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Relationships and Marriage: Is age really a number?

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Are you flirting with someone older than you? Or are you annoyed with people saying you’re “robbing the cradle”? How much do age differences matter in dating?

There’s no doubt age gaps can be a point of stress for couples. Even established couples might have to deal with social scrutiny if one partner is considerably older than the other. Why do we pay attention to age when it comes to dating preferences? How important is chronological age when it comes to relationships?

Romantic attraction isn’t blind to age-gap calculations

A new review published in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences highlights the critical role of age in romantic relationship formation (Conroy-Beam & Buss, 2019). As has been discussed in the field of social- and evolutionary-psychology for decades now, the importance of age lies in its signalling power. Chronological age is a fairly reliable cue for adaptive reproductive and survival qualities in prospective mates. Because human sexual desire and long-term mating interest track age-related reproductive “fitness” qualities, age becomes a key marker for heterosexual romantic attraction.

Which ages are the most attractive?

From an evolutionary standpoint, a woman’s fecundity promotes the passing on of genes, and if it fluctuates by age, certain ages should be particularly attractive to men. In general, women hit peak fertility in their mid-twenties. Fertility declines but is maintained into the early 30s and then drops off considerably until menopause. This suggests men are apt to experience heightened romantic interest to women in that age bracket.

Empirical evidence adds to the general argument that men favor younger women. Below is a sample of the supporting data described by Conway-Beam and Buss (2019):

  • Cross-culturally men report wanting partners who are about 3 years their junior, averages range from about 2- 4 years.
  • Personal ads also show that while young men appear to desire slightly older women, as men age, they typically seek partners who are increasingly younger than themselves (i.e., targeting peak fertility).
  • Marriage records from multiple countries, including the U.S., show a clear trend in which husbands are typically older than their wives, which the age gap increasing for older men.
  • Men spend more money on engagement rings for younger women, pay more for younger prostitutes, and in bride-price cultures (e.g., Kenya), men must spend more money in order to marry a younger bride.

Men also experience age-related trends in their appeal to women. From an evolutionary perspective, men’s ability to acquire and maintain resources promotes offspring survival and therefore, if this ability is age-linked, certain ages for men should spark women’s attraction. Historically, men’s hunting-and-gathering productivity likely peaked around the mid-thirties; modern Census data is consistent showing that men’s income peaks in their mid-40s and early 50s,  though admittedly, age is a less perfect predictor of reproductive value for men here, than it is for women. Nonetheless, the appeal of older men for long-term relationships may reflect their earnings, with short-term attraction anchoring on slightly younger men, so as to maximize sperm quality.

Empirical evidence has also accumulated in support of women’s preferences for older men and as you might expect, the data often overlap with those data supporting men’s preferences. As this sample of Conway-Beam and Buss’s (2019) review suggests:

  • Cross-culturally, women report wanting partners who are (on average) 3.5 years older than them.
  • In online dating, women make first contact with older men at a greater than rate they do younger men.
  • Marriage records show that women are marrying men who are older than they are by about 3 years.

There appear to be consistent patterns across people that favor the appeal of younger women and the appeal of older men, but group data do not allow for clear prediction regarding a specific individual. Further, these predictions assume an innate desire for children which might not be reflected in a person’s own preferences, and questions still remain on how we might understand age-related patterns for gay and lesbian couples. Rather than assuming that chronological age is a determinant of potential dating success, romantic desirability, or sexual attraction, Conway-Beam and Buss (2019) provide these important considerations:

Age Is More Than a Number

  • Perceived age is what matters. Conway-Beam and Buss (2019) highlight that age-related inferences come from what people see, not from an internal chronological number. This perhaps explains why some older women work to appear younger (e.g., through make-up, dress styles, cosmetic surgery, etc.) and some younger men work to appear more mature (e.g., growing a beard, dress-style, etc.).
  • Age ideals do not directly translate into partner decisions. People’s relationship choices depend on more than age-linked cues for reproductive value. Individuals’ values and personal preferences, social factors, religious or cultural norms… all of these play an important role in actual dating decisions. In other words, real decisions that people feel good about do not always reflect hypothetical ideals regarding mate preferences.
  • Age-related preferences may be “lived out” more by highly-desired partners. Because men compete for the attention of desirable women and women compete for the attention of desirable men, whomever is highly desirable may have much more choice among potential partners. These highly-desirable individuals (i.e., people who have high mate value) may be better able to turn their ideal age preferences in to actual partner decisions.
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