Parents and other adults tend to prefer that young people date within their own age group. It’s usual for high school students to be encouraged to date within their own class, where there is little age difference between boy and girl. Even in college many social events are held on the assumption that coeds will attend with boys from their own class.
OLDER THAN HIS GIRL
When you get down to cases, you find that more often than not the boy is a little older than the girl he takes out. There are several very good reasons for this trend. First is the fact that girls tend to mature before boys of their own age and are ready for dates a couple of years earlier. Secondly, because of the difference in the rate of their development, a girl often has more in common with a slightly older boy than with a lad of her own age. Thirdly, a boy often feels more secure with a younger girl than with one who is superior in status and experience. Then again, some parents prefer their daughters to date somewhat older boys who are supposed to be more mature and responsible.
This early difference in dating age between boys and girls continues throughout life generally. The tendency is for girls to date boys a couple of years older than they, and for women to marry men who are their elders by a year or two or more. This doesn’t mean that a man ought to be older; it just means that he usually is.
The usual difference in age between a girl and the fellow she dates is one to two years. Dating someone fairly close to your own age has several advantages. You’re both at about the same stage of life and generally interested in the same things. You both know the same people and move in a social group with other people of your own age. Also important, although not as generally recognized, is that public opinion tends to favor your dating someone of approximately your own age. Let a girl date a much older fellow and her parents protest, her friends wonder, her neighbors gossip. If she dates a fellow of about her own age, friends and family usually approve.
Just how much difference in age is acceptable is hard to determine definitely, because individual cases differ so much. A girl of fourteen or sixteen may be quite mature for her age and have more in common with a senior boy than with someone in her own grade. A boy may be relatively inexperienced socially and therefore feel more comfortable with a girl two or three years younger than himself. But usually, one, two, or three years difference in age is accepted. When greater differences occur, further questions are relevant.
The Much Older Fellow
Often very young girls, who are just beginning to think about dates, yearn to go out with “older men.” Looking around, they see most of the boys in their own grade absorbed in baseball, model planes, and other “kid stuff.” Then they see seventeen- and eighteen-year-old seniors driving cars, taking girls out gallantly, providing all the excitement they yearn for. They themselves are shy and self-conscious in social situations, but the senior boy is poised, sure of himself. He’s also in the midst of a social swing, while they’re on the lonely fringes. So it’s understandable that many a younger girl longs for a chance to date with a poised, popular, older boy.
The same thing occurs at the college level; freshman girls pine for the attentions of the sophisticated upperclassmen. The senior man strides across the campus apparently self-assured; he belongs to the charmed inner circle of those who rate. Pity the pool self-conscious freshman lad who has to compete with this older man-about-campus in getting dates! Sometimes, though rarely, a much younger girl does get that coveted date with an older boy. When it does happen, there are hazards. The older boy who “robs’ the cradle” may not be as popular among his own age group as he appears to be. He may really feel so insecure that he has to date a considerably younger girl to cover his uneasiness. Sometimes he asks a younger girl out because she appears to be more easily exploited.
Hook, Line, and Sinker
There is some evidence to support the fear that when an older male seeks the company of a young girl, it’s just because she’s innocent and easily exploited. Girls of his own age and social experience have, by this time, learned to protect themselves from unwelcome advances. They have become skillful in avoiding potentially hazardous situations and in warding off invitations that they don’t wish to accept.
The young, unaware girl lacks these techniques which come with social experience, and so appears to be “easy” to the older, exploitive male. She has not been around enough yet to know what is and what is not expected of her. She fears that she will get a reputation as a “prude” or “chicken” if she refuses to go along with her date’s suggestions. She doesn’t want to offend this superior male—so much older, smoother, and supposedly wiser. She can’t differentiate sincerity from “a line,” and fails to perceive or stop the sequence of events that leads into situations she can’t handle.
