Can a woman who’s in her 50s date a guy who’s about half her age?
This was a question discussed on social media in response to the romance brewing between characters on Fox’s show “911″ played by Connie Britton (51 in real life) and the much younger Oliver Stark (26). Stark told one viewer on Twitter that the question “wouldn’t be asked if the man happened to be older than the woman.”
He’s right that in heterosexual relationships, older man-younger woman is the stereotype we’re used to, and may be more likely to accept. But in either scenario, women can be judged harshly — and sometimes the man can’t escape some side-eye either.
Consider this past season of “The Bachelor,” where one of Arie Luyendyk’s conquests, Bekah M., was 14 years younger than he is, a fact mocked in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch as his sole interest in her. Or Yahoo News recently running the headline “Dane Cook, 45, is dating a 19-year-old singer — how weird is that?”
Celebrity relationships with significant age differences have always made headlines: Jerry Seinfeld and Jessica Sklar, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones, among others. Media outlets often publicize them this way because they know readers pass judgment: Is he a lech? Is she a gold-digger? But when both parties in a relationship are above the age of consent and not abusive in any way, should we still be labeling it as sketchy — or give them the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s a connection that works?
When I was 30, I dated someone who was 46 without thinking twice about the large gap between us — possibly because he still managed to behave like he was in his 20s. But a recent courtship with someone nine years younger than me gave me pause, because even though the difference was smaller, it felt bigger because of our differing wants. He saw marriage as something three to five years down the road where I saw it more as one to three.
The Pew Research Center has found that for heterosexual couples in the United States, 5 percent of men marry a woman 10 or more years younger, and for 10 percent, she’s six to nine years younger. And this statistic increases for a second marriage, with 20 percent of men marrying someone at least 10 years younger.
When you reverse the genders, stats say that for a first marriage it’s only about 1 percent of women with a husband 10 years or more her junior, 2 percent for six to nine years younger. It also bumps up for a second marriage — to 5 percent and 6 percent, respectively.
The public sometimes lauds these older woman-younger man relationships for flouting the stereotype — witness the plaudits for French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte, who’s 24 years older — but there still can be bias against them, too, as with the discussion around “911.”
Regardless of a clickbait headline designed to incite reactions, are these relationships emotionally and psychologically healthy?
Lisa Brateman, a psychotherapist and relationship specialist, says they tend to have distinct psychological traits. As she describes the younger woman, older man scenario, “A woman in her 20s has a lot more options than any other time in her life. That is society, like it or not. Those opportunities are vast. With a 20-year age gap, I would question what’s going on in her life. There’s usually an underlying thing, an emotional or psychological thing getting played out.”
Julie Albright, a sociologist at the University of Southern California, agrees and explains of the younger partner, “Sometimes what happens in these relationships is that they are looking to fulfill some kind of a psychological need. They didn’t have a parental figure or something like that. When you have someone who is 18, early 20s, they’re not done psychologically developing yet. When you have someone in their 40s, they’re way more established in their personhood. That younger person will, in a sense, outgrow that [older] person as they go through the psychological developments the older person has already gone through.”
In addition, the experts interviewed for this post agree that these kinds of relationships tend to have a power imbalance — the older person can be more powerful because they’re more successful. “This is where the stereotypes apply,” explains Clarissa Silva, a behavioral scientist and relationship coach. “Psychologically and cognitively, there will always be an imbalance. Because life experience will dominate daily interactions and decision-making.”
But all of this doesn’t mean these relationships are doomed to fail or are unhealthy across the board.
For instance, Albright says, many people think relationships with big age gaps are about “beauty for money” — “the idea that typically women traded beauty for financial stability,” she explains, by marrying an older, wealthier man. But Brateman says we should be careful about making that assumption — which is based on a mostly outdated stereotype — and about using mocking terms such as opportunists, cougars, gold diggers. “All these labels reflect a deep-rooted sexism and judge women,” she says.
Silva explains that there are four main factors that affect the health of a relationship, regardless of the age difference: “lifestyle compatibility (establishing your career vs. being financially secure), health factors as you age, childbearing age and financial planning,” the last one being a leading reason for discord and divorce. Addressing where each person stands on these issues and accepting or compromising on differences as needed is key, she adds.
Brateman agrees, remarking that typically the conversation revolves around whether a younger woman can handle a relationship with an older man, or vice versa — but that issue misses the point. “It’s not whether she can handle it, it’s more about what she’s looking for. Whether you’re looking at the younger person or older person, they all get something out of it. Most of the time they get very different things.”
So, she adds, maybe a little less salacious judgment and a little more “have you two honestly and maturely discussed your needs” is really all an age-gap relationship requires.