The tendency on women to seek older partners
As a general rule, heterosexual women like their male partners to be slightly older than they themselves are (Kenrick and Keefe 1992). The average age disparity between women and their male partners (real or imagined) has been consistently estimated at 2–6 years, but the preference for older men decreases slightly as women grow older, and at about 45 years of age, women no longer show a preference for older men (Antfolk et al. 2015; Kenrick and Keefe 1992). However, a lot of important information is lost when only looking at the mean population preference. A closer look at the distribution of age disparity from population-wide marriage data shows that approximately one-third of married women in the USA have a partner that is less than 1 year older (or younger) than they themselves are. Somewhat ironically, the most common “age disparity” is thus one where there hardly is any age disparity at all. The aforementioned mean disparity in the population therefore stems from the fact that whereas approximately 18 % of women have a male partner who is more than 6 years older, less than 4 % of women have a male partner who is more than 6 years younger (US census bureau 2013). More simply put, women tend to partner up with men of their same age, but when this is not the case, women more commonly partner up with an older man than with a younger man.
This general preference for men that are equally old or older has been explained as a consequence of the human bi-maturation process, by which women mature at a younger age than men (e.g., van den Berghe 1992). Accordingly, sexually mature women would look for sexually mature men, and because men tend to mature later, there would be more interesting older men than there would be interesting younger men. Although not explicitly mentioned in this type of reasoning, this model could also explain why the preference for older men is more apparent in young women compared to older women: Women will at some given age find equally many interesting younger men as interesting older men, all of who are mature. It is, however, important to also note that age in itself is not likely a very important feature. Age is rather a proxy of other reproductively important features (e.g., fertility and/or maturity, available resources, social status). Whereas some of these features may be strongly associated with age and lead to a strong age-related preference (e.g., female age and fertility and men’s preference for young women), other features show a weaker association with age and lead to less marked age-related preferences. With this in mind, it is a noteworthy finding that women put less emphasis on a partners age than men do (e.g., Sprecher et al. 1994). The features that women cross-culturally tend to report as important in their choice of partner are, for example, social status, financial resources, and health (Buss 1989). These are all associated with age, but the association is not very strong and its strength will vary across time and cultural contexts (Buss et al. 2004). If older men (vs. younger men) usually have a higher social status and have more resources that can be directed to a child and its mother, the theory suggests that women would then for these reasons be attracted by older men. The same features in a young man would also make him attractive, but these features are simply less common among young men. Health, on the other hand, tends to decrease with age, but because some but not all men remain healthy even as they grow older, older men displaying signs of health and vitality might be particularly interesting to women (Boothroyd et al. 2005). Sean Connery (85 years old at the time of writing), Robert Redford (79), Harrison Ford (72), Dustin Hoffman (78), and Clint Eastwood (86) definitely have something most other men of their age do not – they are maybe not healthier than the average 25 year old man, but their health and vitality are unusually apparent given their age.
Any complete evolutionary model should not only attempt to explain the average preference but also provide an explanation for several forms of variation. Concerning age preferences there is variation across cultural contexts, variation between individuals within the same cultural context, and even variation within the same individual over time. With respect to women’s mate preferences, cross-cultural variation has, for example, shown that preferences for masculinity are stronger in areas with high pathogen stress (DeBruine et al. 2010) and that cultural empowerment of women (e.g., access to education) decreases the age disparity between married men and women (Casterline et al. 1986). A lot of research focusing on variation in mate preferences within the same female has focused on the variations across the menstrual cycle, and while there is some controversy regarding the robustness of these findings, women seem to increase their preference for high status and available resources during the fertile phase of the menstrual cycle but much less is known about whether age preferences also vary (Gildersleeve et al. 2014). Fewer studies have specifically investigated the between-individual variation in women’s age preferences and the biological and environmental mechanisms behind them. One factor that has received some interest is whether the absence or presence of a biological father changes partner preferences. Although the absence of a father is associated with earlier menarche (Belsky et al. 1991), indicating earlier maturation – which according to the theory of bi-maturation would predict also a preference for older men – research results regarding age preferences are limited.
In sum, the variation in women’s age preferences can be explained by multiple contextual, personal, and biological factors. The on-average preference for equally old or older men is also likely to be the result of several processes: Women reach maturity at a younger age than men, several features that are attractive to many women are more likely to be found in older (vs. younger) men, and some signals become more apparent in older (vs. younger) men. While all these processes contribute, a lot of potentially important contributing factors need to be investigated in order to fully explain the variation in women’s age preferences. It is also important to consider that most older men are interested in younger women (Antfolk et al. 2015; Kenrick and Keefe 1992) but that only some of these men display the features necessary to attract younger women. It is thus possible that relatively few women are interested in old men per se and that the observed age disparity is the result of many old men being attracted to relatively young women. Large age disparities could consequently be the result of preferences of men with above-average mate value.
- Buss, D. M. (1989). Sex differences in human mate preferences: Evolutionary hypotheses tested in 37 cultures. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 12(1), 1–49. Retrieved from http://journals.cambridge.org/production/action/cjoGetFulltext?fulltextid=6734720.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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