Everything I Need To Know: Secret Romance

AdviceDear Smart Bitches,

I’m hoping to get some “Everything I need to Know…” Advice. First, we should probably be looking to the contemporaries on this one. I am a 19 year old female, and a college student. I am very aware of my youth and ignorance which I’m sure is skewing my views on this issue, so I need both an outside perspective as well as one of a more mature audience. I have fallen for a 31 year old man. (Yes, big surprise! No one saw that coming! My situation is totally unique!) But the fact remains I still don’t know what to do.

We get along so wonderfully – right from the moment we met, we both felt that special connection. But I am afraid to let myself love him and imagine a future with him. I doubt our ability to have a future together. I have kept his age and details hidden from many of my family and friends, and he is most likely doing the same. We have briefly spoken on the subject, but that was when we first met, so I didn’t have a sense of where things would go or have a true emotional investment in the conversation. Now I’m anxious to bring it up again because we are in such a fragile stage of our relationship – we have so many powerful feelings for each other, but in a practical sense nothing has really changed. Soon, if we want to continue to be together, sacrifices must happen (on both parts), plans must be made. I wouldn’t want to let things just float along for years. I want emotional security and the confidence to truly love the man I am with. And right now, I’m not getting that. What to do?

Dazed and Confused

Dear Dazed:

Many romances, regardless of setting or subgenre, have relied on the “We Must Not Tell!” trope to establish tension. Sometimes there are perfectly good reasons for Not Telling. Sometimes, the reasons are about as substantial as styrofoam packing peanuts.

But the romance novel cannot have a happy ending unless, ultimately, Folks Find Out. “We Must Not Tell” has to evolve to at the very least “People Important to Us Know About Our Lurrrrrve™” in order for there to be a believable happy ending – even if the end result is that the protagonists Don’t Give a Shit What People Say despite being convinced that other people’s opinions would End Their Joy.

Why? A relationship that must be kept under wraps is scarcely a relationship at all. If you can’t be openly together, then there’s a big problem. I’m not saying you have to listen to what anyone else has to say about your happiness, but you can’t keep someone who is important in your life hidden and separate, either. So I would say, first, ask yourself WHY you think you don’t have a future. Why do you doubt your ability to have a future with him?

It raises both my eyebrows that you haven’t told your family, you are pretty sure he hasn’t told anyone about you, and you’ve only spoken briefly about the subject of our relationship. Given that you state you have “powerful feelings” but haven’t yet had a conversation about those feelings, I’m guessing that you’re in a very early stage of this relationship.

But then you ask for emotional security and confidence, and sacrifices and plans need to be made for you to be together. Whu? You can’t have your secret cake and eat it in public, Dazed. You state you’re not getting what you need from this relationship, but at the same time, you haven’t talked about the relationship itself except in the most general of terms. You don’t share any details about the time you spend together or what you do together, but it does seem like you spend a lot of time thinking about the status of this relationship.

Get out of your own head, and get into reality. Speak up. If you want to be with this person, say so. If he can’t man up and openly be with you, then he’s not man enough for you at any age. The same goes for you: you have to stand up for what you want, and not give a crap what anyone thinks. But most of all, you have to stop ruminating and start doing. If you really like this person – and I’m operating on shoestring details here – then say so, and see what happens next. I’m not sure if you need to worry about the future. Speak up and see what happens now.


General Bitching...

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  1. 1
    darlynne says:

    My immediate impression was (a) he’s married, (b) he’s her professor or (c) see (a) and (b). New, evenly-footed relationships don’t start with sacrifice, planning and fear, so clearly something else is going on here. There’s too much of a secretive feel to Dazed’s words and I wouldn’t be comfortable as someone way beyond 30 to suggest they try to work anything out.

  2. 2
    Debra Kayn says:

    I don’t understand the secrecy. Actually, I don’t understand the need to make sacrifices. It sounds more like they are coworkers, or in a situation where there is a rule about becoming romantically involved with another person.

    With that being said…I was you twenty years ago. I was 19 and met a man who was 30. Jumped in with both feet and never looked back. We’ve been married 20 years. Never once did I hide the fact of our age difference or give it a second thought.

