Does Age Matter in a Relationship?

What is considered a weird age gap?
on February 14, 2024
Read time: 10 mins
by Terri Di Matteo

In modern society, we’d like to think that love has no limits — acting as a binding force, totally blind and without boundaries. (We’re all romantics here right?) 

Even though we’d love to believe in this romantic ideal, we have to ask ourselves, does age matter in a relationship? After all, these relationships, where the age gap might be a decade or more, present unique challenges and considerations to couples. 

While some couples might shake their heads in defiance, it’s best to accept these unique challenges and learn to adapt in the name of love. With all of that in mind, does age difference in relationships matter, and is it possible to really make it work in the long run? 

We spoke to licensed relationship expert and couple’s counselor Terri Di Matteo, to delve deep into the ever-controversial, complicated, and notoriously convoluted, issue of age-gap relationships! Buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride! 

Key Takeaways
  • Age-gap relationships are defined by a significant age difference between partners, often leading to unique challenges due to different life stages and priorities.
  • While average age differences vary globally, with Western societies generally accepting up to a ten-year gap and non-Western countries exhibiting larger gaps, societal and cultural factors heavily influence perceptions of age-gap relationships.
  • According to Terri Di Matteo, a relationship expert, age itself does not directly affect the emotional and sexual bonds in a relationship. However, disparities in sexual drive, life experience, and emotional maturity can pose challenges.
  • Gender stereotypes and societal pressures add complexity to age-gap relationships, with differing societal judgments applied to older men versus older women in relationships with younger partners.
  • Significant age differences can affect compatibility due to divergent life stages and goals, but compatibility also depends on various other relationship dynamics. While there are benefits such as excitement and complementary needs, age-gap relationships face challenges like parenting issues, social acceptance, income disparity, retirement, and health concerns.
  • Success in age-gap relationships requires acknowledgment of the challenges, open communication, acceptance, and resilience. Tools like Paired can facilitate difficult conversations, helping partners build a strong, lasting relationship.

What is considered an age gap relationship? 

An age-gap relationship is typically defined as a romantic relationship where there is a significant age difference between the partners. The exact parameters of this definition can differ depending on your personal opinion, cultural reasons, and religious concepts.  

However, to earn this label, there is usually a significant age gap in play. For example, a 20-year-old dating a 30-year-old (with a 10-year age gap) would count as an age-gap relationship. 

With these large age differences, individuals are usually at different stages of their lives and naturally have different priorities. While age is just a number, these large age gaps can significantly impact the success of a relationship overall — as there are naturally bigger hurdles in play. 

What’s the average age difference between couples? 

According to recent international studies, men are an average of 4.2 years older than their wives or cohabiting partners. However, these gaps vary amongst different cultures and religions. 

In Western societies, there is a general acceptance of age gaps ranging from a few years to approximately ten years. While in non-Western countries, the average age gap is much higher, ranging from 8.6 years in sub-Saharan Africa compared to 2.2 years in North America.

Amongst heterosexual couples, research shows that the most common pairing is where the husband is a few years older than the wife. Generally, though, studies show that both men and women prefer similarly age-matched partners. 

Does age difference matter in a relationship? 

When it comes to age-gap relationships, there are a lot of different factors at play — making it an often very controversial and complicated subject matter. 

While some people are very against relationships with larger age gaps, others believe that a healthy relationship is still possible as ‘age is just a number’. 

So, should age matter in a relationship? Or is it just a societal boundary that love should be able to overcome? 

“So, here’s what matters in a relationship,” says Terri Di Matteo, a licensed relationship and couple counselor at Open Door Therapy.

“The couple has two strands of connection. On one side, it’s the emotional bond of feeling close, having emotional engagement where they can be vulnerable, tender, and soft. On the other side, it’s the sexual or physical piece. Technically, age has no direct bearing on those two things.” 

With this perspective, age shouldn’t matter, as it doesn’t directly impact your ability to love or form healthy romantic attachments. 

