Age gap in love
Age gaps: The relationship taboo that won't die
Lovelife | How We Live
Age gaps: The relationship taboo that won't die
(Image credit: Getty)
By Katie Bishop25th March 2022
Societies are increasingly progressive; today, many people accept that love presents in many ways. So why do people still judge couples who are many years apart?
A viral chart from 2019 keeps popping up on social media: a graph detailing Leonardo DiCaprio’s dating history. A Reddit user had spotted a trend – although the actor was 44 at the time, he seemingly only dated women aged 25 or younger, always breaking up with partners before they reached their 26th birthday.
Responses to the chart were mixed; some commended DiCaprio for his ability to attract younger women, while others berated the veteran actor, begging him to find someone closer to his own age. Even at three years old, the chart continues to resurface, as commentators keep a keen eye on DiCaprio’s current relationship with 24-year-old Camila Morrone.
The reactions to the actor’s dating habits embody the contentious views surrounding age-gap relationships – for some, they are a source of admiration, while for others, there is something inherently unsettling about coupling up with a much younger person.
From Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, to George and Amal Clooney, high-profile age-gap relationships have always set tongues wagging. Although in 2014 the average age difference in US heterosexual relationships was a relatively small 2.3 years, many couples have a much wider gap. In Western countries, around 8% of male-female couples have an age-gap of 10 years or more, rising to 25% in male-male unions and 15% of female-female relationships. For some the gap is even larger – data suggests that around 1% of heterosexual couples in the US have an age difference of 28 years or more.
Our views around age-gap relationships are shaped by thousands of years of evolutionary psychology, and generations of social and cultural norms. Within the last hundred years, economic shifts and increased gender equalities have changed what is considered a ‘normal’ age-gap, and recent social justice movements have increased scrutiny of power dynamics in mixed-age relationships. Couples with large age gaps often face judgement, and while some experts believe that this could be about to change, others argue that young people could be becoming more disapproving of mixed-age love than ever before.
An evolutionary nudge
Those who find DiCaprio’s dating habits distasteful aren’t without good reason. Aversions to age-gap relationships are very common and, like most taboos, they stem from thousands of years of evolution as well as more recent social and cultural cues.
“In many cultures, it is not considered acceptable to fall in love with someone who is much older or younger than you,” says Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic in London. “From an evolutionary perspective, the drive to have a family can have an impact on who we choose to have a relationship with – both from a biological perspective but also in the sense of both parents being alive to raise the child.”
For both men and women, fertility tends to decline after the age of about 35, and though women lose their ability to conceive much more rapidly, it makes sense that we’ve evolved to be attracted to people who are similarly aged. Although there is relatively little data on age in LGBTQ+ relationships, we know that age-gaps among same-sex couples are much more common, perhaps reflecting how much the ability to biologically conceive together influences how we approach finding a partner.
It’s not just about parenting, however. Pairing up with someone of a similar age makes your relationship more likely to go the distance, research shows. Experts believe that this is because these couples tend to go through life challenges and stages at a similar time, and can therefore continue to find common ground.
“In the initial 10 years of marriage, people report higher levels of marital satisfaction when their partner is younger than them,” says Grace Lordan, an associate professor of behavioural science at the London School of Economics, who is currently researching age-gap relationships and happiness. “However, over time, the marital satisfaction of different-aged couples declines more than similar-aged partners. The probability of similar-aged couples divorcing is also lower.”
Yet despite these factors nudging us towards partners of the same age, socio-economic circumstances can sometimes counteract evolutionary urges. In 1900, the average age-gap between couples was about double the gap in 2000; historically people (particularly those in the middle- and upper-classes) would have been much more likely to marry someone far older or younger than them.
The reasons for this are both biological and economic. If a 50-year-old man wants to have children, it is not in his interest to couple up with a similarly-aged woman who is much less likely to still be fertile. In a patriarchal society in which men have the economic power, the choice to pair up with a much younger woman would be more likely to be available to him.
In the 19th and early 20th Centuries, most women were excluded from the workforce, so it made sense for them to prioritise marrying someone who had already achieved financial security. For men, it made sense to establish themselves economically and worry about marriage at a later date – when due to their increased social power they were able to find younger wives who provided the best chance of having children.
Whom we judge and why
As women have gained greater economic power, however, the appeal of a much-older spouse has fallen, making age-gap relationships less common – and often more taboo.
