According to sexologist Janet Morrison, PhD, who studies such pairings, an “age-gap relationship” is defined by an age discrepancy of 10 or more years between the parties involved. And while scientific data confirming the rate of age-gap relationships is slim, dated, and heteronormative, numbers that do exist give compelling credence to the dynamic existing. U.S. Census Bureau data from 1999 reports 8.5 percent of married couples are in age-gap relationships, with the older party identifying as a man in 7.2 percent of cases, and the older party identifying as a woman in 1.3 percent.
While those specific numbers may have shifted in the decades that have followed, it’s safe to say that age-gap structures are still very much present and that they remain in the minority. In fact, perhaps that lack of incidence is part of why they’re often met with scrutinizing curiosity by others. Consider that the first autofill suggestion after typing “Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas” into a Google search bar is “age,” and the same goes for Florence Pugh and Zach Braff along with a number of other celebrity couples with significant age gaps. And based on my experience, it’s not simply benign inquisitiveness propelling the interest. I’ve heard folks call the dynamic (including my own relationship) “creepy” and often assume it to reflect an imbalance of power—but why?
Some research supports the notion that those in age-gap relationships are less resilient to domestic obstacles, such as differing attitudes to money-saving habits, other financial difficulties, and family planning. And I’d be lying if I said my age gap with Styx has never played a role in our relationship. For example, I’m still relatively early on in my career, and he’s thinking about retirement in 10 to 15 years. For nearly 30 years, he has owned the house we now live in together, while I was part of “generation rent” until I moved in, creating a property-ownership disparity. And over the last year, differing levels of vulnerability to COVID-19 based on age-adjacent health issues have presented challenges and frustrations as we navigated our shared risks. But do issues like these add up to a more extreme, potentially incompatible relationship diagnosis than that with which same-aged couples contend? I don’t believe so.
Decoding supposed power imbalances in age-gap relationships
Some common stereotypes are at play when it comes to judgments of age-gap relationships. For example, consider the trope that creepy older men want younger “trophy wives” they can control, and that younger women in these dynamics are gold diggers. Or, the older woman is a cougar, out for cheap thrills with a younger man to be her play thing. In either scenario, “it’s the woman in a heterosexual relationship who is stigmatized,” Dr. Morrison says. That subtext might be rooted in a widely accepted belief (even if subliminally or unconsciously) that it is more common—and arguably comfortable—for the men to have the power.
There are several factors that are assumed to (and sometimes actually do) cause power imbalances in age-gap relationships. Money, particularly when one partner earns significantly more than the other, is a common origin point of power imbalances, which can likely take hold in age-gap relationships given the likelihood that someone who is older has been in workforce longer and, thus, might be making more, says Mel Riley, a senior accredited psychotherapist based in the United Kingdom. (And since the older-man-to-younger-woman age-gap relationship structure is most common, this setup helps inform the gold-digging, trophy-wife trope.)
“No matter the type of relationship you’re in, whether there’s an age gap or or not, there is often a power imbalance built in.” —Gigi Engle, sex educator
Additionally, “there could be a big imbalance in life goals. For example if one wants kids and the other has no interest,” psychotherapist Kirk Honda, PsyD, said on a 2017 episode of the Psychology in Seattle podcast. This feeds into the assumption that the younger person is “giving something up” (such as the possibility of having children) to be with the older person, who may have more money and, thus, power. But none of the younger parties I spoke with throughout my reporting felt this way. According to Dr. Morrison, gender-based assumptions of power imbalance (the gender wage gap, for example) can be compounded by an age gap, as can assumptions of imbalances that may or may not actually exist. And if they do exist, it may be a fallacy that the imbalance is strictly a result of the age gap.
How couples actually in age-gap relationships feel
Gigi Engle, sex educator, certified sex coach, and trainee psychotherapist, says power in a relationship cannot be pinned on one factor alone—and that includes age. “No matter the type of relationship you’re in, whether there’s an age gap or or not, there is often a power imbalance built in,” she says. But since age-gap relationships already subvert the expectations of modern mainstream American society (though not necessarily the case with many religions or ethnic conventions), she says, those involved may be predisposed to question, communicate about, and rethink other aspects of their dynamic—which can be a good thing.
It certainly is for me and Styx: We face complexities that come up in our relationship head-on, via honest conversation and even humor. For Charlie, 27, and their girlfriend Alexa, a trans woman who is 42, though, their age gap has provided some welcome perspective. “I think it gives us complementary perspectives,” Alexa says of their age gap. “The fact that we’re at slightly different life stages means that we sometimes have situations to negotiate where we bring different things to the table and want different things out of them,” she says, adding that as a couple, they work to mitigate issues with an “aggressively communicative relationship pattern.”
Something I find interesting about the power question is that outside parties often assume that the age-gap couple has not thought about the subject. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, all the age-gap couples I spoke to seemed hyper-aware of the potential for an imbalance and committed to working against it. “Pretending that there isn’t [a power imbalance] is where you might run into problems,” Engle says. “It takes communication, self-awareness, and a lot of difficult and often awkward conversations.”
Lori, 40, who has been seeing Azzy, 20, for a few months, agrees that communication is key for relationship success in any dynamic, and says she sees age gaps as more of an opportunity than a setback. She describes herself as a “youthful, high-energy person” who has always gotten along well with younger people. “As with any relationship, we all have strengths and weaknesses. Learning to accept help from each other’s strong points is important, regardless of age.”
Many couples engaged in age-gap dynamics cite external judgments, rather than conflicts that arise within the partnership, as most damaging to their relationship (something I cosign from my experience). “Often, the problem is not what’s happening in the relationship, but the system that the couple operates in,” says Riley. “Whether it’s judgment from family, or criticism from outside, that can cause a real sense of shame.”
That was the case for Emily, 37, and her husband of 14 years, Ben, 56. Emily says her mom “flipped out” when she learned about the relationship (though she eventually came around) and noted that such reactions from folks on the outside of their relationship has been the only real problem their age gap has caused.
Ultimately, the experts and couples landed on a similar note in that healthy age-gap relationships require the same components as any other healthy partnership—love, respect, communication, trust, and shared goals. And those factors are indeed readily available to folks of any age who are in partnerships with others of any age. Of course, feeling unsupported by loved ones can lead anyone to question their choices, but leaning on those aforementioned components of a healthy partnership may just help bridge any gaps in understanding. After all, everyone who cares about you ostensibly wants the same things for you: love, health, and happiness.
In my case, I’ve been lucky that everyone in my life has accepted Styx, seeing that he is kind and supportive. Regardless, each person is an expert in their own relationships, and though external perspectives can be helpful to keep in mind, no outside party can ever have the full picture.
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