“However, this is where it gets tricky,” says Di Matteo.  

“For example, let’s say the sexual appetite of a younger person may be more robust or they may be more able-bodied because of their youthfulness. In this case, there could be an impact, but once again — it’s not definite.” 

In this case, the older partner might struggle to keep up with the sexual needs of their partner, putting a strain on the relationship. Or, in reverse, the younger partner may not have the same life experiences as their loved one, with emotional maturity having a natural impact on the relationship's foundations. 

These may seem like small issues at first, but they naturally contribute to the success of the relationship. While you may not notice these issues at first, as time goes on, these issues will start to crop up more and more frequently, as age difference makes itself known. 

“It may seem like there’s an age gap but it’s no big deal. However, at a later stage in a long-term relationship, it could have an impact. For example, when one person retires, shows signs of aging, or has health problems — this is when it could have an effect.” 

“It doesn’t mean that it’s going to destroy the relationship, but it’s something the couple should be aware of rather than ignore.” 

Therefore, the ‘age is just a number’ approach won’t see you through when you’re tackling the reality of age-gap relationships. 

Does gender impact age-difference conversations in relationships? 

When looking at age-gap relationships, it’s impossible to avoid certain gender connotations that naturally come into play. 

With terms like ‘trophy wife’ or ‘cougar’ casually thrown around, large age differences are impossible to ignore in modern relationships — with celebrities usually under the microscope for their romantic decisions. 

Research shows that men tend to be more satisfied with younger wives and less satisfied with older wives. Likewise, women tend to be more satisfied with younger husbands and less satisfied with older husbands.

These studies throw some societal fears into sharp relief, with the common conception that older women can’t compete with their younger counterparts — a fear that is continuously probed and analyzed in popular culture. 

“When an older man is with a younger woman, he feels youthful,” says Di Matteo. 

“However, in the reverse, there’s a lot of societal pressure on women with a focus on staying youthful. The infamous example of this lies within the celebrity relationship of Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher — with the female feeling very anxious about her attractiveness to the man if she is the older party.” 

These gender-focused scenarios incite a lot of conversations in popular culture, with both differentiations scrutinized and analyzed on a micro level. These fears are particularly dominant where infidelity with a younger person is involved, as you feel like you can’t compete. 

How does age affect compatibility in a relationship?

Age naturally affects compatibility in a relationship, whether we like to admit it or not. If there is a significant age difference at play, partners can be at different stages of life — affecting their long-term goals, as well as what they want from a relationship overall. 

However, age isn’t everything when it comes to compatibility, as there are so many different factors at play in every relationship! 

“I want to be clear that in a same age or a comparable age range relationship, as they move through life, they’re going to have issues too,” says Di Matteo. 

“It’s unavoidable! Every couple has to deal with the in-laws, the kids, religion — it’s a minefield! But with an age gap, there are some predictive points that age would contribute to.” 

While all of these problems exist when dating someone your own age range, these hurdles are more heightened within age-gap relationships, making them harder to cope with. In fact, research highlights this, as differently-aged couples are proven to be less resilient to negative shocks compared to similarly-aged couples. 

However, the key is in anticipating these issues and challenges, rather than pretending that they don’t exist. 

“There are things that you could anticipate as issues in an age-gap relationship,” says Di Matteo. 

“For example, they could feel out of sync a little bit culturally, like if you know a musical group, the other one doesn’t know it. Or, something happened politically and you say, I wasn't even born yet!” 

“I mean, they could be good-humored about it and roll with it! It’s not a dealbreaker, but it would have an effect!” 

In these circumstances, age can have a big impact in both big and small ways. While it may not affect your compatibility on the surface, it can all add up and take its toll on the relationship. 

Are there benefits of an age-gap relationship? 

Society likes to look at the negatives and the challenges of age-gap relationships, but there are some positives to these dynamics too! 

“I mean because you’d bring a little something different to the table that can make it exciting,” says Di Matteo. 

