What about age difference in marriage? If you marry someone who is quite a bit older than you, does this make your marriage experience different from the experience of couples who are similar in age? Let’s find out!
If you’re struggling with your marriage and maybe wondering if the age difference— which is not something you can change — is an issue, the things we go over today should be useful and above all hopeful. Because while the research does identify some challenges faced by couples with large age differences, overall he message is a positive one.
Age Gap Statistics
Let’s start with some facts and stats about age-heterogeneous couples, or those with a bigger than normal age gap. About 10% of marriages have an age difference of more than 10 years[i] and there are more of these kinds of marriages now than in 1980. So these marriages are not uncommon and are on the rise.
As you might imagine, men are more likely to be married to a younger spouse than women[ii] and this percentage increases with age: the percentage of men marrying younger spouses is lowest in the 20-24 age range at 35% and then rises to 67% by age 40 and 73% by age 70.
Interestingly, these effects are observed across all western cultures and most non-western cultures, with a few exceptions, such as The Philippines and Costa Rica, where women marrying younger men is more common[iii]
This pattern of men marrying younger women being the norm has remained stable over the past few decades although the rates of women marrying younger men are increasing. For second marriages and marriages later in life (at age 50+) there is more diversity in age gaps between spouses than in younger couples[iv].
Age-heterogeneous couples are more common in black marriages and in those with lower socioeconomic status[v].
So the statistics are interesting, both for those of us not experiencing such an age gap — Verlynda and I are just over two years apart in age (she’s younger) — and for those who are in a marriage that has a larger age difference. But the real question is, how does age difference impact marital satisfaction?
Age Differences and Marital Satisfaction
Turns out that’s a hard question to answer! Results on the effect of age difference on marriage are very mixed, but overall age-dissimilar marriages are “more alike than dissimilar to coeval marriages[vi]“. “Coeval” just means of the same age.
So this researcher is noting that typically a marriage with an age gap doesn’t look much different than a marriage between couples of similar age. But: other research does note some issues. So let’s just go through all this and look at the different conclusions to see what we can learn.
Older research[vii] often finds that marriages with large age gaps have lower marital quality and satisfaction, and are less stable than couples who are of similar ages.
Being similar is normally considered a good thing and predictive of marital satisfaction: particularly similarity in values, upbringing and socioeconomic status. Values and norms in society change as time goes on, so couples of significantly different ages may have different values, which could lead to lower agreement and lower overall satisfaction[viii]. So this dissimilarity in upbringing and worldview may lead to conflict and communication, although it’s worth noting that, as we saw in our episode on whether opposites attract, the situation is not as black and white as saying that dissimilarity is bad.
Age differences could also lead to a power imbalance, which can increase tension and conflict. This is based on Resource Theory, a theory of relationships which states that whichever spouse brings more resources to the marriage will exhibit greater control.
The older spouse is likely to be in a better job and have more life experience etc., and so by “bringing more to the marriage” they naturally tend to make more of the decisions. However, it can also work the other way if youth and attractiveness are seen as the “resource”- with the more youthful — and therefore more attractive or desirable — spouse being able to attract and hold sway over an older spouse[ix].
Other research does not support this. A study by Vera et al[x] tested couples on marital satisfaction and conflict frequency and found no effect of age difference for either. A case study by Pyke & Adams in 2010[xi] looked at 8 successful marriages where the husband was 10+ years older than his wife. Common features of these marriages included:
- Sharing of household tasks
- Shared interests & leisure time
- Shifts in responsibilities, work and childcare during different life stages
- Similar faith & values
Some of these couples were re-married and had previously been in unhappy marriages where gender roles were highly enforced. And in reaction to that their new marriages were far more gender neutral in terms of sharing of housework, paid employment and balance of power, despite the husband being much older.
Often this was a process of “discovering” that the traditional gender roles don’t have to apply. These couples had maybe seen or been in traditional but unhappy marriages and now felt free to pursue a marriage that didn’t fit with these norms.
One of the couples studied had a strong Christian faith and so were happy with the husband being the head of the relationship. But this couple still allowed for the wife to make her own decisions and control some aspects of the relationship, such as the finances. And both husband and wife were happy with that because it worked for them.
But gender role seems to be where a lot of the discussion does come back to. Gender roles are often assigned and performed unconsciously or automatically. You sort of naturally ft into these different roles if you aren’t consciously trying not to.
Having a much older husband may cause couples to become more consciously aware of the possibility of a power imbalance and so actively work against it. Making the power imbalance more obvious through the age/resource gap allows couples to acknowledge it and then create a dynamic they are both happy with. As the researchers noted, “it does not appear that people are simply a product of the era into which they were born but can change radically in their lives.[xii]” Older spouses might not be as “set in their ways” as you’d think, and having a younger spouse may actually encourage and help them to adapt to new modes of life.
Also some of these couples reported being at similar “life stages” despite their age differences. Here’s one quote from a 43 year old woman married to a 59 year old husband: “We’re more at a sort of life stage together. Most men in their 30s are terribly ambitious. Well, he’s really past all that and that was attractive to me. He was just more into enjoying himself.”
I think what we’re seeing in this is that the usual aspects of successful marriage can make the age gap work, too. Things like communication and negotiating roles, commitment, trust and establishing a sense of fairness and equality…all these are required in an age gap marriage too.
This is where our patrons will really appreciate the bonus material this week because we’ve taken two major themes: power balance and conflict resolution. We’ve nuanced them for couples who have an age difference, but actually I think that all our patrons, even if you don’t have a huge age gap, should grab this download from your Patreon feed and check it out anyways!
