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What is OCDOCD SubtypesIs my relationship’s age gap too big? A therapist’s advice

Is my relationship’s age gap too big? A therapist’s advice

7 min read
Elle Warren

By Elle Warren

Reviewed by April Kilduff, MA, LCPC

Jan 18, 2024

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In a healthy partnership, you share the kind of profound love, respect and vulnerability that brings you a sense of fulfillment. It’s also human nature to worry about your relationship—this is someone you care about deeply, after all! And this can be especially true if you experience frequent feelings of fear and anxiety. One nagging concern may be an age difference with your partner, says April Kilduff, MA, LCPC, LMHC, a therapist and clinical trainer at NOCD.

Can an age gap be too big?

Plenty of loving relationships have large age gaps—which is typically defined as being at least 10 years apart. There’s not a lot of hard research on the subject, and the studies that do exist have shown conflicting results, with some indicating higher satisfaction compared to couples who are closer in age, and others finding the opposite. So it’s probably safe to say that partnerships like these are as diverse and unique as the people in them. 

But if a difference in age is causing you distress, it’s a good idea to delve into the reasons why. Do you constantly feel anxious about your age gap? And does questioning your age gap lead to more and more questions, and even doubt, about your relationship?

Do these thoughts sound familiar? Learn how you can overcome them.

At NOCD, we know how overwhelming your anxious symptoms can feel. You’re not on your own, and you can talk to a specialist who has experience treating OCD.

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Compulsive rumination in relationships

If so, you could be caught in a cycle of rumination—which is a clinical term for getting “stuck in your head,” says Kilduff. “It’s being obsessed with a train of thought that you find very difficult to get off of,” she explains. “You may feel as if you‘re always searching for some answer that you can’t quite find, likely because there isn’t a clear answer.” 

Ruminating can also make you distracted and out of tune with the present, and is characteristic of both anxiety disorders as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). 

When you ruminate in response to obsessive thoughts about your relationship, and with the hope of getting rid of those thoughts and the uncomfortable feelings they bring through compulsions, there is a specific theme of OCD to describe it: It’s called relationship OCD (or ROCD).

Why OCD can focus on age gap relationships

Like all types of OCD, ROCD begins with obsessions: repetitive, unwanted intrusive thoughts, images, urges, sensations, and/or feelings that don’t align with your true thoughts, feelings, beliefs, or values. They can sound like this:

  • What if our age gap means that my partner is secretly a creep?
  • What if our age gap means I’m secretly a creep?
  • I have only seen evidence that my partner is a wonderful, loving person, but what if they’re hiding something or I’m misjudging them?
  • What if our age gap means we’re doomed to break up?
  • Should we just break up now? 
  • Can I see us together long term?

Note that everyone experiences intrusive thoughts—they’re universal. But if you have OCD, you’re unable to recognize these thoughts as intrusive, and instead you take them very seriously. You might want to immediately solve them, or figure out what they mean. Since intrusive thoughts go against who you are at your core, they can cause intense distress—anxiety, panic, fear, guilt, shame. 

The need to gain certainty about the meaning of these thoughts, and the feelings they create, are what trigger compulsions. Compulsions are any mental or physical action done with the intention of relieving the distress of intrusive thoughts. Examples vary widely, but here’s some:

  • Rumination. Rumination is overthinking and overanalyzing, turning the same thoughts over and over in your head, hoping for new information or insights to emerge. This can last for hours or even days, and happen even during your daily routine.
  • Reassurance-seeking. People living with OCD commonly seek reassurance from both their loved ones and themselves. With ROCD, you may repeatedly ask your partner, “Do you think our age gap is too big?” or “We’re not going to break up, right?” Or you might repeat to yourself, I love my partner. They’re a wonderful person. And age is just a number. 
  • Confessing. Intrusive thoughts can cause a lot of guilt. You may feel like you’re betraying your partner, and if they could see inside your head, they’d be so hurt. This guilt can lead you to confess your thoughts, with the hope of clearing your conscience and, perhaps, getting reassurance from them in the process.
  • Avoidance. This looks like avoiding the places, situations, activities, media, people, or any other stimuli that trigger your intrusive thoughts. For example, if you feel triggered during intimacy, you might avoid it. Or you may get upset by seeing relationships where people are around the same age as each other, and avoid movies, videos, or even friends where that dynamic is present.
  • Checking. With ROCD, you may “check” your body for feelings of arousal, disgust, or ambivalence. You may then interpret that as evidence to support or deny your fears. The catch is that when you intentionally check your body for a feeling or sensation, sometimes that alone can produce it. Have you ever heard someone talk about lice and then your head starts itching?

Compulsions bring only temporary relief. They make a promise they can’t keep: that they’ll fix or solve your intrusive thoughts. In reality, they only reinforce the idea that your intrusive thoughts are dangerous, and create an obsessive-compulsive cycle.

How can you get help?

Seeking treatment can help you assess your relationship based on logic and values rather than your fear and anxiety. OCD is best treated with exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. ERP works by gradually exposing you to the things that trigger your intrusive thoughts and guiding you in resisting the urge to perform compulsions (response prevention). 

Access therapy that’s designed for OCD

If you struggle with OCD, you can regain your life. Learn about accessing ERP therapy with NOCD.

Learn about ERP with NOCD

ERP is a collaborative process where you and your therapist work together to identify your triggers and tailor exposures to them. While exposures are unique to each individual’s experience, here’s a few examples:

  • Watching a video in which someone recounts their bad experience in an age-gap relationship
  • Going on double dates with couples who are in a same-age relationship
  • Writing down and repeating to yourself: Maybe our age gap is too big. 

Your therapist will give you tools to resist compulsions as you engage in these exposures. Know that you’ll never be forced into anything you’re not ready for. You’ll work your way up to those exposures that bring the most amount of anxiety. 

As you experience this anxiety, without compulsions, you have an opportunity to become desensitized to it. You learn that your intrusive thoughts and ensuing anxiety are not as dangerous as you thought. You learn to live with the uncertainty. And while you’ll still have intrusive thoughts sometimes—because we all do—they won’t take over as much of your time and attention when you’re not so hyperfocused on them. 

If you don’t necessarily resonate with the information about OCD but find yourself still feeling anxious about this topic, you can still reach out to an ERP-specializing therapist. They can help you rule out an OCD diagnosis, and they’re often also knowledgeable about anxiety disorders. They can help point you in the right direction of treatment. And in many cases, ERP is also effective for anxiety.  

Regardless of diagnosis or lack thereof, therapy can help you gain a more clear-headed perspective on your relationship and desires. You can learn to make choices that stem from your values rather than your fears.

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April Kilduff, MA, LCPC

April Kilduff is a NOCD therapist who has exclusively treated OCD and anxiety disorders, as well as their intersection with the Autism spectrum, for over a decade. Her path to this career started with her own journey dealing with panic attacks, perfectionism and a couple phobias. When not working on exposures with members, you can find her at home reading books and hanging out with her two cats or out taking pictures and traveling the world.