What Is An Acceptable Age Difference In A Relationship?

Updated August 26, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Karen Devlin, LPC

Age differences in relationships can be difficult to navigate; some consider age differences a reason for celebration, while others consider them a significant reason for concern. Men who date younger women are often considered playboys and predatory, while women who date younger men have been assigned the moniker of "cougar." In all relationships, older men are usually viewed through the lens of either "alpha male" or predator, while women are usually viewed through the lens of either "cougar" or revolutionary. Is there a single, distinct age difference that is acceptable for a relationship?

Age Differences Can Be Difficult To Navigate
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What Constitutes A Significant Age Difference?

A significant age difference might differ based on the ages of the people involved. In adulthood, for instance, a 3-year age gap is fairly standard. As a teenager, however, there is a stark difference between a 13-year-old and a 16-year-old. In adulthood, these small numbers are usually not considered an issue. Even 5-7 years usually get by without a second glance. As the difference inches closer to 8 years or more, though, most people begin to see the difference in age as a more significant one, and one that has the potential to be more problematic or worrisome.

What Is an Acceptable Age Difference?

Usually, anywhere from 1-7 years is considered an acceptable age difference between adults. People whose ages are within 1-3 years typically do not see much of an age difference, while years 4-7 might begin to feel a little bit more pronounced. Even then, though, most people do not find any significant differences between these years. As far as development, fertility, and overall health are concerned, there are not usually any large differences between adults-especially adults who are 21 and older.

It should be noted that many people consider you a child past the official age of adulthood, as 18 and 19 continue to seem extremely young and inexperienced. 20, too, can fall into this category. It is often when someone reaches the age of 21 that the stigmas associated with even small age differences begin to disappear, as there are few experiences that you cannot share with someone a few years older.

Acceptable age differences will also range from place to place, person to person, and situation to situation. Someone who is 28, for instance, and tries to pursue a relationship with an 18-year-old might experience some pushback. A 32-year-old, conversely, who enters into a relationship with a 25-year-old, might not receive as much ire.

Are There Any Warning Signs In Age Differences?

Ideally, age would be but a number, but this is often not the case. The younger you are, the more likely you are to be malleable and easily swayed, which some partners can find appealing. Older men often like younger women because youth is associated with beauty and in part. After all, younger women often accept unacceptable treatment without much fuss, while older women might have been through more and created more concrete boundaries and limits. Men and women in May-December relationships both often see some form of pride in the fact that they can woo someone young, who seemingly has anyone to choose from.

Unfortunately, none of these reasons for dating indicate a sincere interest in or love for another person; instead, they reflect insecurities, pride, and a sense of ownership. These qualities can point to problems in a relationship; although feeling insecure, feeling a sense of pride, and feeling as though you are part "owner" of your relationship are all perfectly fine, living in these states constantly is not healthy.

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Age differences can also create unequal balances of power in a relationship. One person in the partnership might adopt behavior closer to an older sibling or parent than a partner, and that particular partner might make all decisions. The older partner might also try to enact or enforce rules or regulations on the relationship and keep those in place by asserting their age. Although not all couples with large age differences will experience these issues, an imbalance of power is not uncommon in May-December romance. It could cause concern or warrant further consideration.

The Danger Of "Mature For Your Age"

One of the most common phrases used to justify large age differences is this: he or she is just "so mature for your age," which is then considered a legitimate reason to pursue a relationship, despite a significant age difference. Although this can be used in any pairing, it is most commonly used with older men and younger women-or even girls under 18. This phrase is often used to justify a pairing that would otherwise be frowned upon or considered inappropriate or predatory. Although biological age doesn't mean everything, your biological makeup does speak to where you are in your mental and emotional development. The neurological and cognitive development of an 18-year-old is not in part with the same development of a 30-year-old man. Ultimately, "mature for your age" means you act older than your age-and. If your true age is considered too young to be with someone, no amount of maturity or older-seeming behavior can make up for that.

Age Differences And Gender

The way genders view age tends to differ. One study, for instance, found that men continued to prefer younger women, no matter their age, while women's interests tended to move upward to match their own age closely. Men in the study consistently demonstrated a preference for women around 20, while women usually preferred men who were within a 4-year margin of their age. Men, then, might not place as much emphasis on keeping age differences low while women might.

There are also societal constructs that come into play with age and gender. Men are often congratulated or "pooh-poohed" for preferring young women, while women are outright shamed and mocked if they date someone even slightly younger. The influence of society is substantial about age and gender and the acceptable mix of the two.

Age Differences Can Be Difficult To Navigate
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Age And Relationships: What is Acceptable?

It is impossible to put an exact number on what is and is not an acceptable age difference; every relationship is different. What might be a strange pairing in one couple makes perfect sense for another. With that being said, there is one instance in which no amount of age difference is acceptable: when a child is involved. If someone is under 18 and an older person is interested in or pressing for a relationship, this is always a red flag: children are children, no matter what their driver's license says, and violating that boundary is unacceptable.

When determining whether or not an age difference is a cause for concern, safety and comfort are paramount. If you or your partner at any point express discomfort or fear with regard two your age difference and what that might entail, it might be time to reconsider your pairing. A younger person might fear, for instance, that they will be pressured into parenthood sooner than they would like because their partner is ready to be a parent. An older person might be worried about flitting about from place to place because they are ready to settle down and settle into their lives. These are not definitively an issue within relationships with large age differences, but they do provide some insight into one of the problems with significant age gaps: you are likely to be at a different place in your life than someone much older or much younger than you, and entering into a relationship could place a lot of pressure on you to adapt to their way of living. Some adaptation in a relationship is healthy, but a lot of change can signal a mismatch.

If you are in a May-December relationship and you struggle to communicate with your partner or feel pressured and uncomfortable, it may be time to reconsider your partnership or reach out for help from a third party. Some issues can be resolved through more effective communication or therapeutic intervention, while others cannot be resolved and indicate the need for either a breakup or a compromise. If you feel as though you are out of options or unsure what to do, consider speaking with a mental health professional who can help guide you through your options and help you gain clarity in determining what you want. The therapists from ReGain.Us can offer therapy in either a single setting or a couple's setting.

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Age differences can be difficult to navigate. Whether you are interested in someone whose age is significantly different from your own, or you are already involved in a relationship with a large age gap, some things to consider and some obstacles that couples with similar ages might not face. Speaking with a therapist can help navigate some of these issues and cultivate an atmosphere of clear, open communication. Still, there also may be some instances in which age differences are too much to overcome. There is not a definitive number that makes an age difference acceptable or unacceptable. There are, however, qualities within a relationship that make that relationship viable or non-viable, such as trust, consideration, respect, and kindness. If these are not present, you and your partner are not getting the relationship you deserve in a relationship with a large age gap or a small gap.


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