What are age-gap relationships (and why are they controversial?)
Can age-gap relationships really work? We answer your frequently asked questions about age gap relationships and explain more about what the research has to say
If there’s one thing that is bound to make headlines, it’s celebrity relationships with a big age gap. From the trending chart of Leonardo DiCaprio’s dating history (which revealed the then 47-year-old had never dated anyone over the age of 25), to top 10 lists of celeb couples successfully (and not so successfully) navigating big age gaps, we’re fascinated with the idea that there may be a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ number of years between our perfect partner and us.
But why is it that relationships with age gaps cause so much controversy? And what does the research actually have to say? We explore some of the most commonly asked questions about dating someone who is significantly older or younger than you.
What are age gap relationships?
An ‘age gap relationship’ typically refers to a couple who are seriously or casually dating, with an age difference of at least 10 years, though some people use the term to refer to shorter gaps. The exact number of years for a relationship to ‘count’ as having an age gap can also vary based on what is considered culturally normal, with other factors – such as a person’s gender or age – affecting how ‘acceptable’ others may see that gap as. For example, someone may be more likely to show concern over a younger woman dating an older man due to fears of grooming, despite the fact that young people of any gender identity and sexual preference can be at risk of grooming.
Anyone can be in an age-gap relationship – a celebrity, a friend, a family member, or a colleague. Age gap relationships can also happen at any point in your life, though someone in their 20s dating someone in their 30s may be more likely to experience comments or pushback from others than a couple in their 50s and 60s.
Why are age-gap relationships frowned upon?
Many people in age-gap relationships report facing stigma, despite nearly four in 10 (39%) of us have dated someone 10 years older or younger than us. According to research, men are more likely to have dated someone 10 or more years younger than them (25% vs 14% of women), while women are more likely to have dated someone 10+ years older (28% vs 21% of men). Over half (57%) of us would be open to dating someone a decade or more older than us, while just under half of us (49%) would consider seeing someone 10 years younger.
Despite around half of us being open to age-gap dating, research has shown an imbalance in how socially acceptable we see it to be for men and women to date someone significantly younger than them. 55% of people believe it’s more socially acceptable for a man to date someone 10 or more years younger than them than it is for an older woman to date a man of the same age gap.
But why is that?
One study suggested that our negative stereotypes and prejudice towards age gaps in relationships could stem from worrying that one partner is using the other in some way – be that taking advantage of their perceived emotional immaturity, vulnerability or inexperience, or different financial situations.
It’s thought that others may worry about those in age-gap relationships, judging them based on their different life stages. For example, someone may assure an older man dating a younger woman is having a mid-life crisis or is trying to ‘recapture his youth’, while a younger woman may be seen as a potential gold-digger or someone who is being taken advantage of. Another major concern can be that a younger partner may feel financially trapped or indebted to an older partner, due to their different financial situations.
Other studies have suggested that relationships where the couples are similar in age may be more likely to last – as their similar life stage may make them more resilient to negative life events. However, experts have also highlighted that maturity levels and lived experiences aren’t always tied to our chronological age.
Yet another concern that has particularly taken the media spotlight in recent years has centred around the discovery that our prefrontal cortex continues to develop and mature until the age of 25. This means that, while society often considers us to be fully grown adults by the age of 18, our brains are continuing to develop well into our 20s.
Essentially, the rational part of our brain, responsible for complex behavioural performance like risk management, impulse control, and long-term planning, doesn’t finish developing until we are 25. This revelation has led some people to consider any age gap of more than a couple of years to be potentially questionable or a cause of concern for those who fall into this age range.
What does the research have to say about age gap relationships?
Studies have suggested that men’s general willingness to consider younger women as partners could have evolutionary roots.
Some studies have suggested that one of the major challenges faced by those in age-gap relationships may stem from a lack of social support, rather than a lack of satisfaction within the relationship itself. This can be due to the stigma faced by either or both partners, judgement or criticism from friends, family, or even strangers.
