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Age-Gap Romances 1
Running head: COMMITMENT IN AGE-GAP ROMANCES
Commitment in Age-Gap Heterosexual Romantic Relationships:
A Test of Evolutionary and Socio-Cultural Predictions
Justin J. Lehmiller
Christopher R. Agnew
This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Sage in Psychology of Women
Quarterly, available online:
Lehmiller, J. J., & Agnew, C. R. (2008). Commitment in age-gap heterosexual romantic
relationships: A test of evolutionary and socio-cultural predictions. Psychology of Women
Quarterly, 32, 74-82. DOI: 10.1111/j.1471-6402.2007.00408.x
Age-Gap Romances 2
Little research has addressed age-gap romantic relationships (romantic involvements
characterized by substantial age differences between partners). Drawing on evolutionary and
socio-cultural perspectives, the present study examined normative beliefs and commitment
processes among heterosexual women involved in age-gap and age-concordant relationships.
Results indicated that woman-older partners were the most satisfied with and committed to their
relationships, relative to woman-younger and similarly-aged partners, consistent with socio-
cultural predictions. Additional analyses revealed that satisfaction, alternatives, investments, and
normative beliefs accounted for differing degrees of variance in the prediction of commitment
among age-gap and similarly-aged partners, with greater explained variance among partners of
similar ages. Thus, among female heterosexual age-gap partners, factors beyond traditional
predictors of commitment may be important in understanding the maintenance of these
Keywords: age-gap, commitment, evolutionary psychology, Investment Model, normative
Age-Gap Romances 3
Commitment in Age-Gap Heterosexual Romantic Relationships:
A Test of Evolutionary and Socio-Cultural Predictions
Despite an increase in studies of non-traditional romantic relationships in recent years
(e.g., Kurdek, 1995; Lehmiller & Agnew, 2006, in press; Shibazaki & Brennan, 1998), some
types of non-traditional involvements have been largely overlooked. In particular, very little
work has focused on age-discrepant or age-gap relationships (i.e., romantic involvements in
which one partner is substantially older than the other). Although some studies have examined
factors related to age differences in romantic relationships (e.g., Groot & Van Den Brink, 2002)
and how people feel about age-gap couples (Banks & Arnold, 2001; Cowan 1984), much
remains unknown about this intriguing relationship type. However, a number of theoretical
perspectives on romantic relationships would make specific predictions about the relational
experiences of age-gap partners. The purpose of the present study was to address hypotheses
derived from evolutionary and socio-cultural perspectives on age-gap partnerships. We test these
hypotheses with a sample composed of female heterosexual partners involved in romantic
relationships featuring a significant age discrepancy between the partners.
Perceptions of Age-Gap Relationships
Several studies have found that adult men generally prefer female partners who are
somewhat younger than themselves, and adult women generally prefer male partners who are
somewhat older than themselves (Buss, 1989; Kenrick & Keefe, 1992; Kenrick, Gabrielidis,
Keefe, & Cornelius, 1996). On average, men prefer partners approximately 3 years younger, in
contrast with women, who prefer partners approximately 3 years older (Buss, 1989). However,
both men and women appear willing to consider partners who fall outside these parameters.
Specifically, men’s minimum acceptable age for a female partner is several years below their
Age-Gap Romances 4
own age (5 to 15 years, with older men willing to consider relationships with larger age
differences). In comparison, women’s maximum acceptable age for a male partner is
approximately 10 years above their own age, with this number remaining relatively constant as
women age, (Kenrick & Keefe, 1992). In short, although people seem to prefer small age gaps in
their own relationships, they appear to remain open to larger age gaps.
However, there is an interesting paradox when it comes to perceptions of age-gap
couples: Although men and women report a preference for and openness to age-gaps in their own
relationships, they typically disapprove of age gaps in others’ relationships. For instance, using
data from a community sample, Banks and Arnold (2001) found that both sexes generally
disapproved of age-gap relationships (age discrepancies between 5 and 50 years), regardless of
whether the male or female partner was older. Additionally, they found that women-older
relationships received significantly more opposition and that disapproval ratings increased
substantially as the age difference between the partners increased. Similarly, using both adult and
adolescent samples, Cowan (1984) found that participants rated age-gap relationships,
particularly those in which the woman was older, as less likely to succeed than relationships not
characterized by a gap. Results of these studies suggest at least some degree of bias against all
This bias does not go unnoticed by partners involved in age-gap relationships. Recent
research has shown that age-gap couples, specifically, couples with an age difference of greater
than 10 years, perceive substantially more social disapproval regarding their relationship than do
couples with only a minimal or no age gap (Lehmiller & Agnew, 2006). Age-discrepant couples
reported experiencing significantly more social disapproval than individuals involved in gay or
interracial relationships. However, whether the social demands and pressures placed upon the
Age-Gap Romances 5
partners involved in age-gap relationships has an effect on their relational processes is a question
that remains unanswered.