  3. 3
    Laura (in PA) says:

    Lol – my thoughts were exactly the same as darlynne. Can’t figure out any other reason it would be such an issue.

  4. 4
    senetra says:

    What darlynne said, and to add to that,

    d: she’s the nanny/babysitter.

  5. 5
    Chris says:

    If they are both adults then I don’t see why the age difference is a big whoop-a-dee-do. Like the other commenters, I suspect that there is more to the story.

  6. 6
    Karla says:

    What darlynne said, fourthed. If there’s that much fear this early on, there must be some type of epic, nasty fallout potential. Not good.

  7. 7
    MB (Leah) says:

    This feels like something else is going on besides an age difference. A 31 year old with a 19 year old may not be so common, but it’s not out of the ballpark either. And I certainly don’t think it’s something that needs to be hidden in any way.

    What are those sacrifices? This is what makes me think like Darlynne… dude is married, or there’s some other reason that this might be an illicit situation outside of age difference.

    For the record, when I was 20, I had a relationship with a 42 year old. It was one of the best experiences of my life. We didn’t give a hoot what people thought and there was never a question about hiding it; we were right out in the open.

  8. 8

    I was 19 and my husband 36 when we started dating. We’ve been married 16 years.

    I don’t get the whole secrecy thing, though. Except for the random moments when I’ve never heard of some fabulous 70’s band or somebody calls him my dad (which makes me die laughing), our ages aren’t something we even really think about. It simply…is.

    Honestly, in my opinion, there’s something going on here beyond the age difference.

  9. 9
    AgTigress says:

    Another vote here for There Must Be Something Else Going On.  If the girl were 19 and the bloke 61, I could see them, and everyone else, being pretty worried by the age-difference.  But 19 and 31?  Nah, not a problem.  There are countless committed happy couples who are 10-15 years apart in age.  It is only when there is a generational difference, with one partner easily old enough to be the other’s parent or grandparent, that the connection is unwise. 
    If the man is married, she knows what to do, which is KEEP AWAY. 
    Likewise if he is a faculty member and she is in statu pupillari:  if they pursue the relationship now, he is the one whose career is at risk.  At 19, she can afford to wait, anyway.  Complete her education, get a job, and then if the yummy professor is still unattached, she can pick up the threads again.  23 and 35 sounds much better than 19 and 31.

  10. 10

    I cringe at the secrecy and lack of details, not the age difference.  In my next book, the heroine is ten years younger than the hero (26-36).  But she’s also a strong, independent woman. 

    There are lots of successful relationships in which one partner is older.  Unfortunately, there are also lots of men who would fool around with a 19-year-old girl for all the wrong reasons.  Sounds like a sweet escape.

  11. 11
    Melissa S. says:

    Hey! I was actually in the same boat when I was 19. That was only a couple of years ago since I’m 22 now. The guy I dated was 28 and there was that secrecy element on my part because I had a feeling it wouldn’t go over well with my family. We broke up and that’s mostly because our age difference led him to treat me with less respect then I thought I deserve and I was kind of tired of the secret that he had become in my life.

    You have to ask yourself how much of a priority is he in your life. Your a Freshman/ Sophmore in college and therefore starting a totally different chapter in your life. There’s a lot of confusing and lack of self awareness (At least there was for me!). If he’s someone you believe is right for you then there shouldn’t be that element of secrecy.

  12. 12
    joykenn says:

    OK, OK, it is officially unanimous.  We ALL think there is Something Else Going On.  I read the questions and immediately said, married dude.  What sacrifices are needed?  And if they have such deep feelings for each other, why can’t they talk about their relationship!  This is WRONG WRONG WRONG.  The differences in age shouldn’t matter so much if there weren’t more to it than just age.  (By the way, teacher/student relationships are yucky!  The difference in power is too great for it not to be.  Even when I was 19, I knew that professors hitting on students or students hitting on professors was really sleazy.  It’s never as “secret” as they both believe and most people around them lose some respect for them when they become aware of the relationship. 

    If you REALLY want advice, tell us why this is the “romance-that-cannot-be-revealed”.

