Age-Gap Romance: Recipe for Stigma or Success?

June 23, 2020

‘The bottom line is that apparently, in many cases, age-gap relationship stereotypes are just that: unfounded, preconceived ideas about couples outside of the “normal” age range. In reality, loving, healthy, happy relationships can survive and thrive regardless of age. As happy couples know, true love transcends demographics, bringing people together through affection, fondness, and compatibility—not age.’

Research reveals the truth about cross-decade dating

We have all seen them, or met them: couples that are obviously from two different generations. When we are introduced, the visual mismatch may leave us unsure of whether we are meeting a couple, or perhaps a parent and adult child. Small talk may be awkward until we figure it out.

But what kind of judgments do we make about such relationships, and how does it impact the way we treat them? Further, does the way we respond impact the way such couples perceive themselves and their relationship? Research has some answers.

Relational Age Gaps Are Atypical

Brian Collisson and Luciana Ponce De Leon (2018) sought to investigate why couples in age-gap relationships are often the target of prejudice and negative stereotypes. [i]

Part of their research included a very practical observation about cultural differences regarding perceived appropriate age gaps between partners. They noted that according to a United Nations study (2000), North American couples tend to have a small age gap within marriage: on average, 2.3 years. Within the United States, they cited the United States Census Bureau (1999) finding that 60 percent of married couples have age gaps of less than 3 years; 92 percent have age gaps of less than 10 years.

Standard relationship age gaps, however, are different in different countries. Miles Q. Ott et al. (2011), in an article entitled “Age-gaps in sexual partnerships: seeing beyond ‘sugar daddies,’” [ii] reveal markedly different relational statistics than those that exist in North America. They note that in the population they studied in their research—rural South Africa—“sugar daddy” relationships are rare, and spousal relationships tend to have larger age gaps than casual relationships.

But are people prejudiced against age-gap relationships simply because they are not used to seeing them? Apparently, there is more to the story.

Perceived Inequity Drives Dislike

Examining equity and social exchange theories, Collisson and De Leon found that prejudice toward age-gap couples stems from a perception of relational inequity, which, in turn, causes them to be more disliked than age-matched couples. More specifically, they found that the older partners in age-gap relationships were perceived as enjoying greater rewards from the relationship than their younger paramours.

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