“That’s a really nice watch,” she said, as her face turned slightly red. You flashed her a genuine smile and a “thank you.” Usually you visit the place in your running clothes, but today you had an evening meeting. As you made small talk, she volunteered she had a boring weekend ahead, so you took the hint, and asked for her number. Curious, you looked her up on Facebook later that night. “21??” “She’s 21?” You could hardly believe it; she’s a college student at your alma mater. You’re almost 38. That’s a 17 year age gap. You wonder what to do.
Instead of just going with the flow and recognizing that it’s possible she might be mature for her age, and you both could enjoy going on a date, most people overthink and frantically search for advice about “rules” and “requirements” related to age gaps and dating ages. One that almost always comes up is the “half your age plus seven” rule, which basically states that you divide your age by two, add seven, and that’s the youngest you can date.
So, if you’re 38, that would be 38/2 + 7 = 26 years. Ooops. That girl in the story above is 5 years too young. Better cancel, right?
Not so fast. This “rule” isn’t based on any legal codes or even any scientific studies. Its origin is nebulous, but it seems to have first appeared in a relationship advice book in 1901, entitled Her Royal Highness, Woman: And His Majesty Cupid by Max O’Rell. In this book, the formula wasn’t given to figure out a “minimum age,” but used to find the age of the ideal woman to marry.
The reality is that if you are assessing what is “acceptable” in terms of age gaps, there are really only three considerations: legal, biological/psychological, and social. I’ll address each below briefly.
Legally, there is a limit to whom you can date without repercussions. In the United States, age of consent laws say the younger person in the relationship must be at least 16-18, depending on the state. Of course, going by strict legality doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to date someone that young if you’re much older, and commonsense says someone out of high school dating a high schooler is a very bad idea, regardless of legality. But if there is any age gap “rule,” it’s the laws of your state and country.
Biologically, evolution has ensured that attraction is a pretty crude beast, and men are wired to look for women with youth and physical beauty, which are ultimately signs of fertility.
While many men will often publicly deny it due to white knighting, I guarantee their private website viewing habits tell the truth. Studies show that men of all ages fantasize about relationships with women in their 20s. The OK Cupid data suggest that their entire male user base, no matter the advanced age, prefers women around the age of 21, even though they don’t often actually date women that young. In terms of porn searches by men, teen related searches (18-19 year olds) are always near the very top of most-searched terms. That men of all ages are attracted to young, beautiful women should come as no shock, but it is worth repeating because for some reason it’s controversial in 2017 to say it.
In terms of relationship psychology, critics often say “you can’t have anything in common” or “you won’t get each other’s cultural references,” therefore the half your age plus seven rule is valid. While valid points related to all relationships, these criticisms assume that either of these things matter in attraction, or even in sustaining a quality relationship, when they don’t seem to. The reality is that kindness and a generous attitude toward each other are the markers of a lasting relationship more so than commonalities.
If you look at the data from a study related to relationship satisfaction among couples in age-gap relationships, couples in these relationships were just as happy, or happier, than couples in similarly-aged relationships in the areas of commitment , overall satisfaction, and investment. They were lower only in the area of “normative beliefs,” suggesting that they perceived other people’s views of them as negative.
Socially, attitudes about age gaps vary, but reflect the biology of attraction. Women often end up dating men a few years older or younger than them, and express interest in this when polled, whether they are talking about flings, fantasies, or marriages. Very few women embrace the “cougar” mentality by dating men who are a lot younger. So, women tend to view relationships as socially acceptable where the men are slightly older.
Men, however, have different views related to age gaps. Men are far more likely to embrace younger women (20s), especially as flings and fantasies, even men in their 60s (see the linked study in the previous paragraph). This interest goes well below the “half your age plus seven” rule’s lower age limits. So, men tend to view relationships where the man is much older more socially favorably, and likely would enter into those types of relationships if they could (but most can’t).
Socially, outliers exist that totally blow the “rule” out of the water. Higher status men (celebrities, CEOs, athletes, etc) often date much younger women, and sometimes the gap is 20, 30, or even 40 years. Think Harrison Ford, Ryan Reynolds, Johnny Depp, Mick Jagger, Hugh Hefner, and many, many more.
It’s interesting that when given the absolute choice of whom to date, men with literally tens of thousands of female options tend to choose women way outside of what the “half your age plus seven” rule allows. The women also apparently throw out their professed preferences when given a chance to date a powerful and famous man. This confirms common analyses of the “dating market” which is that given the opportunity, men seek youth and beauty, while women seek high status.
So ultimately, socially the only “rules” related to age gaps can be applied to other relationships, boiling down to can you date the person? (i.e. will a hot 20-something give someone older the time of day?) and do you get along with them?
So, if people break this “rule” at least somewhat regularly, including beloved celebrities, why do so many people come out to promote the rule, even making making it a moral issue of older men “taking advantage” of fully grown, highly educated, 20-something women?
The answer likely lies in intrasexual competition. Subconsciously, we don’t like another man or woman coming across as more attractive, or having more sexual advantages than we do. So, it’s human nature to jealously slander people we perceive as sexual competition. A study related to opinions about age gap relationships found that people tend to have negative views on age gap relationships when others are in them, but remain open to them for themselves, again suggesting jealousy is part of the opposition.
Of course, a low-testosterone 50 year old man who looks at 20-year old porn models in his spare time, who is married to a wife he isn’t attracted to who only gives him sex on his birthday, is going to vehemently criticize a 50 year old celebrity who dates a 25 year old. However, it may be shocking how quickly he would avail himself of that arrangement if it presented itself.
In fact a recent study showed that when men become convinced they are attractive, they suddenly become more approving of casual sex, i.e. when they think they can get it, they want it. My best guess is this would apply to age gap attitudes as well. If a 60 year old thought he had a chance with one of the 20 year old models he stares at regularly, his views would be more favorable.
Similarly, a 40 year woman who has paid thousands for matchmaking and online dating services to no avail is going to say that a handsome and successful 40 year old man dating a 24 year old is “creepy” and insinuate that he must be unable to “handle women his own age.” And, the younger girl must have “daddy issues” (even though science has discredited that). If the same 40 year old guy suddenly asked her out, she might change her tune about him rather quickly.
So, if you think the “half your age plus seven” rule suits your needs, then follow it. If you’re an “old soul” who values maturity and wants an older partner, then go for it! If you’re older and love the vibrancy of people in their 20s, then go for that. A non-existent, non-binding, and non-scientific, rule shouldn’t guide your life if it gets in the way of a potentially fulfilling relationship.