Relationship Commitment in Age-Gap Involvements
Very few studies have explored relationship processes as they relate to age differences in
romantic relationships. Groot and Van Den Brink (2002) examined the association between life
satisfaction and marital age-gaps. Their results revealed that an age gap in which the husband
was older than the wife was associated with increases in life satisfaction for both men and
women, consistent with the evolutionary perspective, which posits that relational age gaps are
advantageous to the extent that the direction of the age gap maximizes each partner’s potential
for reproductive success (Buss, 1989). A handful of other studies have examined different factors
with respect to age-gap couples, such as sexuality (Kaslow, 1989) and communication
(Mcwherter, 1993); however, beyond these studies, research is scarce, and our understanding of
age-gap relationships remains limited.
To our knowledge, there have been no past investigations focusing on factors that predict
relationship commitment among age-gap partners. We see this as a particularly important area
for inquiry because lack of support for one’s relationship, which age-gap couples report, might
be expected to influence key relationship processes, such as level of relationship satisfaction and
commitment (Agnew, Loving, & Drigotas, 2001; Lehmiller & Agnew, 2006). The goal of the
current research was to examine these issues, focusing in particular on the experience of
commitment among women in age-gap relationships. In the present study, we examined
interpersonal commitment in the context of Rusbult’s (1980) investment model, which posits that
romantic commitment is a function of three independent factors: satisfaction level, quality of
alternatives, and investment size. We chose this perspective because this model of commitment
Age-Gap Romances 6
has received considerable empirical support over the years (see Le & Agnew, 2003, for meta-
The investment model in age-gap relationships. Within the investment model, satisfaction
level consists of one’s subjective evaluation of relationship outcomes, or the degree to which one
feels positively or negatively about his or her relational experiences. Quality of alternatives
refers to the attractiveness of one’s perceived alternatives to the current relationship, or the
degree to which one feels that his or her needs could be easily met outside the current
involvement. Finally, investments refer to both concrete and intangible resources attached to a
given relationship that would be lost or diminished in value were the relationship to end. Thus,
investments include intrinsic elements such as personal disclosures and experienced emotion, as
well as extrinsic elements, including joint friendships and material possessions (Goodfriend &
Agnew, 2006). To the extent that satisfaction and investments are high, while quality of
alternatives is low, individuals remain committed to their relationships.
The utility of the Investment Model has been established in numerous studies examining
many different relational types across multiple contexts (Rusbult, Martz, & Agnew, 1998; Le &
Agnew, 2003). Although the model has been applied to several different types of relationships,
such as friendships (Rusbult, 1980) and abusive relationships (Rusbult & Martz, 1995), it has not
been extended to understanding commitment processes in relationships characterized by a
significant age gap between heterosexual partners.
In the present research, we sought to compare mean levels of the investment model
constructs, such as satisfaction level, quality of alternatives, investment size, and commitment
level, among women involved in age-gap and age-concordant heterosexual relationships. We
hypothesized that the direction of the age-gap (i.e., woman-older vs. woman-younger) might
Age-Gap Romances 7
make a difference in terms of these variables. Thus, in the present study, we compare three
groups of women: those who are older than their partners, those who are of a similar age to their
partners, and those who are younger than their partners.
There is some research to suggest that levels of commitment and its theorized
determinants may be related to relational age gaps. From an evolutionary perspective (e.g., Buss
1989), the pairing of an older man with a younger women is one that tends to favor reproductive
success because younger women are more fertile and older men are more likely to possess the
resources necessary to support any potential offspring. From this standpoint, one might expect
that relative to woman-older partners, woman-younger partners of childbearing age should be
more highly satisfied (because their procreative needs are being met) and should perceive poorer
quality alternatives (because other potential partners may be seen as being of lower reproductive
potential). Consequently, if their satisfaction is high and their alternatives are relatively poor, one
would expect woman-younger partners to be very highly committed (Le & Agnew, 2003).
