Minding the gap in relationships

DON JUAN: Actor Don Johnson and his fourth wife, Kelly Phleger, who is 19 years his junior.
DON JUAN: Actor Don Johnson and his fourth wife, Kelly Phleger, who is 19 years his junior.

Is there an ideal age-gap for relationships?

According to the literature, age homogamy has become increasingly common over time. In other words, gone are the days of child-brides and wizened-grooms (in theory, at least) - people are more likely to want to marry someone closer to them in age. In America in the 1950s, the average age difference between husbands and wives was about 4 years. By the 1970s, the gap had reduced by half.

But there's one interesting exception to the rule, and it relates to marital track-records. According to a study published in the January issue of Marriage and Family Review, divorcees are more likely to be in hypergamous relationships. In other words, divorce makes it more likely someone will 'marry up'.

Why? Why are young newlyweds today more likely to be about the same age? Why are second-timers or older never-marrieds more likely to experience an age gap? And is there a difference between men and women?

It's probably unsurprising that older men are more likely to want to marry younger women. This is especially so if the man is divorced, if the younger woman has no children, and if he has children from a previous marriage.

This is because, according to other research cited in our study, "a man with children pays little to no penalty in the partner pool" and "older men, with more economic resources ... may trade their economic status to younger women willing to overlook their parental status".

(Apparently it doesn't work quite the same way for older divorced women with children, unfortunately. While having children "can confer a number of social benefits" to a previously married male, it's seemingly not so for previously married females. Rather hypergamy for older men benefits men as it offers them the chance to have kids, and shows they "are highly committed to their new relationship".)

As to why the young are more likely to marry from within their age-group, the study raises a mixture of social, economic and biological factors.

Partner pools are often age segregated (coming from school and university groups, etc), and notions about what constitutes an ideal partner may depend on a particular milieu. There's also the idea that "parents and peers may have more say in relationship formation if people are less established socially, economically, and psychologically".

But while the findings of this research go some way towards painting a picture of the status quo, it doesn't really answer our questions about whether there is such a thing as an 'ideal gap'.

Thus, we turn to this study from the Archives of Sexual Behaviour. In it, 120 dating advertisements were analysed to determine whether any age-preference was observable. And in an added bonus, the study considers both straighties and gays (about time, though some lesbian action would have been nice to see too).

Lo and behold, age-hypergamy is highly desirable. We love, at least ideally, a good gap. And I mean 'we' in the most inclusive of fashions because the study shows it be true, whether or not you're a man-loving lad or a lad-loving lady.

So what's the magic number?

Apparently masculine gay men typically desire a partner almost 13 years younger than themselves, a result which was almost exactly the same for their straight counterparts (hetero blokes want women younger than them by about 14 years).

Women, and feminine gay men meanwhile, were found to prefer partners who were at least ten years older than them.

However despite the preferences, most heterosexual men were in relationships where they were only three years older than their spouse, and most masculine gay men were in the same boat (there wasn't a comparable statistic for women or feminine gay men).

All this goes some way to suggesting 'yes', when it comes to age-preferences and partnering-up, 'ideals' really do play into it.

Although it's also very clear a lot of it depends on a lot of different things; how influenced we are by social norms, evolutionary biological drivers, circumstance, etc, etc.

Hence my personal position: Ideal age is entirely dependent on you.

(That's almost exactly 10 years in his direction, in my case. Yes, I am a hypergamic cliché...)

How about you?

- Sydney Morning Herald