People usually prefer romantic partners in the same age range as them. It makes sense because we’re more exposed to people in our age range through school, university, and jobs.
People similar in age tend to have similar mate values, i.e., how valuable they’re in the dating marketplace.
While most people would love to pair up with a partner of much higher mate value to get more than they give, they pair with those who have a mate value similar to theirs.
Pairing with a similar mate value partner gives stability to romantic relationships. After all, if you’re very attractive and end up with a not-so-attractive person, you’ll feel that you traded down and deserved better.
Of course, physical attractiveness is only one (but important) determinant of mate value. Age is another important factor.
This article will discuss why age-gap relationships don’t usually work, why they evoke the stigma they do, and how to overcome that stigma.
The infrequency of age-gap relationships
The very infrequency of age-gap relationships suggests that they must be more challenging and harder to sustain than an age-matched relationship. Most people do not prefer relationships with large age gaps.
The average age gap between heterosexual partners is three years, the man being about three years older than the woman.
Age increases the mate value of a man and decreases that of a woman. An older man is more knowledgeable, experienced, emotionally, and financially stable. Women generally prefer these qualities in an ideal mate.
After a certain point, age makes a man less physically attractive, but this is more or less compensated by his acquired resources.
When men choose women, they place a premium on physical attractiveness and youth (fertility). Age makes a woman less fertile. They stop being fertile when they hit menopause in their forties.
This is why it’s common to see older men partnering with much younger women but not the other way around.
Studies show that both men and women are satisfied when women are married to older men.1
Why large age-gap relationships don’t work
People seem to be okay with the man being a few years older than the woman. However, if this age gap exceeds ten years, eyebrows start rising, and nose wrinkles appear out of disgust.2
Society stigmatizes relationships where the age gap between partners exceeds ten years because they perceive the relationship as unequal.3
When there’s a minimal age gap between partners, the relationship is perceived to be more equal. Each partner is bringing something to the table.
In contrast, when the age gap is huge, one party must be taking advantage of the other. This is especially true for an older woman who’s with a much younger man.4
Since she has little or nothing to offer in terms of fertility, she must be exploiting him.
Family, friends, and other well-meaning people discourage you from pursuing a large age-gap relationship. They express concerns like:
“When your teenage son joins high school, your husband will be old enough to be his grandfather.”
People who pursue large age-gap relationships risk social disapproval and may get disowned by their families. To some, that cost is too much to bear. They choose not to go ahead with the relationship.
It may be a perfectly rational decision to make because research shows that the larger the age gap, the more dissatisfied married partners are.5
Stigma always has some kernel of truth to it. Your friends and family might be genuinely concerned about you, and their advice may make a lot of sense.
But you need to understand where all of this is coming from.
Happiness vs Reproduction
Society cares that you reproduce first and foremost, even if you have to sacrifice happiness for it. Seeing how rapidly the human population has been expanding, it seems that society has managed to do its job well.
Reproducing does make you happy, no question about it. After all, that’s the ultimate goal of genes. Evolution has ensured that we like breeding.
Sometimes, however, the need for reproduction clashes with our other needs. At that time, you have to decide what you want to prioritize.
For instance, many people prefer jobs they hate to get resources for raising offspring. They want to play it safe, risking general unhappiness for the happiness of reproduction. Guess who encourages them to take this path? Society.
It’s a perfectly rational thing to do from a reproductive standpoint. But people who choose careers they like are much happier overall.
It’s not that they don’t want to reproduce. It’s just that they believe reproducing is one factor out of many contributing to their happiness.
Society wants you to prioritize reproduction over everything else. You may choose a partner with whom you have a large age gap, but you enjoy their company. Society couldn’t care less that you enjoy their company.
Society wants you to choose a partner with whom you’ll have the best chances of raising offspring, whether or not you enjoy spending time with your partner.
You may be happy in your age-gap relationship, but your friends and family are only concerned about whether or not you can successfully raise offspring with them.
They think about future scenarios where you may experience problems doing so and worry about your yet-to-be-born teenage son.
Again, their concerns may be legit, but you have to understand what they all revolve around. If it’s too embarrassing for you to have your 70-year-old husband be the father of your teenaged son, go ahead and end the relationship. Ultimately, the decision lies with you.
Would you choose a partner you’re not happy with but can raise offspring with, or would you prefer a partner you’re happy with but might face some minor issues in other areas?
Ideally, you want to choose someone you can be happy with and also successfully raise offspring with. But if you had to make a choice, what would you do?
What do you want?
If you’re in a relationship where there’s a large age gap between you and your partner, I want you to think about why you got into this relationship.
Ask yourself questions like:
- Am I in a consenting relationship, or was I manipulated?
- Am I getting less than I’m giving?
- Where do I see this relationship going?
- Are we both okay with where this relationship is headed?
- Is this relationship worth fighting for?
At the end of the day, the success of a relationship depends more on how compatible and happy you are with each other and less on age. Although rare, there are examples of successful, large age-gap relationships.
- Groot, W., Den Brink, V., & Maassen, H. (2002). Age and education differences in marriages and their effects on life satisfaction. Journal of Happiness Studies, 3(2), 153-165.
- Lehmiller, J. J., & Christopher, R. A. (2008). Commitment in age-gap heterosexual romantic relationships: A test of evolutionary and socio-cultural predictions. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 32(1), 74-82.
- Collisson, B., & De Leon, L. P. (2020). Perceived inequity predicts prejudice towards age-gap relationships. Current Psychology, 39(6), 2108-2115.
- Lehmiller, J., & Agnew, C. (2011). May-December paradoxes: An exploration of age-gap relationships in western society.
- Lee, W. S., & McKinnish, T. (2018). The marital satisfaction of differently aged couples. Journal of population economics, 31(2), 337-362.