At the same time, however, one could make a case for the opposite pattern of findings by
adopting one of a variety of socio-cultural perspectives. For instance, from a romantic reactance
standpoint, woman-older partners might evidence the highest relationship commitment as a
means of buffering themselves from the disapproval and hardships they may experience by
belonging to a socially stigmatized romantic partnership. Research by Driscoll, Davis, and Lipetz
(1972) on the “Romeo and Juliet” effect supports this idea. Specifically, they found evidence that
perceived disapproval was associated with higher levels of intimacy and commitment among
romantic partners. Along the same lines, Lehmiller and Agnew (2006) found that members of
socially marginalized relationships, such as same-sex, interracial, and age-gap, had significantly
higher mean levels of commitment compared to members of more “traditional” relationships,
Age-Gap Romances 8
such as other-sex, same-race, or similar age pairings. As a result, because woman-older partners
seem to encounter more attitudinal opposition to their relationships (Banks & Arnold, 2001;
Cowan, 1984), they may be most likely to evidence romantic reactance.
A similar prediction of greater commitment in women-older relationships could be
derived from equity theory (Walster, Walster, & Berscheid, 1978). That is, perhaps woman-older
relationships are more equal than woman-younger relationships because women have more
power when they are older than their partners. For example, they may be more established in
their life circumstances and/or more financially secure. To the extent that woman-older
relationships are more equal than woman-younger or similarly-aged relationships, woman-older
partners should be the most satisfied and committed, given that perceived relationship equality
tends to be positively associated with both relationship satisfaction (e.g., Donaghue & Fallon,
2003) and commitment (e.g., Winn, Crawford, & Fischer, 1991).
Moreover, given that woman-older partners tend to have greater stigma associated with
their relationships (Banks & Arnold, 2001; Cowan, 1984), perhaps women who enter these kinds
of partnerships do so only when there are many clear positives (e.g., she and her partner are
particularly well matched in terms of their interests, goals, and other important relational
dimensions). In other words, woman-older partners might spend more time evaluating the
anticipated costs and benefits of an age-gap relationship and establish such relationships only
when the ratio is very favorable. To the extent that woman-older partners begin their
relationships only under the most optimal of conditions, one would expect woman-older partners
to be particularly satisfied and committed.
In summary, depending on the perspective adopted, a different pattern of results might be
expected with regard to mean levels of satisfaction, alternatives, investments, and commitment
Age-Gap Romances 9
when comparing partners involved in woman-older, woman-younger, and age-concordant
romances. We tested these competing explanations in the current research.
Normative beliefs and relationship commitment. In addition to comparing mean levels of
the investment model’s constructs, we were also interested in examining the prediction of
commitment from the model’s specified bases and determining whether or not perceived
normative beliefs concerning one’s romance contribute above and beyond the model’s variables.
Normative beliefs regarding a romantic relationship consist of what a partner believes others
think about his or her involvement (Etcheverry & Agnew, 2004). More specifically, perceived
normative beliefs reflect your views on what other people think you should do when it comes to
your relationship—continue or end the involvement. Research has demonstrated that the more
positive, or relationship-promoting, one’s normative beliefs, the more committed one is to the
involvement (Etcheverry & Agnew, 2004).
Given the demonstrated utility of the investment model for explaining commitment in a
wide variety of relationships (Le & Agnew, 2003; Rusbult et al., 1998), we expected that the
model also would be useful for understanding commitment in age-gap partnerships. However,
given the substantial social disapproval age-gap partners report encountering (Lehmiller &
Agnew, 2006), we expected that normative beliefs (operationalized as what your family and
friends think you should do with regard to your relationship) may also play an important role in
determining commitment level in these partnerships.
In terms of predicting mean levels of the investment model variables, we posed two
competing hypotheses. From an evolutionary standpoint, because the direction of their age
discrepancy provides the most potential for reproductive benefit, woman-younger partners would
Age-Gap Romances 10
be the most committed to their partnerships and also have the highest satisfaction, highest
investments, and lowest perception of alternatives relative to both similarly-aged and woman-
older partners (Hypothesis 1a). Because reproduction plays a central role in evolutionary
reasoning, our sample purposively will be limited to women of potential reproductive age, which
we operationalized as being at or below the average age of menopause in the United States and
above age 18, the age of legal adulthood. Alternatively, from the socio-cultural perspective,
woman-older partners would be the most committed to their partnerships and also have the
highest satisfaction, highest investments, and lowest perception of alternatives relative to
similarly-aged and woman-younger partners (Hypothesis 1b). From this perspective, woman-
older partnerships might be more equal, might evidence romantic reactance, or might have only
begun under the most optimal conditions, all of which are factors that might be expected to
We expected that couples involved in age-gap relationships, regardless of the direction of
the age discrepancy, would be more likely to possess normative beliefs that are not supportive of
their partnerships than would similarly-aged partners, consistent with previous research
(Lehmiller & Agnew, 2006; Hypothesis 2). That is, age-gap partners would be more likely to
perceive that their family and friends think that they should discontinue their current
relationships. Finally, we predicted that normative beliefs would contribute significantly to the
prediction of commitment above and beyond the investment model’s specified bases among all
couple types, especially for age-gap partners (Hypothesis 3).
