There’s a strong prejudice in our society against romantic couples with a considerable age difference. Tabloids were abuzz when actor George Clooney announced he was marrying Amal Alamuddin, who is 17 years his junior. And when Emmanuel Macron was elected president of France, many eyebrows were raised as it came to light that his wife Brigitte was 24 years older than him.
When the topic of age-gap relationships comes up, someone is bound to mention the “half your age plus seven” rule. According to this rule, you take the age of the older person, divide it in half, and then add 7 to determine the youngest age of a person that they can be romantically involved with.
There’s nothing scientific about this rule, but it does reflect the general consensus that age gaps are more important at younger than older ages. For instance, an 18-year-old high school senior can date a 16-year-old sophomore, but a 21-year-old college student should only date those 18 and older. But the rule also breaks down at older ages. George Clooney was 53 when he married the 36-year-old Amal, whose age is still above his lower limit of 34.
Furthermore, the “half your age plus seven” rule doesn’t explain why people look down on May-December romances. In fact, very little research has been conducted to date on this subject. However, an article recently published by Azusa Pacific University psychologists Brian Collisson and Luciana Ponce de Leon provides our first insight into the reasons behind social prejudice against age-gap relationships.
Collisson and Ponce de Leon started with the hypothesis that people look down on age-gap romances because they perceive them as being unequal. Specifically, the prediction is that people will believe the older partner is getting more out of the relationship than the younger partner is.
According to this view, the older partner couldn’t have attracted the younger partner on the basis of looks or personality alone, so they must have enticed them with money or other resources. In traditional societies, it’s not at all unusual for younger women to marry older men who are politically powerful and economically secure. But in modern egalitarian societies, the belief that people should marry for love—and love alone—is strong.
To test their hypothesis, Collisson and Ponce de Leon recruited 99 participants from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, a public website frequently used to find research participants from the general population. Under the guise of a “Social Attitudes Survey,” the researchers presented the participants with 16 different male-female relationship vignettes. Embedded in these were 4 key scenarios:
- An older man with a younger woman.
- A younger man with an older woman.
- A young man with a young woman.
- An old man with an old woman.
The other vignettes included mixed-race couples (Black and White), mixed-weight couples (skinny and fat), and also mixed-social class (SES) partnerships (rich and poor). One reason for including these other relationship types was to hide the true intent of the study from the participants. However, responses to these other mixed-couple vignettes also provided data for testing the hypothesis that people look down on age-gap relationships because they perceive them as unequal.
After reading each vignette, the participants reported their feelings about the relationship using a “feeling thermometer,” where 0 meant “cold, highly unfavorable,” and 99 meant “warm, highly favorable.” They also indicated the perceived inequity of the relationship on a seven-point scale, where 1 meant “He is getting a much better deal than she is” and 7 meant “She is getting a much better deal than he is.” The midpoint, 4, meant “They are both getting the same, equal deal.”
The results provided partial support for the hypothesis. As expected, participants rated the two same-age relationships (young man and young woman, old man and old woman) favorably, but looked down on the two age-gap romances (old man and young woman, young man and old woman). Furthermore, they disapproved of both age-gap relationships equally. While this finding is not surprising, it does show that the procedure Collisson and Ponce de Leon used did in fact pick up on commonly-held social beliefs.
Next, the researchers compared the favorability ratings for the age-gap relationships with the other mixed couples. The results showed generally favorable attitudes toward mixed-race, mixed-weight, and mixed-SES relationships. These data likely reflect the growing acceptance of such marriages in modern society.
However, the participants rated the age-gap relationships much less favorably. This finding suggests that May-December romances are still stigmatized in today’s society, even though we’ve become more accepting of other types of mixed marriages.
When Collisson and Ponce de Leon looked at the ratings of inequity, however, they found some interesting patterns. Keep in mind that the researchers predicted that the participants would always perceive the older partner as getting more out of the relationship.
Older men were perceived as getting more out of the relationship than their younger partners, in line with the prediction. However, in the case of so-called cougar-cub relationships, the younger men were seen as getting as much out of the relationship as their older partners. In other words, age-gap romances are frowned on, regardless of whether the man or the woman is older, but it’s only when the man is older that the relationship is considered unequal.
In sum, it may be the case that people frown on older men getting romantically involved with younger women because they believe the man is taking advantage of his young partner. However, inequity doesn’t explain why relationships involving an older woman and a younger man are equally frowned on, since people don't see these as unequal.
One possibility is that these data are a reflection of benevolent sexism, which is the attitude that women need to be protected. I suspect that many people assume a young man knows what he is getting into when he enters into a cougar-cub relationship. But a benevolently sexist attitude would view the older man as seducing the innocent younger woman into a relationship that is not to her advantage.
This is just speculation, and it would have to be tested in subsequent studies. As is so often the case in science, further research is needed.
Facebook image: Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock
Collisson, B. & Ponce de Leon, L. (2020). Perceived inequity predicts prejudice toward age-gap relationships. Current Psychology, 39, 2108-2115.