How Does Your Age Difference Affect Your Relationship?

How many years are between you and your significant other? Age differences in dating-relationships – and in marriage – are often a hot button topic for couples who are navigating 5, 10, or more years between them. The privilege of similar-aged couples is they might rarely think about this question; but the struggle for adult dating couples, especially as they begin to form their relationship, is to understand how age differences will affect their relationship.

First, what’s the age difference in most couples? Age-gap trends in American adult heterosexual couples are well documented. The Pew Research Center analyzed data from the 2013 American Community Survey and found that, even though most heterosexual Americans (78- 80%) are choosing partners who are about their same age when they marry for the first time (within 5 years), many are not. In age-gap couples, men are more apt to have a younger than an older spouse, with 10% having a spouse who’s 6-9 years younger, and 5% marrying a woman 10+ years younger. Women show the opposite trend, with only 2% marrying men 6-9 years younger and only 1% having a spouse 10+ years younger.

Age gaps are larger for re-marriages. If it seems like men who re-marry often go for younger women, well, it’s not far from reality (Pew Research Center, 2014).  When remarrying, only 57% of men marry women about their same age: 20% of men choose women who are 10+ years younger than themselves, and 18% choose partners 6-9 years younger than themselves. In the same study, women reported being the older spouse only 11% percent of the time.

So how do you know if an age-gap relationship will work? With so many age-gap marriages, dating someone who is considerably older or younger is not that uncommon. These dating relationship, however, might present themselves with unique challenges. How do you decide if your age difference will be a problem? Is the age difference too large, or is age not a factor? Here is a sample of potential issues especially salient to mixed-age couples.

  1. How similar are you? Similarity predicts relationship satisfaction in long-term relationships (Amodio & Showers, 2005), and while all couples navigate questions of shared interests and preferences, age-gap partners could experience this more than others. Age might just be a number, or it could be a factor driving differences in preferred leisure activities, how to spend money, or other such decisions.
  2. Do you share the same relationship time table? If marriage is a possibility, a conversation of when to take that next step could be particularly beneficial for age-gap couples. If one person’s social network is mostly married couples and the other has only unmarried friends, there could be different pressures and expectations that each person is facing. Discussing hopes and plans along these lines could help couples determine how best to move forward.
  3. Are your friends and family supportive? Age-gap couples report experiencing general social disapproval of their relationship more than their similar-aged counterparts (Lehmiller & Agnew, 2006). Such marginalization may be stressful or isolating, and can translate into relationship evaluations. While individuals in age-gap relationships tend to be no more or less committed to their relationships than similar-aged couples, the extent to which they feel more general disapproval of their relationship, the less committed they tend to be (Lehmiller & Agnew, 2006). In other words, having supportive friends and family could be particularly useful in age-gap relationships.
  4. Kids or no kids? This question is not unique to age-gap couples, but having years between two partners makes it potentially more challenging to navigate. Whether having a biological child or adopting, parenting in your 20s or early 30s could feel different from parenting in your 40s, 50s, or 60s, and couples benefit from being on the same page about whether parenthood is in their future.
  5. Are you willing to financially prepared? Should your age-gap relationship be long-term, you might consult a financial advisor for a plan that will support both members of the couple. Age gaps can create unique situations in retirement planning. U.S. News and World Report suggests to “plan for the younger partner,” which in some circumstances can mean delayed retirement for the older spouse.
  6. Are your relationship goals compatible? It’s not easy when one person is thinking short-term fun while the other has long-term ambitions. Such incompatible relationship goals are not unique to age-gap relationships; however, certain age-related factors could play a part in goals. A survey of American unmarried adults (Pew Research Center, 2017) showed that 33% of 18-24 year olds cited “not ready to settle down/ too young” as the main reason they are not married, whereas only 11% of 35+ individuals reported the same.

Couples negotiate all sorts of differences as they figure out if they can form a sustainable, happy relationship. An age gap may be a dimension of your relationship, but it’s unlikely to define it. Indeed, a recent poll showed that most Americans consider love (88%), commitment (81%), companionship (76%) as important reasons for marrying – and these have very little to do with age.

 

References

Amodio, D. M., & Showers, C. J. (2005). ‘Similarity breeds liking’ revisited: The moderating role of commitment. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 22, 817-836.

Lehmiller, J. J., & Agnew, C. R. (2006). Marginalized relationships: The impact of social disapproval on romantic relationship commitment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 40-51.

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