To recruit a large number of age-gap partners to test our hypotheses, we used the internet
to facilitate data collection. Recent research suggests that internet samples are similar in many
ways to samples obtained using more traditional methods (see Gosling, Vazire, Srivastava, &
Age-Gap Romances 11
John, 2004, for a review). Of importance, internet-based findings tend to be consistent with
findings obtained using more traditional methodologies, with the added benefit that internet
samples are often more diverse than college student samples on a number of important
demographic variables. Moreover, recent research suggests that internet samples are not plagued
by false responding any more than are samples obtained using traditional pencil-and-paper
methods (for an in-depth discussion of the positives and negatives of on-line research, see Kraut
et al., 2004).
The sample consisted of 194 heterosexual women currently involved in a romantic
relationship with a male partner of the same race. Participants involved in interracial
relationships were not included to ensure that any documented effects of partner age differences
were not confounded with partner racial or ethnic group differences. Additionally, to test our
evolution-based predictions, we retained only those women potentially of reproductive age.
Given that the average age of menopause onset in the United States is currently between 51 and
52 (Gold et al., 2001), we excluded all women over the age of 52. Although there was only
minor variability in terms of race (1% Asian-American, 3% African American, 93% Caucasian,
1% Hispanic American, and 2% other), the sample was diverse in other respects. There was
substantial variability in terms of age (M = 32.15 years, SD = 9.96; range = 18 to 52) and
relationship duration (M = 44.77 months, SD = 64.95 months; range = less than 1 month to 360
Of the 194 participants, 110 were involved in age-gap pairings, and 84 were involved in
similarly-aged pairings. We defined an age-gap relationship as a romantic involvement in which
Age-Gap Romances 12
there was a difference of greater than 10 years in age between the partners. We selected this
criterion because heterosexual women appear to regard 10 years as their maximum acceptable
relational age difference (i.e., 10 years appears to be a normative cut-off; Kenrick & Keefe,
1992). In contrast to the age-gap sample, our similarly-aged comparison sample included all
individuals whose partner age difference was 10 years or less. The average age difference for the
age-gap sample was therefore quite large (M = 22.38, SD = 7.03 for woman-older partners; M=
17.06, SD=3.90 for woman-younger partners) compared to the similarly-aged sample (M = 2.85
years, SD = 2.62). Given that the mean age difference between partners in heterosexual romantic
relationships has been estimated to be between 3 and 4 years (Kenrick et al., 1996), the similarly-
aged sample was considered to be representative of more traditional heterosexual romantic
involvements. Of those women in age-gap relationships, 54 were involved in woman-older
pairings; 56 were involved in woman-younger pairings. Our sample size was deemed adequate
for hypothesis testing based upon the results of a power analysis. Assuming power of .90, an
alpha of .05, and a large effect size (Cohen, 1988) such as that previously obtained for variables
in the investment model (Le & Agnew, 2003), our required sample size for a multiple regression
model using four predictor variables is 49 participants.
The three groups did not differ in the percentage of participants who were people of
color, χ2(2, N = 194) = 4.36, n.s. However, significant differences did emerge in terms of age,
F(2, 191) = 77.17, p < .001, and relationship duration, F(2, 186) = 14.22, p < .001. Specifically,
women-older partners reported being older (M = 42.15 years, SD = 5.25) than women-younger
partners (M = 24.59 years, SD = 6.31) and similarly-aged partners (M = 30.56 years, SD = 9.14).
Also, similarly-aged partners reported involvement in longer-term relationships (M = 72.01
months, SD = 87.92) than women-older (M = 23.94 months, SD = 20.46) and women-younger
Age-Gap Romances 13
partners (M = 24.73 months, SD = 29.70). Because of these differences in age and relationship
duration, we ran all analyses twice, once without any covariates and once controlling for both of
these variables. Neither age nor relationship duration was significant as a covariate in any of our
analyses. Moreover, controlling for these variables did not fundamentally alter the results of any
hypothesis tested. Consequently, the results presented below do not include these covariates, and
the effects of age and relationship duration are not discussed further.
