There are dozens of factors that can affect a relationship, and age is just one of them. Still, it seems like society still gawks at partners with a large age gap between them. But why? Does age really matter that much in a relationship? According to experts, not so much, and the impact age differences have on a couple really varies from partnership to partnership.
"It truly depends on the couple," says Dawn Michael, Ph.D., a relationship expert and certified clinical sexologist. "If you have a much younger women and an older man, some aspects of the relationship can take on a parent-child quality and this would happen more if the woman is in her 20s as opposed to her late 30s or 40s," she explains. "It can still happen later on, but, as women and men age, they mature especially from life experience—and if they have been married before or have children, all of this factors in."
Health can be also be factor. When one person ages and the other is still young and active, it can have an impact on the physicality of the relationship. "If you have two very active people or two people who are not active, it may not matter as much, but as people age they do experience more challenges that can impact the relationship," explains Dr. Michael.
Another important factor is life experience and prior marriage or children. "A younger person may not have gone through a past marriage or children and the older person may have, so there may be a gap in understanding and experience in some relationships," she says. "This can present a problem in some marriages and it is important to get to know the children and live in the situation before marriage."
Retirement is a big bone of contention between Diana V. and her husband, who are 21 years apart. "He's retired and I'm not even close to considering it—I love working and he would love me being more available to travel and hang out in general," she explains. They're also of different generations and she admits that it occasionally shows. "He's a touch more old-school, while I care less about what people think."
Jamie Q. has the opposite issue with her husband, who is ten years her junior. "It affected us more when we first met—he was 18 and I was 28 and I thought he was very young," she says. "I was establishing myself as a business woman and he had never lived alone and could not legally drink or rent a car." They were friends at first and then a romantic relationship developed over the next four years. They married at 35 and 25, respectively. "By then we had both grown individually and together and the age difference mattered less," she says. "He's an old soul and steady, and I tend to be a firecracker, so we balance each other out."
So, what's an acceptable age gap? If you ask Christina A., she'll tell you two decades—anything under 20 years difference doesn't matter to her in terms of life plans and children. And if it works for your relationship, a larger age gap can be just fine, too. "I honestly, don't see my husband, who is 35 years older than me, as an old man because he is so young at heart," she says. "But he has been acting more set in his ways lately and that creates conflict in the relationship. Ultimately, he ends of trying new things and is a happier person because I pushed him."
The age difference between Kerrie K. and her husband Vinny C. is often a surprise to those who find out. "While Vinny is 57 years old, people often think he is in his 40s due to his full head of hair and zest for life," she explains. "Vinny says the age difference keeps him young, engaged, active, and on his toes—and I appreciate Vinny's business mind, patience and thoughtful approach to life."
Paulette Sherman, relationship expert and author of Dating from the Inside Out, points out that there are some positive things about an age difference, including the fact that society has finally become more gender-neutral around instances where the woman is older, which gives women a much wider range of choices of partners. "Women also live longer than men on average, so it can make sense to marry a younger man that way," she says. "Other pros include that younger men can be less traditional, more willing to support women with big careers, more willing to do housework and split chores, and less concerned by what people think."
She points out that there are some cons, too, including that a couple's respective interests will vary due to the generational gap. "There may be a difference in readiness to commit and in maturity levels," says Dr. Sherman. "If that is the case, it may feel like the older partner is a parent not an equal and there may be a difference in career development or in how much each person knows themselves which could become a challenge as well."
Bottom line: Love is love. If you or someone you know falls in love with someone significantly older or younger than they are, the most important thing is that their relationship is healthy, happy, safe, and secure. At the end of the day, isn't that all that matters?