Courtney and Vann Thornton started out as friends. “We wrote music. More importantly, we connected over music,” Courtney wrote about their early days. Gradually, though, the two became more than just friends making music. [pullquote align=”center”]There was something a little unusual about Courtney and Vann’s friendship-turned-relationship-turned-marriage[/pullquote] “He is very handsome and I became increasingly aware of that as we bonded and laughed,” Courtney wrote. “I enjoyed his company and found myself happier than I had been in a long time.” After several months, as the pair’s friendship blossomed, and they began dating. Pretty soon, they decided to tie the knot. While that all may sound pretty normal (if not idyllic), there was something a little unusual about Courtney and Vann’s friendship-turned-relationship-turned-marriage: Courtney was 25. Vann was 50. In typical millennial style, Courtney shared tons selfies of herself with her beau on social media. After their marriage, the two even began adding the winking hashtag #HusbandNotDad, referencing the relational confusion caused by the pair’s age gap, to the captions of their photos together. As you’d probably expect, Twitter had opinions—lots of them. [pullquote align=”center”]“You can’t help who you fall for; you love who you love.” —Courtney Thornton[/pullquote] The responses to the hashtag and the posts it accompanied ranged from supportive to skeptical, disparaging, mocking, and even occasionally threatening and abusive. Courtney’s managing to brush it off, and she’s encouraging everyone to do the same. “Don’t be swayed by the opinions of others and don’t be discouraged by their disapproval,” she wrote. Still, the response to the Thorntons’ social media presence—not to mention the controversy surrounding 39-year-old French President Emmanuel Macron’s marriage to his 64-year-old wife, Brigitte—make clear that romantic relationships with a large age gap are a charged issue for many. At the very least, they’re treated as something of an oddity.
Which brings us to the question—how common are age gap relationships?
Turns out, they’re more common than you might think, and they become even more common when you’re looking at those who have married more than once. The majority of heterosexual Americans (about 80 percent) opt for a partner within five years of their own age when they first marry, according to the Pew Research Center. That number, however, drops to 57 percent for the men surveyed and 62 percent for the women in subsequent marriages. Unfortunately, because the analysis used data collected in the 2013 American Community Survey and same-sex marriage didn’t become legal in the U.S. until 2015, we don’t yet know what these numbers look like for homosexual couples. Additionally, in keeping with the stereotype of the older man remarrying a younger woman, approximately 20 percent of remarried men chose a spouse who was more than 10 years their junior, with another 18 percent men surveyed marrying someone six to nine years younger. In contrast, only 5 percent of women remarried someone 10 or more years younger, while 6 percent chose a subsequent partner six to nine years younger. Put more simply, about one in five married Americans surveyed had a spouse more than five years older or younger than themselves.
While those numbers may seem to lend credence to the old cliche that “age is just a number,” other research suggests it’s not quite that simple.
Research out of the University of Colorado at Boulder found that both men and women reported greater relationship satisfaction with younger spouses, specifically in the early years of the marriage. The study, published in August 2017 in the Journal of Population Economics, looked at data collected from thousands of Australian households by the Household, Income, and Labor Dynamics in Australia Survey between 2001 and 2014. And while, at a glance, this may seem like an argument in favor of marriages with large age gaps, it’s important to consider that this higher level of satisfaction only benefits one of the parties in the relationship. Men who marry younger wives tend to show more satisfaction in their marriages, the research found. Meanwhile, the men who marry women who are older than they are show less satisfaction. Considering how many marriages there are between younger women and older men, that’s not especially surprising. What might come as a surprise to some, though, was that women also seemed to prefer younger spouses. As the authors of the study noted, women also report more satisfaction with younger husbands compared to older ones. The research also told a different story as time passed. Despite the higher level of satisfaction reported by those with a younger spouse early-on in the relationship, the study found that the initial boost wears off quickly—generally within the first six to 10 years of a relationship.
A study by researchers at Emory University in Atlanta, published in 2014, suggests another important implication of the previous work in the field.
The study, which recorded and analyzed a variety of data from 3,000 individuals who had been married at least once in their lives, centered on the relationship between the amount of money spent on a marriage and that longevity of the marriage. Throughout the course of the study, though, another interesting trend emerged: a correlation between age differences and marriages ending in divorce. According to the data published in the study, couples with ages within one year of each other had only a 3 percent chance of splitting up. Those with a five-year difference in ages were 18 percent more likely to to split up. As the gap widened, the likelihood of a split continued to increase. Couples with a 10-year gap had a 39 percent chance of splitting up, and the chance of splitting for couples with a 20-year gap was a whopping 95 percent. While the connection is by no means definitive, it seems possible that the rapid decline in marital satisfaction relative to similarly aged couples observed in the University of Colorado study may lead to an increased likelihood that marriages with large age differences will end in divorce.
Neither study, however, was able to ascertain the reasons why large age gap relationships correlated to initially high but rapidly declining satisfaction and eventual divorce.
Jonathan Bennett, however, has a few ideas why. Bennett is a certified counselor and a relationship coach; he also runs The Popular Man, a website he says is “dedicated to helping men make friends, find love, succeed at work, and live a happy, free, and fulfilling life.”
Bennett believes that the initial high levels of satisfaction among those with younger partners may owe, at least in part, to an “us against the world” sort of mentality caused by social disapproval. According to Bennett, “Forbidden or frowned upon relationships provide a greater meaning and purpose to love. The relationship becomes about standing up to others, even entire institutions and systems.” As time passes, though, that disapproval may grow wearisome. “The negative social pressure from age-gap marriages can take its toll,” he tells HealthyWay, a sentiment supported by a 2006 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. “Over time, that judgment can get tiresome and cause one or both partners to want to end the relationship.” Bennett also tells us that, “age gaps don’t always age well.” Large age differences can also mean that a couple find themselves in significantly disparate stages of life. “A woman might like a guy who is much older and it is fun and exciting when he’s in his forties. However, when he’s reached his seventies and is less mobile and energetic, the difference in age becomes much more apparent,” he says. “She might be healthy and active and feel weighed down by his health issues.
Ultimately, though, while age may be an important consideration when entering a relationship, it’s far from the only factor.
For anyone considering initiating a relationship with someone of a significantly different age, it’s important to ask yourself a few questions. First, how much do you actually have in common? The saying goes that “opposites attract,” but a 2005 study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships suggests that perceived similarity is highly indicative of a highly committed, long-term relationship’s longevity. Next, are your social circles supportive? As both Bennet and the 2006 study referenced above mention, general and ongoing disapproval of a relationship can lead to fatigue and a reduced commitment to resolving tensions that arise between yourself and your spouse.
Finally, are you financially prepared to deal with a long-term relationship with someone much older or younger? According to McKennish, couples with a large age gap “tend to have a much larger decline in marital satisfaction when faced with an economic shock than couples that have a very small age difference.” Additionally, age-gap relationships can present difficulties in retirement planning.
Courtney Thornton, however, has a more romantic take on the matter.
“Love is a rare thing and it is worth fighting for,” she says. “Because at the end of the day, you can’t help who you fall for; you love who you love.”