Investment model constructs. A modified version of the Rusbult et al. (1998) Investment
Model Scale was used to assess the model’s constructs. We employed abridged versions of the
satisfaction (α = .89), alternatives (α = .75), investments (α = .82), and commitment subscales
(α = .96). To reduce respondent burden, these measures were shortened to three items each,
which is reduced from the original 5-item scales, for satisfaction, investments, and alternatives,
and four items for the commitment scale, which is reduced from the original 7-item scale. In
choosing which items to include from the Investment Model Scale, the item-total correlations
were averaged across three studies for each item in the satisfaction, alternatives, investments, and
commitment scales using data reported in Rusbult et al. (1998). Items with the highest item-total
averages were included in the present study. In addition, based on research by Arriaga and
Agnew (2001) on the dimensions underlying psychological commitment, we added a fifth
commitment item to directly tap intention to remain in a relationship.
For satisfaction, we administered the following items: “I feel satisfied with our
relationship,” “My relationship is much better than others’ relationships,” and “Our relationship
makes me very happy.” For alternatives, the following items were used: “My alternatives to our
relationship are close to ideal (dating another, spending time with friends or on my own, etc.),”
Age-Gap Romances 14
“My alternatives are attractive to me (dating another, spending time with friends or on my own,
etc.),” and “My needs for intimacy, companionship, etc. could easily be fulfilled in an alternative
relationship.” For investments, the items were: “I have put a great deal into our relationship that I
would lose if the relationship were to end,” “I feel very involved in our relationship -- like I have
put a great deal into it,” and “Compared to other people I know, I have invested a great deal in
my relationship with my partner.” For commitment, the items were “I am committed to
maintaining my relationship with my partner,” “I feel very attached to our relationship – very
strongly linked to my partner,” “I want our relationship to last forever,” “I am oriented toward
the long-term future of my relationship (for example, I imagine being with my partner several
years from now),” and “I intend to stay in this relationship.” All Investment Model sub-scale
items were rated on a 9-point scale ranging from 1 (do not agree at all) to 9 (agree completely).
For each subscale, scores for all of the relevant items were averaged to create composite
Normative beliefs. Participants also completed a measure of normative beliefs (r = .87, p
< .001). Two items were used to assess perceived social network beliefs concerning each
participant’s current romantic relationship: “Think about the people you care about, your family
and friends, etc. Do these people want you to continue your relationship? Would you say that
they…" and "Most people who are important to me think I should continue in this relationship."
Both items were rated on 7-point scales ranging from 1 (definitely don’t want you to continue
your relationship/strongly disagree) to 7 (definitely want you to continue your
relationship/strongly agree). These two items were averaged to create a composite measure of
Age-Gap Romances 15
Demographic measures. Participants completed several demographic questions regarding
themselves and their current partners, which included questions about own and partner age,
gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, and relationship duration. As noted above, participants
who did not identify as heterosexual (20 participants) as well as participants who indicated that
their race was different from their partners’ (48 participants) were excluded from the analyses.
Data were collected from participants over the internet. Links were posted to several
internet sites and on-line discussion boards likely to appeal to individuals involved in both age-
gap and similarly-aged romantic relationships. Specifically, we identified several sites with age-
gap clientele, that is, websites devoted exclusively to serving persons involved in age-gap
relationships, as well as a number of sites geared toward romantic relationships in general. Most
of the sites consisted of places where people could go to discuss any aspect of relationships. The
majority of these websites were identified via internet searches for the phrases “relationship
discussion boards” and “relationship forums.” The solicitation notice posted along with the link
to the questionnaire was general in nature and informed participants that we were “interested in
obtaining a better understanding of people’s close relationships” and that persons involved in any
type of romantic relationship were welcome to participate.
Upon entering the questionnaire website, participants were prompted to provide their
consent by means of a consent button. After providing consent, participants were presented with
the measures described above. Participants were free to skip any questions that they did not wish
to answer and also were told that they could stop participating at any time. Thus, the internet
survey was largely similar to a traditional paper-and-pencil survey. Upon completion of the
Age-Gap Romances 16
questionnaire, participants were directed to another web page that thanked them for their
Investment Model Variables
Testing the first set of hypotheses, analyses of variance revealed no significant
differences in perceived quality of alternatives, F(2, 174) = 0.70, n.s., or investments, F(2, 176)
= 1.00, n.s., when comparing the age-gap subtypes to the similarly-aged sample (see Table 1).