“Sweet talk” flatters the young girl. She really believes that he has never seen eyes like hers, nor smelled hair so sweet. She wants so much to be loved that she accepts at face value his declaration of love at first sight. She delights in his excessive attentions, not realizing that they’re the age-old ways in which a man paves the way for intimacies. But then, when he begins to be urgent in his demands, she is offended, bewildered, and frightened. This happens, of course, because she has not recognized the step-by-step process and so is unprepared for the end result.
A fellow is often baffled by such behavior in a girl. He asks quite bluntly, “Why is it that a nice girl will lead you on and then not be willing to go through with it?” What he fails to see is that what is obvious to him as a male is not at all clear to a young, inexperienced girl. He knows the meaning of a sex-toned situation. He is aware of sexual excitation from its beginning. But the young female has no such clear-cut sensations. She reacts to the earlier stages of love play with relaxation and enjoyment at being cuddled. It’s not until the man becomes “fresh” that she’s aware of what is happening.
Not all older fellows date young girls with the purpose of seduction. Sometimes an older boy may have been preoccupied with work or studies while others of his age were dating. When he does start going out with girls he finds that he’s more comfortable with younger girls who are at his own level of social poise. Also many an older fellow is genuinely interested in and charmed by a young girl; he would be shocked to learn that adults are assuming that he wants only to exploit her.
Lester is a case in point. He was a studious lad all through high school, entering into few activities outside his studies and basketball. In college he made the basketball team and got straight A’s in his courses. He loved to read and devoted a lot of time to that. From college he went on to a seminary where his studies and student preaching took up all his time. By the time he was ordained he was twenty-six and ready to get married. But now he found that the young women his own age were either married or so socially aggressive that they frightened him. As a result he started going out with a junior in college who shared his intellectual interests and encouraged him into the social life he had missed. The relationship was hardly exploitive—but mutually helpful—and ended, upon the girl’s graduation, in a happy marriage.
It’s clear, then, that age is only one factor. While there are some boys and men who date much younger girls for the advantage it gives them in “the battle of the sexes,” this is not always the case by any means. One has to know the persons involved to predict the dangers and rewards that their relationship may reap.
It All Depends . . .
A point frequently discussed in high school is whether it’s advisable for a high school girl to date a college man. In general, high school boys tend to oppose the practice vigorously as unfair and unwise. The girls are not quite so positive. They argue that dating a college boy gives a girl real prestige among other girls. It introduces her to college functions and to other college students of both sexes. It makes her feel grown-up, and not infrequently leads to her getting pinned and engaged much sooner than if she had restricted her dates to high school boys.
The other side of the argument recognizes that a girl who dates college boys may be cutting off her chances to date the boys in her own school. She may miss out on the normal social life of the school. She may not find a real sense of belonging with the college set, in whose interests and conversation she cannot participate fully. And she may also find that the college man who takes out a high school girl expects to be rewarded by favors that the college girls do not generally permit.
In the last analysis, what really must be considered are the personalities of the college boy and the high school girl involved. If they have a great deal in common and find delight in sharing a multitude of similar interests; if he enjoys the hospitality of her home, while she thrills to occasional campus affairs—they may both feel that these advantages outweigh those of being cut off from their own classmates.
Whether a girl dates a college boy or not, she should be aware of the gains and losses incurred by her actions. This will make a choice easier and safeguard both her and the boy from unrewarding situations.
DATING OUT-OF-SCHOOL FELLOWS
Both high school and college girls meet the question of whether to accept a date with an out-of-school fellow. What is important to remember is that by dropping out of school a boy limits his vocational and social future. The fellow who finishes his education and establishes himself in a profession or business does better through the years than does the boy who drops out of school. Recent figures show that the lifetime earnings of a high school graduate total on the average some $165,000, while the lifetime earnings of a college graduate average about $268,000-over $100,000 more! The same census report indicates that the more education a person has, the better his prospects for future earnings. Of course, there are some exceptional boys who drop out and still do well, but by and large there is a close connection between schooling and level of income.
