Age Differences in Marriage Partners
Age differences between spouses have been observed across different cultures, such that men are usually older than their marriage partners. Such arrangements are more prevalent than both same-age and women-older marriages.
The age gap between partners has been a popular topic of debate, filling tabloids with articles on celebrity couples with “huge age differences,” speculating whether they are truly happy and whether it is really love that bonds them together. Not surprisingly, age difference is one of the main aspects that individuals consider when selecting a romantic partner. In heterosexual relationships, men are on average older than their partners, a pattern observed across cultures, such that the age gap between partners is 2–3 years in developed countries (Kolk 2015). Such a pattern is observed even in gender egalitarian societies, such as Norway. These marriage arrangements are more common than same-age marriages and women-older marriages. For older men, marrying a younger woman can mean having a beautiful, adventurous, and dynamic partner. In contrast, older men are often perceived as more successful and confident, given that they have had more time to acquire resources and experience, a characteristic that is often attractive to women. In this entry, I will discuss consequences of dissimilarities between spouses and why men consistently prefer younger women than themselves, whereas women do the opposite.
Consequences of Age Disparity Between Spouses
The age differences between spouses may have consequences in different domains. For example, the age gap between parents has an inverted U-shaped association with number of children in a Polish sample (Kuna et al. 2018). Having a younger partner is positively associated with symptoms of depression in elderly people (Pradeep and Sutin 2015). Australian men and women reported to be more satisfied with a younger partner than with an older partner, suggesting that age-different couples are less resilient to problems in the relationship in comparison to same-age couples (Lee and McKinnish 2018). Age dissimilarity between spouses also affects other aspects such as commitment to the relationship (Lehmiller and Agnew 2008), infidelity, and risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases (Maughan-Brown, Kenyon, and Lurie, 2014). Why then are such relationships prevalent across cultures, if there are so many apparent disadvantages associated with engaging in age-dissimilar relationships?
Theoretical Explanations of Age Differences Between Spouses
Sociocultural approaches argue that the preferences for men-older relationships are a result of social norms and gender roles (Klinger-Vartabedian and Wispe 1989). On the other hand, Bergstrom and Bagnoli (1993) further claim that the relative desirability of women as marriage partners becomes more apparent at an earlier age than do men, proposing an equilibrium model to explain the preferences for men-older marriages. In this model, educationally and professionally ambitious men choose to wait until they have achieved educational and economic success to get married. On the other hand, those men who do not believe they can enhance their educational and professional opportunities will offer to marry at a younger age. In equilibrium, women are expected to marry at a younger age than men; however, more desirable women will be more likely to marry older men in comparison with less desirable women.
An evolutionary perspective, a common explanatory model, predicts that individuals will generally pursue partners with attributes that can increase their reproductive success. As such, because women invest more heavily in reproduction (Trivers 1972), they will favor partners who are able to invest in them and in their offspring, can physically protect them, and are likely to be good parents (Puts 2016). Consistent with this view, Buss (2007) reviewed different studies showing women across several cultures tend to value attributes such as good financial prospects more than do men and attributes that are related to higher earning potential such as ambition, social status, and older age. Men, on the other hand, tend to value physical appearance, a cue of women’s fertility and reproductive value, which are attributes associated with younger age and vitality. Such patterns help to explain the age gap between spouses and the sex differences on preferences for partner age. While women will prefer older partners, since they are more likely to have finished their education and built up a good career, men will prefer younger women because attractiveness and fertility are more apparent at an early age.
Men and women have different reasons for engaging in men-older marriages as a result of sex-specific partner preferences related to the reproductive value of women and the earning ability of men. While men prefer younger women because at a younger age the reproductive value of women is more apparent, women prefer older men because they are more likely to have acquired economic and other resources to provide for their partners and for the offspring.
- Buss, D. M. (2007). The evolution of human mating. Acta Psychologica Sinica, 39(3), 502–512. Retrieved from https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2007-06914-013
- Pradeep, N., & Sutin, A. R. (2015). Spouses and depressive symptoms in older adulthood. Scientific Reports, 5, 1–4. https://doi.org/10.1038/srep08594
- Trivers, R. L. (1972). Parental investment and sexual selection. In B. Campbell (Ed.), Sexual selection and the descent of man, 1871–1971 (pp. 136–179). Chicago: Aldine.Google Scholar