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Relationships

Does Age Really Matter in a Relationship?

Why age-gap relationships happen and when they work.

Key points

  • Age-gap relationships, often called May-December relationships, face unique challenges.
  • Heterosexual couples tend to have about a three-year age difference, research suggests.
  • Evolutionary psychology explains why men are usually older in heterosexual age-gap relationships.

Age is just a number, right?

For some romantic couples, absolutely. They never think about their age as a factor in their compatibility. Of course, these couples tend to be close in age. Modest differences in age, especially when men are older, tend not to preoccupy couples as they develop their relationships.

For other couples, however, age is much more than a number. These "age-gap" relationships, sometimes called "May-December" relationships, are comprised of one person who is markedly older than the other. When a significant age gap exists between partners, age becomes a salient issue, sometimes a deal-breaker in the early stages of relationship development.

Age Isn't Like Other Characteristics

You've heard the idea that "birds of a feather flock together"? This maxim is generally true when it comes to love. People fall in love with others who are similar to them on a whole host of dimensions. Educational background, values, political orientations, race and ethnicity, leisure interests, you name it. Yet, as robust as this pattern might be, age bucks the trend. Research indicates that heterosexual couples tend to differ in age by about three years and men tend to be older (Buss, 1989; Conroy-Beam, 2019).

The standard three-year age gap has some wiggle room before age becomes salient. The larger the age gap, the more partners, and the public, might take notice.

Age Differences Can Make People Uncomfortable

Age gaps between partners can generate self-consciousness about one's relationship, concerns that the relationship won't work, and hypersensitivity towards others' ideas about the appropriateness of a relationship. In these cases, age gaps are observable; obvious. A 15-year span, a 25-year span. According to the Today Show, Katharine McPhee wasn't anticipating a positive public reaction to her relationship with David Foster, who is 35 years her senior; George Clooney has similarly confessed to Howard Stern that he didn't think his now-wife Amal would be interested in him because he's 17 years older.

The negative societal response to age gap relationships may reflect people's objections to unfair, inequitable relationships. Evidence suggests that prejudice tied to age-gap relationships is accounted for by the belief that one person (the older person) is reaping more rewards from the relationship than the other person (Collisson & De Leon, 2018). Perhaps observers respond negatively to May-December relationships because they feel as though the older person is taking advantage of the younger person.

Age Preferences Are Embedded Into Our Mating Psychology

How we think about age in romantic relationships is not arbitrary: rather, it's a crucial factor shaping how we approach relationships, according to evolutionary psychology.

Evolutionary psychology is based on the premise that the human mind has evolved adaptive strategies to support reproduction and survival (Buss, 2016). Along these lines, ancestrally, women benefited by seeking men who have the status and resources to support their child-rearing and the willingness to do so. These traits are tied to older men. Men, meanwhile, have evolved a preference for younger women because their youth is a signal for fertility, and over eons and eons, men have better reproductive success when they partner with women who can bear children.

This explains why women prefer and tend to marry slightly older men, and why men tend to prefer and marry slightly younger women (with this age gap increases as men age). Large age gap relationships, therefore, often reflect men's evolved preferences for younger, fertile women and women's evolved preferences for older, high-status men.

The "Ideal" Age Gap and Direction (Men Older) May Reflect Health Outcomes

Even if men tend to be just slightly older, we all know many different-sex couples where the age difference is not only wide but also opposes that which is expected by evolutionary psychology. In other words, we know couples in which women are substantially older than their partners. Consider Nick Jonas and Priyanka Chopra, who is 10 years his senior, Hugh Jackman's wife Deborra-Lee Furness who is 13 years older than him, or Madonna's current boyfriend who is 35 years younger than her.

Oddly enough, women do tend to be older than their partners among the youngest couples, a reverse of the classic age-gap trend (Pelham, 2021). Looking at birth data in the U.S., among couples younger than 25, fathers tended to be slightly younger than mothers. This age gap quickly reverses in older age cohorts, with men in their early and mid-40s, and early and mid-50s, having children with women in their mid-30s (which is more than 20 years younger than themselves for the older age group).

Thus the general pattern, that men are older—and only somewhat older—seems to stand, making age-gap relationships unusual. The "ideal" three-ish-year age gap with men older than women, observed cross-culturally, may reflect its optimal selective fitness. Data have suggested that, regardless of maternal age, infant health is highest (e.g., survival rate) when the age gap is male-older and only slight (Pelham, 2021). In relationships where women are substantially older than their partners, infant health outcomes are not as strong, even compared to same-age women. These novel data point to the origin of why the age gap is such a robust cross-cultural trend.

Assessing the Viability of an Age-Gap Relationship

Sure, age-gap relationships might require becoming comfortable with (or ignoring) other people's snippy comments, but many age-gap relationships can thrive. Here are four questions to ask.

  1. Is this a short-term or long-term relationship? The fun of a short-term fling may outweigh the challenges that might come with navigating long-term compatibility. Older partners might enjoy the vitality and physical attractiveness of a younger partner; younger partners can benefit from the status, money, and knowledge of older partners.
  2. Do you share the same long-term goals? Long-term relationships of any nature are more successful when couples want the same things. Because many life goals are age-linked, the question of shared goals can be more pressing for age-gap couples. Is one of your working when the other wants to retire? Do you want to spend your weekends in the same way?
  3. Do either of you want children? If you're in a long-term relationship and one partner is older, an open discussion about whether you want to have children (biological, adopted, fostered) can be especially important. Certainly, this is a discussion that partners in all long-term relationships benefit from having, but age-gap relationships may face particular challenges. Older women with younger men are less likely to be able to have a biological child and/or may be uninterested in parenting young children in their 40s or 50s; older men may likewise be wary of having a child, knowing they will be older when their children are teens. These are important conversations to broach when a relationship is expected to be long-term.
  4. Do you have your friends' support? Our friends and family play a role in our relationship success, whether we wish them to, or not. In general, when friends approve of relationships, they help sustain our relationship, whereas, their disapproval can be accompanied by behaviors that make it harder for us to feel invested in our relationships (Sprecher, 2011). Age-gap relationships are often stigmatized, but if friends and family approve, the relationship becomes easier to sustain.

Chronological age might tick tick tick upward, but people's perceived age and felt age might matter more for the success of a relationship. Partners with significant age gaps might be better matched in terms of their shared interests, vitality, energy, and health than many same-aged couples. Ultimately, the day-to-day emotions, thoughts, and behaviors that define a relationship are known only by those in the relationship, not by nosy outsiders. When partners are well-suited, regardless of their age gap, they can have a strong, satisfying partnership.

Facebook image: Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock

References

Buss, D. M. (1989). Sex differences in human mate preferences: Evolutionary hypotheses tested in 37 cultures. Behavioral and brain sciences, 12, 1-14.

Buss, D. M. (2016). The evolution of desire: Strategies of human mating. Basic books.

Conroy-Beam, D., & Buss, D. M. (2019). Why is age so important in human mating? Evolved age preferences and their influences on multiple mating behaviors. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 13(2), 127-157.

Sprecher, S. (2011). The influence of social networks on romantic relationships: Through the lens of the social network. Personal Relationships, 18(4), 630-644.

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