These days, even as most societies embrace increasingly progressive views on love, relationships and the rich variety of ways they can present, couples where one person is much older than the other still face judgement. Rather than assume people are happily together, there's a tendency to worry about possible power imbalances, and view the relationship as transactional, assuming one party is seeking to elevate their social status or wealth. There's even specific vocabulary to aid that judgement; an older man must be a ‘sugar daddy’, a younger woman a ‘gold-digger’ or victim of ‘daddy issues’.
The relationship between Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron, married since 2007, has been scrutinised in the media (Credit: Alamy)
In recent years, that vocabulary has been expanded to include relationships in which women are the significantly older partner; words like ‘cougars’ and ‘toyboys’ reflect the rise in this kind of relationship. Statistics show that in 1963 just 15% of UK brides were older than their grooms. By 1998, this had risen to 26%, and findings from one 2011 study suggested that the number of women married or cohabiting with a man five years or younger had almost tripled since the 1970s.
Women who choose to date younger men seem to face a disproportionate amount of judgement. “Us humans are judgemental, and if what our neighbour is doing is misaligned with what we expect, we put a spotlight on it,” says Lordan. “Women who match with younger men go most against the grain when it comes to our narrative of marriage, and so suffer the most judgement.”
The media attention that surrounded French President Emmanuel Macron’s marriage to a woman 24 years his senior, or the fevered coverage of 41-year-old Kim Kardashian’s relationship with 28-year-old Pete Davidson only underlines this. Yet Touroni believes that older men/younger women relationships are now perceived with even more judgement than older women/younger men couples.
This is perhaps in part linked to the #MeToo movement, which placed increased attention on power dynamics in relationships. Some argue a significant age-gap, combined with the social and economic power that men wield in a male-dominated society, can leave young women in a vulnerable position. One study conducted shortly after #MeToo took hold shows that many outsiders believe that there’s an aspect of exploitation in age-gap relationships. Researchers found young people were particularly averse to relationships in which the male partner was older, and posited this was because they assumed that the relationship was exchange-based – for example, that people were exchanging sex for a certain lifestyle.
Will the age-gap taboo disappear?
Today, there is an increased acceptance that all relationships look different – whether this relates to sexuality, gender or even the number of people in the same relationship.
Touroni says as more kinds of relationships are normalised, she hopes that people will respect the choices of those in age-gap relationships. “We are living in an era of more freedom and flexibility, so I would like to think that over time we will become significantly less judgemental about other people’s relationship choices, whether that’s age-gaps or anything else. ”
Yet there’s little evidence that society’s fascination with age-gaps is lessening. So-called May-to-December celebrity love affairs still regularly make headlines, and young people seem even more judgemental of age-gap relationships than their older counterparts, particularly when a man is older than a female partner. Given that young people are generally at the forefront of social changes, their disapproval could mean that the age-gap taboo might become even more deeply entrenched.
“Overall, I do hold out hope that we are becoming less judgemental of others, whatever their choices are,” says Lordan. “But the narratives of what a ‘good’ relationship looks like are so hard-wired in Western society, it is unlikely that we will reach a place where people stop judging the lifestyle choices of others that go against these norms, including age-gap couples.”
8 Ways to Bridge the Age Gap in Your Relationship
Age differences between partners might typically be around three years or less. But sometimes love can be age-blind. As such, May-December relationships are not unheard of, thanks, in some part, to society's burgeoning acceptance of age gaps. Spouses may have more in common and share similar belief systems when their age difference is just several years, but whenever a significant age gap exists, couples may be more likely to have different life goals and perspectives, which might prove the two people incompatible long term (although it's not a given). We rounded up some age-gap advice to help ensure your relationship is successful and holds up over time.
Read on for some ways to handle your relationship if there's a significant age gap between you and your partner.
01 of 08
Although this applies to any relationship, an awareness of your partner's expectations is particularly important when you're far apart in age. An older man may want his younger partner to birth a child, for example, while the woman may be more focused on financial security. At the relationship's outset, and during its course, honestly share and discuss your expectations to avoid miscommunication.
If you're struggling with merging life expectations due to an age gap but don't want to walk away just yet, consider having a few sessions of couple's therapy to work through the issues.
02 of 08
Accept the Differences
From interests to perspectives, chances are you will encounter many differences with your partner. One difference that's especially salient in May-December relationships is being in different developmental stages in life. While one partner may be riding out the wave of a well-developed career, the other might be focused on the hustle of building theirs. Instead of trying to force your partner to conform to the lifestyle that your particular stage requires, be supportive of where they are in theirs.
