People say “age is just a number” all the time, but do they practice what they preach?
“The heart wants what the heart wants” is a cliché that couldn’t be more accurate. We truly can’t help who we fall in love with. Love doesn’t care if someone is older or younger, but we certainly do.
As far as relationships go, it can get complicated. Age signifies so much more than just a number: it can reflect your maturity, your experience and the stage you are at in life.
It is due to similar reasons that our society holds a negative stigma regarding age difference, causing people to obsess over it. And, that is why the moment we start developing feelings for people outside our age brackets, we begin to think there is something wrong about it.
At the same time, age can be deceptive. Not every 21-year-old is on the same playing field–some are already gearing up for the ninth inning while others are just jumping into the dating game.
Before we make any harsh judgments or rash decisions, we should think about our lover’s maturity level.
As long as you both are on the same level of maturity, the ‘attached’ age number should not interfere with your decision.
Our younger years are prime years for developing and learning much about ourselves. But, each year, as we (hopefully) become another year wiser, we become more secure in ourselves and a lot more stable in our personalities. In fact, our psychological and physical development slows down, consequently, the mental gap between age groups narrows. Think back to your own experiences with your brothers and sisters. While a little sister two years younger than you seemed completely annoying when you were seven, but 10 years down the road she seems far less immature.
The other beauty about becoming more secure in our identities is that suddenly, society’s judgments don’t matter to us as much as they did before.
But if we stop looking at it holistically, then:
Why does age NOT matter to some?
Many of the reasons proposed for age-gap couples are largely rooted in evolutionary explanations, and focus on explaining “older man-younger woman” pairings.
From this perspective, it’s thought that men’s preferences for younger women and women’s preferences for older men relate to reproductive fitness. That is the extent to which someone has “good genes” – indicated by their attractiveness and sense of energy (also known as vitality) , and the extent to which they are a “good investment” – indicated by their status and resources as well as their warmth and sense of trust.
The rates of relationships with a greater age-gap have significantly reduced, as there are still a few gender stereotypes that keep a little number of these relationships a part of the status quo. Although men and women both place importance on a partner who is warm and trustworthy, women place more importance on the status and resources of their male partner. This is mostly because, with women being the child bearers, the investment is very high on their behalf (time and effort in childbearing and rearing). So, they are attuned to looking for a partner who will also invest resources into the relationship and family.
But because the building of resources takes time, we tend to acquire resources later in life and are therefore, older by the time we have acquired enough wealth and resources to comfortably provide for others. Hence, women’s attunement to status and resources might explain why some women may be attracted to older men.
In contrast, there’s evidence to suggest men value attractiveness and vitality more than women because from an evolutionary standpoint, youth is seen as an indicator of fertility. Given men cannot bear children, evolution suggests they’re attuned to younger women to enhance their chances of partnering with someone who can provide children.
But the evolutionary explanation is limited since it doesn’t explain why the opposite of this, occurs (an older woman-younger man pairing), or why age gaps exist within same-sex couples. For this, socio-cultural explanations might provide insights.
With more women working, in higher positions and being paid more, they no longer have such a reliance on men for resources. So, fewer women prioritize resources when looking for a mate.
As for same-sex couples, there’s very little research. Some suggest a lack of or a reduced pool of suitable age-similar mates, may bring about same-sex coupling with large age differences.
What are the relationship-outcomes for age-gap couples?
Many people assume that age-gap couples fare poorly when it comes to relationship outcomes. But some studies find the relationship satisfaction reported by age-gap couples is higher. These couples also seem to report better trust and commitment and lower jealousy than similar-age couples. Over three-quarters of couples, where younger women are partnered with older men, report satisfying romantic relationships.
A factor that does impact on the relationship outcomes of age-gap couples, is their perceptions of social disapproval. That is, if people in age-gap couples believe their family, friends and wider community disapprove of their union, then relationship commitment decreases and the risk of break-up increases.
These effects appear to apply to heterosexual and same-sex couples. So the negative outcomes for age-gap couples seem to reside not in problems within the couple, but in the external pressures and judgments.
Another factor at play, may have to do with the stage of life each partner is experiencing. For instance, a ten-year gap between a 20-year-old and a 30-year-old may bring up different challenges and issues than for a ten-year gap where one partner is 53 and the other is 63.
This is because our lives are made up of different stages, and each stage consists of particular life tasks we need to master. And we give priority to the mastery of different tasks during these distinct stages of our lives. So when each member of a couple straddles a different life stage, it may be difficult for the couple to reconcile each other’s differing life needs and goals.
Does age matter?
The success of a relationship depends on the extent to which partners share similar values, beliefs and goals about their relationship; support each other in achieving personal goals; foster relationship commitment, trust, and intimacy; and resolve problems in constructive ways. These factors have little do with age.
So the reality is, while an age gap may bring about some challenges for couples, so long as couples work at their relationship, age should be no barrier.