What I learnt from dating someone older in my twenties
By Anita Markoff
Even with just seven years between you, it can be tough to look past the millennial vs gen z differences.
Our first fight was about Ariana Grande. So in some ways, I should have known it was doomed from the start.
It was on our ninth date in as many days. I was sitting beside the classically tall, dark and handsome man of my teenage fantasies, sipping whatever twist on a gin and tonic had taken my fancy that week. I was growing to think of him as my Pete Davidson, the sudden and surprising soulmate I had “thought into my life”. He was funny, and charming, and wore those tortoiseshell glasses paired with a turtleneck that seem to be a prescribed part of every poet’s wardrobe.
We couldn’t get enough of each other.
Incredibly, we had met on Tinder. He “super liked” me. On our first date he brought me a book of poetry and picked me a sunset rose from a stranger’s garden. “My dad taught me never to show up to meet a lady empty handed.” We had our first kiss in a cemetery with the Smiths playing softly in the background, in between him spontaneously performing for me a dramatic rendition of a Shakespearean soliloquy, and me pointing out the constellations I could recognise. Ursa Major. Orion. It was a cloudless night.
By our ninth date there was still a dream-like quality to our romance, which seemed to be blossoming as quickly as a time lapse-flower. The only thing that could have hinted to me that this would later be a record-scratch freeze-frame moment, was the fact that he was 27 and I was just 20.
Cue the Ariana Grande fight.
We were discussing our favourite works of art and I began to talk about kitsch. His silence became uneasy when I rambled onto to the subject of pop culture, my personal obsession. Somewhere in my monologue about Justin Bieber being a comeback king and the excellence of the Sweetener era, I had lost him. When he finally spoke it was quiet. “You know there’s nothing that makes you more unattractive to me than hearing that you like Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande. I just don’t get it.”. And there it was, just like that. Hanging in the air between us. I was stunned.
The extra-generational gap between a gen z woman and millennial man never felt wider than in that very moment.
My Pete Davidson was one of those vinyl-over-iTunes, books-over-screens, leather-bound journal-loving, chess playing, old school types. You know the ones. He had deleted Facebook ahead of the trend; and the only social media he had was a Whatsapp with the read receipts turned off, and an Instagram account not under his own name. One time when we were lying in bed, discussing my stalking tendencies, I teased, “if we ever break up, how am I going to keep up with all the new things happening in your life since you don’t have Facebook?”. His response was serious: “you’ll pick up your phone and call me like a normal person.”.
I remember thinking that his and my definitions of "normal" must have been vastly different.
No one I know talks to their friends on the phone except in case of emergency, let alone their exes. How confronting that would be - a phone call! Out of the blue?!
The first time I knew he felt something real for me was a rare occasion when I went overnight without checking my phone for the rush of a message from him. When I next opened WhatsApp, I saw that he had changed his profile picture from the image of a random anonymous football player I made fun of, to a photo of himself. He later told me he had spent that night pacing around our university grounds, chain smoking cigarettes, wondering if I would see it and reply. That picture said, "I love you", more than those three, plus a thousand more, words ever could. But our relationship with social media and each other went rapidly downhill from there.
I missed all the small signs of affection that come with having a boyfriend on Facebook.
I missed the ability to tag him in photos, invite him to events, react to his messages with the little emojis that bring me so much joy, maybe even go “relationship official”. I wanted to welcome him into my world, but his lack of accounts made him feel aloof and distant. I understand that social media can make some people feel trapped and suffocated, but as a person from a younger generation, it is my medium for saying “this made me think of you” in five different ways each day.
Our biggest fight was over WhatsApp messages or, more accurately, the lack of them.
He hated having to communicate with someone through tiny words typed on a screen. I can easily send entire dissertations to my friends in a day: what we are wearing, what we’re thinking about, listening to, crying over, where we’re walking to, what that weird stranger with the large dog said to us on the street. This to me is connection; this to me is love. My friends can sense subtle changes in my tone over WhatsApp. They can tell how I’m feeling even if I can’t. If I go offline for a certain number of hours, they know I’m not okay. I wanted him to know me like that. Instead, when we were physically apart, we felt like strangers, barely speaking the same language or living in the same world.
Then, one day, he didn’t respond to one of my messages for 16 hours.
He didn’t understand how I could be hurt by that. When I asked what was wrong he said he’d been out with friends at a club five minutes from my flat. “And you didn’t think of me once that night? You didn’t think about me when you were drunk?” “Of course I thought about you.” “So why didn’t you message me? You could have come over.” “I don’t know. I didn’t think about it. I wasn’t on my phone.” It went on like that. The next day he didn’t message me for eight hours. I knew he was in his room, reading books, writing in his journal, daydreaming, thinking of everything. Everything but reaching out to me. Meanwhile, he was the only thing I could think of. I lay on my bed, half reading a new Sally Rooney novel, checking my phone screen for his name every 15 minutes. Nothing. I refreshed Whatsapp endlessly, hoping my phone was just glitching. It wasn’t. I turned up at his flat an hour late for our date that night, drunk and in tears.
The last time we argued was on a day out in the botanical gardens. I asked if I could photograph him among the cacti. I thought he looked beautiful there, at home with all the growing things. He hesitated and said, “okay, as long as you don’t put it on Instagram”. I said I wouldn’t, but his request made me feel strangely upset. I knew the ex he wasn’t over still followed him on Instagram and watched all his stories. She had recently liked one of his posts. Was she the reason why?
I wanted to show him off; I was so proud to be with him. I brought up an Instagram post I had made with the only three photos of us, laughing candids snapped by a disposable camera at parties, where the caption had been an open-hearted description of how wonderful I thought he was. “Is that why you don’t want me to post you?” I asked. He shrugged and said, “The post was sweet, but I wish you would have just said it to me. You know I’m never going to do a post about you like that”.
Never. He’d said it. The finality of it shook me. I walked quickly, with tears stinging in my eyes, to a greenhouse room filled with flowers. He saw what was meant to be a gesture of love as annoying over-sharing. I saw his refusal to show me off to the friends and family and exes in his following, and what I read in that was a deep shame about his relationship with me. In that moment, in the greenhouse room filled with the flowers, I put my hand into my pocket to feel the sleek surfaces and edges of my phone for comfort. It worked. It always works. And in that moment, I knew we had to break up.
Image by unknown Pinterest artist.