ERP 430: What Are Strengths & Considerations Of Age Gap Relationships, Especially Female Lead Relationships — An Interview With Dr. Sarah Hill

By Posted in - Podcast June 25th, 2024 0 Comments

Imagine being deeply in love, but constantly feeling the weight of judgment from society merely because of an age difference. Age gap relationships often face challenges beyond the typical trials of love, grappling with stereotypes, stress, and the pressure of public perception.

In this episode, we peel back the layers of these complex relationships to reveal the surprising benefits and often-overlooked dynamics at play. Learn how partners can triumph over societal stigma through open communication, humor, and intentionality. Discover the true essence of what makes these relationships thrive, the power of embracing joy and playfulness, and the critical importance of challenging cultural norms to foster deeper connection and satisfaction. Prepare to rethink what you know about age gap relationships, and gain insights that could transform how unconventional love is viewed.

Dr. Sarah Hill is an award-winning research psychologist and professor with expertise in women, health, and sexual psychology. At the intersection of evolutionary biology, social psychology, and neuroscience, her research aims to understand how hormones, the immune system, and the environment play in relationships and health behaviors. She appeared in the 2022 Netflix documentary, “The Principles of Pleasure” and is currently a consultant for Cougar Life, a dating site for confident women looking to meet younger men.

In this episode

7:06 Exploring double standards in age gap relationships.

9:48 Debunking stereotypes in female-led age gap relationships.

13:26 Various factors influencing power dynamics in relationships.

17:38 Redefining age gap relationships: Gender dynamics and societal perceptions.

21:08 Unveiling joy and satisfaction: Insights from research.

28:17 Advancing research to challenge stigma and enhance understanding of non-normative relationships.

30:17 The importance of open communication in navigating stereotypes and fostering acceptance.

39:42 The influence of hormones on relationships.

Your Check List of Actions to Take

  • Communicate openly and effectively with your partner to combat societal stigma and misunderstandings.
  • Prioritize shared decision-making and intimacy to maintain balance in age-gap relationships.
  • Embrace intentionality and dialogue to create deeper meaning in the relationship.
  • Value mutual care and support as allies to combat stereotypes and stigma.
  • Engage in activities that bring joy, play, and vitality to the relationship.
  • Be explicit about your intentions and avoid making assumptions to prevent crossed wires.
  • Challenge cultural norms and question societal expectations to build a relationship based on personal values.

Mentioned

This Is Your Brain on Birth Control: How the Pill Changes Everything (*Amazon Affiliate link) (book)

Connect with Dr. Sarah Hill

Websites: sarahehill.com

Facebook: facebook.com/sarahehillphd

X: twitter.com/sarahehillphd

Instagram: instagram.com/sarahehillphd

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/sarah-hill-39668431

Connect with Dr. Jessica Higgins

Facebook: facebook.com/EmpoweredRelationship 

Instagram: instagram.com/drjessicahiggins 

Podcast: drjessicahiggins.com/podcasts/

Pinterest: pinterest.com/EmpowerRelation 

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/drjessicahiggins 

Twitter: @DrJessHiggins 

Website: drjessicahiggins.com  

Email: [email protected]

About Today’s Show

Dr. Sarah Hill, thank you for joining us.

Thanks for having me. 

Yes, I so appreciate it when someone has a perspective that can bridge gaps. Particularly in the field of psychology, traditionally, academia and research doesn’t always enter into the field of where people are accessing it, whether or not it’s clinicians, or just the books, or how somebody might come across certain principles. So I love having voices on here that can give a little bit more perspective. So I appreciate your conversation. We’re going to be talking about age gap and relationship, and I know that’s something that a lot of people experience, but I don’t know that it gets a lot of attention or support. Is there something you want to say about what got you interested in looking at this or where you’re coming from here? 

Yeah. So I spent most of my research career trying to understand women and understand women’s psychology, and especially our relationship psychology and sexual psychology. So I’ve spent a lot of years trying to understand these things and studying women. One thing that I always kept coming back to are some of the double standards that exist for women compared to men, when it comes to things related to dating and mating. That is what brought me to looking at age gap dating in particular, was trying to understand the stigmas that tend to exist when we’re talking about female-led age gap dating compared to male-led age gap dating. Just the way that we talk about people who are in these types of relationships, what you see is that it’s always stigmatizing the women. So if you have an older woman dating a younger man, we call them cougars, which is kind of a fun label. But it’s also predatory. It’s predatory language, talking about it that way. And when we talk about older men dating younger women, we don’t have a word for them, we just call them men. Because that’s just what we expect men to do is that they’re going to go out with younger women. But then within those relationships, we again have this predatory language for the younger women, we call them gold diggers. You don’t usually see that sort of language for younger men who are dating older women. 

