Myths About Power Imbalances In Age-Gap Relationships, Debunked

It's hard to talk about age-gap relationships without talking about power imbalances. The lyrics of songs like Demi Lovato's "29" and Taylor Swift's "All Too Well" serve as cautionary tales against starting a relationship with someone much older. The classic film "Lolita" paints a picture of manipulative (and totally inappropriate) May-December love. Even here at Glam, we've covered the topic of potential imbalances of power in age-gap relationships before.

Power differences are nothing to take lightly. According to Love is Respect, a project that advocates for safe relationships, power, and control are at the core of dating abuse and domestic violence. When partners are of vastly different ages, they may be especially likely to run into dangerous power struggles. This might be why age-gap relationships are so stigmatized and shrouded in negative stereotypes.

Though it's always a good idea to watch out for toxic relationship dynamics, there's no need to believe every myth you hear about age-gap couples. Get to know the truth about the power imbalances involved with dating someone who's much younger or older than you.

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support on their website.

Myth: One partner will always have more power

For many people, it's hard to imagine an age-gap relationship without comparing it to a child dating their parent or a boss dating a younger employee. In these situations, the older person often wields some power over the younger one, and therefore many might assume that age-gap relationships also come with their own inherent power differences. As Dr. Daria J. Kuss, associate professor in psychology, explained to Cosmopolitan UK, "In some relationships where there is a significant age gap between partners, for example 10 years or more, there may be unique problems the couple can face, including power imbalances."

The truth is that many partnerships do, in fact, deal with power imbalances, though not always because of age. Factors such as money and social status can also impact power dynamics. Moreover, age-gap couples often don't bear any resemblance to the exaggerated adult-child dynamic many people may expect. "Most of the couples I know say that they feel like they're the same age," Dr. Loren Olson, a psychiatrist in Des Moines, Iowa, told PsychCentral. "We have a chronological age, a psychological age, a physical age, and a sexual age. Age gap couples frequently are compatible in the last three." Dr. Kuss also shared with Cosmopolitan that maturity levels often defy stereotypes. "Levels of maturity are not always tied to age, and the reverse may be true in such a way that the younger partner is the more mature one," she said.

Myth: The younger person will always be at a disadvantage

Where there's a power imbalance, there's often one person who's forced to sacrifice more than the other. It's easy to assume that a younger partner who dates someone older must sacrifice more — after all, they're the one with their whole life ahead of them and may be pressured into giving up having kids or moving to their dream city to accommodate their older, more settled half.

However, there are some benefits to dating someone much older, according to Choosing Therapy. Younger partners may experience more personal growth, a boost in maturity, a fresh perspective on life, and a new set of wise friends. And, as Dr. Sara J. Corse, a staff therapist with the Council for Relationships in Philadelphia, told WebMD, the age gap "creates some spaciousness" for the younger partner to try new things, particularly if their older significant other already has a stable home and job. There's more room for experimentation and turn-taking when each partner is in a different stage of life.

For age-gap pairs who are still worried they'll have to compromise their dreams, it's crucial to communicate openly in the relationship. "Be sure to talk with one another about what is important to you and what your goals are for the next five, 10, and 20 years," licensed marriage and family therapist David Klow suggested to Glamour. "Be honest with one another about what you want out of life."

Myth: Age-gap relationships are inherently harmful to women

Women in age-gap relationships (and specifically heterosexual age-gap relationships) are often judged and made into a caricature by onlookers — if they're younger, they might be called "gold diggers" or accused of having "daddy issues," and if they're older, they're labeled as "cougars." With these stereotypes in mind, it might seem that age-gap relationships are bad for women or that there must be something wrong with women who choose to date someone older or younger. In reality, though, society's perception says little about how these women really feel.

Research shows that heterosexual women might benefit from dating a much younger man. One 2008 study published in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly revealed that woman-older partners reported higher levels of relationship satisfaction and commitment compared to woman-younger partners and women dating someone of a similar age. Another 2019 study published in The Journal of Sex Research discovered that women who were physically intimate with younger men experienced more sexual pleasure.

While there isn't as much data to support the notion that younger women might be happier than average when dating an older partner, one thing's clear: They probably don't fall into the "daddy issues" cliché. A 2016 study published in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences showed that 74% of the women in age-gap relationships had a secure attachment style, similar to women who coupled up with someone of a similar age.

Myth: Couples with an age gap are usually heterosexual

Along with the gendered stereotypes about women in age-gap relationships is another common belief that age-gap couples tend to be heterosexual. Some people may assume that these pairs are either playing into traditional patriarchal power dynamics (when an older man dates a younger woman) or that they're subverting them (when an older woman dates a younger man).

However, these notions miss one glaring fact: Many couples with an age gap aren't heterosexual. In fact, the United States Census Bureau revealed that, per its 2021 survey, married same-sex partners are more likely to be of different ages than their opposite-sex counterparts. Moreover, 20% of same-sex spouses were found to have an age gap of 10 or more years, compared to just 8% of opposite-sex spouses. An older survey published in Allure (via Autostraddle) of men and women also found that LGBT people are more likely to be attracted to much older partners.

Besides not succumbing to some of the power imbalances found in opposite-sex partnerships, LGBTQ age-gap couples may find that having vastly different birth years allows them to challenge heteronormative scripts. In other words, for some couples, an age gap can be a way of reclaiming — not sacrificing — power.

Myth: Age-gap partners have sinister intentions

Part of the reason many people look down on age-gap relationships is that they believe the partners must be using each other for personal gain, according to Dr. Sarah E. Hill, a psychologist, author, and research consultant for the age-gap dating app Cougar Life. "We assume the older partner is exploiting the younger partner for sex, or we assume the younger partner is exploiting the older partner for financial gain," Dr. Hill told Cosmopolitan. Some celebrity couples seem to bolster these assumptions, such as Anna Nicole Smith and her wealthy 89-year-old husband in the '90s or Hugh Hefner and his many younger girlfriends.

However, the expert says this isn't common, citing a poll conducted by Ipsos and Cougar Life that listed "organic connection" as the most popular reason for someone to date a much older or younger partner. Dr. Natalie Games, a clinical psychologist based in Singapore, echoes this, telling Her World that while there will always be age-gap couples (and even couples of similar age) with ulterior motives, research has debunked the myth that those pairs are the norm. "[H]appily, true love is still alive and well," she concluded.

Myth: Power imbalances are bound to break up age-gap couples

Not all age-gap couples will struggle with power differences, and even if they do, their respective birthdays may have nothing to do with it. But as sex coach and author Gigi Engle shared with Well+Good, the stigma surrounding age-gap romance might make these couples more likely to pinpoint and resolve any power issues that arise. "Pretending that there isn't [a power imbalance] is where you might run into problems," Engle revealed. "It takes communication, self-awareness, and a lot of difficult and often awkward conversations."

It's important to note that those who marry someone far from their own age are more likely to divorce. A 2015 study published in Economic Inquiry discovered that a five-year gap increased divorce risk by 18%, and a 10-year gap increased divorce risk by 39%. Couples with a 20-year gap were 95% more likely to split.

However, power differences — and other differences experienced by age-gap partners — don't guarantee a relationship breakdown. Just like in any other partnership, strengthening boundaries, practicing healthy communication, and prioritizing self-development can improve age-gap couples' odds of staying together.