Bridging the Age Gap
This week’s bonus content contains a super-helpful process of taking you through a productive discussion about power balance. And also some great training on conflict resolution and how to shift your perspective on issues you may be stuck on. These are key skills that will be valuable to any couple who want to seriously look at improving the dynamics of their marriage. Of course, any of our listeners and readers can get this download by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
So how does the age gap impact marriage? I think the bottom line is that your age difference could be a recognized feature of distress: but it doesn’t need to be. And I’m just putting myself here into the shoes of a spouse in a marriage where age difference seems to be an issue. And I hope this gives you hope: because you can’t fix age difference, right? And maybe that’s what you guys have focused on and that issue gets the blame and so it seems quite hopeless. Because your age is what it is.
But, what if: instead of focussing on changing the impossible — which really only leads you to wonder if divorce is your best option — what if, instead, you focus on the classic issues that can come into any marriage? Issues of power, fairness, conflict, communication, trust, commitment. Those things are all items that you can influence regardless of your respective ages.
Specific Effects of Age Difference
Having said that, let’s not live in denial. There are some specific effects of age difference that we should look at. These may impact you in ways that coeval marriages are not impacted. But remember: it’s the same skills and understanding required to solve these that you would need to have in any marriage.
Age Difference and Fertility
Here’s an obvious one. The age gap between spouses can impact fertility and chances of successfully having children. There are three possible factors:
- Male fertility reduces (slightly) with age. So being married to an older husband reduces the wife’s chances of becoming pregnant irrespective of her own fertility[xiii].
- Male mortality rises with age such that the husband may die before the end of the wife’s reproductive years.
- If age difference does translate into lower marital satisfaction, as some of the research suggests, and you don’t take steps to mitigate this, you may also find yourself choosing not to have children due to marital distress.
This is interesting. I had to read this twice to catch it: having an older spouse increases mortality for the younger spouse. This is possibly due to the stress of caring for your older spouse in later life. And, having a younger spouse increases life expectancy for men, but not women[xiv]. So that’s one more reason to work on good conflict and communication skills, right? You may be literally extending your life!
Because marriages with a large age gap are in a minority and go against social norms, popular culture and scientific research often see them as abnormal, and look for rationalizations as to why such unusual couples exist.
This leads to stereotypes of men who marry “mother substitutes” or who want to be “in charge” of or “fatherly” towards younger wives rather than being equal with them.
Women who marry much older men can likewise be portrayed as “marrying him for his money” rather than out of love.
People see these unusual couples and assume there must be something wrong with them[xv]. Such disapproval from the family and from society can negatively influence marital satisfaction[xvi]. This is probably less of an issue in 2017 than 20 or 30 years ago but is still something to be aware of.
This is just an awareness point. You can’t control what others think or the interpretations they provide. But you can choose to enjoy your spouse regardless of these external, extrinsic valuations. You can choose to evaluate your marriage on your own terms rather than on others terms.
Having a big “gap” in other ways, such as a gap in education or socioeconomic status, can compound the effect of an age gap and create a further imbalance in power[xvii]. Again: it doesn’t need to be a problem. But if you’re contemplating marriage to an older or younger person it’s definitely worth discussing.
So those are some of the specific effects of age differences to be aware of.
But, let’s end on a positive note with some ways to make an age-gap marriage work well.
Summary of ways to make an age-gap marriage work:
- Develop shared values and life stages (wanting the same things from life). It’s not about being in the same age stage but rather the same life stage. You’ll then want to actively work to change your values and perceptions of marriage so that you can align these stages if those perceptions differ.
- Be aware of the possibility of social stigma and other effects such as fertility issues. Come to terms with these as a couple; don’t carry these concerns along.
- Pursue shared interests and leisure time.
- Engage in joint decision making and keep an eye on the balance of power and perceptions of fairness.
- Create a dynamic that you are happy with, whether that is complementarian and gender-neutral or still somewhat traditional. It’s your marriage: shape it how you want it!
[i] “What’s Age Got to Do With It? A Case Study Analysis of Power and Gender in Husband-Older MarriagesJournal of Family Issues – Karen Pyke, Michele Adams, 2010.”
[ii] Bytheway, “The Variation with Age of Age Differences in Marriage.”
[iii] Casterline, Williams, and McDonald, “The Age Difference Between Spouses.”
[iv] “What’s Age Got to Do With It? A Case Study Analysis of Power and Gender in Husband-Older MarriagesJournal of Family Issues – Karen Pyke, Michele Adams, 2010.”
[v] Vera, Berardo, and Berardo, “Age Heterogamy in Marriage.”
[vi] Berardo, Appel, and Berardo, “Age Dissimilar Marriages.”
[vii] Vera, Berardo, and Berardo, “Age Heterogamy in Marriage.”
[ix] “What’s Age Got to Do With It? A Case Study Analysis of Power and Gender in Husband-Older MarriagesJournal of Family Issues – Karen Pyke, Michele Adams, 2010.”
[x] Vera, Berardo, and Berardo, “Age Heterogamy in Marriage.”
[xi] “What’s Age Got to Do With It? A Case Study Analysis of Power and Gender in Husband-Older MarriagesJournal of Family Issues – Karen Pyke, Michele Adams, 2010.”
[xiii] Casterline, Williams, and McDonald, “The Age Difference Between Spouses.”
[xiv] DREFAHL, “HOW DOES THE AGE GAP BETWEEN PARTNERS AFFECT THEIR SURVIVAL?”
[xv] Vera, Berardo, and Berardo, “Age Heterogamy in Marriage.”
[xvi] Sinclair, Hood, and Wright, “Revisiting the Romeo and Juliet Effect (Driscoll, Davis, & Lipetz, 1972).”
[xvii] “What’s Age Got to Do With It? A Case Study Analysis of Power and Gender in Husband-Older MarriagesJournal of Family Issues – Karen Pyke, Michele Adams, 2010.”