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.
Source: Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay
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.
Collisson and De Leon discuss the significance of terminology, noting that individuals pursuing either younger or older partners are often labeled using terms indicating relational inequity. The term cougar is sometimes used to describe older women preying upon younger partners, while cradle robber implies that older men are “stealing” younger paramours (most of them younger women). On the flip side, they note that a term like gold digger insinuates a younger partner is exploiting an older partner for his or her resources.
Collisson and De Leon found, however, that the relationship between prejudice and perceived inequity was greater when an older man was paired with a younger woman than it was for other pairings. They note that perhaps this suggests the significance of the link between perceived relational equality and prejudice.
But how do stereotypes impact relational success? Are couples able to ignore the disapproving glances and comments, or does perceived prejudice actually strengthen relational commitment? Research has some answers here as well.
The Prognosis of Atypical Pairings
Collisson and De Leon note that the stigma and prejudice felt by age-gap couples may contribute to relationship dissolution. While acknowledging that more research is necessary to explore this dynamic, they note that some research has found that age-gap couples might be less committed to the relationship than couples that are not stigmatized. They recognize this could be due to relational inequity, or response to societal disapproval.
On the other hand, Justin J. Lehmiller and Christopher R. Agnew (2008)—upon examining commitment and normative beliefs among heterosexual partners dating similarly age matched relationships, as compared to age-gap relationships—cite research pointing in the opposite direction. [iii]
They note that the “Romeo and Juliet” effect links perceived relationship disapproval by others with increased levels of partner commitment and intimacy. They also cite their own prior research (Lehmiller and Agnew, 2006) finding that partners within what they term “socially marginalized relationships”—such as age-gap, interracial, and same sex—were more committed than partners within what they term as more “traditional” relationships such as similar age, opposite sex, or same-race.
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.
[i]Collisson, Brian, and Luciana Ponce De Leon, “Perceived inequity predicts prejudice towards age-gap relationships,” Curr Psychol (2018), https://doi-org.libproxy.sdsu.edu/10.1007/s12144-018-9895-6.
[ii]Ott, Q, Miles, Till Bärnighausen, Frank Tanser, Mark N. Lurie, and Marie-Louise Newell, “Age-gaps in sexual partnerships: seeing beyond ‘sugar daddies,’” AIDS 25, no. 6, (2011): 861-863.
[iii]Lehmiller, Justin J., and Christopher R. Agnew, “Commitment in Age-Gap Heterosexual Romantic Relationships: A Test of Evolutionary and Socio-Cultural Predictions,” Psychology of Women Quarterly 32, no. 1 (March 2008): 74–82.