Age Gap Relationships: Age Matters, But The Age Gap Doesn’t
My husband and I love watching relationship reality shows like The Bachelor, 90-Day Fiancé, and Married at First Sight. (I know, I know, it’s a guilty pleasure, but these shows are so entertaining.) We especially love watching the first few episodes in a season, when the couple is meeting for the first time (or just moving in together). Everything is so fresh and new and happy, and my husband I get to sit on our high horse (aka our Target-brand couch) while we eat potato chips and place bets on which couples we think will “make it.”
Personally, I like to take the couples’ families into consideration. If the producers bring the parents or a friend in, and they hate the new spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend, I declare immediately that the relationship will never last.
My husband uses the couple’s age gap as a predictor. Whenever he sees a 19-year-old paired with a 35-year-old he immediately puts his (metaphorical) money on the relationship ending in a matter of weeks. He doesn’t care if the couple gets along great or if they come from the same hometown or if they both collect baseball cards; he’s certain it will never work. With a big age difference like that, he reasons, they’re bound to have different priorities, goals, and interests. They’re in different phases of life.
But is age really a determining factor in the success of a relationship? The research on it hasn’t been quite clear.
One study, conducted by Psychology of Women Quarterly in 2008, found that those couples with a large age-gap (at least ten years) reported higher satisfaction levels, better trust and commitment, and less jealousy than those without an age-gap. So, that’s good news for those couples with a few years between them.
However, another survey, conducted by Emory University, found that the larger the age differences in a married couple, the more likely it was that the marriage would end in divorce. This 2014 study found that couples with just one year between them had a mere a 3% chance of divorce, though for couples with a five-year difference it jumped up to 18%. Those with a 10-year difference had a 39% chance of divorce while couples with a 25-year difference (or more) had a whopping 95% divorce rate.
Now, these results seem to conflict. How could those with an age gap be both happier and less likely to last?
One possibility is that perhaps many couples with the ten-year gap do feel more satisfied in their relationship (as per the first study) but there could be some factors that come with an age difference (such as child bearing or differing career goals) that could lead to a separation in the long-term, as represented by those polled in the second study.
Either way, looking at these studies, I wasn’t satisfied. I wasn’t sure if I really believed that an age gap could determine the success of a relationship. I started wondering if there were other factors these studies hadn’t taken into consideration like societal pressures.
While it’s been reported that in some places, an age gap is relatively popular, in Western countries, only 8% of heterosexual couples have a 10-year gap or more. In regards to same-sex couples, the percentage is a little higher, with about 25% of male and 15% of female couples having a large age gap, though that’s still far from a majority.
And it’s no secret that couples with a significant age gap have reported experiencing disapproval. The #husbandnotdad social media trend from 2018 is a perfect example of this. Under this hashtag, women posted photos of themselves with their much older partner, often getting backlash for their photos or disclosing in their caption about societal pressure they’ve experienced. The hashtag rose in popularity when Courtney Thornton, 25, shared a post of her with her husband, who is 57.
But while these couples may have a large age gap, not all the younger mates are really that “young.” One couple, who got some press during the popularity of that hashtag, does in fact have a large age gap: almost 40 years, but the younger partner isn’t a teenager, she’s not even in her 20s. In fact, she’s almost 40. The two acknowledge how unusual their age difference is, but they do seem very happy. This made me wonder if perhaps the success and failure of relationships is less about how many years there are between couples—and more about how old the younger person is when the couple meets.
One study shows that on average, people meet their spouse in their 20s (25 for women, 28 for men). And this makes sense. People don’t usually find their life partner in their teens or early 20s because people change as they grow. Someone you like when you’re 20 might not be the right match for you a few years later.
When it comes to my own relationship, my husband and I have no age gap at all. We’re the same age, in fact, we were born just ten days apart. We’ve always thought this was sort of funny but never really thought of it as anything more than an opportunity to have duel birthday parties.
In fact, before we met, I’d never even considered the idea of looking for a younger or older mate. I didn’t really have the option. My husband and I met at high school, an environment where everyone is within three years of everyone else.
When we’re younger, all of our potential S/O’s are almost exclusively our age. High school kids date other high school kids and college kids usually date other college kids. Of course, some outliers will date someone they meet at work, or might meet someone through an older or younger sibling, but for the most part, we’re put into a group of our peers and we date the people we know.
But, that all changes when we leave those environments. Out in the world, away from classes where everyone is 17, it’s actually difficult to find someone exactly your age. Not everyone is within three years of you, in fact, most people aren’t. Some people might still gravitate to potential mates from their own age group, but not everyone. A lot of people just try to find someone they mesh with or someone they’re attracted to. Because when you find someone you truly love, age shouldn’t matter at all.