Have you ever been told about the formula for calculating how young of a woman a man can date and marry? It is simple. For the man: divide your current age by two and add 7. If I were 30 years old then this calculation might look something like this: 30/2 = 15 +7 = 22. That means I should not date or marry any woman younger than 22 years old. But is there anything scientific about this formula? Does it really matter how old our partner is?
In some ways perhaps it does, although it might have more to do with preferences and less to do with happy relationships. According to Jane Conway and a team of scholars in The Netherlands, the age of the person we date or marry may have a long history from the days of evolution. In a recent study, they found evidence for one theory about why we prefer certain ages in our romantic partners.
Men generally prefer women younger than themselves. Based on Evolutionary Theory, this may be because younger women are more fertile and can have more children.
Women generally prefer men slightly older than themselves. Based on Evolutionary Theory, this may be because older men represent higher social status and more security.
But how many of us, if we look at those reasons, feel like women are only meant to have babies and are dependent on men? Are there more practical reasons for seeking partners similar in age to us?
Other research highlights some important ways in which age matters when it comes to dating and choosing a romantic partner. And it doesn’t really have much to do with our ability to have children.
In research, a cohort refers to people who grew up in the same time period and had similar experiences. Terms like “baby boomers” and “Generation X” are common cohort names you may be familiar with. Millenials, for example, represent a group of people who were born around the turn of the century and experienced rapid technological growth, certain types of music, and significant political movements. Because of these similarities, Millenials often have different beliefs and feelings about things than previous cohorts, such as Baby Boomers. When it comes to age differences between romantic partners, the more similar we are in age the more likely we are to come from the same cohort and therefore share certain similarities. The more different we are in beliefs, the more likely we are to clash on important issues.
Time of Life
While the ability to bear more children at a younger age may indeed be an evolutionary reason for men dating younger women, there is a more practical reason for men and women to choose partners similar in age. Every ten years or so we enter what might be termed a “time of life,” which refers to the goals and pursuits common to others in that age range. For example, if you were to go to any college campus you would primarily meet 20-somethings. If you went to an elementary school to meet other adults, you would likely run into mostly 30-somethings. That is because 20 year olds are more likely preparing for families and adult life through getting an education while 30 year olds are more likely to already have young children who are in school. So what happens when a 20-something falls in love with a 40-something? Chances are, they want different things in life and place greater emphasis on very different pursuits. Again, this can create a clash over important issues.
The Prime of Life
While Evolutionary Theory often makes us feel like women depend on men, there may be other reasons why women prefer older men and men prefer younger women. It has to do with what we might consider the “Prime of Life.” The prime of life is the time of life when our health, skills, and mental capacities are at their peak and allow us the greatest options in life. And it may just be that women enter the prime of life slightly earlier than men (but also may keep it longer).
So, does age matter when it comes to choosing a partner? Finding a partner you share similarities with is certainly important, and someone close in age is going to make that more likely, making it easier to connect at a deeper level. Whether or not you think having children matters…well, that’s up to you.
If you want to find out how similar you and your partner are on important issues, try taking our RELATE Assessment.
Written by: Dallin, Master’s Student in Marriage, Family, and Human Development. Reviewed by Brian Willoughby, Ph.D.