This as-told-to has been edited for clarity and length. Debbie, who’s from Maryland, requested that her full name not be used for professional reasons. Sam’s name has been changed to protect his privacy. He confirmed in an email that he started dating Debbie when he was 25 and she was 17. Have a compelling first-person story you want to share? Send your story description to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I actually was 16, almost 17, and I started working at a restaurant. I was hired as a hostess, and he was a server. Sam was 24, almost 25. I had a boyfriend at the time, who was also a senior in high school, like me. (My parents put me in school early.) The summer after I graduated, Sam and I had a lot of the same shifts, and we started talking more and just hanging out. I never went for older guys, and he never dated younger women, until me. But I related to him so much better than my boyfriend. I ended up breaking up with my boyfriend and dating Sam.
My parents always liked him. He’s a great person, he’s very easy to like, and he showed respect for my parents. Also, my parents met when they were 18 and 19, and my mom’s parents got married when they were 17 and 19. There was a little bit of flexibility. But there was a time I was sort of rebelling, and I stayed out late with Sam, really late, and this was before cellphones, and my dad gave his lecture: “I will call the cops on you, Sam.” He did it as nicely as possible.
We weren’t having sex. I didn’t not have sex with him because he was older, I had just sort of made that decision: I’m not going to have sex until I’m married. He wasn’t a virgin, and honestly, I don’t think a lot of men in their mid- to late 20s would have respected my decision, but he did. I think a lot of people are more worried about what’s legal, than what’s ethical or what’s healthy. But just because someone is 18 ― or they’re younger than 18 and not having sex ― doesn’t mean there’s nothing to worry about, or no questions to answer.
It was a very serious relationship right from the beginning. It was sort of intense. We got engaged two years later and married a year after that, so I was only 20 when we got married. (I’m about 40 now.) We intentionally waited a really long time until we were ready to have kids, 15 years of marriage. When we had our daughter, people assumed we had fertility problems or something, or that we had decided we didn’t want kids, but then had an “oops!” baby. It was neither of those things. We intentionally did it that way.
I don’t know how I would have turned out, if I hadn’t been with Sam from such a young age. I don’t mean, “Oh, I couldn’t live without him” — I do kind of feel that way too, and I love him so much ― but it’s so foundational to me as a person, and that’s really problematic. And I think it’s OK to say that this is a net positive, and I’m still with him, and we’re now happily married, and yet, I don’t recommend this.
My husband and I saw the movie “Call Me By Your Name” a few weeks ago. It was very well done and the actors were great. But I came out having a lot of different kinds of feelings, and a lot of them were anger. Not necessarily at my husband, but I just really remember being that age, and having the perspective that I have now ― I guess I could really see the power imbalance, the conscious and unconscious manipulation of that, by the older person in the relationship.
People will say, well, what’s the big difference? 17 or 18? As someone who got into a relationship at 17, I’m supposed to be like, “Oh it’s fine!” But I absolutely wouldn’t recommend it. That’s such a critical age ... it’s a beautiful, amazing time, because you’re on the cusp of doing so many things, there’s all this hope and promise, and this is what coming-of-age movies are about. And it’s very attractive because you’re somewhat mature, certainly intelligent, and you can be very articulate.
But other adult men who were interested in me at the time, I don’t think they would be as interested in me, if I had less of that naiveté. There’s something attractive about being in that position of not-quite-an-adult. It’s easier to manipulate somebody like that, whether it’s a conscious thought on the part of these adults or not. Sam was definitely a million times less creepy than a lot of the guys I had creeping around me at the time. But it was easy for him to say, “This is how adults do things, this is not how adults do things,” and me go, “Oh, OK,” and just sort of believe him and let him take the lead, even though in some ways, I have a lot stronger natural personality.
One of those things for me, as a 17-year-old, that I related to in the movie ― I think it’s very intoxicating, especially if you’ve had relationships with people around your own age, to realize you can have a sexual and romantic power over an adult, over this sexy and beautiful man. I mean, Sam was gorgeous. Of course, I still think that, but my memory of him at 25 was like, “holy moly.” But I think that they hold more of a responsibility.
I ended up relying on Sam for a lot of things, including the fact that I didn’t have a driver’s license yet. He became my whole world. ... I did learn to drive when I was 21, but I don’t know how to fix the car, how to deal with my car. There’s a bunch of stuff where I rely on him to an extent because I always have. It would have been better for my confidence and my self-esteem in a lot of ways if I’d figured them out for myself.
Once you get older, people say it’s not a big deal. And Sam is so young looking— I remember having the realization, like five to 10 years ago, where I was like, “Oh my gosh, people don’t realize he’s older than me now.” I have big boobs and a big butt and I’ve always coded a little older. In some ways it’s like 25 and 17, that’s not so bad, but it’s a big difference.
We did go to therapy for a little while. We talk about this stuff a lot. He’s very open to it. He’s really non-defensive. I would say, well some guys were more outwardly seedier, more manipulative, and he’s like, “Don’t give me a pass.” I think he does think about it a lot, but I’ve got to think the impact has been greater on me.
There are so many things where we’ve worked to have a more equal dynamic—but there’s still a default for both of us to go back to the early dynamics of our relationship. We were talking about possibly making an offer on a house, and we were looking at our budget. Sam was like,“We absolutely must cut all these budget items immediately.”
And as someone with less life experience, sometimes I will think, “OK, you may be right ― but I’m being strong-armed into agreeing before I can consider an alternative.” In the past, I didn’t feel I had a leg to stand on. I couldn’t defend my position because I hadn’t dealt with that situation before, so I’d often concede to him.
This time, he ended up taking a step back and saying, “I’m really sorry,” but I felt very lonely in that moment. ... I am probably more afraid than most people of him leaving me because I revert back to being 17 sometimes. I’m proud of myself for being able to withstand that feeling.
Just because you’re smart, talented, mature for your age, that doesn’t make you a person with life experience. It’s something that’s always going to affect me. I’ve felt very loved and taken care of, I’m with somebody who makes me laugh, we still finish each other’s sentences and we’re great co-parents. There’s a lot of positive, lifelong implications of our relationship ― but there are some negative ones, too.