Relationship Age Gaps Are Still So Unequal for Men and Women

Plus, science says they might end in divorce, anyway

French President Macron Hosts Greek PM Mitsotakis At The Elysee Palace In Paris
One exception: French President Emmanuel Macron's wife Brigitte is more than 20 years his senior.
Getty Images

In a recent essay, The New York Times declared an end to the daddy reign of terror and the start of the “mother times.” In these “mother times,” we have finally shifted our attention away from the Pedro Pascals and George Clooneys of the world to focus instead on the Toni Colettes and the Jamie Lee Curtises, the Angela Bassetts and the Viola Davises — the mature women whose gorgeous middle-aged bodies are made exponentially sexier by their hard-fought life experience and wisdom. Up until very recently, older women in the United States have had to fight to be seen as valuable or desirable and are only now getting a sliver of the respect and attention so long owed them in Hollywood and elsewhere. Still, inequality persists, and hardly anywhere is it more apparent than in the American perception of age gaps in relationships. 

A 2022 poll from Ipsos found that just 60% of Americans think it’s socially acceptable for a woman to date someone 10 or more years younger than herself, while 71% said it’s perfectly fine for a man to do the same. Subconsciously or not, more men are attracted to younger women because of their potential fertility, something Dr. Sarah Hill, a sexual psychologist in Texas, somewhat acerbically refers to as their “estrogenic glow.” She recently said research measuring lifetime partner preferences shows women tend to want to date someone five to eight years older than themselves, a preference that stays consistent as they grow older. Whereas aging men tend to prefer women who are increasingly younger than themselves. 

As it turns out, though, serious age gaps between partners of any gender might actually do more to destabilize romantic relationships than bridge generational divides. A study from Emory University found that relationships with a 20-year or larger age gap suffered a staggering 95% failure rate — a number that decreased incrementally as the age gap narrowed. Married couples who were only one or two years apart boasted a divorce rate of just 3%.

Though science says it’s rare for age gaps to support long-lasting connections, there’s no shortage of Hollywood relationships that seem to prove otherwise. See: 75-year-old Steven Tyler and his 30-something girlfriend, or Robert De Niro, who’s got a newborn baby at age 79. Any partnership with a notable age difference will face some level of stigma, but the disapproval is amplified when the older partner is a woman. French President Emmanuel Macron, 45, has spoken about the shock many people express for the age difference between him and his wife, Brigitte, 70. 

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“If I was 20 years older than my wife, nobody would think for a single second that we couldn’t be legitimately together,” he recently told a Parisian newspaper. “It’s because she is 20 years older than me that a lot of people say, ‘this relationship can’t be tenable, it can’t be possible.’” To be sure, his relationship is weird in a few key ways (namely that he’s younger than two of Brigitte’s children, yikes). But the fact that he’s younger than her isn’t one of them.

Despite possible pitfalls of the gap, it’s easy for young people to fantasize about being with someone older and all the clichés associated with it. The allure of the older partner is someone wiser, more confident, more experienced, successful and stable. As we age, however, it gets easier to fantasize in the other direction. Wouldn’t it be nice to be with someone more physically and mentally flexible, someone who isn’t so jaded and who knows how to have fun? 

In practice, significant age gaps can make it hard to reconcile each partner’s needs. If watching Laura Anderson strike out with two younger boys on Season 4 of Love Island UK taught me anything, it’s that sometimes age isn’t just a number — it’s a relationship death knell. When partners are in different stages of their lives, they might have a harder time aligning their values and visions for the future, like whether they want to get married or have kids, and when. 

In a recent essay for The Independent, writer Oliver Keens critiqued the gender dynamics of graying hair and our collective hard-on for older men. He explained how, as his own hair grays, he’s grown increasingly suspicious of the “silver fox” trope, which gives men too much credit for doing literally nothing. Meanwhile, women are routinely shamed into concealing their age. With one hand, he says our culture loves to perpetuate the narrative of the daddy, the “smooth-talking and dapper” foil to the younger man’s idiocy and inexperience. With the other, it loves to strip older women of their sexuality and gravitas. The side of aging that we tend to find sexiest — the accumulation of status and power — is often associated with men more than women. But to anyone who doesn’t think older women are powerful, go watch Ms. Lee Curtis win her first Oscar at age 64. Now that’s hot.

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