More younger men date and marry older women than we realize. We remember famous Hollywood pairings like Demi Moore and her 16-years-younger husband Aston Kutcher. But many other couples have an even more significant age gap.
French President Emmanuel Macron is married to a woman 24 years his senior, who was a teacher at his high school. They met when he was 15. Although they were not romantically involved until they were both adults, the public scrutiny Emmanuel and Brigitte have experienced over the years is a sign of the times. And they are not alone.
Yet despite potential stereotyping and stigma, age-gap relationships between younger men and older women continue to survive, and thrive. Research explains why.
Why Younger Men Prefer Older Women
Today.com dedicated a piece to the expressed reasons younger men love older women.[i] The men who were interviewed shared numerous reasons older women made great partners, including the fact that they are self-assured, self-confident, and sharp conversationalists who are not just focused on starting a family.
Some conveyed that the attention of an older woman boosted their own level of confidence and self-esteem. Others recognized that older women have more life experience, emotionally stability, grounding, and can offer both honesty and different perspectives.
One man who prefers to date older women describes some of the experiences he had during his “young woman trial period” as including “trying to have meaningful conversation over blaring music at a dance club.” His more serious complaints about dating young women included having to deal with immature behavior and head games.
How Old Is Too Old?
Research by Gloria Cowan (1984) found that relationships in which the woman was older were perceived as less likely to be successful as compared with relationships without an age gap.[ii] Cowan examined the perception of age-discrepant relationships as evaluated by both adult and adolescent samples, both of which rated relationships where women were much older (18-year difference) as least likely to be successful.
When the age gap was less severe, however, so was the judgment. Cowan found that both adult and adolescent males, in contrast to females, did not hold a double standard when judging couples with only a 7-year age difference.
Where is the sweet spot? The man in the Today.com piece who experimented with the “young woman trial period” explained that dating a woman only 5 years older than himself was insufficient to create the “emotional maturity and depth” he was searching for. He preferred women who were a full decade older, explaining they were more self-assured and well rounded, sharing that “Younger women just don’t allow me to grow in the ways older women do.”
“Chasing the Cougar”
Having established that many men prefer older women, how do these relationships develop? Resisting the “cougar” stereotype of older women wearing leopard print, drinking martinis, and ogling younger men, many women share their real stories of how younger men focused on and pursued them.
Researcher Milaine Alarie, in a piece entitled “They’re the Ones Chasing the Cougar” (2019) found that contrary to stereotype, very few women considered themselves “seductresses,” pursuing younger men who were “passively waiting to be courted.”[iii]
Using data from 55 interviews with women from 30 to 60 years old who date younger men, she found that women were more likely to have played a passive role in forming the relationship when they were over 40 than in their 30s. Alaire suggests that within the context of women-older dating, the ability or desire to “renegotiate the gendered script” that applies to forming relationships is tempered by cultural beliefs.
True Love Is Timeless
Brian Collisson and Luciana Ponce De Leon (2018), exploring sources of prejudice towards age-gap relationships, recognize that evolutionary theory holds that younger women should prefer slightly older men and vice versa, in order to maximize reproductive fitness and attainment of resources.[iv] They note that atypical relationships of larger age gaps, particularly when the woman is older, are perceived to violate these established mate preferences.
But in reality, it appears that some men choose to date older women partially because there is more of a sense of relational equality. Such pairings are more common than most people believe, and more successful as well.
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[ii]Cowan, Gloria. “The Double Standard in Age-discrepant Relationships.” Sex Roles 11.1 (1984): 17-23.
[iii]Milaine, Alaire. ““They’re the Ones Chasing the Cougar”: Relationship Formation in the Context of Age-Hypogamous Intimate Relationships.” Gender & Society 33, no. 3 (2019): 463-85.
[iv]Collisson, Brian. & De Leon, Luciana Ponce. Curr Psychol (2018), https://doi-org.libproxy.sdsu.edu/10.1007/s12144-018-9895-6.