We live in an age when reports about celebrities who are in relationships with large age differences, ranging from five years to almost fifty years (Arlene Silver and Dick Van Dyke are 46 years apart) have become part of daily tabloid press.
But what does the picture look like for the “ordinary” population? What challenges or advantages are connected to having a partner who is much older or younger than oneself? Have we as society really become that “modern” in our views regarding relationships?
According to the US Census Bureau, the number of married couples with age differences from 6 to 9, and 10 or more years didn't change significantly between 2013 and 2018. However, in line with prevalent stereotypes, it seems more common for men to be older than women in partnerships, with 5 % for men who are 10 or more years older than their wives vs 1.1 % for women; 11.4 % for men who are 6 to 9 years older vs 2.8% for women. This may indicate that relationships of this sort are more of an exception than the standard. Although the numbers have not changed much, the question is whether society’s reaction towards couples has changed.
In interviews with two opposite sex couples, one in which the man is 16 years older, and one in which the woman is 9 years older, I tried to find out what these age-gap-relationships are like for them, what challenges they face and how society has reacted in the past and continues to react in the present.
Mitchell (38) and Jane (22) just got married a few weeks ago. The question of age came up on their first date, but because they had previously gotten to know (and like) each other, it wasn’t a
serious issue. Though age has always been somewhat of a criterion to Jane, she didn’t necessarily pick people because they were older, but rather because of their overall maturity and character.
While Mitchell’s biggest issue was being liked and accepted by Jane’s parents, Jane had to deal with reactions of shock and judgement, at least from people who didn’t know her well.
The sentences she heard most often were: ”What do your parents say?!” and “Does he have children or want children?” - questions which became more and more irritating over time.
The main issues that have arisen during the course of their relationship, are the planning of their mutual future, more precisely, when to have kids, build a house and get married. However, they were able to find compromises to any potential bumps along the way, since Mitchell was willing to wait for Jane to build up her career before starting a family, while Jane decided to change her mindset.
“I always used to say that I don’t want to have children or get married before 30, and would have never devoted more thought to the matter; but now, having the perfect partner and a relationship in which everything is exactly right, why would I wait five years just so it would become acceptable to society?” said Jane.
For Jane, the greatest advantage in having an older partner is that he serves as her “rock and safeguard.” Mitchell was well established in life and far advanced in his career when she met him, so she could always count on full support, as well as on insight and advice stemming from 16 more years of life experience.
When asked about society’s attitude, Mitchell and Jane stated that they think people are making progress, which they attribute in part to more age differences for celebrity relationships, but also to modernizing mentalities.
The biggest advantage they see connected to their age disparity, is their mutually beneficial exchange of experiences, views and insights from their different generational standpoints.
Similarly, in Raquel (39) and Steve’s (30) relationship, the younger partner serves as a source of revitalization and refreshment. The couple loves how they both benefit from each other’s knowledge and perspective.
In their case, the woman’s older age only proves problematic with regards to children. The fact that Raquel was married before and has three children, required some adapting on Steve’s part, who, before he met Raquel, was used to being by himself and only caring for one person. However, according to Steve, they connected easily because Raquel is “young at heart.” Steve said, despite those adaptions, he wouldn’t trade their relationship for the world.
The only real problem connected to age that they faced during the course of their relationship, is the fact that Steve would like to have kids of his own; a wish Raquel said she can’t fulfill anymore. However, they both want to spend their future together, so they’re considering other options, such as adoption. As Raquel said, ”All relationships require a certain amount of compromise, regardless of age difference.”
What Raquel appreciates most is Steve’s carefree nature, which she attributes to his being younger. Like Jane, Raquel has been asked the same “annoying” question - ”He is so much younger, doesn’t he want children?” - over and over, but only by people who don’t know her well.
Both couples’ families and friends reacted very openly to their age disparities, especially after seeing them interact with each other and observing their happiness. Negative comments or reactions, if any, mostly came from strangers or people who seemed unhappy with their own situation.
What became most obvious though, is that people in such “extraordinary” relationships put too much unnecessary pressure on themselves, which mostly turns out unwarranted.
Another important aspect the couples emphasized is that it all comes down to the way people treat each other in relationships, regardless of age. If you treat each other respectfully without attributing any special behavior to differences in age or any other aspect, society will do the same. In short: our society may truly be evolving.