So I was trying to really understand. I got interested in this topic generally, just because I’m interested in double standards and why is it that we end up boys vilifying women. That ended up getting me in a relationship, not an age gap relationship, but a relationship with Cougar Life, which is a dating app for female-led age gap relationships. I teamed up with them, and Ipsos, which is a survey company, and we did a survey of the American public to try to better understand people’s perceptions of especially these female-led age gap relationships. But also just age gap relationships in general, and what some of the draws are and what some of the stigmas are, and what actually goes on in these relationships. Is it warranted to use predatory language? Are these relationships actually unbalanced in terms of power? So we teamed up and we did some research, and that’s what brought me here to talk to you today.

Well, thank you so much for just giving some background to the interest here and just also how this has evolved. I’m sure we’re all very interested, if you’re willing to share some of the findings that came out of this research.

Yeah. I think that to me, the thing that I thought was the coolest, that I was really the most interested in, is whether or not these stereotypes that we have about these kinds of relationships are actually true. Because I think that the biggest stereotype that exists in these relationships is the idea that there’s exploitation going on. Especially when we’re talking about a female-led age gap relationship, we tend to think that it’s the older partner taking advantage of this younger partner. We asked people who had relationship experience with people who are 10 or more years older or younger than themselves, and we asked them about the power dynamics of their relationships. It’s like, when you’re going out for dinner, who pays? Or if you are making a decision about intimacy, like somebody is initiating sex, who is it going to be? 

And what we found was that very contrary to the stereotypes that exist, these are actually very balanced relationships. Most of the time, what you tend to see is that it’s 50-50 shared. So we see that there’s a lot of shared governance with respect to sexual decision-making. So like, who initiates sex, more than half the people said that we both do. Then of the other 40% who said one person does it more than the other, it was split evenly, almost exactly evenly, between the older and younger partner. So just going to show that there isn’t some sort of a systematic difference where the older partner is always calling the shots. Even in terms of who pays for dinner, or when you go out who’s picking the restaurant, it was also very egalitarian. It matched the same types of patterns that we tend to see in every other relationship. 

So we thought that that was really interesting. Because oftentimes, when you see a stereotype, sometimes you’ll see a kernel of truth, where you’ll see there’s a little bit of truth that’s being exaggerated. We didn’t really seem to find any evidence of that in these relationships. So it really does seem like it’s just other people trying to stigmatize other people’s behavior, probably for their own selfish reasons. Like, if you are stigmatizing somebody else’s behavior because they’re dating somebody who’s vastly younger than they are, a lot of times the people who are stigmatizing those behaviors are just people who aren’t able to do that themselves.

Or feel insecure about their own aging.

Yeah, exactly. So that I thought was really interesting. Another thing that we found that I thought was really cool, was that when we asked people what these relationships are about, it turns out that most of these relationships are just like any other. The thing that brought them or made them gravitate toward their partner was just an organic connection with somebody, and they didn’t let age get in the way. 

It’s not this taboo sexual exploit that people tend to think about when they think about these kinds of relationships that fall outside of the norm, but that they’re really just very regular relationships.

I wonder, as you’re describing the construct or how we might label through language, that there are differences in relationship where one partner has a little bit higher, from a societal standpoint, position, whether or not they’re a CEO, or attorney, or they’re a higher-earner, and the other one isn’t at that level. There’s certain variables that can create a sense of intimidation or power differential if one makes more money. There’s lots of variables that can impact power dynamics, or just even how people relate in that sense of how equitable things are. I think that potentially age is one of them. I mean, in some ways, it makes sense that if someone has a little bit more experience, that they might have a little bit more to say or offer in certain regards. And there are people who are confident, who have lived more, who have a sense of wisdom. That it doesn’t necessarily correlate with chronological age, it’s probably over-emphasized is what I’m hearing you say. 