Nowadays almost any boy may continue on in school if he wants to badly enough. Dropping out of school usually indicates a lack of ambition. Or it reveals that a fellow takes a dim view of himself and his potentialities. Sometimes the pressure of his home may make a boy drop out. More boys from poor homes stop school than do middle- or upper-class fellows. They get jobs to help out at home—and then marry soon afterward. Therefore, one of the factors that enters into dating a “drop-out” is not only the possible difference in age, but sometimes even more important, the difference in social expectations and status and in the style of life that each represents. Such differences need not be but can be serious in both dating and in marriage.
Of course, an out-of-school man may already have completed his education, be vocationally established, and ready to settle down in a home of his own. In such a case, a girl would be dating and eventually marrying a man of her own social and economic level.
Elsie Jackson, for instance, taught school for several years after her graduation from the School of Education at the state university. When she began to date Ralph, he was about her age, having graduated from the School of Business the same year she had. After graduation he went into business with his father. Last year Ralph’s dad died and left him the entire firm. In dating each other, Elsie and Ralph found that they had much in common, that each dreamed of the same kind of future, the same way of life. It was no surprise to their friends when after a year and a half of steady dating they married and settled down in the community that was home to them both.
Quite a different situation exists with Martha and Paul. Martha is a junior in high school who has gone out several times with Paul. At twenty-six, Paul is still unmarried, and running his father’s hotel on the main street of town. Paul is ready for marriage. He needs a woman in his life, and to help him with his work at the hotel. Martha, on the other hand, is gay and spirited, full of fun, and not yet ready for the kind of settled life Paul desires. Martha’s parents are relieved to find that she now senses what they feared from the beginning. Thrilling as it is to have Paul’s love and proposal of marriage, Martha is in the tough position of having to marry him very soon or break off completely with him; for, being older, out of school and eager to get married, he is impatient with a schoolgirl’s reluctance to settle down. He doesn’t want to play around with the younger set as she does. A person like Elsie might find in Paul the same kind of stability she enjoys in her Ralph, but for Martha, Paul is far too urgent and mature for either marriage or dating.
In dating older out-of-school men, then, one of the key questions is how ready the girl is for marriage and how willing she is to give up her own way of life for the settled one of a mature man.
“MY WIFE DOESN’T UNDERSTAND ME …”
There should be no question about it—in dating a married man a girl always takes a risk. Such a man is not free to take a girl out, to make love to her, or to marry her. Until he is free, he is expected to consort only with his wife, and to engage in social activities where there is no pairing off with other women.
Many a lonely married man seeks the companionship of an understanding woman. If she’s young, she brings him the added sensation of feeling youthful again himself. If she is sympathetic, she may meet deep emotional needs within him. He, on the other hand, may appear to her to be seasoned, wise, mature, experienced. She may feel flattered by his attention. She may be touched by confessions of how his wife misunderstands him. And before she knows it, she’s involved beyond her expectations in mixed emotions that lead all too often to heartache.
Sometimes a girl walks into such a relationship with her eyes wide open. More often, though, the man doesn’t tell the girl he’s married, for fear she won’t date him. And usually the relationship has progressed some distance before the girl is aware of the actual situation. By that time she may be too fond of the man or too sorry for him to know how to withdraw effectively. The wisest thing, of course, is for a girl to break off a relationship as soon as she discovers that a man is married.
If she can uncover his matrimonial status before she ever goes out with him, she is on still safer ground. This isn’t always easy, especially in relationships that spring up without proper sponsorship. If a girl meets a man through a friend or member of the family, she can learn at once whether he is married. If she meets him at a public place, or through casual acquaintances, her chances of getting facts about him are limited. This is one of the main arguments for confining one’s social life to acceptable circles and one’s friendships to those who are vouched for upon introduction.
