Let’s Talk About Age Gaps
Today, the age difference in romantic couples is between 2-3 years, with men mostly older and women younger. In the United States, a disparity of 1-7 years is the norm and seen as “socially acceptable.” With rapidly changing media and cultural mores, anything nearing a decade is almost an entire generation’s worth of difference.
Romance novels love to play around with age gaps. One of the most common themes in these books is a significant age difference between the hero and heroine. It’s not unusual to see heroes more mature than the heroines by at least a decade. The range can be as much as 15, 20, 25, or even 30 years!
There’s a popular trend in modern romances for “daddy” kink, where the men are more than 20 years older, and the heroines are in their late teens or early twenties. I don’t find my cup of tea, but everyone has their preferences.
As for women, unless it’s a “cougar” romance, the heroines are rarely older than their heroes by many years. Usually, the age deviation is less than a decade. Even a contrast of a couple of years is seen as a “big deal.”
Sweet Savage Flame believes that love has no age limitation in romances, so long as we’re talking about post-adolescent, mature pairings.
Let’s look at some romances that have employed the age-gap trope.
Older Men and Younger Women
While there are still category romances that utilize the older man-younger woman trope, it’s not common to see men in their late thirties or even forties with girls in their late teens or early twenties as in the 1970s and 1980s. Now, it’s a heroine in her twenties and a hero a decade or so older.
The age dissimilarity is more palatable when it’s in a historical setting. Bertrice Small and Rebecca Brandewyne often paired teenage heroines with men in their twenties or beyond. Sometimes the heroines were as young as 16 or 15 (these were medievals). Such romances are The Innocent by Small and Love Cherish Me by Brandewyne.
It may seem strange to our modern mindsets, but the concept of being a “teenager” didn’t exist for much of history. A woman was either viewed as a child, a fertile woman of marriageable age, or “past her childbearing years,” to put it kindly.
The age of maturity differed from time and place. In some eras, like the Middle Ages, girls could wed as soon as they menstruated. In other times, like the Golden Age of the Netherlands, 21 was more age-appropriate.
Few young males could afford a home and family in the past, so women were paired with more established, thus older, men.
Roselynde and This Other Eden
For the first book in her “Roselynde Chronicles,” Roselynde, Roberta Gellis paired the teenage main character, Alinor, with a man 30 years her senior. They only have a few happy years together before he passes away.
Alinor would find love again with a man closer to her age in the sequel, Alinor.
In Marilyn Harris’ This Other Eden, the hero is in his early 40’s, while the heroine is only 16. This epic romance features one of the most sinister heroes ever.
The heroine is publicly whipped for not coming to his bed. Then he cons her into a phony marriage, which will cost lasting damage for generations to come.
It’s a rare historical romance where the main characters are the same age. Here are a few more books we’ve reviewed where the hero is at least a decade older than the heroine:
Some “older man-younger woman” contemporary romances we’ve reviewed include:
Guardian & Ward Trope
The guardian and ward trope is a subgenre of the Older Man/Younger Woman pairing. When done well, it can be pretty entertaining. If not, it can come off as icky.
Charlotte Lamb‘s Forbidden Fire features a stepbrother and stepsister pairing, which straddles that fine line. The hero is much older than the heroine, and the cover makes the heroine looks creepily younger with her hair innocently pulled back in a hair tie.
Anne Mather took the older-man-younger-woman pairing and mashed it with the guardian-ward trope in Moonwitch.
In Teresa Mediero’s Lady of Conquest, Gelina Ó Monaghan is an adolescent, taken in by the much older Conn of the Hundred battles as his ward. Gelina develops a crush on Conn, who is at least 15 years her senior.
When Gelina grows to womanhood at around 19, Conn starts to look at her in a different light. Traditionally, it was not unknown for a man to marry his ward. Conn & Gelina do wed, but their marriage is acrimonious at first due to mistrust on both sides.
Younger Men and Older Women
While it’s now more socially acceptable for women to be paired with younger partners, it’s not nearly as common as the opposite is. It’s often hard to find in older romances, although the trope exists if you know where to search.
Harlequin Presents author Anne Mather used this plot device quite a bit. She’d usually add another factor, such as having the hero and heroine know each other years prior. In those cases, the hero harbored a crush on the heroine in his youth. Such examples are the novels Snowfire, Stolen Summer, and Sinful Pleasures.
Fans of Darth Vader know his love life followed this trajectory. 9-year-old Anakin Skywalker fell hard for the older Padmé Amidala, 14, in the Star Wars Prequel, “The Phantom Menace.”
