Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron. Donald and Melania Trump. Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas. From a glance at the headlines, you’d think that a 10-plus age difference in romantic relationships was commonplace. Yet, despite these prominent cases, May-December romances (also known as age-gap relationships, or AGRs) are in fact still relatively uncommon. According to an analysis of the most recent United States census data available, only 8.5% of married couples are in AGRs, with just 1.3% of these involving an older woman. These relationships may be unusual, but how do they compare to partnerships where everyone is closer in age?
In an AGR, each partner has something unique to give to the relationship.
While every relationship is unique, we can make some generalizations about the pros and cons of an age-gap relationship.
Starting with the good, Beverly B. Palmer, Ph.D., professor emeritus in the Psychology Department at California State University Dominguez Hills and author of Love Demystified: Strategies for a Successful Love Life, says we can use what's called "social exchange theory" to explain some of the benefits of an AGR. That means each person brings specific assets to the table. So, in the most clichéd version of a May-December romance, a beautiful younger woman trades her looks and youth for a wealthy older man's resources.
That exact situation may not apply to all AGRs, but there could be some positives that result in the two partners being at different stages in their lives and careers. And, since most of us are looking for a partner with a high “mate value,” says Helen Fisher, Ph.D., senior research fellow at The Kinsey Institute and author of Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray, “it’s adaptive for Darwinian reasons to find someone who can help you get to where you want to go.”
AGR partners have to learn to navigate the differences in their ages — and handle side-eye.
As far as the negatives go, societal disapproval and prejudice are up there — especially when the age gap is 15 years or more, says Dr. Palmer. For instance, many assume that younger females in AGRs have “daddy issues,” even though research published in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences found these judgments to be unfounded.
The opinions of others affect relationships differently: While one study linked negative scrutiny with breakups, another drew the opposite conclusion — that criticism actually caused partners to form a stronger, longer-lasting bond, says Mike McNulty, Ph.D., master trainer for The Gottman Institute and Founder of The Chicago Relationship Center.
Differences in basic beliefs, politics, values, and pop-cultural references can also pose problems, says Marni Feuerman, Ph.D., a licensed psychotherapist and relationship expert in Boca Raton, Florida. More importantly, discrepancies in life stages can sometimes intensify challenges. For instance, Dr. Feuerman notes that, when one member of a couple begins aging, “The younger partner has the possibility of ending up a young widow or caretaker.”
“There may also be a major discrepancy in energy levels and the physical ability to do the same activities," she adds. "If this is a second marriage, blending families might also be more of a challenge as opposed to with partners who are closer in age and life phase. Finally, when the older one retires while the younger one is still working, some difficulties may arise.”
Does it matter who is older?
According to Dr. Fisher, when an older man takes up with a younger woman, there is generally less shock. It's a more common arrangement, and from a biological perspective, an older man can have a child with a younger woman, but not vice versa. (The couple may not even want kids, but the opportunity to have some still cuts down on the scrutiny.)
That said, young men who don’t want children might prefer an older woman, thanks to her wisdom or resources. In the case of the French prime minister, Brigitte was originally Emmanuel’s teacher, providing invaluable mentorship and helping him build his political career, Dr. Fisher says. In fact, according to a ” Match.com study in which Dr. Fisher was the Chief Scientific Advisor, she found 39% of men would make a long-term commitment to a woman 10 or more years older.
Interestingly, the research shows that, male or female, one side of the equation is more likely to be happier: Both men and women tend to be more satisfied when their partner is younger, rather than the other way around, an Australian study found.
So, can AGRs work in the long run?
They can with some caveats: The wider the age gap, the greater the risk of separation or divorce, recent research from Statistics Netherlands reports. In addition, after six to 10 years of marriage, couples in AGRs tend to become more dissatisfied than those in relationships without significant age gaps, according to the Australian study. The study's authors speculate that couples in AGRs “are less resilient to negative shocks compared to similarly aged couples."
Yet, despite the hurdles, issues are not insurmountable — especially if couples make concerted efforts to nurture their relationships. “Any couple that faces scrutiny and discrimination needs to work that much harder to form a strong relationship that helps them cope,” says Dr. McNulty. “Proactively working on the relationship and seeking out couples therapy and workshops helps achieve that goal.” McNulty also suggests that AGR couples connect with others in similar relationships and spend time with family and friends who see them beyond the stereotypes.
Overall, “We have to be careful not to take a broad brush on AGRs because, if we do that, we are ignoring the decisions of individual couples, which are based on a huge variety of factors,” says Dr. Palmer. “AGRs can work if the attraction is more than just passionate love or social exchange, and if there are other things that hold them together and not just initial passion or wanting to be young again.”
“My guess is that most AGR couples break up not because of the age gap itself, but because of other issues,” says Dr. Fisher. "After all, once you really love someone, their age begins to disappear."
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