Not all a bed of roses: the unique challenges of age-gap relationships

So what? People are saying of Stephen Fry’s 30 years age gap with his fiancée, Elliot Spencer. As someone who at one time had a preference for older blokes, I feel that I should weigh in here.

It is, in fact, quite rare, to see relationships with a greater than 20 year age gap. In fact, these make up less than 2% of all marriages, according to a 2013 US Current Population Survey. Statistics in Australia and the UK are similar.

In my early twenties, I had two long term relationships with significant age gaps. The first was a 20 year age gap and the second partner was 26 years older than me. While the first was wealthy and successful, the second was just an average Joe – the relationships were not just about financial security.

So what’s wrong with a big age gap?

Stephen Fry and Elliot Spencer have a 30 year age gap

According to Harvey Robin, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, “We’re dealing with two people in different stages of the life cycle.” Over time, these disparities can become more pronounced.

Back in the late 80s, a comprehensive survey was done by David Buss, professor of psychology at the University of Texas. He looked at 37 different cultures and found that in every case, men preferred to marry women who were on average 2.66 years younger, while women preferred older men (3.42 years on average).

There are many predictors of a lasting marriage. Being financially secure, having children and spending a certain amount of time dating are all factors in your favour. According to a study an age discrepancy of one year makes a couple 3% more likely to divorce, a five year age gap makes them 18% more likely to divorce but a relationship with a 10 year age gap means the couple is 39% more likely to split.

Over time, there are many factors that can affect the success of the relationship. Differences in life experience can grate. Tolerances may wane over time.

One couple Rubin treated was a woman in her 20s with a husband in his 50s. Despite agreeing they never wanted children, “He became a father at 82. Their marital relationship is really nil.” The husband had health problems after the birth of their child. “He’s been ill and needs her help,” Rubin says.

In my own experience, age became a factor once the romance of the first couple of years wore off and the stark realties of dating someone in a different generation became clearer. My partner wasn’t interested in coming out with my friends, going out to clubs or having children. At first, this was fine, but after a few years I realised that we just wanted different things.

Also, as relationship data becomes available, we’ll be able to get more accurate statistics on same sex relationships and how gender, age and culture all interweave within marriage, or long term partnerships.

I should also mention that the first of my older lovers had dated almost exclusively younger women his entire life. Despite this being his obvious preference, after a while I found his constant wavering attentions difficult to manage. After five years in the relationship, I had aged from 24 to 29 and I could see that my appeal to him was not as great. He was always looking for the “newer model”. Our relationship was doomed from the start.

Age gap relationships can work out. Celine Dion and René Angélil have a 26 years age gap. Olivier Sarkozy and Mary-Kate Olsen have been going strong for nearly two years with their 17 year age gap. Sadly the 20 year age gap was too much for Mariah Carey and Tommy Mottola and Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas’ relationship (with its 26 year age gap) has been having its ups and downs.

I wish all the luck in the world to Stephen Fry’s and Elliot Spencer. Relationships can never be predicted with statistics and both parties seem to be very happy. Even though my own age gap relationships failed, they both taught me lots about life, and both splits were amicable.

Incidentally the wealthy older man I had been dating is now dating a woman closer to his own age – and from what I hear on the grapevine, he’s never been happier.


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