It’s interesting, because when we asked, for example, younger men, what do you value about being involved with an older woman. Or we asked older women, what do you value about being involved with a younger man? It is sort of what you would expect, based on what you were saying. That is, the older partners generally really value the open-mindedness and free-spiritedness of their younger partners. They also value the sexual energy of their younger partners and how attractive they are. And what you tend to see is that the younger partners really value the emotional maturity of their older partners, and the financial stability of their older partners. A lot of these things, it’s like, financial stability and maturity are always going to go with age. Because just in nature, they’re confounded. Same with, oftentimes, sexual vitality, attractiveness and youth tend to be related to each other in nature, in the absence of a lot of intervention. All the ways that we intervene, and thankfully for access to all those things. 

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“It’s like, each partner has power because they have these unique set of characteristics that tend to co-vary with where they are in life. Are they youthful? Are they older and more mature? But you get power with both of those types of positions, it’s just that they have different power.”

So you bring those two together, and the power dynamics in the relationship are just very monotonous. It’s very much just like any other relationship between people, where they balance their power. It’s just that what their power is tends to differ a little bit more than a dozen more age-matched couples.

Now, just to back up a step, when you’re defining age gap, is that a certain amount of years?

Generally, when you talk about an age gap, I had this conversation with other women not that long ago. Because it’s like, so where do you tilt over into cougar category? Generally, when we’re talking about age gaps, we’re usually talking about 10 or more years. So nine and a half years, you’re totally good. 10 years, and we’re going to call you a cougar. But it’s generally 10 or more years.

Are you embracing the term cougar? 

I think that what we’re seeing, and you can even see this with the name of the app Cougar Life, is that here’s this company and here’s these women who use this app, and they’re sort of taking that term back. The same way that a lot of times people will take something that’s being used pejoratively, and they say: Alright, I’m going to go with it! You’re going to call me a dumb jock, you’re going to call me stupid blonde or whatever, then I’m going to call myself that too. So I think that it’s like, this is becoming like a label of pride, even though it was originally developed as a way to try to stigmatize behavior and make it have these sorts of predatory intonations. 

With your research, did you look at age gap comparatively with male-led and female-led? Or were you mostly looking at the female-led?

Yeah. So because I did this as a partnership with Cougar Life, we were more interested specifically in the female-led. But we did look at both types of relationships, and we were really interested actually in the contrast between the two. Like, is there a lot of differences between when you have an older man dating a younger woman? The answer to that is no, that they’re very similar. That generally, in the case of a female-led age gap relationship or a male-led age gap relationship, you have somebody who is usually pretty financially successful, they’re independent, and they don’t need to rely on somebody else. They don’t need to look for a partner who’s going to bring financial security to the relationship, and because of that, they’re prioritizing. Because I mean, all of us, whenever we’re choosing partners, no matter who we’re choosing, it’s always like, you’ve got your stack of chips, and you have to decide where you’re going to put those chips. Like, what am I going to invest in?

What do I value, yes.

What do I value? So am I going to put all my chips on physical attractiveness? Or am I going to put some of my chips there, and then some of my chips on interesting personality? Am I going to put some on financial security? 

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“For people who tend to date younger, so older people who tend to date younger, they tend to be financially successful, they tend to be mature, and so they’ve already got all of that; they don’t need to put any chips on that pile. They’re going to be bringing all that to the relationship.”

So oftentimes, what you see is that they’re just making a shift in what they’re going to prioritize in their relationship. So whether you’re a man or a woman who’s older and dating a younger partner, you’re generally no longer putting your chips on that stack. 

For men, it just tends to look like an exaggerated version of what you tend to see with men who date women of comparable age, and that is that they’re going after somebody who’s physically attractive and got all these other types of qualities. I mean, of course there’s personality issues and all these other things, similar background and all the stuff that we all take into consideration when we’re choosing a partner. But you tend to just sort of see an exaggerated version of heterosexual male mate choice, where it’s just sort of putting all the chips over here. For older women who are dating younger men, they’re just choosing men in a lot of ways, like heterosexual men, where they don’t need to put any chips on this pile of good father and financially secure. They’re just now dividing their chips among the other things, like interesting personality, similar background, and physical attractiveness, sexual vitality. So you see a little bit more of that.

