Courtney Thornton read through the comments to her Twitter post with growing unease. She’d shared a photo of herself with her husband, along with a loving message: “God, I have the best husband.”
Recently, the internet had reacted to one of her husband’s posts. In it, he shared a smiling picture of himself with Courtney, not too different from the photo she’d shared.
Let me say that my friends, our friends—the ones who truly had our best interest at heart—showed nothing but support.
In the hours and days that followed, Courtney was overwhelmed. She received dozens of insults, threats, and backhanded compliments. There were supportive messages, too, but even the positive comments seemed tinged with concern. Some were downright offensive.
Suddenly, Courtney found herself defending her relationship to complete strangers.
It wasn’t the content of her message that drew the ire of Twitter; Courtney certainly isn’t the first millenial to brag about her relationship on social media. It was the fact that her husband isn’t, well, a millennial.
Courtney was 25. Her husband, Vann, was 50.
God, I have the best husband. pic.twitter.com/J2YCR7Xgkl
— Courtney Thornton (@courtlyb) August 18, 2016
Like all good modern controversies, this one came with a hashtag. Vann and Courtney frequently post pictures together on Twitter, and at the end of one of the posts, Vann threw in a quick tag to clear up any confusion: #husbandnotdad.
It was meant as a semi-sarcastic quip, but soon, it was spreading across Twitter, and people were asking questions.
Did Courtney have “daddy issues?” Was she a “gold digger?” Was there something wrong with her? Was Vann simply taking advantage of her?
Age-gap relationships may seem unhealthy because they’re relatively unusual.
According to the 2017 U.S. Current Population Survey, most married couples have a much smaller age difference. In 33.9 percent of marriages, the husband and wife are within a year of each other in age; in about 19.6 percent marriages, the husband is 2-3 years older than the wife. Marriages like the Thorntons’, where the husband is 20-plus years older than the wife, make up only 1 percent of all tied knots.
“With large age gaps, it’s more common that the man is significantly older than the woman, rather than the other way around,” says Gery Karantzas, PhD, associate professor and director of the Science of Adult Relationships laboratory at Deakin University in Australia.
— Courtney Thornton (@courtlyb) January 26, 2018
“But let’s temper that fact with something else: By and large, most people in serious relationships tend to partner up with people who are roughly their own age,” he tells FashionBeans. “I think that’s why we pay attention to it when we see it, because it’s not the norm. That’s the way our minds are designed; we pick up on things that go against our expectations or our own experiences.”
When we see relationships that seem unorthodox, we automatically assume that they’re unhealthy. We assume that one person isn’t in the relationship for the right reasons—particularly when the older person is a man.
In case you’re wondering why we want to make a channel to address people’s questions: this is why. If you tune in, you’ll see that we’re really pretty normal. ♀ pic.twitter.com/wgQqPKAsyk
— Courtney Thornton (@courtlyb) January 5, 2018
The media’s portrayal of age-gap romances sure don’t help. When an older man dates a younger woman, he’s often seen as a playboy (thanks, Hugh Hefner), while the woman is assumed to have either an ulterior motive or poor judgment. Television shows like Mad Men, Friends, and How I Met Your Mother portray age-gap romances as untenable.
In Mad Men, Bert Cooper summarizes cultural attitudes towards age-gap romances by warning office manager Joan Holloway to stay away from her much older boss.
“Don’t waste your youth on age,” Cooper suggests.
That hints towards the bizarre, paradoxical social stigmas both genders face when engaging in these types of relationships. Women who date up, as we said, must be looking to fill a void of some kind. And men must not love their younger partners, since they’re “taking” something from them—the opportunity to find love from someone in a similar age group.
It’s worth noting that, with other factors removed, both men and women seem to prefer younger partners.
A study published in the Journal of Population Economics found that both men and women reported greater marital satisfaction when paired with a younger spouse.
To all the girls stressing about failing your finals and dropping GPA’s…. Find a man like mine. ‘ pic.twitter.com/1P5MFs7gTC
— Courtney Thornton (@courtlyb) November 30, 2016
“We find that men who are married to younger wives are the most satisfied, and men who are married to older wives are the least satisfied,” said Terra McKinnish, one of the study’s co-authors, in a piece published on Phys.org. “Women are also particularly dissatisfied when they’re married to older husbands and particularly satisfied if they’re married to younger husbands.”
What do they want as a couple? What are their dreams? What are their goals?