However, differences did emerge for satisfaction, F(2, 177) = 5.60, p < .01, and commitment,
F(2, 177) = 5.00, p < .01. Specifically, woman-older partners were significantly more satisfied
with and were more committed to their relationships than were similarly-aged partners (Tukey
post-hoc comparisons, p < .05). Women-younger partners did not differ significantly from
similarly-aged partners in relationship satisfaction or commitment, nor did the two age-gap
subtypes differ on these variables. Taken together, these results are more in line with and
supportive of the socio-cultural perspective (Hypothesis 1b) than the evolutionary perspective
Turning to the second hypothesis, an analysis of variance revealed some significant
differences in normative beliefs among the three types of partners, F(2, 189) = 15.98, p < .001.
Specifically, mean levels of normative beliefs were lower for both woman-older and woman-
younger partners relative to similarly-aged partners, although this difference was only significant
for woman-younger partners (Tukey post-hoc comparison, p < .05). Additionally, perceived
normative beliefs were less positive for woman-younger partners compared to woman-older
partners (Tukey post-hoc comparison, p < . 05). Thus, supporting Hypothesis 2, age-gap partners
Age-Gap Romances 17
tended to perceive less supportive normative beliefs than similarly-aged partners regardless of
the direction of the age-gap (see Table 1).
Predicting Commitment by Couple Type
To explore the third hypothesis, we examined the extent to which satisfaction,
investments, alternatives, and normative beliefs predicted commitment among both age-gap and
similarly-aged partners in a series of multiple regression analyses. We conducted these analyses
in two stages. In the first stage (Model 1), we included only the traditional investment model
variables (i.e., satisfaction, alternatives, and investments). In the second stage (Model 2), we
added normative beliefs to examine the extent to which this variable contributed to the prediction
of commitment above and beyond the investment model’s variables. Results of these analyses
are presented in Table 2.
Results from Model 1 revealed that satisfaction was a strong and significant predictor of
commitment for all partners. In contrast, alternatives did not significantly predict commitment
for any of the partners. Investments significantly predicted commitment only for woman-younger
partners. However, because the effect of satisfaction was so large for the similarly-aged sample,
it may have simply left little room for other variables (i.e., investments and alternatives) to
emerge as significant predictors in the regression analyses.
The results of Model 1 also indicated that satisfaction, alternatives, and investments, as a
block of variables, accounted for substantially differing degrees of variance in the prediction of
commitment across couple types. The investment model variables accounted for three-quarters of
the variance in commitment for the similarly-aged sample, which is in line with values obtained
in past research (Le & Agnew, 2003). However, the same variables accounted for only one-fifth
Age-Gap Romances 18
of the variance for woman-older partners and approximately one-half of the variance for woman-
In Model 2, we found that normative beliefs were a significant predictor of commitment
above and beyond the investment model’s specified bases for both woman-older partners and
similarly-aged partners. Normative beliefs did not significantly predict commitment for woman-
younger partners above and beyond the Investment Model variables. Therefore, Hypothesis 3
was only partially supported, given that normative beliefs were not a consistent predictor of
relationship commitment across all three types of couples.
As in Model 1, Model 2 also indicated differing degrees of variance accounted for in the
prediction of commitment across couple types. Once again, the model accounted for substantially
less variance for both woman-older partners and woman-younger partners compared to similarly-
In the preceding analyses, the age gap variable was categorical—the size of the partner
age difference was not represented. We wished to determine if the size of the age-gap matters
when it comes to relationship outcomes, because one might reasonably expect differences to
emerge when comparing, for instance, a 15-year to a 30-year age-gap. To explore this possibility,
we created a continuous age-gap variable that consisted of the absolute value of the age
difference between the partners involved. We then divided our participants into two new
groups—one for women who were at least 1 year older than their partner (n = 71), and one for
women who were at least 1 year younger than their partner (n = 109). There were 14 participants
whose age did not differ by at least 1 year from their partner (i.e., they had an age-gap of zero);
they were excluded from the following analyses. For each of the two subgroups, we correlated
Age-Gap Romances 19
the continuous age-gap variable with commitment, satisfaction, alternatives, investments, and
normative beliefs to uncover any potential linear trends associated with age-gap size.