Ten years later, the pair met up when Anakin was 19 and she was 24, and they fell in love.
In the third film, when Anakin was 22 and she was 27, the difference was only noticeable in that Anakin was still an impulsive youth, and Padmé more patient and rational with age.
“Attack of the Clones,” and “Revenge of the Sith”; Lucasfilm
Often women feel insecure about being with younger men, even if the age difference is just a few years. This is lamentable, as most men have no qualms about settling down with a younger partner.
It’s more common in contemporary romances to find age differences of this type than in historicals for obvious reasons.
2000’s Suddenly You by Lisa Kleypas had the plump and virginal heroine Amanda decide on a whim to hire a male prostitute for her 30th birthday. A case of mistaken identity results, leading to romantic antics. Amanda finds love with Jack Devlin, the 25-year-old man who showed up at her doorstep (but is no gigolo).
In Roberta Gellis’s Knight’s Honor, the heroine hesitates to marry the hero because she is a few years older than him.
Lovers of Diana Gabaldon’s time-traveling romance Outlander know that Jamie Frasier is younger than his beloved Claire, even if he was born centuries before her.
Pamela Morsi has employed the older woman-younger man trope a few times in Wild Oats, Courting Miss Hattie, and Simple Jess.
We’ve also seen the heroine of Deana James’ Texas Tempest happily paired off with MacPherson, a man five years her junior.
In Suzanne Forster’s Silhouette Desire, Undercover Angel, a thirty-something artist finds her muse and life partner with a man who’s only 26. Daphne Clair’s Take Hold of Tomorrow and Lass Small’s Marry Me Not are other old-school contemporaries that match mature women with younger men.
Some “older woman-younger man” contemporary books we’ve reviewed include:
How do you feel about significant age disparities in romance? Do you enjoy them one way or another, or do you prefer your heroes and heroines to be close in age? Do the main characters’ ages not bother you, so long as the love story is believable?
Please, drop a comment, and let’s talk romance.
Great post. I don’t care much about an age gap per se but I despise large power/experience differentials which are usually unavoidable when there’s a large gap. No surprise then that adult man/teenage girl pairings are my most loathed trope especially of the guardian/ward type.
I agree with your point that the yuck factor (for me) is less in historicals but still anything later than Victorian era and I don’t like it. In vintage category romances? Where the reader is supposed to take as given that the hero is a paragon of sophisticated masculinity and yet the only woman that he’s capable of handling/loving is a teenager? It just makes him seem pathetic.
Thank you for writing this post.
I’m not a huge fan of books where there is a sizeable age gap between hero and heroine. If it’s less than double digits, I’m okay with it; more than 10 years, it feels a little creepy to me.
I like the older woman-younger man trope, perhaps for personal reasons, as the last two relationships I’ve had have been with older women. They’ve been the best relationships I’ve had.
What -great post ( not to be that guy, but you may want to double check the heading before you talk about older women and younger men).
As for my opinion , age gaps aren’t my favorite, but they don’t really bother me, unless the heroine is teen. I do appreciate a good younger man-older woman pairing purely for the novelty ( add virgin hero an I’m sold !) .
Hi there Kes!
Hope you’re up to a good start today, wherever you are!
Oh boy, double face palm for me overlooking that older man/woman-younger woman/man goof. That’s what I get for editing an article immediately after writing then scheduling to post it two weeks later without a recheck!
Thank you for being my extra pair of eyes!
Cheers to you,
Re the article, I don’t mind age differences in either direction. I’m not too fond of 30 year differences though.
Plus, some of the older books had very young heroines which could make reading them uncomfortable. It’s no big deal if she’s in her 20s with a 40 year old, but when she’s 16… yikes!
Thanks, Jacqueline. Another fine article!
I’m no fan of significant age gaps. I much prefer romances in which the protags are close in age.
If the age gap is wide enough to matter, it implies coercion. Or one partner is exploiting the other, or both are. Not my idea of romance.
But having said that, I must add that age is far from the most important factor when I pick or evaluate a romance. Often I don’t even notice it. Or the author doesn’t specify the main characters’ ages. That’s fine by me.
BTW, in one of my Facebook groups for romance readers, I participated in a recent discussion about the subject of your article. I said pretty much what I said here. One commenter informed me that according to statistics, a marriage has a better chance of lasting if the spouses are close in age. If the age gap is more than seven years, the divorce rate goes up significantly.
I don’t know where these stats come from. But I’m sure they’re somewhere on the Internet, and would turn up in a search.
And I believe them!