How do you deal with age differences

He's 42, she's 38. So an absolutely average couple - at least when it comes to the age difference. According to a nationwide study in Germany, this is four years. According to the Federal Statistical Office, the age difference for married couples in 2012 was 3.9 years, slightly lower than that of cohabiting couples with 4.5 years. In almost every second couple, there is only one to three years between a man and a woman. In every tenth partnership, both are the same age.

The scissors widen with age: "The probability that you will meet a partner of the same age at the age of 20 is even greater than at the age of 40," says sociology professor Thomas Klein from the University of Heidelberg. This fact is less subject to any preferences or norms, but rather to a "law of availability". The older you are, the more difficult it becomes to find partners of the same age - simply because they are then taken more often.

An extreme age difference is still the exception, only in six percent of the couples is one of the two more than ten years older. The excitement around couples like Franz and Michelle M√ľntefering (age difference: 40 years), Joschka Fischer and Minu Barati (28 years) or Sky and Mirja du Mont (29 years) is correspondingly great. Although the media report on unequal couples, there is often someone among friends or family who has a much younger partner. Still, many people feel irritated by it. "The courage to experiment with a large age difference and move outside the norm is low," says sociologist Ursula Richter. "Even if there would then be more options, especially for women."

Old man, young woman was standard

The "old man, young woman" model was the rule 100 years ago. There are historical reasons that it was able to last for so long: "It wasn't that long ago that the standard question from the potential father-in-law was: 'Can you feed my daughter too?'" Explains couple therapist David Wilchfort. Today the questions in such a case are more like: "What does the young thing want with the old geezer, does she have a father complex?" or "What does the old man find in someone who could be his daughter, is he afraid of adult women?" If we wonder about M√ľntefering, Fischer and Co., it is sometimes because their relationship patterns seem to have fallen out of time. Because these women are economically independent - and still bind themselves to a provider or a father figure.

The fact that the sight of two people with a serious age difference irritates us so much is mainly due to the fact that it violates a norm. "Today we think: Who we love and how we love would be completely free of social rules. Romeo and Juliet still had problems - today everyone is apparently allowed to talk to everyone," says Stephanie Bethmann, sociologist at the University of Freiburg. In a study, the scientist examined how social rules still control the choice of partner to this day. The result: "Even without strict parents or churches, we dutifully marry someone who suits us socially."

A much older partner doesn't fit into this picture at first. "As a rule, large age differences mean a new relationship after a divorce or after the death of a spouse," explains couple therapist Wilchfort. The known friend looks so different with the new, young partner than before. It's a little like strangers. So it is the special, the extraordinary that moves people because it attracts attention. "Basically, everything provokes that differs greatly from the general expectation and deviates from the norm.

The norms are constantly changing

Except that these norms change over time: 50 years ago, homosexuality was considered a disease in public opinion. Today the sexual orientation of a person is irrelevant for most of them in terms of their professional competence, relationship skills or social position. In the 19th century, people got angry when a nobleman married a commoner. Today the public has to cope with the fact that an Italian head of government is in public with an underage prostitute.

That doesn't mean that nothing goes against the grain anymore. "The level of excitement doesn't change - just the content," says Wilchfort. "With every social development we become more ambitious, we want to make it even more positive. The more developed and more equal we are, the more liberal we want to be."

It was the same with emancipation. "In the fifties it was normal for a man to forbid his wife to work. In 1977, when Johanna von Koczian sang 'Das Little Household', people were already aware of the irony inherent in the text," says Wilchfort. Today one can no longer understand the whole subject because one has long since passed it. And it doesn't stop there. "More and more women can feed a man," says Wilchfort. Now it could well happen that she comes home and asks him: "What have you been doing all day?"

Taboo: Older woman loves young man

More and more women are therefore living a relationship that would have been unthinkable in the past: They love a younger man. This form of relationship is still unusual. While the man is older than his partner in almost three out of four partnerships, the woman is older in only 17 percent of the couples. A taboo that is very reluctantly overtaken by the reality of life. Despite increasing social acceptance, some people turn up their noses when women claim rights that men have always claimed for themselves. "Women have become more demanding and are committed to finding a young or younger male body more attractive than an old one," explains scientist and author Ursula Richter. "The fact is, however, that women are not really allowed to make that choice, even if the role of women has changed significantly from what it used to be."

Her specialist colleague Bethmann confirms this impression: "The sight of an older woman with a younger man or a tall woman with a smaller partner at her side is an unforgivable breach of taboo," says the sociologist. "Such couples downright shake the order of our society. Because they make it clear that not all women are smaller, weaker and more childlike than all men."

Such a completely unusual couple are the British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and her husband Andreas Kronthaler. The two are far removed from the nationwide average age difference. Kronthaler is not four years older than his wife - but four years younger than their son. The two have been married for more than 20 years. Singer Nena and her partner Phillip Palm, who is twelve years her junior, have also been together since the mid-1990s.

Couples therapist Wilchfort believes that it is only a matter of time before a relationship between an older woman and a young man is no longer an excitement. "If your girlfriend comes along with a younger boy, you will of course notice. You might even be surprised," says Wilchfort. "The difference is: a few years ago you would not have found out because she would have kept it a secret. In a few years we won't even think about whether someone is older or younger."