These analyses revealed that for both woman-older and woman-younger partners, age-
gap size was not significantly correlated with any of the investment model variables (i.e.,
satisfaction, alternatives, investments, and commitment). These findings suggest that when it
comes to relationship outcomes, as measured by the investment model variables, it is the
presence of a significant (i.e., greater than 10-year) age-gap that is important, not the relative size
of the age-discrepancy. However, for both woman-older and women-younger partners, size of
the age-gap was negatively associated with normative beliefs, r (N = 71) = -.33, p < .01 and r (N
= 109) = -.49, p < .001, respectively. Thus, perceived support for one’s relationship appears to
decrease as the relative size of the partner age difference increases.
Our results suggest that the relationship experiences of heterosexual female age-gap
partners are different in a number of ways from those of women partners who are similarly aged.
First, supporting predictions derived from the socio-cultural perspective, woman-older partners
reported the highest levels of romantic satisfaction and commitment relative to woman-younger
and similarly-aged partners. Given that woman-older partners typically encounter the most
opposition to their relationships relative to the other relationship types under study (Banks &
Arnold, 2001; Cowan, 1984), this provides some support for the previously documented notion
that greater disapproval is associated with greater commitment (i.e., the “Romeo and Juliet”
effect; Driscoll et al., 1972). These results are consistent with other socio-cultural explanations as
well, such as the notion that woman-older partners may have greater equality in their
Age-Gap Romances 20
relationships and the possibility that woman-older partners only enter such relationships when
there is a favorable cost-to-benefit ratio.
Second, age-gap partners held normative beliefs that were less positive relative to
similarly-aged partners. This finding mirrors the results obtained in prior research examining
others’ perceptions of age-gap relationships (Banks & Arnold, 2001; Cowan, 1984). Such
findings might be expected to contribute to lower overall levels of relationship commitment and
satisfaction among age-gap partners, especially woman-older partners (who tend have greater
stigma associated with their relationships, perhaps because their partnerships do not offer as
many evolutionary advantages), yet we did not find any evidence to support this contention.
Third, our results suggest that the investment model may function differently by
relationship type. For instance, although we found that satisfaction was a significant predictor of
commitment among women in all of the relationship types examined, the strength of this
association was markedly higher among similarly-aged partners relative to age-gap partners.
Additionally, the amount of variance accounted for in the prediction of commitment by
satisfaction, alternatives, and investments, when considered simultaneously, varied substantially
across relationship types. The investment model’s specified bases accounted for the most
variance in commitment among similarly-aged partners and substantially less in the age-gap
subtypes. Such findings suggest that commitment may be fueled by factors in addition to those
specified by the investment model in heterosexual age-gap romantic relationships. We obtained
evidence in this study that normative beliefs significantly increase explained variance in
commitment among woman-older partners. However, among both types of age-gap partners, we
suspect that additional factors, such as social network support (which has been shown to
uniquely predict commitment above and beyond the Investment Model variable; Sprecher, 1988)
Age-Gap Romances 21
and/or perceptions of prejudice and/or discrimination toward the relationship, may contribute to
the prediction of commitment.
Broadly speaking, our results suggest that normative beliefs may be an important
additional predictor of romantic commitment, above and beyond satisfaction, alternatives, and
investments. For two of the three sub-samples in this study, the addition of normative beliefs
significantly increased the amount of variance accounted for beyond the investment model.
These findings are consistent with a growing body of research suggesting that perceptions of
what others think you should do when it comes to your relationship are an important factor
influencing romantic commitment (e.g., Etcheverry & Agnew, 2004; Lehmiller & Agnew, 2006,
It is interesting to note that of the investment model’s specified bases of commitment,
only satisfaction was a significant predictor across all relationship types. Given past
demonstration of the unique and additive effects of the investment model variables, it is curious
that alternatives and investments did not significantly predict commitment across relationship
types. Post hoc analyses revealed that when tested independently, these variables predicted
commitment for all relationship types, with the exception of woman-older partners, for whom
alternatives and investments were still non-significant. However, when tested together,
alternatives and investments did not contribute substantially beyond satisfaction. Thus, consistent
with meta-analytic findings (Le & Agnew, 2003) of the relative effects of each investment model
predictor variable, satisfaction appears to be the primary variable underlying commitment among
all of the relationship types examined in this study.
