Why we love to talk about age-gap relationships like Michael Sheen’s

Why is it that, in 2024, age-gap relationships like Michael Sheen’s still cause such a brouhaha? There is no escaping the whispers and judgement if you choose to date someone much older or younger – but when it comes to love, we’ve all got skin in the game, writes Olivia Petter

Monday 08 April 2024 10:14 BST
Michael Sheen has admitted to a ‘concern’ over being in a relationship with Anna Lundberg, 30, who is just five years older than his daughter
Michael Sheen has admitted to a ‘concern’ over being in a relationship with Anna Lundberg, 30, who is just five years older than his daughter (Getty Images)

Nothing gets the group chat going quite like an age gap. Whether it’s a balding politician wheeling out his second 25-year-old girlfriend of the year, or a divorced mother of two canoodling with a man half her age, people with partners significantly younger or older than them are a perpetual conversation starter.

Which brings us to Michael Sheen: the Good Omens actor, 55 – soon to play Prince Andrew in a rival project to Netflix’s Scoop – has spoken out about his relationship with Anna Lundberg, 30, who is just five years older than his daughter.

When an interviewer asked how he felt about that, Sheen admitted it was “not the easiest thing to do” and said he has worries about being “a much older father”.

“Because of the age difference, I think both of us were quite surprised when we got together,” he said. “I don’t think either of us were looking for that. It’s not like I’ve dated lots of people who are much younger than me, but you meet who you meet.”

He’s right, in a sense – the old adage of, “you can’t help who you fall for” rings true for most of us. So, why does this perennial issue keep making headlines?

Men who date younger women are cast as predators, while the women become gold diggers. And in the reverse scenario, the older women are sad Havisham-types, while the younger men are... well, actually, I think they’re doing just fine. Funny, that.

My point is that we love to talk about an age gap, as the internet reminded us only recently when a first-person essay on the subject went viral. Written by Grazie Sophia Christie, 27, for The Cut, the piece has polarised online opinion. Fifty per cent of readers have hailed Christie as a new-age feminist icon, while the other – arguably significantly louder – half have decried her as a terrible writer and malignant narcissist who has set women’s rights back by several decades.

So venomous is the hatred, in fact, that people have gone beyond the usual antagonism and started digging up titbits of personal information about Christie, like what her parents do and where she went to school. All this says a lot about how we respond to female storytellers – the kinds of voices we accept, and those we wilfully tear apart.

Common gripes with Christie’s piece include her writing style, her lack of self-awareness, and the way she presents herself as superior because of her decision to marry a man 10 years older than her. In the piece, Christie presents her choice of partner as astute and intentional; she’s afforded a lifestyle beyond her means that enables her creativity and sexuality to flourish. She writes about youth like it’s her sole currency, one she spent quickly and generously on her older French husband.

But I don’t think any of this is why the piece went viral. It went viral because there’s something about a younger woman having agency in an age-gap relationship with a man that completely subverts the prevailing social and cultural narrative about this dynamic. When a younger woman dates an older man, the stereotypes tell us there is exploitation at play – the kind that might serve the woman, but ultimately favours the man. This doesn’t seem to be the case in Christie’s essay; in fact, the husband is barely mentioned, leaving the reader knowing almost nothing about him aside from his nationality.

It rattles people, in the same way as it does when an older woman marries a younger man. Take The Idea of You, the forthcoming film based on Robinne Lee’s hugely popular novel of the same name, about a 40-year-old single mum who starts dating a 24-year-old musician.

Don’t get me wrong – people adore this book, and will inevitably love the film, too. But it has brought to light the same whispers of judgement and gossip that circulated its publication back in 2017. And it’s not difficult to find real-life examples to parallel such whispers – just look at how many articles have been written about the 24-year age gap between Aaron Taylor-Johnson and his wife, Sam Taylor-Johnson.

That’s not to say that men get off lightly in this scenario. There are entire charts drawn up about Leonardo DiCaprio’s love life, detailing the 49-year-old’s habit of almost exclusively dating women under the age of 25 for the last two decades. But the level of judgement against men in age-gap relationships tends to be more favourable than that against women. One scenario typically elicits jokes and laughter, while the other fosters questions about lifestyle choices and children alongside a characterisation of manipulation and coercion.

Why is it that, in 2024, age-gap relationships still cause such a brouhaha? Perhaps it’s a symptom of a society that still has so far to go in terms of its relationship ideals, and what we’re willing to accept versus what we’re desperate to dismantle. In instances of the latter, I can’t help but feel it’s because of how the relationship makes us reflect on our own choices. After all, where love is concerned, we all have skin in the game.

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