Can “Age-Gap” Relationships Work?

It’s one of those age-old questions: does age really matter? Well, maybe for some things, like voting, driving, drinking, life insurance, senior discounts, enrolling in Medicare…but when it comes to the truly important things in life, like relationships, is age just a number? Are “age-gap,” or “May-December,” romances doomed to fail, or does love conquer all in the end, even the date on your birth certificate?

Why Do We Make Such a Big Deal About Age Gaps?

There are differences between partners in all relationships, right? No two people are exactly alike, and each partner might bring a different religion, political viewpoint, cultural background, or sense of humor into a relationship – and it’s not often that we sneer at, mock, or say we’re “grossed out” by those differences. So why does seeing a couple with an age gap elicit such responses from people?

young man hugging an older woman while holding a red heart balloon
About 1.3% of couples are in a relationship in which the woman is much older than the man. 

Well, there might be a few reasons. First of all, how do we actually define an age-gap relationship? According to most experts, this type of relationship is usually characterized by a difference in age of at least 10 years, and according to most statistics, the most common age gap between heterosexual partners in the Western world is only about 3 years. So, the first issue for most people is the fact that these relationships seem unusual; in fact, while there is little data on age differences in relationships, the most recent and relevant data suggests that around 8.5% of the American population are in relationships where the age difference is 5-15 years – and only 1.3% of couples are in a relationship in which the woman is much older than the man. 

So these relationships might be seen as outside of the norm in some ways; not only that, but there are some that suggest it might even feel biologically wrong to us on some deeper level. While the most likely reason that we end up with people who are a similar age to us is that we tend to meet them at certain stages of our lives (like in college, at an entry-level job, or even in a retirement community), some experts believe that there is a little dash of evolutionary psychology thrown into our choice for a just slightly older man or younger woman. 

Their point is that, in heterosexual relationships, a slightly older man can be seen as still young enough to bring home the bacon, but old enough to be financially stable; a younger woman, on the other hand, can be seen as a good choice to produce healthy babies. All of this should be taken with a grain of salt, though – hopefully we’ve moved beyond looking at relationships as simple biological urges!

Finally, there are just certain ideas that seem to have been drilled into us about relationships between people who are very different ages, including the fact that they somehow must include some sort of power imbalance between the two partners. For some reason, it can be hard for people to imagine an age-gap relationship existing without a conditional reason, like money, sex or lifestyle. The older partner can be seen as holding financial power over the younger one (especially if they are a man), and the younger can even be seen as holding some sort of “I can find a new younger partner if I want” power over the older. Not only that, but some people assume that the younger person is “giving something up” (such as the possibility of having children) to be with the older person, who, again, might have more money – and power. 

All of this brings us to the possible issues with May-December relationships, which tend to actually come from the outside rather than from within the partnership.  

The Potential Pitfalls

No relationship is perfect, even those with the supposed “ideal” three-year age gap, but there can be issues that are pretty specific to age-gap relationships. It’s true that there can be issues of power imbalances in age-gap relationships, and if you’re in one of them, the most important thing to look out for is “contempt,” according to Silva Neves, an accredited psychosexual and relationship psychotherapist: “The older person may say things like, ‘I know better than you,’ to coerce the younger one to always do what they want. And the younger one may say things like, ‘I’m sexier than you,’ to humiliate the older one. Of course, this type of language can be used for a bit of innocent humor that is shared by the two people. But when it is done to be contemptuous and on a regular basis, it can be toxic.”

However, it’s more likely that these ideas about power imbalances are all just assumptions about what’s going on in an age-gap relationship. But that’s not saying there can’t be other possible problems with these relationships: according to Rachel Sussman, a licensed marriage and family therapist in New York, “You can see varied cultural references, disapproval from family and friends, and perhaps community disapproval, as well. It might be hard to relate to each other’s peer groups, too.” young woman toasting in a limo with an older man in a suit

The biggest problems among the above issues, though, seem to be the ones coming from outside sources, like family, friends, and the wider community. For example, think about the way we talk about people involved in age-gap relationships: a man with a much younger woman is “creepy” or looking for a “trophy wife”; a woman with a much older man is a “gold digger” and uninterested in the relationship; an older woman with a much younger man is a “cougar.” These outside criticism and judgements, especially if they come from part of your support network, can be devastating and put a strain on any relationship. 

