We don’t need a research study to explain to us why older men enjoy dating younger women. But what about the women? Stereotypes aside, many women cite maturity, wisdom, and financial stability as good reasons to date men who are older.
But is there too much of a good thing? When women date and marry men old enough to be their fathers, it brings up the question of whether there should be an upper limit to an appropriate age gap.
Research reveals both evolutionary and social motives to explain women´s desire to date older men. But regardless of the legitimacy of motive, both parties in men-older age gap relationships often have to overcome stigma and stereotype.
Surpassing Stigma and Stereotype
What is it about seeing an older man with a much younger adult woman in public holding hands that gives some people pause? Cultural norms? Societal expectations? And knowing nothing about the couple, why do people make snap judgments and attributions of ulterior motives?
Researchers have been tackling these important questions for years, and provide some answers.
The Perceived Unfair Advantage of Age
Brian Collisson and Luciana Ponce De Leon (2018) examined why couples in age gap relationships are subject to prejudice and negative stereotypes.[i] In terms of gender differences, they found that the link between perceived relational inequity and prejudice was higher when the man in a relationship was older, rather than the woman.
In explaining the rationale behind perceiving that an older man in a relationship has the upper hand, Collisson and De Leon note that even labels used to describe partners in age-gap relationships imply relational inequity. They note that the term cradle robber implies that older men are stealing younger women, and alternatively, the term gold digger insinuates that younger partners pursue older counterparts for money and resources.
Some adult women are assumed to be looking for an older man to financially support a comfortable lifestyle within which to raise children. In other cases, women are alleged to have selected an older paramour to gain access to resources and connections in order to further their own career, business, or other aspirations.
But contrary to stereotype, many age-gap couples do not display even the appearance of ulterior financial or professional motives. Many such couples are similar in every way except chronological age. How do we explain how these couples got together? Could it be that in many cases, it is simply true love, or are there other reasons?
Looking for ulterior motives to explain atypical pairings of mature men and much younger women, some have advanced theories about women seeking older men due to relational dynamics with their own fathers. Research in this area, accordingly, has sought to distinguish truth from fiction.
Relational Attachment and Age
Sara Skentelbery and Darren Fowler (2016) investigated the attachment styles of heterosexual women who date older men.[ii] They note that research reveals a negative view of couples when the age gap between them is significant. They also recognize the commonly held belief that women who date men who are 10 or more years older have unhealthy relationships with their fathers. But is it true? According to their research, the answer is no.
In their study of 173 women, 44 of whom were dating men at least approximately 10 years older, the stereotype of women choosing significantly older paramours as a result of “daddy issues” was unsupported. Further, Skentelbery and Fowler found no significant difference in attachment styles between women in similar-age relationships and women in age-gap relationships. In fact, they found that 74 percent of the women in age-gap relationships enjoyed a relationship within which they were securely attached.
Happy, Healthy, Relationships, at Any Age
Apparently many couples with age differences enjoy healthy, fulfilling, loving relationships. Having come together without ulterior motives or emotional childhood issues, many such pairings are strong, stable, and able to withstand societal scrutiny.
We can safely assume that there will always be couples that seek to pair up for ulterior motives, perhaps in pursuit of a marriage of convenience. But research also seems to suggest that, happily, true love is still alive and well.
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