“As well as that, there is research that women go through a hormonal stage as they get older, where they have a heightened level of testosterone — making them very sexual and uninhibited! This means that a younger partner is sometimes a good fit!” 

Beyond a very happening sex life, there is also the perks of a certain maturity that an older partner can bring to the dynamic — as long as one person doesn’t hold the other back or compel them to give up the things they wanted for the sake of the other.  

What are the challenges of an age-gap relationship?

Parenting: In age-gap relationships, the couple is naturally at different stages, and this often poses a problem in terms of parenthood. For example, the older partner may already have kids and not want to go down that route again, or they struggle with rearing young children as they age. The older partner may already be a grandparent in certain cases, making the dynamic feel even more out of sync!
Social factors: As we’ve discussed, there are a huge number of social factors that inhibit age-gap relationships. If you’re the younger partner, you’ll naturally want to bring your significant other out with you — but they may struggle to fit in with your friends due to the age difference. This naturally makes things difficult, especially alongside the judgment from others.
Income issues: Money disparity can cause issues in any relationship, but can feel especially big in an age-gap relationship. If you’re the one constantly paying for your partner, it can start to grate on your relationship over time.
Retirement: Depending on the age gap, one partner might retire before the other — this can throw certain aspects of the relationship into sharp relief. This can really highlight if the couple is at different stages of life.
Aging body: When you’re in an age-gap relationship, the older partner may struggle to keep up with the other from a sexual or physical perspective over time.
Defending your relationship: Alongside all of these factors, it can be exhausting to constantly defend the age gap in your relationship — even if it’s perfect in every other way.
Loss: This is the thought that no one wants to have. Even though nothing is set in stone, the older partner is more likely to pass away before the other — leaving one partner alone.

How much of an age gap is OK?

The age-old question (pun unintended!) that will never have a concrete answer. 

“I would not be inclined to put a hard number on it,” says Di Matteo. 

“I would say though, that the wider the gap, the steeper the challenges because of all those social, sexual, and natural life cycle issues we discussed. While I wouldn’t put a particular number on it, it’s when you think about different generations — that’s when it becomes more dramatic.”

Every relationship should be between two consenting adults (where both parties are of consenting age), but some other issues could arise in age-gap relationships, especially in terms of power. 

“In some cases, the older person can act parental, bringing a power dynamic into the relationship which can be detrimental,” says Di Matteo. 

“This is where the person says ‘I’m older and I know better than you’ or ‘I have more experience than you’. This is where it becomes a kind of one-upping and where things can get more complicated and potentially dangerous.” 

Do big age-gap relationships work?

As with so many questions on this topic, there is no concrete answer! 

“There isn’t an age requirement to have an intimate bond,” says Di Matteo. 

“Love is ageless, it's colorless — just as long as you have the physical and emotional bond.”

However, while we wish that this romantic notion would always be a reality, research has shown that differently-aged couples are more likely to divorce than similarly-aged ones, suggesting that differently-aged couples may experience greater declines in marital satisfaction over time. 

Even though this research doesn’t sound promising, we refuse to doom all age-gap relationships with one damning statistic!

How to make an age-gap relationship work 

Age-gap relationships take work — just like any other relationship! The key to making this relationship dynamic work lies in acceptance, determination, and of course, resilience. 

“I would think that some age gap couples say that age doesn’t matter,” says Di Matteo. 

“They’re probably in for more of a rude awakening than the couple that says, yes it does have an effect but we’re ready for that and are willing to figure things out as we go along.”

Even though we’d love to say that age has no impact, or that it doesn’t matter, it’s better to accept the challenges that will come your way and embrace them as a couple. 

“Acknowledging that yes, age does have an impact is important. It’s not about being pro-age gap or anti-age gap,” says Di Matteo. 

“It’s just accepting that it has an effect and how you move forward with that.” 

Are you struggling to opt for this kind of open communication and acceptance in your relationship? Paired acts as the perfect tool to facilitate these more difficult conversations, putting the foundations in place for a long-lasting and healthy relationship. 

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