Can a Relationship Work When One Partner Is Much Older Than the Other?
Ignore the rules and think about the real issues.
Posted June 17, 2017 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
How many years are between you and your significant other? Age differences in dating relationships—and in marriages—are often a hot-button topic for couples with five, 10, or more years between them. The privilege of similar-aged couples is that they might rarely think about this question, but it's a struggle for adult couples, especially as they begin to form a relationship, to understand how their age difference may affect their relationship.
What's the age difference in most couples?
Age-gap trends in American adult heterosexual couples are well documented: The Pew Research Center analyzed data from the 2013 American Community Survey and found that, even though most heterosexual Americans (78-80 percent) choose partners who are about their same age when they marry for the first time (that is, within five years), many are not. In age-gap couples, men are more apt to have a younger than an older spouse, with 10 percent having a spouse who is six-to-nine years younger, and 5 percent marrying a woman 10 or more years younger. Women show the opposite trend, with only 2 percent marrying men six to nine years younger and only 1 percent having a spouse 10 or more years younger.
Age gaps are larger for re-marriages.
If it seems like men who remarry often go for younger women, well, it’s not far from reality (Pew Research Center, 2014). When remarrying, only 57 percent of men marry women about their same age; 20 percent choose women who are 10 or more years younger, and 18 percent choose partners six to nine years younger. In the same study, women reported being the older spouse only 11 percent of the time.
How do you know if an age-gap relationship will work?
With so many age-gap marriages, dating someone who is considerably older or younger is clearly not uncommon. These relationship, however, might come with some challenges: How do you decide if your age difference will be a problem? Is the age difference too large, or is age just not a factor?
Here is a sample of potential issues especially salient to mixed-age couples:
1. How similar are you? Similarity predicts relationship satisfaction in long-term relationships (Amodio & Showers, 2005), and while all couples must navigate questions of shared interests and preferences, age-gap partners could experience this more than others. Age might just be a number, or it could be a factor driving differences in preferred leisure activities, how to spend money, or other decisions.
2. Do you share the same relationship timetable? If marriage is a possibility, a conversation of when to take that next step could be particularly beneficial for age-gap couples. If one person’s social network is mostly made up of married couples and the other has only unmarried friends, each partner could be facing different pressures and expectations. Discussing hopes and plans along these lines could help couples determine how best to move forward.
3. Are your friends and family supportive? Age-gap couples report experiencing general social disapproval of their relationships more than similar-aged peers do (Lehmiller & Agnew, 2006). Such marginalization may be stressful or isolating, and can translate into relationship evaluations. While individuals in age-gap relationships tend to be no more or less committed to each other than similar-aged couples, the extent to which they feel more general disapproval of their relationship, may lessen their commitment (Lehmiller & Agnew, 2006). In other words, having supportive friends and family could be particularly useful for age-gap relationships.
4. Kids or no kids? This question is not unique to age-gap couples, but having many years between partners can make it more challenpging to navigate. Whether having a biological child or adopting, parenting in your 20s or early 30s could feel different from parenting in your 40s, 50s, or 60s, and couples would benefit from being on the same page about whether parenthood should be in their future.
5. Are you financially prepared? Should your age-gap relationship become long-term, you might consult a financial advisor for a plan that will support both partners. Age gaps can create challenges for retirement planning. U.S. News and World Report suggests to “plan for the younger partner,” which in some circumstances can mean delayed retirement for the older spouse.
6. Are your relationship goals compatible? It’s not easy when one person is thinking about short-term fun while the other has long-term ambitions. Such incompatible relationship goals are not unique to age-gap relationships; however, certain age-related factors could play a part in goals. A survey of American unmarried adults (Pew Research Center, 2017) showed that 33 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds cited “not ready to settle down/too young” as the main reason why they are not married, while only 11 percent of individuals age 35 or older reported the same.
Couples negotiate all sorts of differences as they figure out if they can form a sustainable, happy relationship. An age gap may be one dimension of your relationship, but it’s unlikely to define it. Indeed, a recent poll showed that most Americans consider love (88 percent), commitment (81 percent), and companionship (76 percent) as important reasons for marrying—and these have very little to do with age.
Amodio, D. M., & Showers, C. J. (2005). ‘Similarity breeds liking’ revisited: The moderating role of commitment. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 22, 817-836.
Lehmiller, J. J., & Agnew, C. R. (2006). Marginalized relationships: The impact of social disapproval on romantic relationship commitment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 40-51.