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Why do people judge relationships where the man is much older than the woman?

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Moya Crockett
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New research sheds light on the stigma faced by ‘May-December’ romances. 

There is a fascinating podcast called Kin where friends, lovers and family members discuss what their relationship means to them. In one episode, compellingly titled ‘The Penis Doesn’t Age’, a straight couple named Isley and Geoffrey discuss how they met and fell in love. In many ways, their story is pretty normal. What makes it unusual is that at the time the podcast was recorded, Isley was 27, and Geoffrey was 68 – older than both of her parents.

If your reaction to that was an internal shudder, you’re not alone. So-called May-December relationships, where one partner is much older than the other, make many people feel uncomfortable. But it’s worth considering why relationships with a big age gap are capable of provoking such intense reactions. If a couple enjoy their time together and treat one another with respect, surely that should be enough for the rest of the world?

In a new study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences and reported by Psychology Today, psychologist Yael Sela decided to investigate why we tend to judge people who date or marry people who are much older than them.

They asked 430 American men and women to rate how “acceptable”, “upsetting” and “disgusting” they found the idea of an age-discrepant relationship in which the man was older. (For several reasons – not least the fact that relationships where the woman is significantly older are even more stigmatised than ones where the man is older – most age-discrepant heterosexual couples fall into this pattern.) 

At 48, Catherine Zeta-Jones is 25 years younger than husband Michael Douglas 

Sela and her colleagues at Oakland University, Michigan, then combined these ratings into a single measure. The higher the score a person got, the more they ‘condemned’ relationships between older men and younger women.

They found that younger people disapproved of age-discrepant relationships more strongly than older people did, and that men and women were equally judgemental.

Interestingly, these findings didn’t quite fit with what the researchers had predicted: they expected to discover that younger women would approve of older-man-younger-woman couplings more than older women, because accepting these relationships would offer younger women a wider dating pool.

This didn’t prove to be the case: young women were generally more icked out by the prospect of dating a much older man than older women. 

Jerry Hall, 62, is married to Rupert Murdoch, 25 years her senior 

Sela and her team also hypothesised that one of the reasons people feel morally dubious about age-discrepant relationships is that they view them as being based on the exchange of desired resources – namely, money and sex – rather than genuine affection for one another.

This sounds controversial, but you only have to glance at the way age-gap relationships are routinely treated in the media to see that there’s likely a grain of truth in it. Younger women who date older men are regularly painted as gold diggers – and while this is often a sexist stereotype with no basis in reality, the fact remains that it is what many people believe.

To investigate this prejudice further, the researchers asked the study participants how they felt about an extreme example of an exchange-based relationship: the one between sex workers and their clients. They found that men of all ages were more likely to approve of sex work than women, and that younger women were more likely to approve of it than older women.

In addition, they found that the more people believed sex work was acceptable, the more strongly they also approved of relationships with a big age gap. A correlation was also identified between women’s disapproval of sex work and their condemnation of age-gap relationships.

This suggests that if a woman has a problem with sex work, she is more likely to be suspicious of relationships where she suspects – rightly or wrongly – that a younger woman is using sex to access financial support in a more informal way.

Of course, it’s important to point out that there is a huge, huge difference between a relationship between a younger woman and an older man and the dynamic between a sex worker and her client, and by investigating these beliefs, Sela and her team were not endorsing them.

And ultimately, it’s really none of our business who, why or how other people choose to date. As long as a relationship is legal, compassionate and enjoyable for everyone involved, we say – you do you.

Images: Getty Images 

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Moya Crockett

Moya is Women’s Editor at stylist.co.uk, where she is currently overseeing the Visible Women campaign. As well as writing about inspiring women and feminism, she also covers subjects including careers, podcasts and politics. Carrying a tiny bottle of hot sauce on her person at all times is one of the many traits she shares with both Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton.

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