I think that this is also why we stigmatize these behaviors with women. It’s like, we all think it’s okay for men to choose a partner based on things that are shallow, like physical attractiveness and vitality, and even just for sexual gratification. Those kinds of things are okay for men, and culturally, we’ve been telling women that these things are not okay. 

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“If you’re not going through life connected to what’s most important to you, what’s most important to your partner, what’s most important to your whole family, it’s easy to have everyone in it, but not really interrelating.”

Right. Was there anything that was a surprise to you, what came out of the research? 

Yeah, like I said, I was I was pleasantly surprised to see that the power dynamics were very much evenly split. So it did surprise me a little bit, because I did think that there was going to be a little bit of an imbalance. I didn’t think it was going to be a big imbalance. But I was surprised by the egalitarian-ness of these relationships, which I thought was really great. Another thing I thought was really interesting, and I thought was really cool, was that the degree of, for example, sexual satisfaction within these relationships, is incredibly high. More than 80% of people evaluated them as excellent to very good, which is pretty good. 

That’s great. It kind of makes sense, because it goes to what you’re saying, that if there’s a real emphasis and priority and being intentional about welcoming or choosing that aspect, as you’re talking about spending your chips. If there’s a couple that have been similar in their development, they both might occupy more of this established, secure, responsible, financially capable. But maybe, there’s a classic stereotype that they get to a certain place and they’re like: Oh, we lost that spark, or we lost that vitality, because we’ve been so emphasized on child-rearing or career development. So in some ways, the relationship as a whole has gotten a little weighted towards the things that maybe aren’t as whole well-rounded. Even the way you were speaking about not needing to choose a father, do you feel like? I mean, obviously, with the age gaps, one is a little older. Do you feel like these are often second relationships? Is there anything that you looked at there? 

When you look at people who are age gap dating, in particular women, you generally will see that these are women who have already been there, done that, and have the t-shirt. Like, they are financially independent, and now they are able to choose partners based on what makes them happy and what brings them joy, and not based on financial necessity and not based on needing somebody to help care for children. I think that for heterosexual women who want children, in their choosing partners when they’re younger, and in their peak fertility years, I think that is a totally different ballgame. Just because you have to really focus on such a division of qualities that you’re looking for in a partner. Then all of a sudden, not to have those demands when you’re choosing, it really allows you to focus specifically on things that are just going to make you happy. 

Yeah, it sounds like a real complement. It sounds like it’s allowing for the investment in other aspects of one’s life or what they’re desiring, and it can be really rewarding. That’s one of the other things I think you were saying about, well, it sounds like you’re saying sexual fulfillment, you’re also saying enjoyment and play. Is there anything about relationship satisfaction?

Yeah, the relationship satisfaction is very high. I don’t remember the exact numbers on this one, but everybody seems to be enjoying themselves within these relationships, to a much greater extent than what you would generally see from a run of the mill heterosexual age match a couple. I think that part of this is exactly for the reasons that you were saying, and that is, they’re intentionally choosing joy. I mean, because they don’t have to. 

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“This isn’t to say that those of us who are doing other things that are in these more traditional kinds of relationships, that we’re doing anything wrong. It’s just that by necessity in life, oftentimes, we end up in relationships with people where we’re solving all of these problems together, like having children and raising them and the family stuff.”

With these relationships, it’s like an intentional choice, where they’re focusing on doing something that’s going to bring them joy. It’s the intentionality of that, I think, is what is the secret sauce in the relationship. Whereas, for most of us who are choosing partners for child-rearing purposes, and so on and so forth, it is, I think, easier to feel, even though relationships are ultimately very satisfying, to feel unsatisfied in the moment, because you’re dealing with all this other stuff. 

Oh my gosh, the research is clear that relationship satisfaction greatly decreases in those early child-rearing years and onwards. Parenting is not easy, and the demand of that, it’s almost like, that’s not the focus. It’s not about having fun, it’s not about the pleasure and the sexual vitality. I mean, it’s hard to maintain all of that.

It is. Also, when you look at couples when they have children, you essentially have a situation where it’s like mutually assured destruction, where it’s like, you can’t leave because I would implode with this, and your partner knows the same thing. Whenever you have that sort of a thing where it puts up a wall against either partner defecting, in the evolutionary sciences, which is my original research background, this sort of a setup creates what’s known as a window of selfishness. It essentially means that you can be a little bit crappier to the other person, because you know that they can’t leave, because it would be bad for them if they leave, because it’ll be bad for you and it’ll be bad for your kids. So it creates this kind of an environment where people take the gloves off a little bit, because they know. 

