3 Factors That Make Age-Gap Relationships Work
Science unravels the factors that make age-differentiated relationships an attractive choice for many people.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | November 12, 2023
Age-gap relationships are by no means a new phenomenon, but they are something that modern society still struggles to make sense of—often denigrated and dismissed as a fleeting “phase.” Prejudicial terms such as “gold digger,” “cougar” and “manther” are used to describe some of the forms age-differentiated relationships can take.
At the same time, there is a growing movement demanding more respect and inclusivity of relationships that don’t fit the traditional mold, as how we imagine and define the “ideal relationship” is expanding at a rapid pace.
What can we learn from scientific research to help us understand the nuances of age-gap relationships? Here are three insights to guide your thinking.
1. Let’s Start With An Evolutionary Explanation
When it comes to any scientific conversation on sex and relationships, it is important to first consider their evolutionary function: perpetuating the species. From this standpoint, it is not surprising that men have a preference for women in their child-bearing prime.
In a 2012 paper published in Human Nature, evolutionary psychologists Sascha Schwarz and Manfred Hassebrauck write, “The ability to reproduce is not equal across the lifespan. Women cannot give birth to their own children after the onset of menopause. Unlike women, men are not directly restricted biologically in their reproductive abilities.”
It’s also not surprising that women have a preference for men who are able to invest resources into child-rearing. Schwarz and Hassebrauck state, “Women invest more in their offspring (e.g., gestation) than men. Therefore, women prefer committed, long-lasting relationships and seek partners who are able and willing to invest in them and their potential offspring.”
Putting these two facts together we can see why age-differentiated relationships, when they occur, favor a scenario where the male partner is older than the female partner. Younger women are more reproductively fit and older men have more resources to invest in their family and children.
This conclusion is borne out by research. A classic 1945 study found that men prefer partners who are about 2.5 years younger than they are while women prefer partners approximately 3.5 years older. Recent research has replicated this pattern.
2. What Is The Range Of “Acceptable” Dating Ages?
When we look beyond an individual’s “ideal” partner age and instead ask what they deem acceptable, things get more interesting. For instance, one study found that men, on average, are accepting of relationships with women up to approximately 10 years younger and 4.5 years older. Women, on the other hand, are accepting of relationships with men up to 8 years older and five years younger.
But there’s an important caveat, and it has to do with how these “acceptable” limits change as we age.
“As men grow older, they accept even younger women, but their tolerated age span regarding the oldest partner they would accept is unrelated to their own age,” state the researchers. “On the other hand, women tend to accept younger men as they grow older, but the oldest partner they will accept decreases as they age.”
According to the authors, women are less likely to enter relationships with older men as they get older because longevity favors women, not men. In Germany, for instance, the average life span for women is five years longer than it is for men.
3. How Does Relationship Happiness Factor In?
Perhaps the most important question revolves around the happiness people experience in age-gap relationships. The first and most compelling insight is that relationships of any make or model can be happy relationships under the right circumstances. However, science offers clues on the combinations that seem to work best.
One study published in the Journal of Population Economics found that both men and women seem to be happier with younger, not older, spouses. However, this happiness advantage may be short-lived.
The authors write, “Marital satisfaction declines with marital duration for both men and women in differently aged couples relative to those in similarly aged couples. These relative declines erase the initial higher levels of marital satisfaction experienced by men married to younger wives and women married to younger husbands.”
To explain this, the researchers suggest that differently-aged couples may be less resilient to relationship obstacles than similarly-aged couples. However, other research suggests that age-gap couples who stay together experience less jealousy and exhibit a more unselfish form of love than age-similar couples.
Science reveals a strong evolutionary basis for the existence of age-gap relationships. Science also suggests that these sometimes socially taboo relationships are not without their unique set of challenges. But, when done right, they can be just as fulfilling and exhilarating as any other type of relationship.
Unsure about whether you have the personality type that would help you thrive in an age-gap relationship? Take this test to gain clarity: Openness To Experience Scale