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Age Differences in Relationships

Updated on March 16, 2021
An early cougar? "Amorous Old woman with Young Man" by Lucas Cranach the Elder, circa 1522
An early cougar? "Amorous Old woman with Young Man" by Lucas Cranach the Elder, circa 1522
"The Ill-matched Couple" by Lucas Cranach the Elder. 1532
"The Ill-matched Couple" by Lucas Cranach the Elder. 1532

Cougars and Lechers

In the 16th century, German painter and printmaker Luchas Cranach the Elder produced, among other things, some interesting works representing age differences in relationships.

Many of them were stereotypical themes we would be familiar with today- "amorous" older woman, "lecherous" older man, suggesting that as far as human nature goes, things don't really change all that much.

In the painting above, the toothless woman 'of a certain age' with the lascivious leer seems to be shoving some gold coins into the youth's palm, while he, in turn, looks on with a kind of knowing acceptance. The tables are turned in the painting at right, where it is an older man who looks lustfully at the younger woman by his side. Aware of her own sexual allure, the young woman rests a hand delicately on her own cleavage while the gold coins and scales on the table indicate a material transaction.

Gold Diggers and Gigolos

The flip side of cougars and lechers is "gold-diggers and "gigolos" - young men and women who latch on to older partners for material gain. As Cranach suggests in his paintings, relationships where there are wide age differences often involve an exchange driven by an almost carnivorous lust for youth and beauty on the one hand and material gain on the other. Yet there is not necessarily anything intrinsically wrong with this scenario provided there is full freedom of choice and not exploitation- some may say it is a fair exchange of assets, with both parties gaining something advantageous out of the relationship.

It's not however, the stuff of romantic love and doesn't gel with most people's idea of what a *good* relationship should be. Hollywood and Mills and Boon wouldn't approve. Yet for centuries marriages were made not in heaven but for a great many practical reasons, of which romantic love was way down on the list. Money, social position, political expediency, familial expectations - all these were considered to be more important than love and often young women were compelled to marry much older men [it was rarely the other way around]. Still today, in various parts of the world, young girls are promised by their parents to older men, some of whom they have never set eyes on before their wedding day.

Renowned artist George Frederick Watts's portrait of his  child bride, Ellen Terry, 30 years his junior. The marriage only lasted 10 months.
Renowned artist George Frederick Watts's portrait of his child bride, Ellen Terry, 30 years his junior. The marriage only lasted 10 months. | Source
Harold and Maude
Harold and Maude

Famous Relationships with a Significant Age Difference

There have been several high profile relationships with a wide age difference between the couples. Some of them lasted, some didn't.

SIgnificantly, an older celebrity male marrying a younger woman is almost a societal expectation while an older celebrity female marrying a much younger male still manages to stimulate attention and disapproving looks.

Older Women
Their Younger Partners
Age Difference
Lucille Ball
Desi Arnaz
6 years
Francesca Anni
Ralph Fiennes
17 years
Susan Sarandon
Tim Robbins
12 years
Demi Moore
Ashton Kutcher
15 years
Deborah Lee Furness
Hugh Jackman
13 years
Older Men
Their Younger Partners
Age Difference
Woody Allen
Soon-Yi Previn
36 years
Prince Albert
Charlene Wittstock
20 years
Rod Stewart
Penny Lancaster
27 years
Clint Eastwood
Dina Ruiz
35 years
Laurence Oliviier
Joan Plowright
22 years

The Double Standard of Age Differences

Traditionally, even in so-called enlightened societies, it has been far more acceptable for older men to to date and/or marry much younger women than vice versa. Even now, when giant inroads have been made into the male/female divide, eyebrows can still be raised when an older woman marries a younger man, particularly if that age difference is greater than ten years, while a man ten years or more older than his partner seems to be expected and thus regarded as relatively normal.

The conventional view was [is still?] that younger women look for security, stability and status via the power and wealth of their men while older men look for status via the youth and beauty of their women, ie; "the trophy wife'. The following pearl of wisdom comes from

Trophy wives can make an old guy look young, and an ugly guy look good. It’s no surprise, then, that men of power and influence have sought them out for years. In exchange for their beauty, trophy wives are given a lavish lifestyle, a fat spending allowance and a life of leisure.

Ah well, all I have to say to that is:

Let us leave the beautiful women to men with no imagination~ Marcel Proust

Although it is more acceptable in the present era for women to marry or have relationships with younger men, the age gap between older women and younger men still tends to be far less than that found between older men and younger women. For example, while it is quite rare to find a 20 to 30 year age distinction between older women/younger men, it's not so uncommon in the reverse.

Possibly this is because, historically, women lacked power and status and to a large extent were dependent on men for survival. Thus the older man/younger woman scenario became just too ingrained over centuries to disappear within a few decades. Older men/younger women memes are written into folklore. Consider the following old "wisdoms":

  • Better to be an old man's darling than a young man's slave
  • "Half your age plus seven" is the rule of thumb for men looking for the right age in a woman, eg; for a 42 year old man, a 28 year old is ideal

Although the incidence of older women dating and marrying younger men has risen, according to one major study at Cardiff University there is a cross-cultural preference by women for same age or older men. If this is true, the question is, are we genetically programmed to prefer same age or older men or is this culturally programmed?

"The Unequal Marriage" by Vasili Pukirev  in 1862, portrays a rather depressing scene of a young Russian girl in the process of betrothal to a much older man
"The Unequal Marriage" by Vasili Pukirev in 1862, portrays a rather depressing scene of a young Russian girl in the process of betrothal to a much older man | Source


Would you consider a relationship with an age gap of more than twelve years?

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Do you think, in a relationship, it's better for a man to be older than a woman than vice versa?

