As you may have noticed, some of Hollywood’s leading ladies have taken younger lovers and husbands in recent years. Although most people still think about the recently-dissolved Demi and Ashton (separated in age by 16 years) as the epitome of older women-younger man relationships, there are actually numerous other examples. Susan Sarandon (33 years older than her partner), Mariah Carey (+11 years), Jennifer Lopez (+18 years), Katie Couric (+17 years), and Madonna (+30ish years) are all currently involved with younger guys (click here for a few additional examples). The public and popular press alike have been fascinated by these so-called “cougar” relationships, considering them worthy of front page news. However, if you’re anything like me, you probably can’t help but wonder why these relationships are such a big deal.
This question is especially interesting when you think of the last time an older man dating a younger woman made news in Hollywood or anywhere else. It’s difficult to think of an example because we have almost come to expect rich old men to end up with pretty young women, and we see examples of this all the time. Michael Douglas (+25 years), Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek (+24 years), Larry King (+26 years), and Hugh Hefner (+60 years) are just a few of the many men who are currently involved with much younger wives or lady friends. So why is it notable when a woman is the older partner, but not when a man is? Part of it probably stems from the fact that we’re simply used to seeing men as the older partners in heterosexual romances. For instance, United States census data indicate that 7.2% of heterosexual married couples feature a man who is more than ten years older than his wife; in contrast, only 1.3% of marriages feature a woman who is more than ten years older than her husband.1 Thus, it is certainly more novel and a violation of our social expectations to see the latter.
Another explanation may reside in evolutionary theory. Evolutionary psychologists have argued that men and women have developed tendencies to look for different things in their sexual and romantic partners in order to enhance their reproductive success. Specifically, the logic is that men tend to be drawn to younger women because youth is a sign of likely fertility, while women are drawn to older men because these guys are likely to have the resources necessary to help support any potential offspring produced. A lot of research supports the idea that men prefer younger partners while women prefer older partners (although I should note that most people express a preference for relatively small age differences, in the range of +/- 3 years).2 In light of this, it may just be the case that any relationship that runs contrary to our evolved tendencies and desires stands out.
Yet one additional possibility may be that we continue to live in a society where a sexual double standard exists. In other words, society tends to judge women more harshly than men for engaging in the same behaviors. For instance, consider how older women are labeled “cougars,” a term that evokes an almost predatory image.3 I know older guys are sometimes referred to as “cradle robbers,” but this term is not used nearly as often, and when a man calls another man a cradle robber, he usually smiles and gives him a pat on the back at the same time. Along these same lines, the double standard even applies to the younger partners in age-gap relationships. A younger woman who lands an older man is often called a “gold-digger,” a label that implies she is trading her body to the highest bidder.3 In contrast, a younger guy who lands a rich and sexy older woman is just called “lucky.”
Regardless of the reason, the truth of the matter is that the relationships and sex lives of older women shouldn’t be any more interesting to the average person than anyone else’s love life.
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2Kenrick, D. T., & Keefe, R. C. (1992). Age preferences in mates reflect sex differences in human reproductive strategies. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 15, 75–133.
3Lehmiller, 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.
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.