  13. 13
    Alpha Lyra says:

    I want to know what the “sacrifices” are going to be. Do they involve the 19-year-old not finishing college? Because that would be a huge red flag for me.

  14. 14

    I’ve come back to add something my conscience demands, just in case there is no hidden motive and it’s the question of age difference.

    My father & stepmother had a large age difference, as do my husband and I. She and I both hit a place where it’s damn hard. Right around 34-35, I guess.

    What makes it hard when you’re 20 and you marry a man who’s almost 40 is that 15 years down the road, he’s still a middle-agish guy who’s been on an even keel for a while. You, on the other hand, have grown from being a young woman into a nearing middle-age wife and mother of x number of kids. You change and grow a LOT more than he does and both of you will struggle with that at times.

    He’s still the same guy I married. I am a radically different woman than the girl he married. Does that make sense?

    Anyway, my cautionary tale. That said, we’re still going along—-mostly happily—-sixteen years later.

  15. 15
    Heather says:

    OK, I’m going to assume for her sake that he’s unattached, you’re unattached, he’s not your professor, and that this reluctance is from others saying that he would be too old for you, or that she would be too young from him.

    Why does this relationship need to be all or nothing?  Why do you think the relationship can go nowhere if there’s no “future”?  Yes, in romance novels True Love always ends in a HEA, but sometimes HEA is a great romantic relationship that lasts for a couple years, and then changes into a friendship, or a fond memory.

    I, too, had a relationship in college with a much older guy.  And you know what?  It *didn’t* last.  But it was a great couple of years where I grew as a person, lost some of my naivete and gained some experience, and I have no regrets and many fond memories.  Yes, there are those who have romantic HEAs with much older men they meet in the college years (as noted above).  But many, many times those relationships don’t work out.

    And that’s OK. 

    There’s a reason why the phrase ” ‘tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” is so famous.  It’s true.

    Caveats:  If he’s married or engaged, dump him.  If he’s a professor, that ups the squick factor and should be a big warning factor (because he’s probably done this before).

  16. 16
    AgTigress says:

    By the way, teacher/student relationships are yucky!  The difference in power is too great for it not to be.

    Exactly, but surely it is also against the rules in American universities, as it is here?  The teacher is in a quasi-parental role to his students.

  17. 17
    Mireya says:

    Unless this relationship started when she was a minor, I have some issues with the big “to do” about the age difference.  I agree that there is more than meets the eye in this picture.  It’s incomplete.

  18. 18
    Elizabeth Wadsworth says:

    Ditto everything that’s already been said here.  Either the guy is married, or there’s some other power imbalance we’re not hearing about.

  19. 19

    Tigress, I found an article in Slate from 2004 which said that “many campuses are moving to prohibit all romance between any professor and any student” and just this year there was an editorial piece in the student newspaper of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in which the author wrote:

    On the UTC campus, recent stories of married professors dating their students have been told involving at least two different professors-student pairs.

    Yet, UTC is not a hub for these relationships by any means. In universities across the nation, students charm their professors or vice versa and the dating games begin.

    These pairings are legal and allowed under university policy but are they ethical?

    However, I’m not sure how different the situation is in the UK, because I also found this in a 2008 article from the Times Higher Educational Supplement:

    Like their US counterparts, which have historically been stricter on campus relationships, British universities are starting to crack down on such liaisons. Policies are being drafted to deal with relationships and the inevitable conflicts of interest that can follow – as one might put it, “an A for a lay”. Questions of morality and responsibility, sexuality and pedagogy are being raised.

    I’d always assumed that relationships between students and lecturers were no longer permitted, but obviously I was wrong.

  20. 20
    Tina C. says:

    or there’s some other power imbalance we’re not hearing about.

    Could be boss/employee.  On my first job, one of my co-workers was 19 and she was dating the 30-something (but single) assistant manager.  Again, it wasn’t nearly as secret as they thought it was, but they did try to keep it quiet because they both could have lost their jobs.

