Heavy Meddle: Is a pop cultural generation gap enough to crush our May-December relationship?

Welcome Meddleheads, to the advice column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions. You can use this form or send them by e-mail. Not only will you immediately feel much better, but you will also get advice.


dear Steve,

I’ve been in my thirties for a few years and recently met a woman in her twenties. She has more time left in her decade than I do, but she’s not 21. She is incredible. She’s beautiful and kind and fun.

When we first met, she arrived at a party with another gentleman who I assumed was her boyfriend. I noticed her. I don’t know how anyone couldn’t. It was a backyard barbecue that some of my close friends had every summer. There are always new faces appearing and disappearing, but this one sent many of us asking the host and his hostess wife about that stunning party figure. It turned out that the gentleman she was with was not a lover.

The night was advancing. Soon it was time for the children to go to sleep and the leaders to head to their beds. The rest of us, including this young woman, stayed. The drinks came faster. We got on well. She was attentive with everyone, and even playful in responding to all of us testing her comfort level with a large new group of people. She was and is wonderful.

…our cultural references are totally different.

We exchanged numbers and have seen each other several times since. But here’s my question: when it’s been a decade and there’s a change between you and someone, does that negatively affect your ability to communicate? At our age, our cultural references are totally different. She’s not a film student and hasn’t seen the ones people my age consider classics. While I don’t even try to watch some of the newer movies that have come out in the last few years.

I hadn’t seen “Mean Girls,” for example, until she sat me down and did it. I feel like we can make a game of catching up on our favorite references, but at the end of the day, I have decades of pop culture that’s soaked through my brain and influenced everything from my speech patterns to my jokes. Is this stuff worth digging up?

At some point does it all become incompatible, like trying to plug an Atari into an hdmi port?

Whattaya means you haven’t seen “Caddyshack”?

Dear Whattaya Mean,

I want to be careful not to overlook what you mean here. Pop culture – movies, songs, TV shows, video games – is an integral part of our identities. In fact, they’ve become an even bigger part of who we are than before, as we spend far more time in front of screens and/or with earbuds stuck in our ears than ever before. More and more, we are creating identities based on a common history of consumption. So that’s what you and your sweetie are up against.

I have dealt with some of the same issues, as my wife is seven years younger than me. (Or, as she likes to point out, almost eight.) I remember how excited I was to show her the Woody Allen movie “Annie Hall,” because I felt like it conveyed a much of my angst-ridden Judaic sensibility, far more charming than I can get.

So okay, it’s a real thing. But as the early relationship issues go away, it doesn’t seem like a breach of contract. After all, the pop culture references we cherish and deploy are really just a way of trying to tell people who we are. They should not be used as substitutes for our real personalities. These are just clues to our sensitivity and our sense of humor.

Pop culture stuff can offer clues. But direct answers are even better than hints.

Ultimately, lasting relationships create their own shared stories: memories, inside jokes and, yes, a few pop cultural references. But it takes time. So you have to be patient and decide if you want to do this kind of Vulcan Mind Meld.

My own hunch, based on your concern about the ages in question here, is that you feel embarrassed about the age gap here and the relationship is doomed because of it. You focus on something superficial enough to express this ambivalence.

I say “superficial” because there are many other forms of compatibility that seem more substantial. Do you respect each other? Are you intellectually compatible? Emotionally? Sexually? Do you have the same values? Do you want roughly the same things? What are your respective ambitions? How do you each feel about long-term commitment? And yes, if it gets more serious, how do you each feel about the family?

That’s a lot of serious stuff to consider.

And that doesn’t even take into account differences in economic power, life experience, and where you are at in your life. This stuff is real and can be a challenge if you get serious.

For now, though, I’ll try to relax and enjoy each other. Remember, man: you’re in the exploratory phase of the relationship. You try to understand if you want to know yourself better. Pop culture stuff can offer clues. But direct answers are even better than hints.

Ultimately, the age gap can be a serious issue for you. Maybe that’s what your letter is trying to say. But it could also be that you really like this woman and are kind of freaked out because she’s considerably younger than you, and so you’re looking for reasons to pull the rip cord.

The best way to understand how you feel is to spend a little more time together. And to be as honest with each other as possible.

Good luck,

Author’s note: Anyone who has been involved in a May-December relationship like this is welcome to weigh in here. I have the impression that the author of our letter is focusing on some of the less important issues. Let us know what you think in the comments section below. And please also send a letter to Heavy Meddle. You can use this form or send your questions by e-mail. I may not have a helpful answer, but writing the letter itself might provide some clarity. – HER

Heavy Meddle with Steve Almond is Cognoscenti’s advice column. Learn more here.