old seems wrong, that they seem like babies to us. But, one of my friends wasn’t quite sure. She asked us what the difference was between an 18 year old dating a 22 year old and a 22 year old dating a 26 year old.
That made me wonder, does age really matter in a relationship?
The first thing to consider when trying to answer the question is what are the ages of those in the relationship? We probably wouldn’t bat an eye at a couple with a four or five year age gap if they were in their ‘30s, ‘40s or ‘50s, so why does an age gap in your ‘20s seem so different? The answer: maturity.
Psychologically speaking, a few years can make a world of a difference. While your cognitive capacity, or your ability to reason logically, matures by the time you're 16, your psychosocial maturity doesn’t peak until years later, usually around 21. This means that between the ages of 16 and 21, one's ability to exercise self-restraint, especially in emotional situations, is much lower than someone older than 21.
Psychologists use the terms “cold” and “hot” cognition to try to explain these differences. Cold cognition refers to mental processes employed in situations that require deliberation free from emotion, such as memory and inhibition. Things that utilize cold cognition include voting, consenting to participation in research and making medical decisions with the help of a professional. Cold cognition performance has been found to significantly increase from adolescence until age 16, and then plateaus. Essentially, once you turn 16 your logical responses will be as sound as they will be when you're 40.
Hot cognition refers to mental processes in emotionally charged situations where deep thought is unlikely or difficult. This includes situations like driving, consuming alcohol and criminal behavior. Sensation seeking is one aspect of hot cognition, which is high in adolescents but decreases significantly in your early to mid-20s. Impulse control, future orientation and resistance to peer pressure also significantly increase as you mature into adulthood.
Relationships are very emotionally driven connections, especially when sex is involved. If one partner is not emotionally mature enough to deal with the ups and downs of a relationship or can be easily swayed into agreeing with what the more psychologically developed person wants, manipulation and exploitation can easily occur.
Another factor when answering the question of whether age matters is sexual experience. The majority of American teens will have sexual intercourse before they turn 18, yet still between 10% and 40% will still remain sexually inexperienced after 18. This number drops drastically to 5% of males of 3% of females by 25.
Lots of lessons are learned in the first few years that a person becomes sexually active, and sexually inexperienced people can face more dangers than those who have had time to figure it all out. Younger, less experienced people are more likely to contract STIs or have an unwanted pregnancy. Over time people also learn what they enjoy sexually and what is personally off-limits.
A lack of sexual experience mixed with younger adults’ lower psychosocial maturity can lead to grooming, or “the slow, methodical and intentional process of manipulating a person to a point where they can be victimized.”
Grooming can happen to anyone but younger people are especially susceptible, likely because of the lack of psychosocial maturity. Groomers start with building trust with their victim, using favors and promises, until they begin to want something back in return, usually sexual favors.
Relationships with age gaps don’t always mean that the older person has malicious intentions. Likely there is no deeper thought given to the relationship when a 22-year-old dates an 18-year-old than there would be if they were pursuing someone their own age. But, this doesn’t mean that the older person should not be aware of these differences between them.
College is a time for tremendous personal growth. Living on your own, making your own choices and having to deal with the outcomes of those choices makes us into the people we will be for the rest of our lives. It’s only four years, but by the end you may not be the same person you were at the beginning. This is the same for anyone you meet in college, yet they may not be at the same stage of growth that you are.
Real romance can bloom between a couple in this age range, and it can be a beautiful thing when it happens. But, just as in any relationship, they must communicate well and make sure that they are taking care of each other and not pressuring the other into doing anything they don’t want to do. Take the relationship at whatever pace you need to, but make sure that both of you are comfortable every step of the way.
Rachel Kutcher is a Staff Writer at Rowdy Magazine. She loves the rain, candles, fancy cocktails, collecting jars and New Girl’s Nick Miller. Her passions include destigmatizing sex, empowering women and exploring cultures through food. You can reach her at email@example.com for more info.