03 of 08
Consider Your Role as Caretaker
At some point, an aging spouse may need long-term health care and may no longer be able to do certain things that you both enjoy. Ask yourself whether, as the younger partner in the relationship, you're prepared to be a caretaker, give up certain activities, face the possibility of living a celibate life, and take on extra household duties. Sure, you may not hesitate to say "yes" now, but will that still be the case in five, 10, or 20 years? It's important to be completely honest with yourself in this situation, and, depending on the seriousness of your relationship, discuss such possibilities with your partner.
04 of 08
Know That Maturity Is Relative
You must view your partner as a full-grown adult, rather than someone to teach, shape, or mold. No one wants to be scolded or patronized for acting a certain way or saying certain things—especially when you're the one who's older and making admonishments in the name of age-earned wisdom and experience. Likewise, if you're the younger person, avoid referring to your partner as "boomer," "old-timer," or any other turn of phrase that implies their outlook is too traditional or passé. Age alone isn't the only barometer of maturity.
05 of 08
Identify Mutual Interests
Equalize the age gap by focusing on your mutual interests. Spend time doing things you both love, and your difference in age will seemingly melt away. Meeting each others' friends (and socializing with different generations) can be stimulating and empowering for both parties. Explore each others' worlds by trying new things, meeting new people, and being more involved in each others' lives.
06 of 08
Create Some Space
Keep in mind that balance is essential. Take time to yourself for recharging and introspection and also to hang out with friends or partake in activities that don't magnetize your partner. Maintaining a sense of individuality within your relationship can be just as important as cultivating common interests and shared experiences.
07 of 08
Whatever you do, don't allow your age gap to become the elephant in the room. Instead, openly and honestly communicate concerns (age-related or otherwise) and work to find mutually acceptable solutions to issues. Just as with any other relationship, communication is key to the health and wellness of your union.
08 of 08
Respect the Relationship
If the two of you are fighting a lot, chances are age isn't solely to blame. A strong emotional and physical connection is the most important part of any relationship regardless of age, gender, and cultural differences. Be confident in your decision to be in a relationship with someone much older or younger and understand that, like any other relationship, things can go smoothly or awry—and that isn't necessarily a byproduct of an age gap.
how it will affect relationships
When it comes to marriage, is age really just a number to ignore?
Marriage and relationships
Love and relationships
So, you met him - that same prince on a white horse. You are happier than ever, and your relationship is a real standard worthy of the Chamber of Weights and Measures. You understand each other perfectly, everything is fine in bed, and it is so perfect that you didn’t even have to explain that there is no male and female homework: everything is honestly and fairly divided in half.
But friends and relatives look askance at you, because your boyfriend is quite suitable for your parents as classmates, and for you as a father. Could this be a problem?
American psychotherapist Jenn Mann, who has been practicing for over 30 years, during this time has seen many unions where one of the partners is 10 years or more older than the other. However, we ourselves often heard about such people - there are enough celebrities who are married or married not at all to the same age. For example, Michael Douglas is now 77, and his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones is 52, and they have been together for over 20 years. And, apparently, they are quite happy, although there were some problems: in 2013, Michael said that he was going to get a divorce, but soon the movie stars announced that they were staying together.
Michael Douglas is 25 years older than his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones
Jason Momoa is 12 years younger than his wife Lisa Bonet
There are also reverse situations: say, 42-year-old Jason Momoa has been married to 54-year-old actress Lisa for four years Bonya, and before that they had been dating for 12 years. They have two children, and Jason and Lisa look very pleased with their union. But these are celebrities, but what happens in the lives of ordinary people if they choose partners much older or younger than themselves? How big is the impact of age difference on the duration and quality of relationships?
Studies show that marital satisfaction is often lower when there is a watershed of 10 years or more between husband and wife. But this, according to Dr. Mann, does not mean that you should worry about your union - you just need to be more attentive to it and understand what difficulties you have to overcome. It is also worth considering that the difference in age is also related to the number of years lived. It will be more difficult for 20- and 40-year-old partners to reach an agreement than for 50- and 70-year-old partners: the older we get, the more life experience we have that will help us cope with problems.
But why do they arise? Jenn Mann believes there are four main reasons for this.
Imbalance of power
“The main difficulty that I encounter over and over again in my practice is that with a significant difference in age, as a rule, one person has much more life experience, and often financial capabilities. This gap creates an imbalance in the pair,” says Mann.
