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He's Younger, She's Older -- Can This Marriage Last?

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ASHTON KUTCHER DEMI MOORE
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It isn't all that surprising that Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher's marriage appears to be in trouble. When they married Sept. 24, 2005 -- Demi was 42 and Ashton was 27 -- few thought it would last. Sure, at 48 Demi looks fantastic and, yes, Ashton has become a good stepdad to Demi's three kids, but many may have wondered if, sooner or later, their age difference might become an issue.

While their 15-year age gap probably has nothing to do with Ashton's alleged infidelity -- you're either a cheater or you're not -- the odds may have been stacked against them from the beginning. That's because marriages in which the woman is much older than her husband often lead to divorce.

Not to say that they're not happy for a while -- certainly Demi and Ashton have appeared to be, as well as the eight couples in a 2006 study by Sandra L. Caron and Nichole R. Proulx in which the wives were a decade or more older than their husbands (an admittedly small sample).

Still, the women in the study admitted to a certain insecurity about aging, which is just never going to be a good thing in a relationship. Plus, the couples felt stigmatized by others, especially the wives -- and those judgments may even impact a woman's mortality. "Couples with younger husbands violate social norms and thus suffer from social sanctions," says Sven Drefahl of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research. "Since marrying a younger husband deviates from what is regarded as normal, these couples could be regarded as outsiders and receive less social support. This could result in a less joyful and more stressful life, reduced health, and finally, increased mortality."

Yes, but if she could just not worry about what everyone else was thinking, she'd at least have a huge smile on her face when she kicks off.

Judgment aside, marriages in which the wife is older than her husband are more likely to be troubled -- and the age difference doesn't have to be all that big. In fact, couples in which the wife is just five years older are three times more likely to divorce than couples of the same age. Researchers don't say why, but perhaps it's for the reasons researchers Caron, a professor of family relations and human sexuality at the University of Maine, and Proulx, a marriage and family therapist, of the 2006 study discovered -- society just isn't ready to accept December-May marriages as easily as it does May-December marriages. Maybe we just can't shake the image of Mrs. Robinson out of our mind, or maybe it's because there just aren't that many of them. Just 5.4 percent of wives are five years older than their hubbies, and only 1.3 percent are 10 years older, but those numbers are rising; in fact they doubled between 1960 and 2007. Still, despite all the Miss Cougar contests, cougar cruises and cougar how-to dating books, more older women seem to be dating or hooking up with younger men than actually marrying them -- most likely because the women are divorced and aren't too interested in saying "I do" all over again.

Although men still skew much younger when looking for love online, most of us tend to marry someone close to our own age. That doesn't mean we haven't seen our share of high-profile couplings where the men are much older than their wives -- like Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who have 25 years between them, and Newt and Callista Gingrich, with 23 years between them -- though it still isn't all that common. And some research suggests having a much older husband isn't so bad; those marriages don't seem to divorce that much.

Some studies say if a wife is five or more years younger than her hubby, they're much more likely to avoid divorce. Others say she needs to be four to six years younger. According to a Canadian study, "Divorce rates are lowest when the husband is two to ten years older than the wife or when the magnitude of their age difference is extremely large." And still others say a man should marry a woman about 15 years younger -- at least if he wants to make sure his kids survive. All of which should make boomer and senior men very happy indeed.

But perhaps not boomer women who are looking for love. A Stanford study confirms what they already know: The older a man is when he marries after age 40, the greater the likelihood his wife will be a lot younger -- whether he's rich and educated or not. Men in their 40s tend to marry women about seven years younger, men in their 50s marry women 11 years younger, and men in their 60s marry women 13 years younger.

Still, the optimistic outlook for May-December marriages may be masking the mortality issue; who knows how many might have ended in divorce if hubby hadn't died first, notes a 2005 government study of United Kingdom marriages since 1963. Death is a sure way to avoid divorce.

Although more research is called for, a preliminary finding of that same U.K. study may offer a ray of hope -- there doesn't appear to be any strong association between age differences and the probability of divorce.

So, the next time Hugh Hefner gets engaged to a 20-something or Buzz Aldrin dates someone 30 years his junior, perhaps we should encourage them; chances are, their marriages won't end in divorce. And, even if Demi and Ashton don't make it, we shouldn't give up hope on December-May marriages, either; if Hugh Jackman, 42, and his 55-year-old wife, Deborra-Lee Furness, can last for 15 years -- happily, one presumes -- so can the rest of us.