Age Gaps Can Expose a Problematic Dynamic


On Friday, Nov. 12, Taylor Swift released “Red (Taylor’s Version),” a re-release of her 2012 album “Red.” Much of the album covers Swift’s then-recent breakup, allegedly with actor Jake Gyllenhaal. Swift and Gyllenhaal dated briefly in 2010. At the time, she was 20, turning 21 in December 2010. He was 29, turning 30 that same month.

Age gaps in romantic relationships have always been a controversial topic. When both partners are legal, consenting adults, we hesitate to call these relationships outright wrong. There is no moral law expressly prohibiting these people from dating. Yet something feels weird when we consider a young college-age woman in a relationship with a man on the cusp of 30. That is not a feeling to ignore: relationships like this often stem from a problematic origin.

There’s a tendency to believe that once someone is of legal age, they suddenly transform into an adult and it becomes okay for any other adult to start a relationship with them. The truth is that maturity doesn’t develop overnight. You are no more capable of being in an adult relationship on your 18th birthday than you were the night before. 

When considering age gaps, it is important to remember that the human brain does not fully develop until age 25. An 18-year-old is undoubtedly more of an adult than a 15-year-old, but their prefrontal cortex will not fully develop until they are about 25. The prefrontal cortex processes impulses, judgments and emotions, which play major roles in romantic relationships.

Young adults like us — between the ages of 18 and 25 — are going through formative years in our lives. We are still figuring out who we are. As we grow older, we gain confidence and knowledge about ourselves — and about what we’d like to see in a romantic partner. Dating someone significantly younger is effectively choosing a partner without that sense of self-assurance. A younger partner is less likely to call out poor behavior. 

From Taylor Swift’s lyrics, we can see examples of problematic behavior that a young, wide-eyed partner might ignore. She paints a picture of an on-again, off-again boyfriend who picks fights, misses important events and calls his ex after breaking her heart. A partner of the same age would be more experienced and more capable of making sound judgment calls about this behavior. 

Swift and Gyllenhaal are, of course, not the only example of celebrity relationships with significant age gaps. For example, Leonardo DiCaprio, who is 47, has never dated a woman over the age of 25. When you consider the prefrontal cortex, this means that DiCaprio has never dated a woman with a fully developed adult brain.

It is noteworthy that most famous couples with a sizable age gap consist of an older man and a younger woman. While love certainly is a factor in these relationships, we cannot overlook the paparazzi optics at play. 

There’s a reason that Taylor Swift describes herself as “a never-needy, ever-lovely jewel whose shine reflects on you.” For male celebrities strolling the red carpet, a young, thin, attractive female companion is desirable. The unfortunate truth is that women the same age as these men are not considered attractive enough to fit that desirable mold due to normalized, sexist ideals.

The ideal of the young, thin, attractive woman is the origin of the phrase “arm candy,” a term that objectifies women as an accessory on a man’s arm. This is easy to see in action: Google Jake Gyllenhaal’s current girlfriend, Jeanne Cadieu, and you’ll find many photos of the couple on the red carpet. Gyllenhaal is now 40; Cadieu is 25.

Misogyny plays a major role in many of these relationships. However, the norm of “older man, younger woman” should not diminish the issues in relationships where the reverse is true, or where both partners are the same gender. Someone comfortably settled into their adult life has no business dating a partner still forging a path to adulthood. 

While “Red (Taylor’s Version)” has been a worldwide hit, college students have a unique perspective on the re-recorded album. We are now roughly the same age Taylor Swift was when she wrote these songs for the first time. Perhaps this is why Swift and Gyllenhaal’s age gap stands out to us now: can we see ourselves dating someone nearly in their 30s?