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“The harder it is for their partner to leave the relationship—and kids cement that, and of course, marriage cements that—the worst people can be to each other and get away with it. That happens. It’s not that people are intentionally thinking, but ultimately, unconsciously, when we’re thinking of how far we can push to be selfish and get our way, we know that we can push harder when we have kids and all these other things.”

That creates this type of environment that can be really challenging for joy and mutual play and sexual satisfaction and all the rest.

Yes, and not to add an amount of stress, and people tend to regress, and then the systems at play where humans are just seeking to automate and have the least amount of energy. Just automatically, we’re trying to put things into default mode. So we’re taking our partners for granted, and perhaps in these struggles, as you’re saying, unconsciously, we’re just feeling like we can get away with more. I think there is truth to that. But it also isn’t healthy for their bonding and their play and the real regard. 

Then other questions I have is, was there any measure around how long these relationships had been established? Were they knew or they had been together for a while? 

No, we didn’t measure that. I have no clue about that. So it could be that these are all just brand new relationships and everybody’s feeling so happy, because we don’t have any data bearing on that.

Yeah, but I mean, part of that is what research does. There’s a focus, and there’s findings, and then there’s further research, and it’s a whole building and more of a collective understanding of the phenomenon. You’re giving some real good insight to, it sounds like, refute or counteract some of the stigma.

Yeah, and I think that it’s important. These kinds of relationships, or any type of atypical relationship, so non-normative relationship, I think that they tend to be shrouded in mystery, and when you have that sort of thing going on, it can create these stigmas. I think that we’ve gotten a little better since COVID. It seems like after COVID, we all came out of it and people became a lot more accepting of things, like non-heterosexual relationships, and multicultural relationships and that sort of thing. It seems like we’ve gotten a little bit more okay with that since the time of the pandemic. I don’t know if it’s just being inside, and then we came out and we’re like: Okay, look, I’m cool, you’re cool. I think that breaking down some of these stereotypes is important. 

I also think that for anybody who’s considering these, it’s also really beneficial to think about what some of the benefits and also the drawbacks are. Because there’s going to be challenges, as there are in any type of relationship. But when you have a relationship that is atypical in some way, or in this case, you’ve got people who are of different generations sometimes coming together, it can also create friction, and talking about an understanding ahead of time on what some of those friction points might be.

Let’s talk about that. I also want to ask one quick question before we go there. It sounds as though with building more awareness around these type of relationships, and maybe even reducing some of the stigma or giving more scope to it, that maybe one wouldn’t feel so insecure. Because if there is such a big age gap, and it’s like: Oh, what is my family going to think, and what are my friends going to think? Or just even feeling like: Oh, this is an attribute that I’m not proud of. Yet, part of what you’re really discovering is that there’s a lot of benefits to this, and there also are challenges and considerations that we’re going to speak about or you are going to help us with. But do you think that that could happen, that people will feel a little bit more supported to engage in this type of relationship?

Yeah. Well, I think that having the conversations, and even just seeing people like this out in the world. So for example, Kristin Cavallari recently came out as being involved with somebody who’s 10 years younger than her, and you’ve got people like Nick Jonas and Priyanka Chopra who are out there, and they’ve got a female-led age gap. I think that the more that we see those things, the less people do worry about what other people are going to think. 

But it’s a very nice segue into what some of the drawbacks are to these relationships. By far, the one that people were most frequently cited was just either not having anything in common with somebody who has that big of an age gap. Because again, there’s a generational thing going on there. If you are somebody who grew up in the 80s, you’re going to have a different experience than somebody who grew up in the 90s, or in the aughts. So there’s that. 

But the other big one is, what are the neighbors going to think, and worrying about what people’s peers are going to think about these relationships. What’s really interesting is we actually did an age breakdown about people’s concerns with dating outside their age range, so dating somebody who’s 10 years old or younger. By far, the biggest concern was, what is everybody going to think? As people got older, the less they cared, which I loved, and it’s very consistent with my own experiences in life. I mean, I’m not involved in an age gap relationship. But I am somebody who’s in my 40s, and certainly in my mid-40s, I care a lot less about what people think about me than I did when I was in my 30s, or than I did when I was in my 20s. So it’s really cool to see that as people get older, that you tend to see that people are less of a concern.