Karantzas says that overall satisfaction might be lower due to social stigmas. After all, it’s harder to have a healthy relationship when everyone in society treats you as an outsider (hence the birth of the #husbandnotdad hashtag).
“There’s no solid scientific evidence to suggest that people with larger age gaps have shorter relationships,” he says. “They do face a social stigma, and lifestyle differences play into the health of their relationships. But the challenges that come up as a part of an age gap—that’s not the age gap ending the relationship, per se.”
— Courtney Thornton (@courtlyb) November 30, 2016
He contends that the same types of issues affect every relationship. In mixed-age relationships, each person brings a very different set of life experiences, which could mean that they start their relationship at slight disadvantage as compared to same-age couples. With that said, they’re not setting themselves up for failure.
“As long as it works for the couple, it’s okay,” Karantzas says. “Age gaps aren’t the issue here, it’s how the couple works towards sorting out their future. …What do they want as a couple? What are their dreams? What are their goals?”
Scientific research also draws upon averages, which don’t reflect the reality of a one-on-one relationship.
Twitter users brought up the “life goals” discussion to Courtney, who quickly shut them down.
“Team #nokids,” she wrote in response to a tweet questioning whether she was taking a “huge risk” by having children with Vann.
Another Twitter user offered a more sarcastic take after reading some of the music preferences listed on the Thornton’s profile pages.
“I don’t think it’s the age difference,” the user wrote, “it’s the fact that he apparently makes her listen to Train. Yikes.”
“Plot twist: I make him listen to Train,” Courtney responded.
The Thorntons seem to have similar perspectives, expectations, and hobbies. Per their tweets, Vann watches Courtney play video games, writes music with her, and seems to genuinely love their time together. In other words, their relationship goals are in line.
Mixed-age couples also face a social stigma, which can be particularly intense when close friends and family question the relationship. Even when two people are perfectly in sync, that type of familial pressure can be unrelenting.
However, that wasn’t much of an issue for Vann and Courtney. While Courtney’s parents initially had concerns, she says that they welcomed her husband after meeting him. Vann’s families immediately accepted Courtney. The couple’s friends were equally supportive—for the most part.
“Let me say that my friends, our friends—the ones who truly had our best interest at heart—showed nothing but support,” Courtney wrote in a piece for Odyssey. “Those people were my rock when I felt beat down or discouraged. The poisonous comments and remarks only ever came from the ‘friends’ who prioritized keeping up appearances. Let me tell you a secret. People who only check in when they need an inside scoop on something are not your true friends.”
Your happiness doesn’t have to be validated by social media ‘likes’ or nods of approval.
A major disparity in age can certainly affect a relationship, and even when a couple shares the same types of goals, the social stigma inevitably creeps in. Just ask Courtney and Vann—they’ve had to continue defending their relationship on social media, but they haven’t shied away from the challenge.
Both continue to occasionally tweet with the #husbandnotdad hashtag; Courtney (as of this writing) has a picture of herself with her husband pinned to the top of her Twitter page. Vann’s pinned tweet flips an old stereotype.
“In our relationship, I’m the gold digger,” he writes. “She’s gold and I dig her.”
Meanwhile, both continue to receive critical comments when posting about each other, and every few months, a viral #husbandnotdad tweet seems to push them back into the spotlight. Courtney’s current profile description even makes a reference to the phenomenon:
“Wifey. Sports fanatic. War Eagle! Gluten enthusiast…But you probably know me as the #husbandnotdad girl.”
She still makes my heart stand still. pic.twitter.com/7R2fn3TWZ5
— Vann Thornton (@kneelknurd) January 30, 2018
When the negative comments pop up, she frequently fires with humor, while Vann fights back with positivity.
“I ask myself the same questions you do,” he wrote in a recent post. “‘What’s she doing with him? ‘Does she know how old he is?’ ‘What’s she gonna do when he gets too old?’ She adores me and I don’t know why. But I love her. #husbandnotdad.”
— Vann Thornton (@kneelknurd) February 20, 2017
They’re clearly not embarrassed about their relationship—nor should they be. It seems to work well for them, and frankly, it’s none of our business. There’s certainly no reason to storm their Twitter pages with accusations and insults.
“Don’t be swayed by the opinions of others and don’t be discouraged by their disproval [sic],” Courtney wrote. “Your happiness doesn’t have to be validated by social media ‘likes’ or nods of approval.”
Relationships don’t always look normal, and they don’t always vibe with the statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau. They’re not always predictable, and they’re not always easy. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth fighting for.