Too Young? Too Old? The Problem with Age-Gap Relationships

Are you attracted to someone considerably older or younger than you? How do people respond to your relationship? Do you ever find yourself subject to strange looks or snide comments?

Or are you the one who gives age-gap couples a double take?

While most of us fall in love with people who are similar in age to ourselves, that’s certainly not always the case. Sometimes the best match for us isn’t someone who’s “age-matched.” Usually, these age-gap relationships (sometimes called May-December relationships) are defined by an older man with a younger woman, though the reverse also occurs.

We see these age-gap patterns among American celebrity relationships, with older men with younger women: e.g., Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart, Lenny Kravitz and Barbara Fialho, Dane Cook and Kelsi Taylor; and sometimes with older women with younger men, such as Kate Beckinsale and Matt Rife, or Hugh Jackman and Deborra Lee-Furness. Age-discrepant couples captures people’s interest and curiosity, becoming fodder for gossip and conversation… but why?

Why do outside observers care about age differences in relationships? And more importantly, why do many outsiders find age-gap relationships inappropriate and objectionable?

New research out of Oakland University zeros in on why outside observers often have strong, negative reactions to age-gap relationships (Sela et al., 2018). The researchers argue that outsiders may find age-gap relationships less acceptable than age-matched because they assume there’s an aspect of exploitation in the relationship, an exchange-based partnership (e.g., sex for a certain lifestyle) rather than a care-based partnership. On account of this assumption, those people who have less favorable attitudes towards prostitution, the researchers reasoned, should be particularly harsh towards age-gap relationships. Further, aversion to age-discrepant relationships might be an outcome of self-serving moralization: saying large age-gaps are “wrong,” might protect the interests of those who don’t benefit from such an arrangement (e.g., older women; in the case of older men preferring younger women).

Testing these ideas, Sela and colleagues (2018) surveyed 211 women and 190 men on their views towards age-gap couples, specifically, male-older age-gap couples.  Participants anonymously reported how acceptable, upsetting, and disgusting they perceived an age-gap relationship (i.e., their moral condemnation of age-gap relationships), and then they also reported on their attitudes towards prostitution.

A key finding? Younger people are harsher critiques of man-older age-gap relationships than older people. This is a surprise because one might expect younger people to be – in general – more open to different types of relationships.  Perhaps younger people have more to lose from a reputational standpoint than older people, if age-gap relationships are perceived as exploitative. As predicted, the less favorable individuals’ attitudes were towards prostitution, they more likely they were to have negative views about age-gap relationships.

Who condemns age-gap relationships more: men or women? Contrary to expectations, the researchers observed no gender differences in negativity towards age-gap couples. They did find, though, that women’s attitudes towards prostitution mediated the relation between their age and their attitudes towards age-gap relationships, but this was not the case for men.

Where does this leave us? About 7% of heterosexual couples in the United States are defined as male-older age-gap relationships with men at least 10 years older than their partners (Census Bureau, 2013), meaning that many, many couples are potentially subjected to negative bias by strangers, friends, and outsiders simply because of the age discrepancy in their relationship.

The ways in which age-gap relationships differ from age-matched relationships are only beginning to be studied, but the assumption of an exchange-based relationship isn’t necessarily reflective of reality. As in many cases, the couple themselves understand their dynamic better than an outsider, but this research suggests, age-gap couples should be prepared to encounter negative bias, particularly from younger people.

 

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