Every Friday on the blog, I answer people’s questions about sex, love, and relationships. This week’s question comes from a reader who wanted to know whether it is possible for an age-gap relationship to work out when it involves an older woman and a younger man.
I am a 46-year-old woman recently married to a man 18 years younger than myself. We've been together about 2 years, and got married mainly so that he can live with me and my two children from a previous marriage. So far we all get along great, but from the beginning I've wondered how realistic it is to hope for long-term success given the age difference. In particular, our society ridicules and devalues older women, and I worry that as I get older, it will be harder and harder for my husband to feel attracted to me even if he still loves me. I don't know any other women who have tried dating younger men, but I've noticed that you are one of very few people who has published research on this subject. Is there any advice you would give, based on your research or on your experience with age-gap couples?
Thank you for submitting this thoughtful question. Navigating an age-gap relationship can be challenging because our society is not very accepting of couples in which one partner is significantly older than the other. Studies have found that people are particularly disapproving of heterosexual age-gap couples in which the older partner is female . The women in such relationships are commonly referred to as “cougars,” a term that suggests that these women are nothing but sexual predators. The other label that comes to mind for many people is “Mrs. Robinson,” the character from the classic film The Graduate who famously seduced the young son of one of her husband’s friends. That’s not a particularly flattering association either. Interestingly, we don’t have derogatory labels for the young men who enter these relationships—those names only exist for the older women, which really says something about society’s attitudes toward women of a certain age.
So in the face of this double standard and bigotry, is it possible for older women to develop and maintain long-term, satisfying relationships with younger men? Absolutely. First, it’s important to note that you aren’t the only one involved in a relationship like this. Marriages like yours are somewhat rare, but they’re not unheard of. For example, according to U.S. census data, 1.3% of heterosexual marriages feature a woman who is ten or more years older than her husband . If there were less stigma against age-gap couples, I would think that number would be even higher.
Second, research on women in age-gap relationships has found that women who are more than ten years older than their male partners are happier in their relationships than women who have partners closer in age. Specifically, woman-older partners reported higher levels of relationship satisfaction and commitment than similarly aged partners . Why is that? We don’t know for sure, but it may be because when the woman is older, it shifts the traditional heterosexual power dynamic toward greater equality. We know from a lot of research that greater equality tends to make couples happier .
Finally, I know you’re worried about what will happen to your body and your sex life as you age, but keep in mind that even if you and your partner were the same age, you couldn’t necessarily predict what your partner is going to look like down the road (e.g., Will they gain weight? Lose their hair?). You also can’t predict what their health status will be and whether they will maintain the same level of interest in sex that they have now. Everyone changes, and not always in the ways that you expect—in fact, that’s why most people promise “in sickness and in health” and “for better or for worse” when they get married. There are always unknowns in relationships and if you spend all of your time worrying about what might happen in the future, you’ll never have the chance to be happy now.
In light of this, my advice to you would be to not give up on your relationship just because other people aren’t comfortable with it. Far too many people deprive themselves of loving relationships because they are afraid of what other people might think about their partner’s age, race, sex, religion, social class, and so forth. Age-gap and other marginalized relationships face a tougher road due to social stigma, but if you really care about each other and can make your own support network, there’s no reason you can’t achieve long-term relationship success.
For past Sex Question Friday posts, see here. Want to learn more about The Psychology of Human Sexuality? Click here for a complete list of articles or like the Facebook page to get articles delivered to your newsfeed.
 Banks, C. A., & Arnold, P. (2001). Opinions towards sexual partners with a large age difference. Marriage & Family Review, 33, 5–18.
 U.S. Census Bureau. (1999). America’s families and living arrangements. Retrieved April 8, 2009 from: http://www.census.gov/population/www/ socdemo/hh-fam/p20-537_99.html
 Lehmiller, J. J., & Agnew, C. R. (2008). Commitment in age-gap heterosexual romantic relationships: A test of evolutionary and socio-cultural predictions. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 32, 74-82.
 Winn, K. I., Crawford, D. W., & Fischer, J. L. (1991). Equity and commitment in romance versus friendship. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 6, 301–314.
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