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Average Age Differences in Long-term Relationships

In the modern era, age differences in marriages have diminished, reaching an average of around four years in the 1950s. In most Western countries, it's now around two to three years.

Median Age for First Marriages in the US

However, interestingly, in second marriages the age gap, on average, widens. There may be several reasons for this; as we age our expectations change and while we may have looked to romantic visions of eternal love the first time around, our take two expectations are likely to be more realistic and factors such as companionship and security feature more heavily.

On the other hand, it might be excitement we seek. A mid-life crisis and a marriage stuck in a seemingly endless rut could stimulate profound yearnings for a youth that is slipping through our grasp and a younger partner might, at least in theory, offer the promise of vitality and excitement.

Or perhaps it's just as simple as the fact that as we get older, age differences don't seem as important as they once did. To a 21 year old, twelve years apart can seem like a lifetime - not so much, when your 41. After all, I used to think 30 was old.

Whatever the motivation, statistically, more men choose significantly younger women when marrying for a second time than the reverse, which will come as no surprise to most women.

Most people believe romantic love is still the best basis for a relationship - at least the first time around
Most people believe romantic love is still the best basis for a relationship - at least the first time around | Source

Do Age Differences Really Matter?

Pros and Cons

Realistically, age is really more than *just a number* - it's an accumulation of lived experiences and a couple who have a wide age gap between them will have fewer reference points to share together. The wider the gap, the less a couple may have in common, at least on a superficial level. Plus, one partner is more likely to become ill, inactive or even die before the other. If the age gap is particularly cavernous, one partner might find themselves adopting the role of nurse rather than partner at some point in the relationship.

On a deeper level however, a couple with a wide age gap between them may be far more compatible in personality than one closer in age. There are so many variables between individuals - some 25 year olds seem quite middle-aged in their attitude and conversely, there are some 40 year olds with a very fresh, spontaneous outlook on life. While very large age-gap couples may have a greater chance of failure, so many people split up for so many different reasons - no relationship, age-appropriate or not, is immune from separation. So while it may only last a few years, so might any relationship. There is no evidence that couples with age differences less than 10-12 years are more likely to split up.

Kids and their Parents Age Gaps

Children further complicate the age divide debate. A woman who has a child with a much older man may find herself widowed at an early age and the child left fatherless. Or, an older woman may not be able to give a younger man a family, which could become an issue later in the relationship. The following excerpt from a 2012 Guardian article offers us a small insight into what it was like to have parents with a 33 year age gap;

As a child, I was never overtly aware that other people's parents were of similar ages; my mum and dad were just like anyone else's. The true impact of the age of my father only struck home as a teenager. My father died from age-related illnesses two years after he retired. He was 79, I was 14. It devastated my family; we had to sell the house we grew up in and completely readjust to new lives. My dad was not there to see me graduate from school or university, see me pass my driving test or have a pint with me on my 18th birthday.

Chuck Jaeger, The Guardian

While the picture seems a little gloomy there, Chuck does go on to say that his experience taught him that a large age difference is "of no real concern: both of my parents loved each other and my childhood was idyllic". Of course few children regret their own parents union, since, without it, their existence would not have been possible.

Another obstacle the large age-gap couple can face is negativity and even resentment from external forces - family, friends, children from a prior marriage etc, as well as the wider community. As we know, humans can be very judgemental and downright ageist when it comes to relationships. Although such objections can usually be overcome, it might make for a bumpy road in the beginning.

One final hurdle in some age-gap relationships may occur when there is an inequality of economic power and status, which frequently happens in wide age gap scenarios. When all the power is weighted toward one person, the balance of the relationship can fall seriously out of kilter.

Despite the potential difficulties of a large age gap and whether or not there are any children involved, the single most important thing in any relationship is surely whether not that relationship is a good, loving one. Far better to be one of a couple, miles apart in age, who love each other, than be one of a couple of a similar age who don't get along and far better for any children too.

Personality compatibility is more important than age compatibility
Personality compatibility is more important than age compatibility | Source

On a Personal Note

I have only had one relationship with a significant age difference - I was twenty-five and he, forty-two. It was, on reflection, one of the better relationships I have had and while it did eventually end, the demise had nothing to do with our age difference. In fact, after the initial the *getting to know each other* period, any discrepancy in our ages became completely irrelevant.

Far more important was our rapport, our shared sense of of humour, common interests and our physical attraction, which, incidentally was unhindered by any middle-aged wrinkles. I suspect that for many couples, once you become very familiar with someone and get comfortable with them, age differences usually recede into the background.

Recommended Viewing: The Roman Spring of Mrs.Stone

Of course not everyone who enters into a relationship with a younger man or woman and vice versa is thinking long-term.

Based on a Tennessee Williams play, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone explores the insecurities and desires of a recently widowed, ageing actress on an extended holiday in Italy. Although the marriage with her deceased age-appropriate husband was a good one, Mrs. Stone really lifts the lid on her own personal box of longings after his death and uses a financially stretched but exotically handsome young man to, one suspects, stave off her deep-rooted fears about ageing.

Accustomed to being adored and having defined her worth in terms of beauty and desirability, the realisation of serious cracks in the veneer is a harsh thing to confront. When the penny drops with a resounding ding that the young man was more enamoured with her purse than her person [really she knew it all along] and leaves for fresher fish, she feels pain but without much repose for recovery, soon sets her sights on another darkly ominous gigolo waiting in the wings.The young men, it seems, are becoming a kind of drug; a brief inoculation against the vicissitudes of time.

In the final analysis, Tennessee Williams portrayal of Karen Stone is not so far removed from Lucas Cranach's portrait of an older woman procuring passion and a taste of the elixir of youth via the jangle of a few gold coins.


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