If I were ever single again, I think I’d stay that way. The standard that my husband has set has just raised my bar too high. I shudder to think of how much work I’d have to put in to house-train someone new! But he was already a proper grown-up when we met. I don’t think that’s necessarily true of everyone on the dating market. Failing to “adult” properly would certainly explain why at least a certain selection of people are available in the first place... Dating a grown-up is the minimum threshold for a long-term relationship.
It’s different when you’re a student. When you’re young, you expect that almost anyone you meet is going to be flat broke. They probably have at least one roommate, or maybe they’ve never lived on their own. They may not have a vehicle or even know how to drive, although that’s not really a problem now that we have ride-sharing. City people might not even know whether their partner has a license. It’s fairly common for people in their twenties to still be learning how to cook, manage money, and do basic home maintenance. You can focus more on your mutual passions for music, cinema, road trips, sleeping in, and pizza for breakfast.
As time goes by, though, your standards start to change. You start to notice that there’s a dividing line between “person” and “young person.”
This really started to become clear to me as a returning student living in a dorm at age twenty-six. I dated a few younger guys here and there, and there were certain things they all had in common. They all still thought it sounded fun to pull all-nighters just to binge-watch cartoons. They spent their money (when they had any) on collectibles and special-edition t-shirts. They would want to play video games while talking to me on the phone. And, sure, there’s no age limit on any of that stuff. Couple these habits with a general lack of awareness of current events, though, or questions such as When is Tax Time or What City Will I Live in Next Year, and it got complicated. Dating a young person is sort of like going to Brigadoon, a time warp where you never have to think about such future concerns as what’s for dinner or do we have a future together.
Dating a grown-up is a completely different situation. You’ve both accepted the necessity of managing the boring parts of life. You’ve been through the wringer, having roommates move out without paying their rent, getting laid off, being in car accidents, waking up with sick little kids, getting hit with extreme vet bills, ending long-term relationships, and all those other youth-crushers. The fantasy of endless summer is gone. You know that when you see the Bat Signal in the clouds, it’s for you. Time to suit up and go deal with another mess.
The main difference between a grown-up and a young person is accountability. A kid’s instinct is to cry out “NOT ME!” A grown-up grudgingly accepts that just because it’s not my fault doesn’t mean it’s not my problem. We’re not going to try to get out of it, we’re just going to get through it.
Dating a grown-up means someone who shows up when he says he will. Someone who understands what level of emotional availability he has and what commitment means. Someone who plans ahead and has agency over her career, her finances, and her overall life strategy. Someone who generally knows what to do. Someone who is willing to trade off and do a little extra sometimes.
Age doesn’t have as much to do with being a grown-up as it probably should. Certainly I’ve met women my age who have managed to avoid learning anything about personal finance and have never set aside a single nickel toward retirement. I’ve also met men my age who never learned to cook a meal. I had a friend who made it to thirty-six without learning how (or how often) to clean his own bathroom. Not a good look.
I asked my husband if he had anything to add about dating a grown-up. “Drama,” he said. Good point! Drama tends to come from a mix of poor boundaries and emotional volatility. It’s to be distinguished from difficulty; everyone has horrible things happen in life sometimes, but it doesn’t have to be dramatic. Drama can come out of thin air, from outsized emotional reactions to fairly predictable, commonplace events. For instance, dating a grown-up doesn’t tend to involve hours-long conversations about whether we’re breaking up, especially not on a work night. Sometimes you just... break up. Not everybody was destined to be together.
When I think in the abstract about dating a younger guy, I imagine someone who has few practical skills, no real direction in life, no awareness of current events, few opinions, and is ambivalent about commitment in general. A younger guy, in my mind, would have no money and wouldn’t know how to cook. He’d probably have embarrassing taste in music and would still be going through the rogue facial hair stage. Meh. What would we talk about? How would I explain him to my friends and family?
A man my age who was dating a younger woman would be... kind of a cliche. Same issues though! A young person with no established career who might have no idea what part of the country she wants to live in, whether she wants kids, or what she’ll be doing in ten years. You’re either on one side of the river or the other. It’s hard to think long-term with someone who cognitively has no long term yet.
Give me a grown-up. Give me a man who knows what to do in a crisis. Give me someone I can count on to hold his end up, to understand and accept his responsibilities. Give me a complex person with nuanced opinions and a developed career. Save me from ever having to deal with a young person’s drama and confusion, other than as a patient yet distanced role model. Give me a grown-up, someone who knows how to be a true partner.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.