There was big news last week when 51-year-old actor Doug Hutchison, a former star of television’s Lost, married 16-year-old Courtney Alexis Stodden, an aspiring country music artist. In case math isn’t your strong suit, that’s a 35 year age difference. And yes, you did read that correctly: she’s only 16.
Now, an older man going for a younger woman is nothing new and probably not all that surprising (Hugh Hefner anyone?). In fact, if you look at heterosexual married couples around the world, census data consistently show that the men tend to be, on average, a few years older than their female partners.1 However, they are usually at least from the same generation. Although they occur with greater frequency in other parts of the world, age differences of a couple of decades tend to be pretty uncommon in Western society.
What makes this particular case especially interesting is that the younger partner here is only 16 and, as such, just barely meets the age of sexual consent in her home state of Nevada. Had she been raised just one state to the West in California, she would not meet the age of consent for another two years. As a result, their relationship has raised red flags to a lot of people because a relationship like this might be subject to prosecution (for statutory rape) in a lot of other parts of the U.S.
So can a relationship with such a young partner and a large age disparity work? In general, research shows that people tend to disapprove of large age-gaps between partners and such disapproval tends to have negative effects on a relationship. Specifically, the more disapproval people feel with respect to their romance (especially from their family and friends), the more inclined they are to break up.2 However, in this case, Stodden’s parents are very supportive of the relationship and actually signed off on the marriage (a 16-year-old cannot legally marry in Nevada without parental consent). Thus, if nothing else, they seem to have that going for them.
However, recent research has found that women who lose their virginity early in adolescence are more prone to subsequent divorce.3 This makes it difficult to predict what might happen in this case, but if the popular media has anything to say about it, we will most assuredly find out.
1Lehmiller, J. J., & Agnew, C. R. (2010). May-December paradoxes: An exploration of age-gap relationships in Western society. In W. R. Cupach & B. H. Spitzberg (Eds.), The Dark Side of Close Relationships II (pp. 39-61). New York, NY: Routledge.
2Lehmiller, J. J., & Agnew, C. R. (2007). Perceived marginalization and the prediction of romantic relationship stability. Journal of Marriage and Family, 69, 1036-1049.
3Paik, A. (2011). Adolescent sexuality and the risk of marital dissolution. Journal of Marriage and Family, 73, 472-485.
Dr. Justin Lehmiller - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Lehmiller's research program focuses on how secrecy and stigmatization impact relationship quality and physical and psychological health. He also conducts research on commitment, sexuality, and safer-sex practices.