Mind the Gap: Should a Significant Age Gap Be a Cause for Worry?


Frances Robertson, Feature Writer

If you spend time online, you’ve probably heard about the relationship between singer Billie Eilish and Jesse Rutherford. The internet really doesn’t know what to think about it, and it seems that everyone has a different take on whether these two should be together or not. But what makes this seemingly average celebrity romance so controversial-the 11 years between them.

Age gap relationships aren’t that uncommon, but they are still far from being normalized in this day and age. The topic ignites a range of emotions and opinions from the public, with most of these couples experiencing social disapproval from at least one friend or family member during their relationship. Some don’t go farther than seeing it as something to frown upon, while others are appalled at the thought of a 10 year age difference between partners. On the other end of the spectrum of judgment, these relationships are also seen to be glamorized, particularly in social media.

In 2014, the average age difference in American heterosexual relationships was 2.3 years, and in 64% of cases, the man was older. 8% of this male-female study showed couples with a 10 or more years difference. Though not much of this research has been done on homosexual relationships, in the studies that have been done, we see more large age gaps than in heterosexual relationships.

In other nations, these numbers fluctuate largely. It’s proven (study link) that more developed countries have closer age gaps, with Japan and Ireland taking the cake for the closest average, having only about one year. On the opposite end, the country of Gambia in sub-Saharan Africa , has an average marriage age gap of 14.5 years. These less developed countries are seen to be less progressive, usually meaning a societal lean towards patriarchal norms. This means not only a more traditional government and political climate, but also a more traditional household – usually meaning more marriages between older men and (likely substantially) younger women.

This is where concerns of power imbalance comes into play. Being much younger than your partner, earning less money or being less educated, can create a dynamic of inherent inequality in a relationship. This can lead to the partner that holds the “power” taking advantage of the other’s dependence or naivety in order to abuse that control physically, mentally or sexually. When there is a commitment in which one person is in a very different chapter of their life, someone usually feels the need to stoop down or stand on their tippy toes to compensate. Power imbalances can happen in relationships of any kind, but data shows that those with large age gaps are more at risk to this phenomenon. In a study by the University of Virginia, it was found that wider age gaps were associated with more frequent emotional and physical victimization and higher odds of unwanted sexual behavior. 

Additionally, the younger partner often has less relationship and dating experience than the older partner. This can deepen the power imbalance between the two when they might be less able to communicate their standards and needs, and end up letting their values slip in order to lessen conflict. 

Age gap relationships generally go unnoticed in the public eye, except when it’s a celebrity. Singer-songwriter Taylor Swift was only 19 when she started dating 32-year-old John Mayer, and again, only 20 years old when she had a short-lived relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal, who was 29.

Swift is known for her break up anthems and hinting at these past relationships in her songs, but not many of them carry as much warning about age gaps as her song “All Too Well “(Taylor’s Version) (Ten Minute Version). Though not confirmed, the song is widely recognized as a nod to the conflicts she faced being with Gyllenhaal. Though the original version of the song released in 2012 is still as impactful as ever, the newer ten minute version adds explicit references to the couple’s age difference. Taylor sings, “You said if we had been closer in age maybe it would’ve been fine, and that made me want to die.” In November 2021, she directed and released a short film to go along with the song, notably casting a 19-year-old Sadie Sink and 30-year-old Dylan O’Brien.

The film shows the progression of Sink and O’Brien’s toxic relationship. In one scene, the couple is spending dinner with a group of his friends and Sink slips her hand through O’Brien’s to hold. He sets her hand back on the table, giving it a belittling pat before pulling away. After dinner, when Sink brings up how dismissive he had been throughout the night, how he had rejected any of her acts of public affection while remaining as charming as ever to his friends, he calls her account “ridiculous,” “crazy” and “insane.” The scene closes, lingering on Sadie’s tear stained face pressed against O’Brien’s shoulder in a confused, defeated “make-up” embrace.

Though this moment represents very real dynamics off screen, it’s important to keep in mind that not all age gap relationships are built on manipulation and abuse of power. For instance, it’s hard to make judgments on Billie Eilish’s current relationship with Rutherford, because no one is sure what really is happening behind closed doors. But when does it become our business? Is it in the third world countries, where the age gap average is reinforcing a society built on traditional, patriarchal ideals? Or should we simply keep our judgments to ourselves?