It’s every parent’s worst nightmare: their seventeen-year-old daughter arrives home with a 23-year-old man on her arm and introduces him as her new boyfriend.
Or, in the case of the French president Emmanuel Macron’s parents, their 16-year-old son arrives home to announce he has fallen in love with his 40-year-old teacher.
Age gaps in relationships have always raised the eyebrow of the public consciousness, and yet they are pervasive in our culture and our media. Ryan Reynolds is 11 years older than wife Blake Lively, George Clooney is 17 years older than Amal Alamuddin, and Holland Taylor is 32 years older than her girlfriend Sarah Paulson.
So why, do age gap relationships garner such criticism?
In 2018 researchers from Oakland University found that people viewed age gap relationships as less acceptable because they assume there’s an element of exploitation involved- especially when the older party is a man.
Journalist Rebecca Reid elaborated in a ‘Metro’ article in 2017:
“I’m not sure that all men realise how much power they have in a dating situation if the object of their affection is much younger than them. Sometimes it’s hard to realise that just because you don’t feel powerful, doesn’t mean that you’re not.”
There is conflicting evidence about the longevity of age gap relationships: A 2008 study published in Psychology of Women Quarterly reported that age gap couples have greater overall satisfaction, while a later study by economic professors in Emory University, Atlanta found that the rate of divorce rapidly increased the wider the age gap.
There’s also the question of age gap relationships when one person is under 18. While many factors outside of age will determine the strength or success of a relationship, it is worth examining how and why an adult is approaching a 16 or 17-year-old.
I watched a close friend struggle for three years in a relationship with a man she met at 18. He was seven years older than her, and any concerns raised with him about the large gap in experience between them was routinely brushed aside. Over their three years together, he continually expected her to perform at a level of maturity that was, quite literally beyond her years.
In contrast, another friend, who met her partner when she was 16 and he was 21, is very happy in her relationship. While eyebrows were raised, no genuine expression of concern was ever made.
Why? Because her partner made it very clear from the outset that he was aware of the gap in experience between a 16-year-old and a 21-year-old, and made a conscious point to avoid a power dynamic between them.
An age gap relationship will always raise a few well-intentioned questions but believe me, your loved ones can sense a bad egg a mile off. If you find your relationship is met with more disapproval than expected, be brave enough to really ask yourself why.