What to Do When Your Friends Keep Judging Your Relationship

Teen Vogue
Borrowed Credit

It might be poorly packaged concern

I’ve always been into older guys while my friends like people our age. We have talked about this sometimes but every time I express that I’m into men who are a few years older than we are, I feel like they are disgusted with me and it makes me feel bad about myself. How can I make them understand and how can I make sure their reactions don’t get me down?

—Rachel, 18

I feel for you, Rachel. It truly sucks to feel judged by your friends, especially for something you can’t really change. No matter what, you should be able to seek support and insight from your friends without being put down or alienated by them. The fact that you detect disgust in their reactions signals that they’re seriously lacking empathy, a quality friends deserve from one another. You are absolutely justified in feeling hurt.

That said, let’s discuss the “older guy” factor before we continue with the friend advice: I need to disclose that my spidey sense went off from this question. You’re 18, which means you’re past the age of consent in every state; at this point, all romantic relationships you willingly partake in with older men are legal. Medically, your cognitive development is nearly complete. But when it comes to both life experience and emotional maturity, you’re still right on the cusp between a child and a full-blown adult — and that makes you vulnerable to unhealthy power dynamics in relationships with older men.

For an 18-year-old making a decision, context is essential. Things like peer pressure, flattery, or high-drama situations can make it harder for a young adult to think clearly. Researchers make a distinction between “hot” and “cold” cognition: When 18-to-21-year-olds are in “cold” scenarios — when they’re not rushed, when they have enough information, when emotions aren’t running high — they can process decisions as well as adults can. But when they’re in “hot” scenarios —when they feel stress, pressure, or intense emotions (like, ahem, a crush) — they act more like a younger teenager would.

Unlike your friends, I am not disgusted, disappointed, or judging you at all. When it comes to private fantasizing, by all means let your mind run wild. And in many cases, a relationship between an 18-year-old girl and a guy who’s a few years older is totally fine and harmless. I am suggesting, however, that you ask yourself some questions about the relationships you’ve had with older men. Are any of these guys authority figures in your life, like your boss, teacher, or mentor? Have you ever felt “hot” with them — like you can’t assert your needs, you’re under pressure, or that things are going faster than you might like?

If you answered “yes” to any of these, it’s a warning sign of a harmful dynamic. If you answered “no,” great! Again, it’s not necessarily problematic to date people a bit older than you. Age is just one factor in a relationship’s ecosystem of power. (So is gender, by the way, which is why an older man/younger woman dynamic deserves extra scrutiny.) Often the truth lies in a gray area, so it’s worth keeping this “hot/cold” cognition theory in your back pocket to help you decide whether to embark on these relationships. I know it’s hard, especially with an exciting older man, but deliberation is key.

Now, back to your friends: Some of them might be picking up on exactly this type of power imbalance, and they’re expressing their worries in an unhelpful way. Some of them might just be jerks who want to make you feel bad. It’ll make it a lot easier to distinguish between these two types of friends if you’ve already done some thinking about these relationships. You can say something like, “It really hurts my feelings when you judge me like this. I want to be able to come to you if I do have a problem, but I also need you to trust me.” This will soften a friend who feels genuine concern, while shutting up a friend who’s just being petty.

Either way, addressing this bad vibe with your friends directly, awkward as it may be, will hopefully create an opportunity to talk it through. Processing sex and love with your girls is one of life’s sweetest pleasures, so it will be more than worth the initial discomfort to make that easier. And if any of these dudes do abuse their power, it’ll pave the way for you to seek support from your friends in the future.