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The case for

Age gaps

Kitty Spencer and Michael Lewis tie the knot. kitty.spencer/Instagram

Kitty Spencer, 30, raised eyebrows last week when she married fashion tycoon Michael Lewis. At 62, he’s more than twice her age, and five years older than her dad, Earl Spencer, the brother of Diana, Princess of Wales.

What’s the big deal?
The natural assumption about women who marry much older men, says Lucy Cavendish in the Telegraph, is that they have “daddy issues”. It’s a classic trope: the ingenue with the absent father (Kitty grew up in South Africa with her mum), looking for the loving and caring influence of an older man. True or not, there’s always a certain amount of unwanted attention – “the gossip, the innuendo, the jealousy, the strange looks when people work out the man you’re with is “not your father but your lover”.

Is there an ideal age gap?
One widely cited rule is that a man should marry a woman “half his age, plus seven”. The first recorded instance is in Max O’Rell’s 1901 book Her Royal Highness Woman and His Majesty Cupid. “Try it at whatever age you like,” says the author, “and you will find it works very well.” His credibility is arguably dented a paragraph later, when he sternly advises male readers: “Never marry a woman richer than you, or one taller than you, or one older than you.”

How common are big age gaps?
In western countries, 8% of marriages have an age gap of 10 years or more. In 99% of those couples, the man is the older partner. The reason for this, say boffins, is that for millennia sexual attraction has been a matter of “reproductive fitness”. A woman equipped to produce plenty of milk, say, should attract an older man who has hunted and gathered a large stockpile of resources.

Do these relationships make people happy?
Husbands with younger wives report high levels of “marital satisfaction”, particularly in the early years of marriage. The same goes for women who marry much younger men. Unfortunately, this doesn’t last long. Within a decade any initial bonus has worn off, say researchers, and such couples then experience larger declines in satisfaction.

Do the marriages last?
Often not, says Megan Garber in The Atlantic. Couples five years apart are 18% more likely to split up than a pair the same age, while a 10-year gap means divorce is 39% more likely. “Marriage is, above all, about 50-50 partnership.” One snag is that differences in age also mean differences in life experience and cultural reference points. “Generations may be an invention, but they are meaningful nonetheless.” If you want marriage to last, it’s probably best to marry someone your own age, says Garber. That said, “statistics are not destiny” – plenty of people in relationships with enormous age gaps are perfectly happy.

At 76, Rod Stewart is 26 years older than his wife of 14 years, Penny Lancaster. Leonardo DiCaprio, 46, has never gone out with a woman older than 25, and seems perfectly happy about it. Apparently employing a similar system, Hugh Hefner married his third and final wife, Crystal, when she was 26. He was 86. Donald Trump is 24 years older than his wife, Melania, but only takes the bronze medal for White House age gaps. John Tyler was 30 years older than his bride and Grover Cleveland 28 years older than his wife, Frances, the daughter of his former business partner. When the partner died, it was assumed that Cleveland would unite the families by marrying the widow. He had other ideas. When Frank Sinatra married Mia Farrow, 29 years his junior, Jackie Mason joked that Sinatra was asked to leave a bar because Farrow’s rattle made too much noise. In revenge, mafia mobsters broke Mason’s nose.

What about older women?
Demi Moore, 58, has made a habit of dating men decades younger than her: she had an eight-year marriage to Ashton Kutcher, 15 years her junior. Hugh Jackman is 13 years younger than Deborra-Lee Furness. They’ve been happily married since 1996. And Emmanuel Macron’s wife since 2007, Brigitte, is 25 years his senior. They met when he was a 15-year-old schoolboy and she was his 40-year-old, married, mother-of-three teacher. When young Manu told his mum about it, she assumed he had taken a shine to Brigitte’s teenage daughter.

Is there a record age gap?
It’s impossible to say for sure, but one serious contender must be Ahmed Muhamed Dore, a 112-year-old Somali man who in 2009 married 17-year-old Safia Abdulleh. “Today God helped me realise my dream,” said Dore, whose oldest son was 80 at the time. “I didn’t force her, but used my experience to convince her of my love; and then we agreed to marry.”

😈 🤦‍♀️ In 2001 a team of Dutch social psychologists examined what ages people considered appropriate for five different levels of relationship: marriage, serious relationship, falling in love, casual sex and sexual fantasies. They found that women’s preferences were consistent over time: throughout their lives they tended to prefer men who were around their own age, even in fantasy land. For men, however, the difference between their own age and what they considered an acceptable minimum increased as they got older. Men’s acceptable minimum was especially low when the level of involvement was lowest – in casual sex and sexual fantasies.