A couple is on the beach and the woman is leaning her head on the mans' shoulder. The woman seems to be younger than the man.

Age Gap Relationships: Are They Really That Bad?

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by eharmony Editorial Team - November 22, 2023

You’ve met someone, whether on a dating app or the old-fashioned way. They’re kind, smart, funny, attractive, everything you could want in a partner. The only problem? There’s a significant difference in your ages. While the concept of an age gap relationship isn’t unfamiliar – nearly 40% of Americans have dated someone with a gap of more than 10 years – it can bring judgement and derision. Let’s look at some of the reasons people might look askance at a May-December relationship and why they may not be that bad after all. We’ll also offer a few tips for successful age gap dating.

Age gap relationships: the great taboo

The question of what is an acceptable age gap in a relationship varies widely depending on which part of the world you’re from. In western countries, an age gap relationship is generally when there’s more than a 10-year difference between partners. Research shows men are more likely to have dated someone 10 or more years younger (25% vs 14% of women), while women are more likely to have dated someone 10+ years older (28% vs 21% of men). Additionally, acceptance of age gap relationships is stronger among older people – 75% of Americans over 35 believe it’s okay to date someone significantly older, while only 60% of Americans younger than 35 do1.

Would it be cliché to talk about Leonardo DiCaprio? Probably, but we’re going to do it anyway. In the Titanic star’s defense, he’s hardly the only celeb to have a significant age difference in his relationships. George Clooney is 17 years older than his wife Amal, there’s a 13-year gap between Matt Bomer and his husband Simon Halls, and Dennis Quaid is a whopping 39 years older than his wife, Laura Savoie.

When it comes to the rest of us, age gap relationships are less common (at least among heterosexual couples) with only 18% of men having married women 10 or more years younger than them, and less than 2% of women having married men 10 or more years their junior. The majority of marriages are between people of roughly similar ages. What’s the best age gap in a relationship? Less than five years, at least according to the 2017 US Census, with most married couples within that range. 

A woman and a man standing in a garden with wine glasses in their hands. They seem to have a good conversation.

 Why are age gap relationships so controversial?

There is a significant gender bias in attitudes towards age gap relationships. More Americans believe it’s acceptable for a man to date a woman 10+ years younger than him (71%) than for a woman to date someone 10+ years younger than her (60%). Some of the other reasons an age gap relationship might draw criticism include:

The potential for a power difference is higher

Large age gaps often mean the older partner is more mature and worldly wise. This can create an unhealthy dynamic, especially if the younger partner is in their twenties. Additionally, the difference in ages may mean the younger partner never feels like they’re on an equal footing.

The younger partner is suspected of looking for a sugar daddy/mommy

Who among us hasn’t seen some pretty young thing (of whatever gender) with a much older partner and at least thought something disparaging about their motives? It’s especially common for women who date older men to face this kind of stigma, given that as a broad rule the older partner in a relationship tends to be better off. There might also be the concern on the part of the older partner’s family that their parent or sibling’s new paramour may only be in it for a potential inheritance. 

Couples have vastly different life experiences

Consider how much the world has changed in even the last five years and you’ll understand why this is a concern for many people. People in an age gap relationship are likely to be in very different stages in life. While this definitely means they can learn from each other, it could also be a strain on the relationship.

There’s only so much you can do about biology

An age gap relationship means that you might spend a good chunk of your life not only caring for your children but your aging partner as well. And while women are often advised that the optimum age for having children is under 35, age makes little difference to men’s ability to procreate.

They’re a potential manifestation of mommy/daddy issues

It might be a cliché, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an element of truth to it. Many people often unwittingly recreate the unhealthy relationship dynamics they saw growing up. Someone who still has unresolved issues with a parent may seek a similar relationship with a partner. This is rarely a good idea. 

Science says don’t do it

Several studies have shown that happiness declines faster in couples with age gaps compared to their similarly-aged counterparts. A Korean study from 2015 showed that couples with a gap of more than three years had slightly higher rates of depression than couples closer in age2.

However, it’s important to note that not all age gap relationships are the same. 20 year age gap relationships where the younger partner is in their 40s or 50s are a vastly different prospect than if they’re in their twenties. A good rule of thumb for what is an acceptable age gap – assuming you’re the older partner – is commonly held to be half your age plus seven. While there’s no correct answer to ‘what is an unhealthy age gap in relationships?’, as long as there’s consent on both sides and no unhealthy power dynamic, age doesn’t matter.

An age-gap-couple on the beach. They are hugging and laughing.

  Should you consider an age gap relationship?

While the average age gap between couples is only a few years3, there are a few good reasons why you should consider dating someone much older or younger than you.

You get to date someone with a very different perspective

When you’re in an age gap relationship, you’re with someone who is in a different stage of life, with the differences in point of view that come with it. You’ll be able to learn from each other while enjoying the things you do have in common.

Dealing with societal disapproval can mean a stronger relationship

Whether justifiably or not, people in an age gap relationship receive a lot of judgement and pushback. This can strain the relationship but the feeling of it being them against the world can also strengthen the bond. Additionally, having to deal with unsupportive friends and family may mean that they’re more committed to the relationship than partners who haven’t had to justify their choices.

An older partner can provide much-needed stability

While it isn’t always true that age brings maturity, younger partners often describe emotional maturity and financial stability as a significant draw of dating older4. Additionally, a younger partner can help someone who’s set in their ways explore new things.

An older partner has learned from previous experiences

Life is an excellent school and the older you get, the more lessons you’ve had the opportunity to learn. One of the best parts of dating an older person is the decreased likelihood they’ll make the same mistakes someone your age might. (Of course, they’ll probably make different mistakes, but that’s life.)

Age gap relationships might increase life expectancy

Studies have shown that people in age gap relationships live longer than their counterparts in relationships with people of similar ages, perhaps because of the increased quality of life and happiness that comes with a younger partner. 

Navigating age gaps in relationships: finding what truly matters

What is an unhealthy age gap in a relationship? The simple answer is that it depends. There are so many factors that determine whether a relationship is a good one and age is only one of them. The most important part of any relationship is compatibility – and at eharmony, we strive to find you partners with the same values and interests, who take dating as seriously as you do. Sign up for eharmony and take your first step to a relationship – whatever the age gap – today.

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