Traditionally, large age gaps between marriage partners were fairly common. This was largely a cultural phenomenon, driven by traditional gender roles and marriage definitions.
However, these cultural norms are beginning to shift, and young Indians today are eschewing old ideas in favor of self-selection, romantic love, and modern dating among similarly-aged peers. As traditions begin to dismantle it leaves us to ask, is the new situation better or worse?
Are the large age gaps found in earlier marriages a benefit for the relationships involved or a hindrance? And does the effect change over time?
Cultural or Biological?
In couples with a large age gap, more often than not it’s an older male, younger female pairing. What’s not clear is whether this is caused by some fundamental difference in reproductive goals between men and woman, or whether it’s primarily cultural. It has been suggested that females are driven by their reproductive goals to prefer older men because they’re more likely to want to invest resources in children. And men prefer younger women because youth is associated with fertility and men’s reproductive goals are concerned with passing on their genes. In patriarchal societies, men are generally assumed to have their pick of eligible females and tend to choose younger, more attractive partners.
However, it’s interesting to note that a recent Australian study published in the Journal of Population Economics found that both men and women, when given the choice, prefer younger partners and eschew older ones. If the prevalence of older male/younger female pairings was explained primarily by innate biological differences then you wouldn’t expect to see females reporting an equal preference for younger partners.
It’s more likely that the overabundance of older male-dominated relationships is a cultural holdover from a time when women were dependant on men, both socially and financially. This created a drive in women to select men that were better established financially and socially, which were generally men older than themselves. As these traditional gender roles break down, women are freer to select mates based on pure attraction.
If Traditional Marriage Preferences are Largely Cultural Do They Confer Any Benefit On Their Own?
The data appears to support the idea that, divorced from traditional cultural norms, marriage satisfaction is initially higher between age-gaped couples, but that this satisfaction fades over time and can, long term, sour the relationship relative to similarly-aged couples, particularly if the marriage is set upon by external stresses.
The Australian study found that after six to ten years of marriage any initial gains in marital satisfaction between age-gaped couples declined, and often went lower than couples of similar age. It’s also interesting to note that both men and women were happiest with younger partners and least happy with older partners, which suggests that in any age-gaped marriage the satisfaction benefit favors only one of the partners. This disequality could explain why satisfaction in general declines over time.
Another study, published in Psychology of Women Quarterly would, on the surface, seem to disagree with the Australian study. It found that women in marriages with older men report higher relationship satisfaction than comparable women in age-similar marriages. However, it’s important to note that this study does not follow these women over time as the Australian study does. And we know that over time this satisfaction gap shifts.
So the answer to the question of whether age gaps are better or worse for marriages seems to depend on the time scale you’re concerned with. If you’re looking short term then an age gap seems to be preferable. However, marriages are supposed to last a lifetime, which means examining them in the short term is a mistake.
Instead, you need to look long term, and from that perspective, the data suggests that couples of similar age have stronger, more resilient relationships that weather difficulties better and offer higher levels of marital satisfaction over the entirety of the relationship.