Yeah, and especially as you’re describing more collectively, there’s more acceptance for different choices. I think, for me, the meaning I make about what other people think, it has a lot to do with are people going to value and regard my relationship? Because if people are viewing from the stereotype or the stigma, it’s easy to discount or dismiss, and to feel discounted or dismissed or judged in certain ways. That obviously doesn’t feel great. Yet, at the end of the day, when we develop or have enough life experience, that they don’t really know us. Like, how do they get to decide, or how are they a good measure of the value and the significance of our relationship? But we do tend to have that human part of us that wants to belong and be regarded. So there’s layers to this, I’m sure.

Yeah. I think that with any type of a relationship where there’s a stigma that exists, and that you think that people are going to be whispering when you leave the room, I think that in these relationships, even more than any other relationship, communication and having a good sense of humor about things goes so far. Communication, of course, always. Whenever I’m talking to people about relationships, and I’m sure that you say the exact same thing, it’s the best thing, number one rule. Certainly when you have a relationship like this, where if you’re feeling that way, your partner might be feeling that way too, and isn’t it better to deal with this issue together and be able to then laugh about it, than having to secretly worry about what are people thinking about me with my partner? Your partner might be thinking the same thing, and you’re both feeling self-conscious and weird around people. But if you both talk about it, then it suddenly becomes something that diffuses the situation. So in terms of solutions to this potential roadblock into these relationships, it’s always communication, communication, communication. 

Honestly, also, just to stick on this communication point, given that there are these stereotypes that surround these relationships about exploitation and all of that, I think that the communication piece also becomes really important there, just making sure that everybody knows what everybody’s intentions are. Because anytime that you have a stereotype that exists in the world, there might be some people who may think that whatever it is that the relationship is, that it’s actually about whatever the stereotype is. So for example, you might think that: Oh well, this relationship, because it’s an age gap relationship, that this is just sexual fun, and it’s not going to turn into anything serious. But you just need to make sure that you communicate that with your partner, because they might have a totally different view of what the relationship is. Having these really open lines of communication, always important in relationships. People are oftentimes reluctant to be so brave as to be really clear about what their intentions are in a relationship. But it sure saves a lot of people a lot of heartache, and a lot of wasted time. It’s really worth taking yourself out of your comfort zone and doing it, because it’s so important.

No kidding! I mean, what you’re saying is, on the other side of this is how people can work together, support each other, generate new solutions, or just learn how to navigate these tough situations in a way that they both feel cared about. Typically, people feel stronger, more intimate, more connected and build more trust. it’s not easy sometimes to have to counteract or negotiate this. 

Totally off-topic, but I’m relating to just some of the differences. I know there’s so many that people struggle that they might have to deal with. One of which was, my husband and I were together like seven years before we got married. There was probably a window between two years to five of the question of like: Are you married, why aren’t you married? Just what that meant, and how people perceived that. Some people could judge: Oh, you both don’t love each other enough to get married. Or what that meant, or was it as significant as a relationship as it was. Just all the conversations that we had about what it meant to us and what we were choosing and why we were choosing ultimately, and we chose marriage. But what it meant was, he grew up in the Midwest, so he didn’t want to just do what everybody does for just the sake of doing it. He also wanted to feel like a sense of value and uniqueness for him rather than just being a husband.

I love the intentionality of that.

So the amount of conversations on like, why did I want to get married, was it a sense of family and partnership? Just all the dialogue. Because it’s the collective feeling compelled to do what people do, but why are we doing it right, and the conversation. It’s interesting, fast forward, at the ceremony, what we created, it was super unique and beautiful. But during the actual vow part, it felt like the actual ceremony was deeply meaningful. I’m not taking anything away, but it felt more for other people, what they got out of it. Then all the vows, we were already committed to and had been for years. So it was interesting, just to be on the other side of that. In some ways, I actually miss not being married, because it was kind of between us. It was our thing that we knew what it meant. It was all this attention around why we weren’t married. Then once we were married, people were just like: Oh, you’re married, I get it, and I get you. I’m like, well, there’s so much more. But nobody cared, because we were married.