WHEN THE WOMAN IS OLDER
Public opinion says that the man should always be older than the girl he dates. Some girls feel this pressure of opinion so strongly that they refuse to reveal their true ages if they are indeed older than their dates. They may even deliberately falsify their ages and pretend to be younger than they are. Actually a girl can be older than the boy she dates, and a woman older than the man she marries, without any damage to the relationship unless one or the other of them makes an issue over their relative ages.
Some of the happiest marriages ever studied are those in which the woman is older than her husband. Social scientists who are concerned with interpreting interpersonal relationships feel that since marriage demands more of the woman than it does of the man (in her having to adjust to his name, his work, his place of residence, and his way of life), it helps if she’s emotionally mature enough to make these adjustments in a grown-up way. Being the older of the two, she is, theoretically at least, more mature and so is able to work out a mutually satisfying relationship. Although nothing quite parallel has ever been studied among dating pairs, the situation may operate similarly. An older girl is not quite so apt to be demanding, jealous, and possessive. She may have much to give the boy in the way of social poise that will eventually help them both. She may appreciate him more than would someone his own age or younger.
The most important factor seems to be the two people’s own feelings about their difference in ages. If an older woman is always afraid that she’ll lose her man to some younger female, or if she “lords it over him” because she’s wiser and more experienced, there may be trouble. If, on his side, he makes her feel vulnerable by teasing her about her age, or if he takes a dependent role and lets her manage things and him, the relationship may founder. But if two people can understand that the number of birthdays a person has had is far less important than the quality of the life he has lived, age differences are no longer a legitimate concern.
THE BOYS IN UNIFORM
There once was considerable stigma about dating a man in uniform. Now, when most boys experience military service before they are far into their twenties, the situation is changed. A young man joins the service and soon finds himself in a training post far removed from the friends and associates of his home town. Some impulsive young fellows take this opportunity to cut up and do things they would never dream of doing at home. But for the great majority, the man in uniform is still the same man he was at home, with the same standards, values, and attitudes he always had.
The boy in uniform may be quite as fine as any home-town boy, but he poses problems for the girl who dates him. First of all, he comes from another locale, possibly a different culture, and this social gulf can cause difficulties in a relationship. Secondly, it’s difficult for a girl to know what kind of person she’s dealing with, since she has had no contact with his family. Thirdly, he’s usually stationed in the training post for a short period of time, and there is not time enough to build a long-lasting relationship. And lastly, being away from home and friends, the young man is quite possibly lonely and especially eager for female companionship, with the result that he’s overly susceptible to emotional entanglements. In that case, what he thinks is love may be only a temporary need.
A girl tends to date a serviceman for several reasons. (1) She knew the boy before he got into service and so continues her friendship with him while he’s in uniform. (2) She meets him through mutual friends in the same way she meets civilians. (3) She is concerned about the plight of servicemen in her home town and does what she can through her USO, church, or other group to make the boys in uniform feel welcome. (4) She doesn’t rate with home-town boys and dates servicemen as the only ones that she can get. It is this fourth group of girls whose behavior with men in service so often gives a black eye to all. The other types of service-dates can be as wholesome and satisfactory as the individual persons make them.
In general it is safer to date servicemen met at church or other well-sponsored functions which attract self-respecting and respectable young people. A young man in uniform usually behaves the same where he’s stationed as he did back home. If he frequented poolrooms and public dance halls at home, that will be the kind of place to which he will gravitate no matter where he is stationed. The studious young man will search out the library when he gets a leave. The serviceman who grew up enjoying Y youth group functions will be on the alert for announcements of similar activities. This is why you must go to the right places to meet the right people. The boy you meet in a tavern may be as fine a person as the serviceman you meet at a church social, but the chances are that more conventional behavior will be found under church auspices than under the influence of alcohol.
The difference in age or status between members of a dating couple is important only to the extent that it influences a relationship. The important thing is that a couple enjoy each other’s company, share enough interests so that they can build a relationship around mutual activities, and see eye to eye on enough of life so that they are a real pair.