According to her, those who are older often try to control the situation. At first, this is even pleasant for a young woman: it seems to her that a wise man takes care of her and takes full responsibility for her life together. But such impulses can easily develop into total control, and in no case should you agree to it. Just because you're younger doesn't mean you're a child!
Different frames of reference
There is a moment in When Harry Met Sally where the main character tells a friend how he asked a much younger girl where she was when Kennedy was shot. She is surprised in response: “Did Ted Kennedy get shot?” For her, Kennedy is not President John at all, but his younger brother and Senator Edward. But in Russia, for example, there will be two Chaliapins: those who grew up in the USSR will immediately remember the legendary opera singer, but those who were born later will most likely think about the Star Factory graduate.
Small things like this point to discrepancies between people of different ages. Habitual pop culture, life experiences are significantly different. And this, of course, will make it difficult to find a common language and create a deep connection. On the other hand, why not treat it like a resource? You can learn so much from each other! The main thing is that everyone respects someone else's background.
“I know a lot of people who chose a partner much older or younger than themselves and ended up breaking up with family members who judged them,” says Mann. Colleagues, friends, acquaintances, relatives - everyone will have an opinion about the fact that you are dating an “old man” or a “boy”. You have to be prepared for the fact that you will face pressure, lose support, or even find yourself in isolation.
On the other hand, why do you want those who are ready to end a relationship just because of your partner's age? Even if a boyfriend is a danger to you because he uses his advantages, really close people, on the contrary, will try to be there to insure you in case of difficulties.
Problems with parents
As Dr. Mann explains, sometimes choosing an older partner has nothing to do with his positive qualities. It is not uncommon for a person who has not worked through their problems with their mother or father to seek to recreate this dynamic in a romantic relationship without being aware of it.
"The unconscious mind doesn't know the difference between past, present and future and is always trying to heal all wounds here and now," says Mann. But an attempt to heal a boyfriend will not lead to anything good, and therefore you need to understand whether it’s really about feelings or you are trying to replay your relationship with your father.
But if you are sure that the problems listed by Mann do not concern you, then be calm: regardless of the numbers in your passport, your relationship has the same chance of development and a happy ending "lived happily ever after" as any other.
Have you been in a relationship with a big age difference?
Photo: Getty images
Age difference between a man and a woman: how it affects relationshipsThe effect of age difference on relationships: Pixabay Alec and Hilaria Baldwin are vivid examples of happy unions in which lovers have a significant age difference. Can lovers of different ages live a long happy life together or is their relationship doomed?
Age difference: how it affects relationships
Even a very significant difference in years in a relationship has ceased to shock the world. However, not all couples with a big age difference live happily "until death do us part ...", many lovers break up. How does age difference affect relationships?
Scientific research proves that age difference in a relationship matters to both partners. Playboy magazine writes that the chances of staying together decrease for lovers in proportion to the increase in the number of years that separate them. Here is the probability of a break:
- Difference up to 1 year - 3%.
- Difference up to 5 years - 18%.
- The difference from 10 to 19 years is 39%.
- The difference of 20 years or more is 95%.
Even more interesting studies were carried out by Sven Drefal, Doctor of Demography and Philosophy. The study of couples of different ages led the scientist to the conclusion that the age difference between a man and a woman affects the life expectancy of partners. Drefal found out that:
- in marriages of different ages, when the wife is older than the husband, life expectancy decreases for both partners;
- if the husband is older in a couple, a large difference in the age of the spouses contributes to an increase in the life expectancy of a man and a decrease in a woman.
In addition, the well-being of relationships is influenced by psycho-emotional factors, such as public opinion, the presence of common and illegitimate children, social status.How does the age difference affect relationships: Pixabay
Is there an optimal age difference between spouses that guarantees a lasting union? Today there are several opinions.
Divide the age of the older partner by 2 and add 7
The Economist columnist Sumaya Keynes notes that the existing formula for calculating the ideal age gap between spouses is only good for theory.
Practical research has shown that on dating sites, women are mostly looking for a man of about their age. At the same time, men, regardless of their own age, are looking for girls around the age of 20 to meet.
Difference of 2‒5 years
Economics and Life magazine says that in a marriage where the age of the spouses practically does not differ, over time, the husband and wife become similar not only in habits, behavior, perception of the world, but also externally. It is easier for lovers to find mutual understanding, solve life problems, build a joint life.
