You've seen the memes: Actor Leonardo DiCaprio doesn't date anyone older than 25. As he has gotten older—he's soon to be 48—his girlfriends have stayed the same age, and the age gap has grown bigger and bigger.
While Leo's questionable dating habits might be fun to joke about, underneath all of the memes is a current of collective disgust with his pattern.
"While Leo's Law has sparked a lot of jokes, it's not actually that funny to watch a middle-aged man refuse to date anyone old enough to rent a car without paying an underage driver's fee," wrote Arwa Mahdawi for the Guardian. "It's just a bit gross."
A writer for Glamour questioned: "Is there some classic misogyny at play, that the older women get, the less attractive they are deemed, and therefore traded in for 'younger models'? Or is it more sinister misogyny? Are these young women better partners for grown adult men because they don't yet know their worth and are easier to dominate?"
For most outsiders, the wider the age gap, the more uncomfortable we feel.
"We are opposed to it simply because we don't understand it," said Amber Lee, a matchmaker at Select Date Society in Richmond, Virginia. "When things don't make sense to us, we dismiss them as wrong. Most people could never imagine dating someone over a decade younger or older, so they are dismissive of such relationships."
And with a significant gap in age can come a corresponding gap in experience and power. But just because we can't imagine doing it ourselves, or we imagine the relationship is imbalanced, does that mean every relationship with an age gap is fundamentally wrong? Why do some people fall into patterns of dating people who are much older or much younger? And why do we have such a strong reaction as outsiders?
Age gaps in relationships are complicated
When we see someone like DiCaprio dating yet another 20-something model, our initial reaction is a dramatic eye roll. Surely, this couple doesn't have much in common, you might think. So you assume the attraction is all surface level.
Author and relatability expert Rachel DeAlto, from New Jersey, explained that we are often right to assume relationships with significant age gaps won't last.
"Long-term compatibility is connected to shared values, and if an age gap creates a disconnect in priorities, it can cause challenges," she said.
Lee agreed: "It is often said that with age comes wisdom, and it's true. Life experience can shape your view of situations. This may lead to arguments in the relationship over issues like money, sex and communication styles. The older partner may feel like they are better equipped with conflict resolution skills and may get frustrated with their partner's lack of these skills."
Of course, when this dynamic emerges in a relationship due to an age gap, a power imbalance can occur. The older partner may feel like they know best and begin to make all of the decisions, while the younger partner may become submissive to their suggestions.
Age gaps can also present more practical compatibility issues.
"A real concern that often comes up in age-gap relationships is the issue of children," Lee said. "If one partner already has kids—typically, the man—and they are closer to their partner's age than their own age, it can be awkward. Real conflict arises if the younger partner desires to have children and the older partner is not capable of having kids or simply doesn't want more children."
When a pattern emerges, take a closer look
A relationship with a significant age gap can often lead to other gaps, such as gaps in values, future plans, common references and power. For this reason, most people avoid getting into them in the first place. According to a 2010 review of age-gap relationships in Western countries, only 8 percent of male-female couples have an age gap of 10 years or more. Only 1 percent of heterosexual couples in the United States have an age difference of 28 years or more.
However, for some people (Leo, we're looking at you), a pattern can develop. If age-gap relationships are so difficult, why do some people keep falling into them?
"Men often hold on to their youth through their partner," Lee said. "Being with someone young and beautiful takes the sting out when they look in the mirror and see their own aged reflection."
Plus, she added, there is a cultural tendency for men to fetishize younger women.
"Certainly, attraction can play a large role," DeAlto noted.
People who constantly date younger people might not think they are attracted to older people simply because they haven't tried it.
"People often think they have a 'type' because of their pattern, but that is like saying you don't like a particular food when you've never tried it," DeAlto said.
Can age gaps in relationships ever work?
Of course, not every age-gap relationship is doomed or imbalanced. According to Lee, power imbalances and conflicts can be more common in age-gap relationships, but with the right approach, it's very possible to have a healthy relationship. This approach includes each partner having the ability to embrace candor, humility and humor, she said.
"There will be times when you will need to have very direct conversations with each other," Lee said. "The ability to laugh at yourself and laugh together will help pull you through."
DeAlto added that the most important part of making an age-gap relationship work is going in with the understanding that differences are inevitable.
"Empathy and patience are essential," she said. "Both partners need to be open to understanding the differences in perspective and willing to work through them."
We may never fully understand why DiCaprio keeps dating younger women. Nor will we ever understand the true nature of his relationships. However, it does seem that he has fallen into a cycle of valuing physical attraction over deeper connections.
At the end of the day, it's safe to say many age-gap relationships are, well, a bit creepy, especially if they involve an abuse of power. So unless you're able to approach your relationship with openness, humor and an understanding of your differences, it may be best to treat frequent, repeated age-gap dating as a red flag.