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Can Couples with Major Age Differences Stay Together?

Challenged by health issues, and wide social disapproval.

Key points

  • Both men and women report initially being more satisfied in their marriage when their spouses were younger.
  • Though couples with an age gap start out more satisfied, their satisfaction drops more dramatically over time.
  • Social judgment and the older spouse's health challenges may contribute to the decline.

Most of us know blissfully happy couples born decades apart. Regardless of which partner is older, they seem to be well-matched in every other way. Although it's true that people have a tendency to prejudge age-gap romance, there is evidence that some young women simply prefer older men, and many men prefer older women as well. But regardless of which partner is older, will such pairings stand the test of time? Research has some answers.

How Age-Gap Romances Change Over the Years

Wang-Sheng Lee and Terra McKinnish (2018) investigated how age gaps impact satisfaction over the course of a marriage.[i] Regarding a common desire to “marry down” in terms of age, in the Australian sample they studied, they found that men were more likely to be satisfied with younger wives, and women were more likely to be more satisfied with younger husbands. Both men and women tended to be less satisfied with older spouses.

Regarding levels of fulfillment over the course of a marriage, however, Lee and McKinnish found that marital satisfaction declined more significantly for both genders in age-gap couples, as compared to similar-age couples. These declines tend to erase the originally increased marital satisfaction levels experienced by men and women married to younger spouses within 6 to 10 years of matrimony.

They acknowledge their findings are somewhat inconsistent with research on marital sorting and age gaps, as well as online and speed-dating study data—which reflect a preference for similar-aged partners. Discussing possible reasons for the discrepancy, Lee and McKinnish acknowledge the role that strategy and probability of relational success, among other factors, play in the decision about who to date.

Specifically, they note that data suggesting that both men and women prefer similarly aged partners is only a valid interpretation if singles disregard the probability of relational success. Because men initially experience high marital satisfaction with younger wives, but women experience less satisfaction with older husbands, this suggests that men may actually prefer to pursue younger women—but fear of failure (i.e., disappointing their future wife) makes them believe they would only succeed with “low-quality younger partners.” They note that similar reasoning may explain the reluctance of women to pursue dates with younger men.

What might explain the decline in marital satisfaction over the years? Lee and McKinnish speculate that perhaps age-gap couples are less able to weather negative economic shocks compared to couples of similar age. But might they also be less able to weather the negative attitudes of others?

How Public Predictions Affect Relational Success

Some age-discrepant couples are self-conscious about the looks they receive and comments they overhear in public. People who are dating or have recently married younger spouses are often warned that their relationship won't last. Why such pessimism? Unwelcome, unsolicited relationship advice often comes from data generated both scientifically and anecdotally.

An article in The Atlantic entitled “For a Lasting Marriage, Try Marrying Someone Your Own Age,” [ii] while correctly observing that “Statistics, of course, are not destiny,” cited research stating that couples who had a five-year difference in age were 18 percent more likely to break up, and when the age difference was 10 years, the likelihood rose to 39 percent.

Many age-gap couples vehemently disagree with negative predictions and defy the statistics. Many people know age-mismatched couples who have enjoyed a great marriage for decades. But as a practical matter, later in life, the older partner is likely to face health-related challenges before the younger partner—which may be stressful for both. Obviously, such couples know that this day will come, but weather this season differently. Experience with couples during this period in life may impact the way we view such pairings.

Some Marriages Will Stand the Test of Time

Many happily married couples separated by an age gap remind well-intentioned friends and family that they vowed to love and cherish their partners “till death do us part.” Members of a healthy social network surrounding such couples are wise to offer support—without stereotyping.

Facebook image: yamel photography/Shutterstock


[i] Lee, Wang-Sheng, and Terra McKinnish. 2018. “The Marital Satisfaction of Differently Aged Couples.” Journal of Population Economics 31 (2): 337–62.


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