However, it is worth noting that other studies have found that there can be many benefits to being in a relationship with someone who is a different age from you. For example, women in relationships with younger men have been shown to have higher levels of satisfaction within their relationship than those in committed partnerships with someone of their own age, thanks to feelings of more equality in terms of money and career progression. Studies have even suggested that those in age-gap relationships may live longer.
How much of an age gap is too much?
There is no hard and fast rule on what kind of an age gap is or isn’t acceptable in any relationship. While couples typically tend to have an age gap of around one to three years in many cultures, each individual will have a different comfort level that they feel is right for them. As psychiatrist Dr. Loren Olson explains, “We have a chronological age, a psychological age, a physical age, and a sexual age. Age gap couples frequently are compatible in the last three.” So just because our physical age isn’t a societally accepted ‘perfect’ match, doesn’t mean that we aren’t compatible.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that with bigger age gaps, can come bigger challenges. These can include different health and energy levels, different life priorities and experiences, as well as prioritising plans to settle down, start a family, or even retire.
Why are age gaps still such a taboo subject?
Many people worry that age-gap relationships are, in essence, an imbalance of power that leaves younger, less experienced partners vulnerable to coercion, abuse, or being taken advantage of in some other way. While this can be a valid concern, particularly when you hear of large age gap relationships between those aged 18-25 with partners in their late 20s or older, this automatic assumption that all age gap relationships are predatory can also lead to younger partners being less likely to open up about worries or issues that may arise in their relationship. That is why it is so important to ensure friends, family, and loved ones, know that you are there to listen if they ever need help.
Can age-gap relationships be healthy?
Whether or not a relationship is healthy can depend on a lot of different factors. While studies have suggested relationship satisfaction can be high for couples in some age-gap relationships, other studies have found that satisfaction can decrease with age – especially if any monetary hardship comes into play.
Power dynamics, financial stability, and emotional wellbeing can all play significant roles in whether a relationship is healthy and successful for both parties involved. While we all have heard of celebrities with successful large age gap relationships, and many of us will have older relatives who have been married for decades despite their age differences, only we can decide if our individual relationship and circumstances suit our needs.
What makes a healthy relationship?
Counselling Directory member, sex therapist and couples counsellor Elisabeth Marriner, MSc, explains more about what makes a couple's relationship healthy. “Differences of opinion and occasional rows are not only important in healthy relationships, but a sign that things are more robust…if they are managed reasonably within limits, and there is a shared expectation of repair.
“Each relationship is unique and richly complex. The combination of factors – belonging, comfort and space for growth – can bring about shared feelings of safety, security and trust.”
Integrative counsellor and Counselling Directory member, Fran Jeffes, BA (Hons), MBACP, explains more about the importance of self-love, self-kindness, and self-compassion as the basis of building healthy relationships.
“Building healthy relationships begins with being kind to yourself. Having a level of self-awareness and insights into your own past, as well as present thoughts and feelings, enables you to represent yourself in the world with dignity and respect. This is the first step to creating healthy relationships with others.”
Finding relationship help and support
Our relationships can change over time – for better, and for worse. If you are worried about your communication with your partner, shifting life goals or priorities, or changing levels of satisfaction or happiness, working with a relationship therapist or couples counsellor could help.
Relationship counselling, whether undertaken individually or together as a couple, can help to provide a safe space where you can openly talk about your worries, concerns and needs, without fear of judgement. Together, you can explore and express what you want and need from your relationship, gaining a better understanding of each other’s perspectives, whilst being guided and supported towards strengthening your relationship.
Counselling Directory member and counsellor Jennifer Warwick explains more about counselling for relationship problems.
Over time, some relationships can leave us feeling like we have lost our sense of ourselves and who we are as individuals. Working with a qualified, experienced therapist can help us to better understand how we are feeling, identify areas in which we may feel we need additional help or support, and improve our communication skills.
Ready to connect with a counsellor, or want to learn more about relationship therapy and how it could help you? Visit Counselling Directory or enter your details below to find a qualified, experienced relationship therapist online or near you.