  21. 21
    kimd says:

    Dazed, hate to tell you but you are young, immature, and unwise to the world…not to be harsh because we’ve all been there.
    Assuming he doesn’t have the baggage, I’m guessing you like the secrecy for some titillating factor, which works when you’re role playing, but in a relationship you deserve to be treated the way you want. If you want to be a secret love bunny, you will be. If you want to be partners in a relationship, you can be. Give him what he needs and ask for what you want.
    When my girlfriends break up with boyfriends and are having a crying fit, I always tell them this: don’t mourn what could have been. Those are the creations/fantasies of your mind and not reality or clairvoyance.
    I’m not saying break up, but don’t pick out a china pattern. Take the relationship day by day. Share your lives together and try to give each other some happiness because tomorrow may be different.
    I agree with age difference as you age from previous comments…but don’t worry about that. TALK TO HIM.

  22. 22
    KristiJ says:

    Shannon Stacey hit the nail on the head, Dazed. Whatever else is going on, there’s that simple fact that you are both in different places in your lives. 10-15 years from now you are not going to be the same person you are now, because you will grow and mature; he’s going to be pretty much who he is, since he’s already been through this phase in his life. It could be good, it could be bad – but there’s absolutely no way to know that now. What is great for you (relationship-wise) at 19 may not be so great for you when you’re 34. Just sharing my own experience. Good luck!

  23. 23

    Three thoughts:

    While I can absolutely see why many of us are leaping toward the “married professor” scenario, I can’t help thinking that Dazed (for all her admitted youth and confusion) sounds just a little too self-aware to have fallen into that particular trap—or if she has, that she’s at least perceptive enough to realize that her situation is inherently unstable.  At any rate, I’m willing to entertain the notion that whatever the true circumstances may be, there may not be an Inappropriate Power Dynamic in play.

    It does, however, sound as if one of the issues is that Dazed isn’t sure whether or to what degree he’s prepared to invest in the relationship for the long haul.  The only way to address that one is, as kimd notes, to talk it out directly.

    Meanwhile, to respond to Dazed’s stated question directly, what’s out there in the published landscape in the way of well-written May-December romance?  As a rank newcomer, I’m not prepared to answer that question; the only example I can think of offhand is straight fantasy (Gil Patterson & the wizard Ingold Inglorion in Barbara Hambly’s first fantasy series, beginning with The Time of the Dark), and that’s almost certainly of limited applicability to the present case….

  24. 24
    Dazed and Confuzed says:

    This is Dazed here, and I really want to clear this swirling mass of confusion that is going on. If I explained the situation poorly, my bad. But I told all the facts. There is no Creepy Little Secret. He isn’t my boss/prof./married lover. We are simply two normal people who met at a social function and hit it off. We also happen to be nearly 13 years apart. Frankly, I would be more concerned if he wasn’t questioning things a little. He is thinking the same thing I am – Can we make this work? That’s the same issue every relationship faces, ours is just more focused on the matter of age. He doesn’t treat me like a lesser person, I wouldn’t be with him if he did. We did discuss things, we decided to just take it one day at a time, and not let others dictate how we feel. But you know what? That’s tough. I told my family how old he was and they freaked. Oh well. I met all of his best friends (who are all older, professional couples), and they all discreetly pulled him aside and said, “WTF?”. People get icked out by our difference in age for the same reasons all of you guys are: partly social stigma, partly the reality that there are issues that come with the package of this type of situation: in 10 years time, we are going to be new, changed people. But everyone does that, regardless of age (to a certain extent). The point is that it is a bit of a struggle for us right now, but I guess we’ll weather the storm or go our separate ways. I’m really hoping we weather it out.

  25. 25
    Dazed and Confuzed says:

    Oh, and John C., you are right on. When I wrote the original question to SB Sarah, I was concerned he might be playing me for the Young Sweet Thing, just as all of you suspeted, too. But truly, I am now confident that is not the case. This is a work in progress, and we’‘ll keep communicating about our prospective insecurities.

  26. 26
    AgTigress says:

    Glad to have the clarification, Dazed.  Most of us leapt to the conclusions we did, I think, because we could not credit that the 12/13 year age difference was enough to cause so much anxiety in itself.  It is easily within a normal range for a couple.

