Taylor Swift's All Too Well Has Us Reflecting On Age-Gap Relationships

"When you look at red flags through rose coloured glasses, they just look like flags.”
Dylan O’Brien and Sadie Sink in the All Too Well video.
UMG
Dylan O’Brien and Sadie Sink in the All Too Well video.

When I was 22, I began dating a lawyer in his 30s who I had nothing in common with. My age was bought up a lot – initially as a way to pit me and my “maturity” against “other girls my age”, then eventually to belittle me for being “a kid”.

And it seems many other women who entered a relationship in early adulthood with someone considerably older than them can relate.

Over the weekend, Taylor Swift’s All Too Well was re-released in a 10-minute version, with extra lyrics and an accompanying 14-minute short film, telling the story of an age gap relationship.

There’s been major speculation the song was inspired by the star’s former relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal, who was nine years her senior when they dated over 10 years ago. Swift has not confirmed if the story and film are based on personal experience, or entirely fictional. Still, the music video starring actors Dylan O’Brien, 30, and Sadie Sink, 19, has got a lot of people talking.

During the video, directed by Swift herself, we see a heated argument between the fictional couple, in which O’Brien’s character belittles Sink’s character and manipulates her feelings. For many viewers watching, the relationship speaks to the unequal power dynamics that are sometimes to be found in relationships with a significant age-gap.

While some of these relationships can and do work, particularly in later adulthood, a difference in age can be particularly tricky – or potentially problematic – when one person is in a different life stage to another.

Since the video’s release, many girls and women have been sharing the difficulties they have faced, as seen in the All Too Well video.

Other women can relate to Taylor Swift's music video.
FOTOGRAFIA INC. via Getty Images
Other women can relate to Taylor Swift's music video.

Like Sink’s character, who has to deal with her partner’s tantrums, I too watched my former partner throw car keys at me, tell me I was blowing things out of proportion, and gaslight me over how things had been. I wish I had seen the signs earlier and questioned why a man in his 30s had courted someone a decade younger, and why he wasn’t interested in women his own age.

This is something 20-year-old Sara* can relate to. When she was 18, she met a 36-year-old lawyer at a party.

“He was extremely charming,” Sara, from London, tells me. “It was supposed to be a casual thing, but one thing lead to another and we ended up being a lot more serious than we were supposed to be.

“I think the biggest red flag was all of his exes were a lot more younger than him. And it seemed like he was getting older but the exes were between 18-22.”

It soon became evident that Sara and this man were at different stages of their lives. “I was still at uni halls trying to make do with ramen for dinner and he was this really cool lawyer who had his own 4-bedroom house and expensive cars,” she says.

Sara realises the unequal footing they had been on now, but at the time, she could only revere him. Eventually, the cracks in their age gaps began to show and they broke up recently, just shy of their two-year anniversary.

“You unknowingly idealise them in your head, so much and you feel like you require their validation every step of the way,” she says.

“The thing I distinctly remember is how he would make me cry and put me in the some of the darkest moments of my life and then instantly have a way of making it seem like it was my fault.”

Sara said friends raised concerns about gaslighting in the relationship, but for a long time she didn’t recognise these behaviours.

“He also had a way of making it seem like he was smarter than me in every aspect and made sure to point it out every step of the way,” she says. “As they say, when you look at red flags through rose coloured glasses, they just look like flags.”

Sara was of legal age (as was Swift in the story of All Too Well – “It’s supposed to be fun turning twenty-one”), but other women have been reflecting on relationships they’ve had with older partners when they were minors.

Heather*, a 23-year-old neuroscientist from Texas, began seeing a man in his early 20s when she was 15.

“I remember before we started dating, I googled age of consent laws (which was 16 in our state) because I was worried I would get him in trouble,” she says. “Looking back on it now, if you have to google age of consent, you should probably just walk away.”

When the pair started dating, she says he began cutting her off from friends, and they ended up only socialising with him and his friends.

“The scene in the All Too Well film where they’re arguing after a dinner party brought back a flood of memories,” she says. “Any time he and I were with his friends, he would hardly acknowledge me, and he would use those same gaslight-y arguments. Any time we disagreed or I mentioned how he was treating me, he would call me immature.”

In hindsight, Heather describes the behaviour of this man as “extremely verbally abusive” and says he often focused on her age as a way to belittle her. “Also due to our age difference, he was a bit obsessed with my virginity,” she says. “That in itself should have been a huge red flag, but I was only 15 and hadn’t had a serious relationship yet.”

After their break up, Heather says it took years of therapy for her to feel ready for a “normal” relationship.

“I think in our culture men dating younger women is too normalised, and so a lot of people saw nothing wrong with our relationship,” she says. “I’m now in a very healthy long-term relationship, but every now-and-again I’ll find another behaviour or something I do in this relationship that I developed to protect myself from people like [him].”

Victoria Guerrero, 22, also from Texas, had a similar experience, although she didn’t share a huge age gap. When she was 19, she started seeing a man who was five years older.

“We met at the university we both attended,” she explains. “Although it was a small age gap, I was 19 when the relationship started which made a huge difference. It was the first serious relationship I had with someone I met during college.

“Age played a huge part in our relationship because I was constantly hyperaware of how less experienced at life I was than him, and he also reminded me at every step of the relationship that he was much more mature and responsible than I was.”

Victoria started seeing an older man when she was 19.
Guerrero
Victoria started seeing an older man when she was 19.

Guerrero was the same age as her boyfriend’s little sister, but she says she felt “enamoured” by the idea that an older man could be interested in her.

“Looking back now, I don’t know why I didn’t question that he wasn’t interested in people his own age,” she says. “I still feel pain, sadness, and regret when I look back at it but I also feel glad that it’s behind me and I know so much more now than I did at 19.”

For this reason, Guerrero was especially moved by the All Too Well video.

“I think that’s why the release of the 10-minute version of All Too Well is so special to me because she was in a very raw and heartbroken state when she first released the original version and now she sings it from an empowered state of knowing that she’s grown from it, even though she shouldn’t have had to go through that experience in the first place, which is something I really relate to.”

*Some names have been changed and surnames omitted to provide anonymity.