All of this means that if you’re in an age-gap relationship, it’s important to stay emotionally connected, and invested in and committed to the relationship, so you can rise above any unhelpful outside opinions. 

Better with Age (Difference)?

With all of the above being said, when it comes to human relationships, age can be totally subjective, and dating someone who’s a lot older or younger than you might be the right fit for you! After all, it’s all about humans being humans, and there’s nothing more human than feeling a loving bond with someone else, no matter who they are or how old they are.

And you know what? There can be advantages to age-gap relationships; for example: 

  • A younger partner can give you a renewed sense of energy and vitality.
  • The older you are, the more likely you are to know what you want out of life, which can mean wasting less of your time and your partner’s time with a relationship that isn’t going anywhere. two sets of feet in a bed
  • An older partner is also more likely to know what they want in bed! (And a younger partner can bring the stamina to help make that happen…)
  • The relationship might actually be more balanced: an older partner is less likely to make their happiness dependent on their partner, so neither partner feels pressured to give up their own life and interests. 
  • With age comes more experience and maturity (usually!), so an older partner might be better able to deal with problems that come up in the relationship.
  • Having different outlooks on life can bring a freshness to a relationship, and give you endless things to talk about.
  • The older partner might be more financially stable in the beginning, but the younger one might stay healthier longer, and be able to provide support in other ways as you both age. 

How Do You Know If It Can Work for You?

When it comes to relationships with a large difference in age, it might be right for you and it might not – it’s all about you and your partner as individuals. But if there were one magical secret to having a long-lasting age-gap relationship, it would be communication! To make things work, especially in the face of possible disapproval, you need to have an open, honest, loving, and communicative relationship – and you need to think seriously about the following questions:

  • Is this going to be a long-term thing? – If the relationship is casual and more focused on the short-term, then the fun of it will most likely outweigh any of the issues you’d have to navigate to make it work long-term. So if you’re both on board with a less committed “fling,” go for it!
  • Do you share the same goals? – If things are looking more serious, though, you’ll need to talk about what your long-term goals look like. For example, is one of you ready to retire and travel the world, while the other one still has a whole list of career goals to accomplish? Or even more simply, do you both agree on how you want to spend your weekends? If there’s conflict between you in terms of what you want out of life, there might be trouble ahead. 
  • Do either of you want children (or does one of you already have them)? – This is where biology does actually come into play, and age can be more than just a meaningless number. If you are headed into a long-term relationship, you need to be open about whether either of you wants kids (or wants to be a parent to an older partner’s children from a previous relationship), and what bringing children into your relationship would look like: can you still have children? Do you want to adopt or foster? And are you willing to parent young children at an older age?drawing of people in different colors forming a circle
  • Do you have the support of your social network? – Again, one of the biggest wedges that drives people apart in age-gap relationships is the disapproval of friends and family – studies have even shown that our social support network’s disapproval can actually make us feel less invested in our relationships. If you’re with a much older or younger partner, you’ll need to find ways to deal with outside opinions, and you’ll also need to make sure that you can successfully bring together your groups of friends, so neither of you feels like you’re sacrificing your friendships.
  • Are you willing to work on your sexual relationship? – As much as we all want our love life to be effortlessly hot and steamy, it just doesn’t work that way, unfortunately. Issues of mismatched libido or erectile dysfunction might come up, so be ready to get awkward if need be, as well as be willing to explore, adapt, and find ways to relate to each other sexually as time goes by.

When it comes down to it, only you know what’s right for you, not nosy outsiders. If you find the person who is right for you, if you are in a loving, respectful relationship, and if you share interests and life goals, you can have a strong, satisfying relationship no matter what the calendar says! Love is love – isn’t that all that matters?