Is age “just a number?” If you’re wondering whether an age difference could impact your relationship, this is for you.
In any relationship, you’ll have some qualities in common with your partner, while others — not so much.
Some couples might find that a big age difference impacts their relationship significantly over time. Others may feel that what makes them compatible is more important than a gap in years.
“Most of the couples I know say that they feel like they’re the same age,” says Dr. Loren Olson, a psychiatrist in Des Moines, Iowa. “We have a chronological age, a psychological age, a physical age, and a sexual age. Age gap couples frequently are compatible in the last three.”
Even if you’re satisfied with your relationship, it’s possible to encounter some challenges with a large age difference. Confronting and problem-solving these challenges — which often have to do with outside judgment — could lead to even greater happiness in your partnership.
Age and consent
This article discusses age differences in romantic relationships where both partners are above the legal age of consent in their state.
If you’re below the age of consent and an adult’s behavior is making you feel uncomfortable, help is available. You can:
- Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673 for confidential, 24/7 support.
- Visit Stop It Now! for online resources or reach out to their helpline at 888-773-8368.
- Visit Childhelp for resources to handle and report abuse or to chat live with someone who can help.
P.S. If both partners are above the legal age of consent, it doesn’t mean consent goes out the window. Asking for consent and being on the same page is key in any healthy romantic relationship.
If your relationship has an above-average age difference, it might impact your connection in specific ways. Still, many of these effects aren’t unique to relationships with a large age gap, and communication is key for navigating differences in any partnership.
“Even if the age gap is small, like 4 to 5 years, different levels of maturity can be observed,” says Brandy Porche, a licensed professional counselor with MindPath. “When there is a significant difference in age, like 10 to 15 years or more, life experiences can be vastly different.”
In relationships with a large emotional maturity gap, the more mature partner could end up carrying a heavier emotional load in the relationship, leading to exhaustion and potentially a breakup.
Being the older partner doesn’t guarantee emotional maturity, just like being younger doesn’t always mean you’re less mature. People sometimes conflate age with emotional maturity because more years can mean more time to form complex perspectives through exposure to different experiences.
“The bigger the gap between partners, the more likely the relationship will struggle with phase-of-life related challenges,” says GinaMarie Guarino, a licensed mental health counselor and founder of PsychPoint.
She explains that these challenges might include differences in:
- energy levels
- life priorities
- plans to start a family
Having different priorities isn’t exclusive to relationships with large age gaps. In any relationship, it’s key to discuss each person’s priorities and hopes for the future as a part of determining your compatibility if you’re looking for a long-term relationship.
Guarino highlights that people in relationships with big age differences may face more concerns about the longevity of the older partner. The younger partner may fear being left alone when the older partner passes.
Communicating with each other about these feelings can be an important part of processing them.
Guarino points out that making arrangements ahead of time can also provide some reassurance to the younger partner. “If one partner passes, the other partner knows they are taken care of and what their next steps are,” she explains.
- Heterosexual couples with large age gaps had a faster decline in relationship satisfaction in their first 6 to 10 years of marriage than similarly aged couples.
- Couples with an age gap of 1 to 3 years (with the man older than the woman) were the most common and had the greatest levels of satisfaction.
- Relationship satisfaction decreased slightly for couples with age gaps of 4 to 6 years and continued to decrease for couples with an age gap of 7 or more years.
In short, research seems to indicate that in many cultures, an age gap of 1 to 3 years is considered ideal — but some researchers suggest even a relationship with an age gap of less than 10 years will bring more satisfaction.
Still, numbers rarely tell the full story when it comes to love. It’s possible to be much older or younger than your partner and have exactly the right relationship for you.
“I am 15 years older than my husband. We have been together 35 years,” says Olson. “We are very compatible in most ways. The only time age has been an issue occurs with things like at what age we should retire,” he shares.
Research from 2014 connects marriages with larger age gaps with higher rates of divorce, although further research is necessary to confirm this link. But just because this link exists, it doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed.
Regardless of age, some factors connected with relationship success include:
- higher levels of education in both partners
- financial security
- having children
- lower levels of neuroticism, or tendency to experience low moods, in both partners
- secure attachment style in both partners
- strong communication skills
- supportive relationships with other family members
- tendency to approach partner with forgiveness
- high emotional intelligence
- satisfaction with your sex life in the relationship
A relationship age gap is just one factor that can influence the success of your relationship. It won’t necessarily be the factor that makes or breaks your relationship since other factors can also play a role.
In relationships with large age differences, you might encounter a couple of additional roadblocks.
“With relationships, there will always be people on the outside looking in. Maybe even more so when outsiders visually see the age difference,” says Porche.
And in cultures where small relationship age gaps are more common, others may treat people in a relationship with a large age difference with judgment or criticism.
“The biggest challenge is facing criticism from those who feel there must be some ulterior motive for both of them,” says Olson.
For example, a younger partner might be accused of only choosing an older partner because of their wealth or status, and an older partner might be accused of choosing someone younger for the way they look.
Even if you and your partner are good at disregarding ignorant opinions of people you don’t know, it can hurt when friends or family are skeptical of a relationship you’re happy with.
Large age differences can bring up the possibility of unbalanced power dynamics. Porche explains that even in a secure relationship, an older partner might assume an authoritative role.
If this happens, it can help to openly discuss this. “Younger partners can start the conversations by saying, ‘I’m not sure if you realize it, but you just totally made that decision for me, and I would prefer to be included in the decision process next time,’” says Porche.
A power imbalance can also happen if one partner uses their partner’s financial dependence as a way to exert control over them. Whether you and your partner are separated by a few or many years, this behavior is a sign the relationship may be a source of harm.
Whether you’re dealing with less-than-understanding loved ones or concerns about the future of the relationship as you both age, these tips could help you overcome the challenge together.
“When people question or judge a relationship they are not a part of, they are overstepping the couple’s boundaries,” says Guarino. She emphasizes that setting boundaries with judgmental loved ones is a good way to remind them that even if they don’t understand your relationship, they need to respect it.
Guarino says that with any challenge a couple may face, the ability to have open and honest conversations about the challenge is key. She highlights that it’s a good idea to make time for each partner to share how they feel.
Consider your responses to others
According to Olson, it may be necessary for you and your partner to desensitize yourselves to some critical comments you might encounter. It might also be a good idea to think of a few comebacks to the most common comments you receive.
Find your support network
When it comes to dealing with outside judgment about your relationship, Olson says, “Knowing other age-discrepant couples helps.”
Finding similar couples and creating a sense of community with them could also allow you and your partner to build friendships with others who “get it.”
If you and your partner are finding it difficult to navigate these challenges alone, you can also bring in some outside support. An understanding couples counselor could help you explore different avenues for handling these challenges and expressing your thoughts about them.
In any relationship, as well as those with large age differences, feeling secure with your partner is critical, reminds Porche. “You know who you are and what your relationship means to you,” she says.
If you find outside opinions are getting to you, Porche suggests this could be an opportunity to get curious and ask yourself why. It could help to consider if there’s anything you haven’t reconciled about the relationship or if there’s anything you would like to address with your partner.
While you might encounter judgment or stigma in response to your relationship, many factors can determine your relationship’s success — and age is just a small part of that picture.