What Are Age-Gap Relationships?

...and can they work?

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What Are Age Gap Relationships?

Whether it's a celebrity or someone you know personally, age gaps in romantic relationships always draw a bit of attention.

Age-Gap Relationships

Age-gap relationships usually refer to an age difference of at least 10 years between partners. In general, the definition of age-gap relationships and what is and is not acceptable varies based on a person's sex, age, and cultural norms.

The History of Age-Gap Relationships

In general, men are much more willing to consider women who are significantly younger. According to multiple studies, this has evolutionary roots.

Since men don't have as strict of a reproductive clock, they can have children later in life. Historically, this has made women more open to relationships with older men since they don't have to worry about men's fertility.

Older men also tend to have more monetary resources due to their age and experience, which can be more appealing for women when considering how they want to support their potential children. This results in a historical pairing that has been successful since younger women are more likely to be more fertile.

In general, studies have shown that men are more open to larger-ranges of ages than women, especially as they age. In addition to men being able to overlook the concern of biological clocks, in the past, women have found no advantage to dating younger men.

Stigmas in Modern-Day Age Gap Relationships

While evolutionary considerations don't matter as much today, age-gap relationships still face stigmas in modern culture.

One study suggests that negative stereotypes and prejudices that many people hold against age-gap relationships could come as a result of perceived relational inequity. In other words, people believe that one member of the couple is only there because they're using the other member in some way.

Relational therapist Mialauni Griggs, ALMFT, specifies that, in addition to age, it's important to consider factors like race, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status when it comes to couples with extreme age gaps.

While being more aware of these factors could lead to less judgment against these couples, Griggs is acutely aware of the negative stigmas associated with these relationships.

Mialauni Griggs, ALMFT

I think the most common stigma is that if the woman is younger then she must be a gold digger and he must be lonely or creepy. [Or that] if the woman is older, she must be trying to recapture her youth and he is probably the gold digger.

— Mialauni Griggs, ALMFT

Challenges of Age-Gap Relationships

Challenges are largely dependent on the circumstances, but there are a few common themes that tend to arise in age-gap relationships.

Different Life Stages

The most obvious is that when someone is in this type of relationship, it can mean that they are finding themselves in drastically different life stages than their partner. This is less applicable to people who are past child-bearing age.

Griggs also notes that a lot of the larger questions that arise from people in these relationships tend to come from women since they are the ones facing a timeline in regard to having kids.

Griggs emphasizes the importance of "ongoing conversations about your priorities and expectations while remaining open to listening to your partner." She encourages her patients not to lose sight of their individual paths, which can sometimes happen in these relationships when one partner ends up focusing on the other's timeline more than their own.

Power Dynamics May Exist

Another big issue facing age gap relationships is the potential for a power dynamic to exist. Especially for people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, if there is an age difference of 10 or more years, it's likely that one person is going to be in a different place professionally and financially.

It's important to maintain an awareness of this dynamic and to make sure that it doesn't start to control one partner's options.

For example, if the partner who is more financially stable ends up paying certain bills or covering expenses, it's important to make sure that the partner being supported doesn't feel trapped in the relationship due to this support.

Benefits of Age-Gap Relationships

While some studies have shown that a lack of social support for age-gap relationships can result in less relationship satisfaction, there are some benefits of these relationships to note as well.

Each Partner(s) Are Prepared for Stigma

It has been shown that women are more likely to spend more time evaluating the costs and benefits of these relationships since they anticipate stigma. To that end, they tend to go into the relationships in a more open and honest state with their partner since they've often had to discuss potential outcomes early on.

Women Tend to Find More Happiness

Studies have found that women-older age gap relationships result in higher satisfaction for women when compared to others their own age. This is because the relationships tend to feel more equal in terms of money and career. For men, the relationship satisfaction stays the same if their female partner is older so it's truly a win-win.

The Involved Partners May Have a Longer Life Expectancy

It has been found that people in age-gap relationships live longer. This is potentially due to differential fertility, the ability of the younger partner to care for the older partner into old age and economic security.

How Age-Gap Couples View Themselves

Due to the stigma associated with age gap relationships, members of these couples often find themselves adjusting to social pressure by justifying their situation to themselves and the outside world.

One study worked with more than 20 couples to understand these justifications and how they apply to the members of the couple as well as the couple's interactions.

Self-Interactions

In interactions with each other, couples in age-gap relationships tend to focus on the love story (referred to in this study as "love narratives") that their relationship was founded on. This allows them to reframe the age difference as something that is outside of their control since love was the focus.

Interaction With Others

People in age-gap relationships dealt with questions from others in very similar ways. They all tended to use three methods: passing, lampooning, and dismissing.

  • Passing: This is when members of the relationship justify their age difference by "passing" or working to appear closer in age to their partner.
  • Lampooning: This is when members of the couple use humor to deflect or distract from any stigma placed on their relationship by others.
  • Dismissing: This is when members of the couple are upfront with their disapproval of the stigma placed on their relationship by others.

Are Age-Gap Relationships Healthy?

The short answer is: it depends. While significant age differences can be very noticeable when someone is very young, they do tend to lose some of the attached stigmas as they age.

What's even more important is that these couples do tend to be satisfied. While some studies have suggested that female-older age gap relationships report higher levels of satisfaction, the same has also been found about male-older versions of the relationships.

One thing that has been found across lots of studies is that age-gap relationships decrease in satisfaction with age, especially when they have to face any amount of monetary hardship.

If you are concerned about an age gap relationship (whether you're in one or know and love someone who is), make sure you're very aware of any power dynamics and their impact on your financial and emotional well-being.

"Patriarchy leaves women susceptible to minimizing their needs, their opinions, and their dreams in general within their romantic relationships," says Griggs. "I think this can be amplified in age-gap relationships whether she is younger or older due to the power dynamic between men and women."

For women who are younger in these relationships, make sure that you're honest with yourself about any amount of dependence (financial, professional, etc.) that may begin to pop up around your relationship. If you don't feel like your partner is pressuring you in these ways, make sure you're open and honest with them that you want to keep those things at bay.

A Word From Verywell

None of these things mean that you or a loved one in an age-gap relationship are absolutely destined for failure or success. These factors are dependent on individuals. Remember to always be aware of your autonomy and make sure that both of you make space to communicate your needs and boundaries.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Brittany Loggins
Brittany is a health and lifestyle writer and former staffer at TODAY on NBC and CBS News. She's also contributed to dozens of magazines.