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Age Gap Relationships: Psychology, Stigma, and Judgement

New film The Idea Of You highlights how differently each gender is treated for being the older partner in an age-gap relationship.

Age Gap Relationships
Illustration by Oleksandra Nazarova

Relationships are always circulating in the media, but age-gap romance is something that bounces in and out of headlines.

Recently, the topic jumped back into the public eye during the release of The Idea Of You (starring Anne Hathaway). Before that, Leonardo DiCaprio had been causing quite a stir for his inability to date people 25+ (despite approaching 50 himself.) Numerous other celebrities have also made the headlines for their ‘inappropriate’ age-gap relationships, such as Aaron Taylor-Johnson and his wife Sam.

The media loves to draw attention to these stories due to the persistent societal fixation on romance, drama, and celebrities. Headlines further amplify the media craze, including: ‘Guess which celebrity couple has a 20-year age gap’ or ‘Celebrities you didn’t know were dating someone 10+ years older than them.’

But the question is: Why is there such a negative stigma around age-gap relationships?

How much is too much?

Google says the minimum age you should date is ‘half your age plus seven.’ So theoretically, if you were 40 years old, the youngest age you should date is 27.

Nobody quite knows where this theory stems from, but the vast majority of the population conforms to it, as shown in the results of the ‘Age Difference in Heterosexual Married Couples’ poll:

Age differencePercentage of all married couples
Husband 20+ years older than wife1.0
Husband 15–19 years older than wife1.6
Husband 10–14 years older than wife5.0
Husband 6–9 years older than wife11.2
Husband 4–5 years older than wife12.8
Husband 2–3 years older than wife19.6
Husband and wife within 1–2 years33.9
Wife 2–3 years older than husband6.9
Wife 4–5 years older than husband3.4
Wife 6–9 years older than husband2.8
Wife 10–14 years older than husband1.0
Wife 15–19 years older than husband0.3
Wife 20+ years older than husband0.4
Source: US Current Population Survey 2017

The Stigma

Despondent man hunched on a couch
Credit: Unsplash/Gadiel Lazcano

Age-gap relationships have suffered various forms of judgment throughout different eras.

During the 1800s, it was common for women to marry soon after reaching puberty (and often to men a lot older than them.) This tradition lasted for many years, until slowly fading by the time the 20th century came around.

Now, marrying or entering relationships with large age gaps is generally looked down upon by society.

The main concern of such age-gap relationships revolves around the probable power imbalance between partners, with concerns that the younger partner will be taken advantage of. However, the taboo of the relationship gradually disappears as the younger partner strays above the age of legality, likely due to the belief that if you date a similar age you are less vulnerable to coercion. This statement itself is false, as proven in many domestic violent cases.

In some circumstances, such as in the workplace, older partners have authority that comes with age and power — especially if they are the boss or in another superior position.

Science Behind Age Gaps

Hands holding a heart
Credit: Unsplash/Kelly Sikkema

There is a natural explanation for why we choose our partners. Lots of scientific studies state that women tend to date older men, whereas men seem to prefer younger women.

“Women’s preference for mature men often stems from valuing emotional maturity, empathy, and shared experiences. Mature men, having faced life’s challenges, may offer deeper connections, emotional support, and stability in relationships.”

According to Marriage.com

From an evolutionary standpoint, biology suggests that men may be more attracted to younger women due to their youthful looks and the association of reproductive fitness. In other words, younger partners offer an increased chance of fertility and having “offspring.”

Scientific Concerns

Many scientific findings illustrate why people may enter age-gap relationships, but concerns about the relationships found a centre-stage spotlight in the media.

Recent reserach found that our prefrontal cortex continues to develop and mature until the age of 25. Whilst society considers us fully grown adults by the age of 18, our brains are still developing well into our 20s. Those under that age act and rely heavily on emotion rather than reason.

If you are over the age of 25, is it ethical to date someone who isn’t psychologically mature?

On top of this, it is commonly believed that women develop faster than men, although it is true that maturity isn’t always tied to our chronological age. Sociologists argue that the nurture theory and our childhood socialisation also affect the link between our age and maturity.

Many psychological counselors suggest that age-gap relationships prove difficult for those in very different places in life. With larger age gaps come additional challenges, such as different health and energy levels, life priorities, and experiences.

Male Celebrity Relationships

Aaron Taylor-Johnson

A few years ago, Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s relationship was thrust into the spotlight. The public raised eyebrows at the fact Aaron was 18 when he first met Sam Taylor (41.) Though they denied rumors of on-set romance, the couple were engaged just a year later. His wife Sam Taylor-Johnson has said she doesn’t understand the fixation on their 23-year age gap, especially after fourteen years of them being together. Finding the attention uncomfortable, she told The Hollywood Reporter: “Most of the time, we zone it out and stay pretty private.”

Leonardo DiCaprio

Leonardo DiCaprio on the other hand, has a reputation for dumping his girlfriends as soon as they hit 25. Out of all his girlfriends (that we know of publicly) sources say his oldest was 28-year-old model, Rose Bertram. The joke intensified after his split with Camila Morrone in 2022 (just before she turned 25.) If you have been online at all in the past two years, you will have seen the Leonardo DiCaprio meme. People have transferred the meme to birthday cakes, gifting them to women as they turn 25. Recently, Sabrina Carpenter celebrated her own 25th and iconically jumped on the trend…

Emmanuel Macron

Known as the President of France, Macron has an expectation of being professional at all times. However, many sources suggest his private life had a slight lapse in professionalism after he married his high school teacher. Brigitte Macron was 40 when she met 15-year-old Emmanuel at La Providence High School in 1993. She was a teacher at the school, and Macron was a student and the classmate of her daughter. In an interview, Brigitte revealed that Macron’s parents initially thought he was dating Brigitte’s daughter. Once they learned the truth, they sent him to boarding school.