That’s really interesting. I’ve been with my partner for a long time, we are not married. But I’m guessing I will be within the next year or so. Because it’s just so much a cultural thing, and I’ve always thought that I don’t buy into the cultural thing. I don’t need that. 

Yeah, you’re doing a lot to help people question why we do what we do. 

It’s like, no, you don’t understand my relationship. This is your relationship; we’ve been together longer than you guys have been together. No, it really is. But you kind of go through that. Anyway, so that’s just really funny. I would never have thought that I was somebody who would feed into the cultural machine, but it really beats you down. 

Yes. I mean, this is one example, and we can pass so to speak. But if we were interracial, or there were other visible things like same sex, you can’t necessarily pass for what is appearing to be normative. Anyway, there’s a lot to this.

When we’re talking about age gap relationships, it’s the same thing. You can’t pass. People are going to know, and then having to feel that all the time, which again, it’s so important to communicate. 

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“Being able to have a partner where it’s you and them against the world, that’s not a terrible thing to have in terms of the quality of the relationship.”

Yes. So you mentioned a couple of the challenges. Are there any benefits you want to speak to about how these relationships are?

Yeah, the biggest benefits, again, are the quality of the relationships and the sexual aspects of the relationship seem to be very high. When you look at the benefits versus the drawbacks of everybody who’s involved in these relationships, and even those who are outside of it. So we asked people about their perceptions of like: Hey, would you consider dating somebody 10 or more years older or younger, and what do you see as some of the drawbacks and some of the benefits? What we see is that for both people who are in the relationships, and then people who aren’t and just imagining if they were, we see that the benefits are seen as more beneficial than the drawbacks. The drawbacks being, again, thinking that you might not have something in common with somebody or wondering about what the neighbors are gonna think. The benefits being, especially for the older partners dating the younger partners, they definitely like the open-mindedness, carefree, spontaneous nature of the relationship is like the big draw, and then followed very closely by the sexual aspects of the relationship and the attractiveness of their partner. In attractiveness and vitality, just life with their partner. Then for the younger partners with older partners, the number one thing that came up is the emotional maturity, as just being with somebody who’s got it together. Then also, the financial independence and security is also a draw, but under the emotional maturity thing, which I think is really interesting. I think it speaks to the fact that a lot of times the things that we’re looking for in our relationships aren’t as tawdry, or it’s not the thing that we talk about. It’s like, we don’t look for somebody who is fun, and somebody who is emotionally mature. That’s really the big draws in the relationships. 

As you’re talking, it occurs to me that for individuals that would engage in or do engage in the age gap relationship, likely are both a little bit more open-minded, and that there’s some real preserving the bond or featuring that as the priority, and then the aspects that they both bring, and how to negotiate that, that there’s some real strengths there. I have a question as I also am listening, that, I wonder, I don’t know if you would have any thoughts about this. But I would wonder, with the one that’s younger, and perhaps has a little bit more of that vitality and spontaneity and vitality in the sexual arena, do you think that activates more of the older one to have more of the youth gene or helps them.

Yeah, I have absolutely no doubt about that. Even being around kids, you know what I mean? When you’re around people who have a lot of energy, it really does bring life into you. You’ll also see this, and this is just anecdotal, but I have a friend who’s a physician, and he was saying that it’s usually divorced men because he’s just doing regular physicals, that what he’ll see is a lot of times, they’ll start dating younger women, because they can, and then they’ll figure something else out, or they’ll end up involved with these younger women. Their testosterone just shoots through the roof. Over the years, their testosterone levels are the same, and then all of a sudden, they get divorced and they are involved in this relationship with this young woman, and their testosterone levels just pops off the charts. I would assume that the same thing happens for women, because we have reactive to testosterone just the same way that men do. So I’m assuming that we also get that spike, and that wakes up everything. It increases your sex drive, but it also just makes you feel more alive and motivated and ready to go out and do the things in the world. 

Yes, and that’s one measure. There might be many other measures that we can have indicators for more of this youth and vitality. Conversely, similarly too, with one being able to exhibit and hold more of that emotional maturity, that can call someone into more of that way of relating that can really with the person develop that.

