Age Gap Relationships
We have all seen them, and met them. Couples that are obviously from two different generations. When we are introduced, the visual mismatch leaves us unsure of whether we are meeting a man and his daughter, or his wife.
Small talk is awkward until we figure it out.
What kind of judgments do we make about such relationships, and how does it impact the way we treat them? Further, does the way we respond impact the way intergenerational couples perceive themselves, and their relationship? Research has some answers.
Age Gaps are Atypical
Brian Collisson and Luciana Ponce De Leon ( in 2018) sought to investigate why couples in age gap relationships are often the target of prejudice and negative stereotypes.
Part of their research included a very practical observation about cultural differences regarding perceived appropriate age gaps between partners. They noted that according to a United Nations (U.N.) study (in 2000), North American couples have a small age gap within marriage: 2.3 years. Within the United States, they cited the United States Census Bureau (1999) for the fact that 60% of married couples have age gaps of less than 3 years; 92% have age gaps of less than 10 years.
Standard relationship age gaps, however, are different in different countries. Miles Q. Ott et al. (from 2011) in, "Age-Gaps in Sexual Partnerships: Seeing Beyond 'Sugar Daddies,'" reveal markedly different relational statistics than exist in North America.
They note that in the population they studied in their research, rural South Africa, "sugar daddy" relationships are rare, and spousal relationships have larger age gaps than casual relationships.
But are people prejudiced against age-gap relationships simply because they are not used to seeing them?
Apparently, there is more to the story:
Perceived Inequity Drives Dislike
Examining equity and social exchange theories, Collisson and De Leon found that prejudice toward age-gap couples stems from a perception of relational inequity, which in turn causes them to be more disliked than age-matched couples.
More specifically, they found that the older partners in age gap relationships were perceived as enjoying greater rewards from the relationship as compared with their younger paramours.
Collisson and De Leon discuss the significance of terminology, noting that individuals pursuing either younger or older partners are often labeled using terms indicating relational inequity. The term cougar is sometimes used to describe older women preying upon younger men, while cradle robbers implies that older men are stealing younger women.
On the flip side, they note that a term like gold digger insinuates a younger partner is exploiting an older partner for his or her resources.
Collisson and De Leon found, however, that the relationship between prejudice and perceived inequity was greater when an older man was paired with a younger woman, than vice versa. They note that perhaps this suggests the significance of the link between perceived relational equality and prejudice.
But how do stereotypes impact relational success?
Are couples able to ignore the disapproving glances and comments, or does perceived prejudice actually strengthen relational commitment?
Research has some answers here as well.
The Prognosis of Atypical Pairings
Collisson and De Leon note that the stigma and prejudice felt by age-gap couples may contribute to relationship dissolution. While acknowledging that more research is necessary to explore this dynamic, they note that some research has found that age gap couples might be less committed to the relationship than couples that are not stigmatized.
They recognize this could be due to relational inequity, or response to societal disapproval
On the other hand, Justin J. Lehmiller and Christopher R. Agnew (from 2008), examining commitment and normative beliefs among heterosexual partners dating similarly age matched relationships, as compared to age gap relationships, cite research pointing in the opposite direction.
They note that the "Romeo and Juliet" effect links perceived relationship disapproval by others with increased levels of partner commitment and intimacy. They also cite their own prior research (Lehmiller and Agnew, in 2006) finding that partners within what they term "socially marginalized relationships" such as age gap, interracial, and same sex, were more committed than partners within what they term as more "traditional" relationships such as similar age, opposite sex, or same-race.
The bottom line is that apparently, in many cases, age-gap relationship stereotypes are just that. Unfounded, preconceived ideas about couples outside of the "normal" age range. In reality, loving, healthy, happy relationships survive and thrive regardless of age.
As happy couples know, true love transcends demographics, bringing people together through affection, fondness, and compatibility, not age.
This column was originally published in Psychology Today.
Wendy L. Patrick is a career prosecutor, named the Ronald M. George Public Lawyer of the Year, and recognized by her peers as one of the Top Ten criminal attorneys in San Diego by the San Diego Daily Transcript. She has completed over 150 trials ranging from human trafficking, to domestic violence, to first-degree murder. She is President of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals San Diego Chapter and an ATAP Certified Threat Manager. Dr. Patrick is a frequent media commentator with over 4,000 appearances including CNN, Fox News Channel, Newsmax, and many others. She is author of "Red Flags" (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller "Reading People" (Random House). On a personal note, Dr. Patrick holds a purple belt in Shorin-Ryu karate, is a concert violinist with the La Jolla Symphony, and plays the electric violin with a rock band. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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