Brigitte told People, “I told myself that he would fall in love with someone his [own] age. It didn’t happen.” After they kept their distance for a while, the pair eventually married in 2007.

Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively

Receiving probably the least stigma for their relationship is this much-loved couple. Ryan and Blake’s relationship is widely adored for its playful banter. But a lot of people were shocked to discover an 11-year age gap between them! A recent social media post revealed the age difference, surprising many even though the pair has been married since 2012. Comments on the post said it made sense due to Reynolds ‘acting younger than his age’ and that they had ‘the same emotional maturity.’

The Idea Of You

The new Prime film The Idea Of You can be described as very Wattpad. Anne Hathaway plays the mother of a teenage fan of boyband August Moon. They fall in love despite a looming 16-year age gap which becomes the bane of their relationship. [SPOILER!] The couple inevitably break up when the judgement becomes too much for Soléne’s teenage daughter.

Throughout the film, there are subtle hints of fighting back against misogyny. Soléne’s ex-husband, Daniel, leaves her for a much younger woman and received no abuse for being the older partner in a relationship with a large age gap, yet when Soléne dates a younger man, Daniel ridicules the leaked pictures of her relationship. Hathaway’s character is quick to confront Daniel for being a “hypocrite.”

In another scene Soléne says, “I didn’t know my being happy would p*** so many people off,” and her friend Tracy responds, “Oh right. Did I not warn you? People hate happy women.”

This film highlights how differently society treats men and women when they are the older partners in relationships. Society views older men as ‘sugar daddies’ but labels older women as ‘cougars.’ Similarly, people label younger women as ‘gold-diggers’ or claim they have ‘daddy issues.’ Additionally, the film explores the societal constraints placed on women, such as the notion that a woman’s life is over after her 20s and that she is too old to look forward to anything in her 30s and 40s.

Unequal Gender Judgement

The Idea Of You lightly touches on a topic that the media rarely discusses. As a result, we see a clear difference in how men and women are viewed within their relationships.

Take Harry Styles as an example. He’s been known to date older women. Yet it’s usually his partners who receive the slander, with fans quick to decide that nobody is ‘good enough.’ In his relationships with Caroline Flack, DJ Lucy Horobin and most recently Olivia Wilde, all of the women were older than him by more than a decade.

In 2022, whilst dating Wilde, Harry made a comment to Rolling Stone about the online abuse directed toward Wilde. He said, “It’s obviously a difficult feeling to feel like being close to me means you’re at the ransom of a corner of Twitter or something.”

Meanwhile, in DiCaprio’s case, his decisions are eye-rolled by the general public, but nothing more is done about it. Except for his relationships proving to be comedic, he isn’t seen as ‘creepy’ like Brigitte is for dating Macron. The media also dug into Cheryl Cole for her relationship with Liam Payne; many likened them to a mother-son duo due to the 10-year age gap.

Overall, it is safe to say that men tend to be treated much differently for being the older partner; they are often praised or the situation becomes a joke. Yet women who go against the conventional narrative of marriage suffer immensely. In modern times, the repercussion is often an onslaught of social media abuse.

Pros and Cons of Age Gap Romance in Novels (and TV series and Films)

The issue with age-gap book tropes is that like many fictional relationships, they typically aren’t realistic in comparison to ‘real life.’ Television series also use the trope quite frequently, with highly-watched shows like Pretty Little Liars incorporating storylines of teacher-student relationships. This represents a concerning combination of fantasy and powerplay, targeted toward an impressionable target audience.

Therefore, these relationships promote an unhealthy vision for younger audiences, encouraging them to aspire to something similar and making them more vulnerable to exploitation. However, whilst this may be true for the younger partners that are still in the developmental stage of 18-25,  the automatic assumption that all age-gap relationships signify exploitation can lead to younger partners being less likely to open up about worries or issues arising in their relationship. 

We should also note that not everyone expects that what they read will happen to them in real life. A lot of people consume media types like TV shows and books because they like to lose themself in a different world.

However, either way it is unfair to assume that all age-gap relationships are predatory. After all, these relationships are becoming popular again for a reason, with people increasingly able to have children at older ages.

The discussion is centuries old, and whilst the age-gap genre is making a come-back it is important to remember how similarly prominent it is in classic literature. In Jane Austen’s novel Emma, the characters Emma and Knightley had an age-gap of 16 years. Sense and Sensibility showed an increased gap of over 20 years between Marianne and Colonel Brandon. Yet, nobody batted an eyelid at the time, because age gaps formed part of the societal norm in that century.

The Stats

In more modern times, according to the BBC, ” around 8% of male-female couples have an age-gap of 10 years or more, rising to 25% in male-male unions and 15% of female-female relationships.”

Grace Lordan is an associate professor of behavioral sciences at the London School of Economics. She is currently researching the link between age-gap relationships and happiness. She told the BBC, “In the initial 10 years of marriage, people report higher levels of marital satisfaction when their partner is younger than them. However, over time, the marital satisfaction of different-aged couples declines more than similar-aged partners. The probability of similar-aged couples divorcing is also lower.”


If you enjoyed learning how The Idea of You film brought age gap inequality to the forefront of public attention, you can read more about it in this article.

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Written By

I'm Bethan, a Journalism student at the University of Gloucestershire. I love discovering places, experiencing different cultures and trying new foods. When I'm not writing or travelling, I'm at home in Wales walking on the beach with my two dogs, recreating recipes or relaxing with a comfort read.

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