After spending chapters describing in intimate detail the everyday habits of the hostages and terrorists, Patchett ended the novel as though she was running out of pages, suddenly killing off characters we had gotten to know slowly and personally. What most surprised me was not the deaths, however. When I read that Gen and Roxanne had just gotten married in the epilogue, I had a total “WTF?” moment and instantly suspected they were both attending someone else’s wedding and Patchett was trying to trick us, but sadly no. For me, their marriage cheapened the relationships in the novel because it made it seem like Hosokawa and Carmen were replaceable, and I couldn’t help but question the validity of Gen and Roxanne’s quick turnaround after the loss of their supposed soul mates. In some ways, it adds to one of the core themes of the novel that love transcends class, age, and country of origin because Gen and Roxanne come from very different backgrounds and are at different places in their lives as they are at least 10 years apart in age. Because of their age difference, I began to wonder about the dynamics of attraction and marriage among couples with significant age differences. What is considered a socially acceptable age difference in modern society, and how did these norms develop? Do standards differ based on the genders of the individuals involved? How likely are relationships with large age differences to last?
It has been generally accepted among social psychologists that heterosexual women prefer men who are older than themselves and vice versa for heterosexual men, attributing the trend to the economic situation created by traditional gender roles in which the man is the dominant breadwinner. Females tend to value a man’s financial security over their youthfulness or level of attractiveness, while males tend to place higher preference on a woman’s youthfulness and vitality (Kenrick and Keefe). As gender roles have evolved and more women have attained economic independence, we would expect this trend to change, yet it continues to exist unaltered. Furthermore, this tendency has been observed in a wide variety of cultures with varying gender dynamics including Brazilians, Morrocans, Africans, Dutch, and isolated island populations (Buunk). According to Kenrick and Keefe, this suggests that there may be an evolutionary reason for the trend rooted in the differing reproductive strategies of the sexes. Their study found that while women of all ages were most attracted to men of about the same age, only young men were most attracted to women close to their age. In contrast, older men were far more likely to be attracted to much younger women, typically in their peak levels of fertility. In another part of the study, the authors analyzed advertisements for relationships in magazines that are typically read by the upper-class, such as The New York Review of Books and Washingtonian that included a desired age range and the age of the advertiser, looking specifically at ads in which the advertiser indicated they were wealthy or worked in an upper-class profession. The results were very similar to those found in people of average wealth, except for the observation that both wealthy men and women desired an overall lower minimum age, perhaps suggesting they felt their wealth could “earn” them a more youthful, attractive partner (Kenrick and Keefe).
A later study sought to provide more context for Kenrick and Keefe’s findings by exploring how men’s and women’s preferences about age changed with the level of commitment of the relationship. Buunk et al. conducted a survey of 70 men and 67 women ranging from age 20 to 60 in which they asked participants to rate a minimum and maximum age they would consider in five different levels of involvement ranging from sexual fantasy to marriage. The researchers found that women preferred men who were around their same age regardless of the level of commitment, and there was no evidence of the “cougar effect,” older women being attracted to men much younger than themselves, even in just sexual fantasies. Men, on the other hand, showed more variation based on the level of commitment and were attracted to women who were in their most fertile years, the twenties and early thirties, in the context of sexual fantasies and casual sex. When considering long-term mates for a marriage or serious relationship, men were more likely to choose a woman that while still younger than themselves, was much closer to their own age than in a more casual relationship. It is also worth noting that young men in their early twenties expressed attraction to women who were up to 10 years older than themselves (Buunk et al.)
After researching the attraction aspect of relationships with large age differences, I was interested to find out if age difference affects the success rate of a relationship. A recent study by researchers at Emory University compiled data from more than 3,000 couples and found that even just a one-year difference in age raises a couple’s chances of divorce by 3 percent. A five-year difference raises the rate 18 percent, a ten-year difference 29 percent, and a twenty-year difference 95 percent. The authors attributed the higher rate of divorce among couples with large age differences to the dissimilarities in “life experience and cultural reference points” that typically bond couples that come from the same generation (Frances and Mialon).
While the issue of age differences in relationships has previously been thought to have been directly associated with gender roles and domestic economic situations, recent research has demonstrated that the issue is much more complicated. It appears that our social norms on age in romantic relationships have developed as a result of evolutionary patterns in which males seek females who are in the height of their reproductive years and women seek men of about their same age with whom they can build a lasting relationship. As the Emory study showed, deviating from the norms of age difference can have drastic effects on the longevity and success of a marriage. Unfortunately, this does not bode well for Gen and Roxanne with their large age gap, but perhaps their shared experience in the vice president’s home will be enough to allow their relationship to last.
Buunk, Bram P. et al. “Age Preferences for Mates as Related to Gender, Own Age, and Involvement Level.” Evolution and Human Behavior 22.4 (2001): 241–250. ScienceDirect. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
Francis, Andrew M., and Hugo M. Mialon. “A Diamond Is Forever” and Other Fairy Tales: The Relationship between Wedding Expenses and Marriage Duration. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network, 2014. papers.ssrn.com. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
Kenrick, Douglas T., and Richard C. Keefe. “Age Preferences in Mates Reflect Sex Differences in Human Reproductive Strategies.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 15.01 (1992): 75–91. Cambridge Journals Online. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.