Yeah, because as you were saying that, I was thinking about the same thing. I’m like, I wonder what the analogue is for somebody who is the younger partner dating an older partner. My guess is, and I’m just throwing this out here, because I do not know. I don’t even have anecdotal evidence on this one. But I wonder about stress hormones, because I think that there’s an element of safety and security that comes along with being with somebody who’s emotionally mature and stable and got it together and knows their way around the world, that would allow you to down-regulate your stress response in a way that I think would be really healthy as well. So I think that’s a really interesting study, I’m going to have to do that.

Yes, I love your thinking and speculation and hypothesis, makes a lot of sense. Well, I know we’re winding down, and I wanted to see if you wanted to comment for people listening, any signs of health as far as healthy relationships for age gap relationships, or signs of health, and then maybe some caution. I mean, that’s with any relationship, but is there anything specific?

Honestly, these relationships are like others, except that there are these stigmas that surround them. So the signs of a healthy relationship are always going to be communication and trust and feeling safe. If you have those kinds of qualities, then chances are, you’re in a good relationship. My advice to people is that, especially when you’re in a relationship, about which there are stereotypes, is that this is the type of a context where being very explicit about your intentions and finding out their intentions is absolutely critical, and being able to communicate. I would always tell people that these are important qualities to have in the relationship, but especially in these kinds of relationships. I mean, there can be so many crossed wires, because people have misguided assumptions about what their partner wants. Imagine that you’re in one of these relationships, and you’re assuming that your partner just thinks that this is not serious, and your partner actually thinks that it could be serious. You would like it to be serious, but you don’t want to say it, because you’re assuming that they don’t want it. So nobody is getting what they want, because everybody is just making these wrong assumptions. With a relationship like this, about which there are stereotypes, it’s more likely than it is in something where there’s not. 

So just making sure that you’re with somebody that you’re effectively communicating with. If you ever feel like there’s any signs of exploitation, if you feel like you’re being taken advantage of, then obviously, that’s a danger sign, and you just need to get the heck out of there. But generally, if you have good communication, I think, and you feel safe, and you feel secure, and your partner has been very transparent about their intentions, and you feel safe to be able to do the same, I think that it’s a sign that you’re in a good relationship.

Yeah, thank you for that. Just also that the congruence between words and action, especially in those beginning stages, is there’s communication. To your point about age gap dating, that the cues people send, they might be reacting to these more defensive cues, when really, both are interested in something more. So if that’s not discussed, it’s not visible or the vulnerability, these are risks that people take emotionally. Not easy to do, but also what can get fostered out of it or through eight is quite tremendous. 

I even wonder too, coming back to age gap relationships, female-driven, that with communication and real care for one another, dealing with some of the stigma and stereotypes, even in a heterosexual age gap relationship where it’s female-driven, that the man may even be able to really support counteracting some of that. Or how to have language, and a couple could talk about how to deal with stigmas, or what language to have each other’s back, or have the woman’s back in this case of combating some of the double standard. I wonder if that is possible?

I think that’s really interesting, and I think certainly having somebody that’s your ally in all of that, I think it’s tremendous.

Yeah, wonderful. Well, thank you for bringing your voice here on the show. I imagine you’re published and you’re teaching at TCU. Is that right? 

That’s right, yes. I wrote a book about women and hormones called Your Brain on Birth Control. I work as a consultant for Cougar Life and do research with them. So I’m a busy woman, but it’s so fun that I never feel like I’m working.

Oh, that’s fabulous. What kind of classes are you teaching at TCU?

I teach a class in social psychology, and I teach a class called Evolution, Sex, and the Brain. It’s about using biological principles and neuroscience to try to understand sexual behavior in relationships. So fun!

Well, I’m curious, maybe you’ll come back and talk to us about just the hormonal changes when a female is taking birth control and just how important that is to consider what’s happening there. Also, I imagine people can get your book. Or what would you like to suggest for people who want to know more about what you’re doing or teaching?

Yeah, if you want to know more about what I’m doing, follow me on social media. I’m most active on Instagram. and my handle is @SarahEHillPhD. From there, they can learn all about what it i that I’m working on, and we’ve got links to the book You can also find my website, which is SarahEHill.com, and from there, you can see my research publications and learn a little bit more about my classes too.

Excellent. Well, I’ll have the link to your website, your Instagram handle and other social media links, as well as your book. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Thanks so much for having me.

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