  27. 27

    Now that I think about it, one other literary suggestion, again out of the fantasy ranks: Patricia Wrede’s alternate-Regency duet consisting of Mairelon the Magician and The Magician’s Ward.  I’m not sure of the specific age difference between Kim and Richard-aka-Mairelon, and most of the more relevant relationship matters crop up in the second book, but they’re quick and engaging reads.

  28. 28
    Henofthewoods says:

    So this is the “secret that isn’t nearly all that bad once it’s revealed” type of secret? I would be nervous is he habitually dated 19 year-olds, but from his friend’s reactions it sounds like he doesn’t. Your family will probably eventually calm down.

  29. 29
    Tina C. says:

    I told my family how old he was and they freaked.

    I was concerned he might be playing me for the Young Sweet Thing, just as all of you suspeted, too.

    It may be that your family is concerned about the same thing, ie, is that man taking advantage of our little girl???  I know that if my daughter (or son, for that matter) had dated someone in their 30s at the age of 19, it probably would have been my first thought.  Power imbalance, different places in life, etc etc.  You might want to reassure them, if you haven’t already, that it isn’t like that, he treats you as an equal and respects your opinion, etc.  Remind them that you are independent and well aware of who you are and what you want and you wouldn’t tolerate anyone that treated you with less than your due.  That said, it will still probably just take time for them to come around because they will have to see that for themselves.

    As for his friends, they are probably going to give him a hard time for a while.  It won’t necessarily be an intervention-level of hard time, but he’s in for teasing.  Again, if this lasts for a while, that will fade out.  My husband and I have a friend (36 yrs old) that began dating someone that was 14 years younger than him after his divorce and everyone teased him some about it.  They have since gotten married and are expecting their first child and no one is even thinking of their age difference anymore.

    This is a work in progress, and we’‘ll keep communicating about our prospective insecurities.

    That pretty much describes every stage of every relationship.  They are all works in progress and without communication, all work pretty much comes to a grinding halt.  Talking is always better (and more effective) than assuming.

    If he makes you happy and vice versa, then go with it and see where it takes you.

  30. 30
    Divorcee says:

    “We get along so wonderfully – right from the moment we met, we both felt that special connection.”

    This is the part of the story that is rubbing me the wrong way. I’m recently divorced (after 14 years of marriage)…and my relationship with my ex started *exactly* like this. Instant attraction, we had so much in common, oh-my-God-this-is-so-special, blah blah blah. But years into the marriage I realized ‘love at first sight’ is not all what it is cracked up to be. Most of the time (and I know there will be some on here who will pooh-pooh my negativity) this is lust and not love.

    Needless to say, we dated for a very short time, hopped into marriage, had kids, and as the years went by I realized he’d lied to me from the very beginning about who he was and what he wanted out of life. He did and said whatever was necessary to keep me there with him…and he was very good at living that lie, for awhile.

    I’m worried for you because I wasn’t 19 when this happened to me, I was 25. Older, wiser, been around the block a few times. But I am quite suspicious of a man his age hob-nobbing with a 19-year-old.

    So, i would suggest you look at these things:

    1) has he ever been married before? if so, how did that end? have you ever met anyone who knew the ex and can give you another side to the story?
    2) If he hasn’t been married before, why not? Was he ever in any long-term relationships? engaged? Why is a 31-year-old man still single? (sure, I know they are out there, but it is something to question…if he’s NEVER been in a long-term, committed relationship before, I’d worry.)
    3) Does he have good relationships with his family and friends? If there is some mysterious past or you can’t meet any of his close family, just be cautious. You can learn a lot about meeting someone’s family.
    4) Does he have a good job? Has he been steadily employed? Does he like to ‘party’ a lot? A man of 31 should have his feet firmly set on a career path. If he is still ‘finding’ himself or still lives a ‘frat boy’ lifestyle, that is something to worry about.

    Sorry for all the details and the questions. But I wish someone had shared these things with me and stressed how important they were YEARS ago. Instant love is very very rare. Most of the time, you are just looking at a big walking hormone if the tell you they are ‘in love’ or ‘think you are special’ after only a few dates or even a few months. A real relationship takes time to build, so don’t rush it. Also, don’t isolate yourself from friends and family and don’t make all of your plans around him and his schedule.

    Okay, I think I’ve said enough. Good luck!

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