It is common for younger women to marry older men. The reverse is comparatively rare. When we hear of a younger man marrying an older woman it seems a bit weird. What are the reasons that younger women and older men often marry?
This is a really interesting topic. Hang on . . .
Male and Female Reactions to Propositions
A really interesting experiment about gender differences in reaction to unsolicited proposals crystallizes the different perspective that men and women have regarding sex. In the experiments research assistants approached students of the opposite sex at Florida State University and propositioned them with one of three questions:
(1) how about a date?
(2) how about we go to my apartment?
(3) how about we go to bed together?
How did males vs. females react?
The date question was responded to the same by the men and the women with both agreeing to a date with about a 50% frequency.
As for going back to propositioner’s apartment only 6% of the women agreed while 69% of the males were game.
The out-and-out sex proposition of “going to bed together” resulted in ZERO women accepting but a whopping 75% of the males agreeing. What’s fascinating is that more men were willing to have sex with a stranger than agreed to a date with a stranger (75% vs. 50%). Wow.
How the men and women responded to the questions is illuminating. From the study:
In general, the female experimenters reported that men were at ease with the request. They would say “Why do we have to wait until tonight?” or “I cannot tonight, but tomorrow would be fine.” The men that said “No” even gave apologies, i.e., “I’m married” or “I’m going with someone.” In contrast, the women’s response to the intimate requests from males was “You’ve got to be kidding,” or “What is wrong with you? Leave me alone.”
Why this large disparity between male and female reactions to sexual propositions? It’s not explainable by sex drive as studies have found that women have an equal sex drive to men (depending on cultural expectations).
Follow up experiments have found various factors at play, but the main explanation relates to the fact that men engage in sexual competition while women engage in sexual selection; women must be very choosy about their potential mates. It comes down to the “efficient allocation of limited resources that have alternative uses. Sperm, which are tiny and plentiful, are virtually unlimited, whereas eggs, which are large and scarce, are exceedingly limited; thus, women far more than men need to be concerned about allocation efficiency.” Source. More on this below – this concept is key for why younger women marry older men.
What Do Women Find as High Mate Value Attributes in Men?
From an evolutionary perspective, each gender wants partners of high “mate value” meaning partners with whom they can produce more viable children so they can pass on their genes.
For women, in the pre-modern era, a high value mate meant a man with the ability and desire to:
(a) provide for a woman and her children,
(b) protect a woman and her children and
(c) to engage in direct parenting activities. Source.
Studies have found these high value mate characteristics lead to females valuing social status, financial prospects, dominance signaling and potential parenting involvement. Thus, females tend to prefer their potential mates to have resources more than physical attractiveness. A leading study summarized it as follows:
“Among mammals, females -who invest more time and energy in offspring – tend to show stronger preferences in mating partners. They should choose males who are ready and able to expend effort in helping to raise offspring, and therefore, they prefer mates that possess valuable resources that could be transformed into reproductive advantage through the increased number of surviving offspring.” Source.
This preference has been found to biological rather than cultural as female preference for financial prospects and status in a mate over physical attractiveness held true across a study of 37 cultures. Source.
The female mate selection strategy is effective. Studies have found that women who mate with higher status males have higher numbers of surviving offspring than their counterparts who marry lower status males. Source.
A fascinating statistic is that “in the United States the men whom women actually choose to marry make 50% more money, on average, than men of the same age whom they do not choose to marry.” Source.
All of this, of course, points to why females tend to prefer older mates as age is often correlated with income. A younger male may have potential, but an older male will have proven his earning capacity, work ethic and status.
Note that society has greatly changed in the post-industrial era. Women are no longer dependent on a mate who can provide for them financially or protect them. Two points on this: (1) evolutionary wired behavior from prior eras doesn’t change rapidly and thus still underlie behaviors, (2) the fact that females have scarcer reproductive resources remains and affects mate selection.
What Do Men Desire in a Mate?
At the opposite end of the spectrum, males, with their lesser investment in the birthing and raising of children, tend to prefer signals of fertility. In other words, they want to have as many healthy children as possible and this means choosing a healthy, fertile mate. Many of the subconscious cues of fertility are found in what males find to be attractive. Additionally, youth is positively correlated with fertility. See related IFOD on gender preferences for face vs. body attractiveness.
Like the female mate selection strategy, the male strategy of focusing on younger and attractive mates also has shown a survival advantage. From a leading study:
“Although cultural variations exist with respect to standards of beauty, various studies, including cross-cultural ones, have shown that males, more than females, placed great importance in prospective mates on young age and traits such as ‘good looking’, ‘attractiveness’, etc. . These preferences have proved to be adaptive in terms of the number of surviving children in both pre-industrial and industrial societies.” Source.
As they age, males prefer ever younger partners: the older the male at the age he marries, the greater the age gap between he and his mate. Source.
Men don’t just look for attractiveness and youth. An additional characteristic men desire is loyalty signalling. As males cannot be sure of their parentage of their mate’s children, males value loyalty to help ensure they are expending resources to raise their own offspring.
Why is it common for older men to marry younger women? It is what each gender has been wired by evolution to seek in order to maximize reproductive success. Women have scarce reproductive resources and must be choosy about their mates. They desire mates with the resources and ability to assist in the costly and difficult job of raising children. Men, on the other hand, desire to “spread their seed” and want to do so successfully. As such, males seek mates with appearances that signal fertility and a young age is positively correlated with fertility.
Related IFOD: Why Do Attractive Couples Have More Daughters?
In biology, this tradeoff is often discussed by citing the size of and energy it takes to create reproductive cells for men and women. Sperm are approximately 40x smaller than ovum and produced more readily via meiosis throughout a male life while ovum are much larger and are only created during gestation. In being small and plentiful, men invest little energy and resources in sperm whereas women put considerably more energy into creating ova and therefore must be more selective/productive.
Biology aside, I want to add one layer of cultural commentary to this discussion. While I don’t know any statistics/studies off the top of my head, I believe it is worth noting that women typically experience more sexual violence and often at the hands of men. From a young age as a girl you learn to say no to entering compromising/vulnerable situations with random people, especially men, for fear of your safety. And finally, just based off conversations with male and female friends, sex is often bad or worse for women when hooking up with random people. Which connects to a larger discussion about how female sexuality and pleasure is deprioritized in our society.
That’s a great point – on violence – and one of the factors that was posited in studies for why women didn’t accept the unsolicited sex offers.