We also found some significant differences among the age-gap subtypes. For instance,
normative beliefs significantly predicted commitment for woman-older but not woman-younger
Age-Gap Romances 22
partners. One potential explanation for this is that woman-older partners tend to be the more
socially stigmatized age-gap partners from outsiders’ perspectives (e.g., Banks & Arnold, 2001),
and therefore, normative beliefs might play a stronger role in the prediction of commitment for
partners involved in this type of relationship. However, this explanation is tenuous, given our
surprising finding that, with respect to normative beliefs, woman-younger partners were the ones
who perceived the greatest opposition to their relationships.
Instead, we suggest the alternative possibility that normative beliefs have consequences
for commitment for both age-gap subtypes, via distinct mechanisms. Specifically, normative
beliefs may have a direct impact on commitment for woman-older partners as reported above,
while they may have an indirect effect for woman-younger partners. That is, the effect of
normative beliefs on commitment may be mediated by one of the investment model variables,
which would explain why it did not emerge as a unique predictor of commitment. Post hoc
analyses reveal support for this possibility. That is, for woman-younger partners, we found a
significant positive association between normative beliefs and satisfaction (r = .35, p < .05).
Further analyses revealed that satisfaction fully mediates the association between normative
beliefs and commitment for this couple type (Sobel z = 2.37, p < .05). In contrast, normative
beliefs were not associated with satisfaction for woman-older partners (r = .06, n.s.); thus,
satisfaction did not mediate the normative beliefs-commitment association among these partners.
Understanding the different reasons and ways that normative beliefs affect romantic commitment
across relationship types is an important direction for future research.
There are limitations to the current investigation, however. First, because our results are
correlational and data were gathered at only one point in time, we cannot make attributions of
causality. Further, although our data appear to fit the socio-cultural perspective better than the
Age-Gap Romances 23
evolutionary perspective, we do not know the exact factors that explain differences between the
relationship groups. It could be that the higher satisfaction and commitment evidenced by
woman-older partners is a reaction to perceived opposition to their relationships However, the
findings could also be due to other factors, such as greater equality or egalitarianism in the
relationship or self-selection—perhaps only those woman who found extraordinary relationships
with younger men stayed with them. Future research concerning age-gap relationships should
address these possibilities.
In addition, the current sample composition did not allow us to compare men in age-gap
relationships to men in non-age-gap relationships. Thus, an important direction for future
research is to examine effects of relational age gaps with data obtained from men. In addition, we
had very few participants who were in relationships that could be characterized as both
interracial and age gap. Future research should examine whether persons in such relationships
are more similar to age-gap couples or interracial couples, and further, whether any disapproval
they encounter is more a product of partner racial differences, partner age differences, or a
unique combination of these salient distinctions. Finally, this study did not address the issue of
why people appear to so strongly disapprove of age-gap couples. Future research should attend
to the question of why people feel so negatively about even small age gaps in others’
relationships (as few as five years; Banks & Arnold, 2001), especially in light of the fact that
people actually seem to prefer and be open to at least some age gap in their own relationships (up
to ten years for women, and even more for some men; Buss, 1989; Kenrick & Keefe, 1992;
Kenrick et al., 1996).
Nonetheless, there are a number of strengths to the present study. First, this study
involved use of a large age-gap sample. Second, our sample was diverse enough to allow us to
Age-Gap Romances 24
examine effects due to the direction of the age-gap. Thus, we could compare woman-older
partners to woman-younger partners on important relationship variables, a comparison not
reported in the extant literature. Lastly, this study provides an important contribution to the small
literature on age-differences in romantic relationships because there are few that focus on
relational processes in age-gap partners.
Age-gap couples are an intriguing and understudied relationship type. Women age-gap
partners appear to differ from women in similarly-aged relationships in important ways, from
perceptions of normative beliefs regarding their romances to the factors that significantly predict
level of romantic commitment. Importantly, the direction of the age gap appears to make a
difference as well. Although much still remains unknown about the women and men in these
relationships, the present study brings us one step closer to bridging the knowledge gap.
Age-Gap Romances 25
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Means of Study Variables by Couple Type
(N = 54)
(N = 56)
(N = 84)
Note. Differing subscripts indicate significant differences of p < .05 or less across each row.
Values in parentheses are standard errors. All items were rated on 9-point scales, except
normative beliefs items, which were rated on a 7-point scale. Higher scores reflect stronger
levels of the construct measured.
Age-Gap Romances 30
Regression Results Predicting Commitment Level by Couple Type
Note. All values except R2 represent standardized beta weights.
*p < .05. **p < .01.