Is a Big Age Difference Problematic for a Relationship?

Research can help explain whether May-December romances are built to last.

Posted Feb 21, 2018

William Stitt/Unsplash
Source: William Stitt/Unsplash

After a year together, Jennifer Lawrence and director Darren Aronofsky called it quits on their relationship. Of course, in the aftermath of a celeb breakup, the rumor mill always swirls. In this case, I was not shocked to see some cite age difference as the reason for their split; she is 27, he is 49.

It’s an interesting question: Is age really just a number, or is there something about that age gap that can make or break a relationship? Results are certainly mixed. If you look to pop culture, there are plenty of surviving pairs, like Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds (11 years), Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Jason Statham (20 years), or Sarah Paulson and Holland Taylor (31 years). There are also plenty of May-December duos who didn’t last; think Demi and Ashton (16 years), or Sean Penn and Charlize Theron (15 years).

If you turn to research, some signs suggest the wider the age gap, the lower the likelihood a pairing will last... but not all. A widely-circulated 2014 Emory University study of 3,000 recently married and divorced people showed that age gap was correlated with breaking up; couples with ages falling within five years of each other were significantly less likely to divorce than couples who had age gaps of, say, 10 or 20 years. However, that’s just one study; others, like a 2008 analysis of data from England and Wales, show there is not a significant association between age gap and marriage dissolution.

However, there’s more to a relationship’s “success” than simply staying together and avoiding divorce. There’s also satisfaction. Research from 2017 out of the University of Colorado shows that both men and women who marry younger than themselves are often initially happier, but see a sharper decline in satisfaction over time.

Those who marry spouses of similar ages, by comparison, are more stable in terms of happiness and fulfillment, and perhaps more resilient as a result, say the researchers; it’s harder to swallow satisfaction that drops and stabilizes at normal levels when the relationship started at a higher high.

When it’s all said and done, there are probably both pros and cons to having an age gap. Noticeable differences can make participants hesitate, and others talk... and sure, it might not work. You might be attracted to someone older or younger who wants different things out of life than you do (marriage, babies, partying, travel) at a given moment. However, age isn’t necessarily an indicator of what a person wants; for every 25-year-old who wants children, there’s a 45-year-old who doesn’t. That’s less about age, more about desires.

My personal conclusion? Don’t let an age gap bug you if you’re attracted, you get along, and you’re basically on the same page.

Making it work is really about having enough in common to bond, enough difference to learn from each other, and similar views on partnerships. And there’s nothing more attractive than seeing the world through the eyes of someone who’s experienced things you haven’t. Dating someone older or younger exposes you to their stories, their peers, their cultural references and their insights, all of which can lead to great discussion and even more intimacy.

Oh, and women who fall for younger men? Feel free to ignore the stigma. Not only is it an annoying double standard, even that recent University of Colorado research showed women dating younger men saw some of the highest satisfaction levels.

Even if it doesn’t last forever, like J.Law’s most recent relationship didn’t, I hope you won’t let age gaps deter you from intriguing relationships. If we start defining romantic “success” by how much we grew, what we experienced and what we learned, instead of ending in “happily ever after,” we’ll probably have more colorful and fulfilling romantic lives anyway.

References

Falcone, Dana Rose. "How 'Huge Age Difference' Led to Jennifer Lawrence's Breakup with Darren Aronofsky." PEOPLE.com. November 29, 2017. http://people.com/movies/inside-jennifer-lawrence-breakup-with-darren-aronofsky/.

Francis-Tan, Andrew, and Hugo M. Mialon. "“A Diamond Is Forever” And Other Fairy Tales: The Relationship Between Wedding Expenses And Marriage Duration." Economic Inquiry 53, no. 4 (September 2014): 1919-930. doi:10.1111/ecin.12206.

Wilson, Ben, and Steve Smallwood. "Age differences at marriage and divorce." Office for National Statistics, 2008, 17-25. http://folk.uio.no/torkildl/divnet/Papers/WilsonSmallwood.pdf.

Lee, Wang-Sheng, and Terra Mckinnish. "The marital satisfaction of differently aged couples." Journal of Population Economics 31, no. 2 (2017): 337-62. doi:10.1007/s00148-017-0658-8.

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