Scholars Andrew Francis-Tan and Hugo M. Mialon argue that peer marriages are the strongest. They found that unions in which the difference between the spouses of five years, break up 18% more often than unions of the same age partners.
Today, even in science, there is no exact formula for determining the ideal age difference in a couple. A well-known psychologist in the field of relationships, Anna Iotko, believes that only the person himself can create barriers to harmonious relationships.
Age difference: the man is significantly older
What are relationships with a big age difference built on and can spouses be happy if the partner is 10, 15, 20 or more years older?
Associate Professor, Candidate of Psychological Sciences Irina Khokh in her publication “The Specifics of Psychological Dissatisfaction in an Unequal Marriage” writes that respondents consider sexual harmony, which is influenced by the emotional maturity of partners, to be one of the main conditions for marital happiness in relationships of different ages.
But if we consider both the psychological and physiological aspects, then relationships with a difference in age have many pitfalls.
10 years difference
If spouses are 10 years apart, there is no difference in age when he is 30 and his partner is 20 years old. But as the partners get older and the wife reaches the age of 45-50, the sexual needs of one and the possibilities of the other may not match.
An example of a happy marriage with such a difference in age (11 years) is the union of Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively.
15 years difference
When a man is 15 years older than her lover, a woman seeks stability, an opportunity to gain experience that her peer cannot give. G. Zalevsky in the article “Marriages of different ages: psychological problems” writes that for a man, an alliance with a young partner is an opportunity to introduce looseness into intimate life, a way to increase self-esteem, and rejuvenate.
An example of a happy couple is George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin (17 years difference).
Difference of 20 or more years
Youth, naivety and freshness of the beloved attract a mature man. Girls find wisdom, experience, protection, stability, including material ones, in a mature lover.
The weak side of such marriages can be called various goals, life views, interests. If partners are connected by common interests or business, the marriage becomes stronger and happier.
For example, Bruce Willis is happily married to Emmy Heming, who is 23 years his junior.
It is wrong to think that over time spouses will become unhappy. Sociologists S. Klimova and M. Elyutina in the article “Unequal marriage: the social foundations of the combination of ages” indicate that the fact of the partner’s youth makes the older spouse take care of himself, keep his body in good shape at any age.
Age difference: the woman is much older
Marriages in which the woman is older than the man are not uncommon today. G. Zalevsky writes that in such a union, the sexual and emotional upsurge lasts about 3-5 years. When the second phase of a marriage hits, differences in lifestyle, interests, and intimate life can lead to problems and provoke divorce.
The union will be happy when the partners love each other and realize that they really need this relationship. Then the desire to bring happiness, comfort, peace reigns between the spouses, and the difference in age, even very significant, is not felt by the spouses.
Mostly self-sufficient, accomplished and financially independent women who have realized their potential enter into such marriages. A young partner attracts a mature woman sexually more than a man of her age. Often women:
- provide financial assistance to young husbands;
- help realize dreams and aspirations;
- promote career advancement;
- suggest how to solve difficult situations.
In such a marriage, a man is in a state of psychological comfort, develops faster, becomes self-confident. A striking example is Brigitte and Emmanuel Macron.
In such families, most often the woman plays the role of the head of the family. If the state of affairs suits both partners, then the couple is able to live a happy and harmonious life.
But it happens that the role of a student, which suited a man before, begins to weigh him down. He grows up and understands that he wants to become the head of the family. Then conflicts and misunderstandings begin in the family. A woman is shocked and does not always agree to transfer the dominant role, become submissive and give the reins of power into the hands of a man.
In such a situation, G. Zalevsky advises:
- give the man more freedom;
- stop patronizing him;
- let your partner make their own choices and decisions;
- rate his willingness to take responsibility.
In terms of sexual relations, marriages with a difference in age develop very harmoniously. The wife has experience and strives for sex, and the man has a lot of strength and desire to make any of her dreams come true.
In such marriages, a woman subconsciously feels the fear of aging and loss of external attractiveness. A well-known psychologist in the field of relations M. Labkovsky writes that a woman's sexuality does not depend on age, size, beauty or body shape, but comes from within.
When she likes herself, feels attractive, she becomes sexy for men, age has absolutely nothing to do with it. Many happy couples have proven this, including the Duchess of Alba and her husband Alfonso Diez, Sam and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Jason Momoa and Lisa Bonet.
You can find a huge number of advantages and disadvantages of a union of different ages, but they are unlikely to matter for lovers.