Should love be based on a formula?
Age is but a number in much the same way that money is just paper—which is to say, there’s no “just” about it. The numeral that corresponds with your age—and for that matter, your net worth—matters. And while romantic age gaps are by no means a relationship death sentence, the quantity of years for which you’ve lived on the planet is, indeed, a meaningful marker. And it’s worth some contemplation.
Playfully titled “May-December Relationships,” cross-decade or cross-generational couples have been around since time immemorial. And in truth, so long as you’re keeping things legal and consenting, the age gap feels no larger a gulf to cross than any other matter of disequilibrium a couple might face—be it physical distance, countries, or cities of origin, religious differences, the list goes on. That said, there are of course plenty of complications that come along with dating someone who may be in a different life stage than you are. So how do you go about navigating differences in age with tact? And in that vein, how young is too young? And how old is too old?! Well there are a few theories. Namely: “half your age plus seven.”
You’ve likely seen this rule touted any number of places. Attributed to French author Max O’Rell in his 1901 “romantic guidebook” with the wildly unsexy title, Her Royal Highness Woman and His Majesty Cupid, the mathematical formula was O’Rell’s unofficial law re: romantic age gaps. According to his calculations, a bride’s ideal age was half the groom’s age plus seven years.
Now, the gender dynamic undertones here are unsettling—and the age gap applies to plenty of couples who are not contemplating marriage at the moment—but throughout the years, the notion has morphed from an assessment of “ideal age” to one of “socially acceptable minimum age.” The idea is, no matter your gender identity, you’d best not date someone younger than half your age plus seven.
To be clear, there’s no mathematical foundation here. Sure, when you think about “social acceptability,” the numbers seem fairly sound. If you’re 40, your partner ought to be at least 27. If you’re 27, your partner ought to be at least 21. It all stacks up vaguely—but due to the utter lack of scientific merit, you need not think of this as a rule to live by.
Better yet, it’s certainly wise to approach this particular mandate with a grain of salt. There’s a grand and terrible tradition that says men favor younger women—thus marking older women undesirable. And while we’ve certainly moved beyond such blatant stock biases, it’s important to be wary of the ways hypothetical rules like O’Rell’s perpetuate unhealthy patterns. In fact, in 2010, dating platform OkCupid even released data revealing that men were, indeed, roughly loyal to the rule when it came to the lowest partner age they might consider (except for men in their mid-30s, who seemed particularly taken with women in their early 20s).
All the same, we’ve got plenty of examples of cross-generational love to reference (think: Amal and George Clooney, Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas, the list goes on). Psychologists and relationship experts merely suggest that, when engaging in relationships across age disparities, both parties are forthcoming about what they want, what they feel ready for, and where they see themselves in the future.