Cougar Town: Reversing the Trend
I have always dated (and married) older men, starting when I was just 18 and became involved with a man two years my senior. We dated for nearly six years, and then I went on to twice marry men 10 years older than I. While I’m not alone in preferring the company of older men (some women marry partners twice their age), the opposite end of this spectrum is gaining even more momentum: older women with younger men.
The Cougar-Cub Phenomenon
As relationship conventions have loosened, including those concerning race, religion, and economic status, female baby boomers, sociologists say, are faced with the tightest “marriage squeeze.” This refers to the smallest pool of compatible men as conventionally defined – two to three years older, of similar background and higher levels of education and income. The reason for this is pretty simple: as career-driven women have delayed marriage, men have retained a tendency to date and marry younger females who want families first, careers second.
It’s safe to wonder, though, if cougar-cub relationships are satisfying. In 2006, Sandra L. Caron and Nichole R. Proulx studied eight couples in which the wives were at least a decade older than their husbands. While this is admittedly a small sample, the women in the study confessed to certain insecurities about aging. The couples also felt stigmatized by others, especially the wives – and those judgments may even impact a woman’s morality. Because younger husbands defy social norms, those couples could be viewed as outsiders and receive less social support. In the end, this could lead to less joy, more stress, and, ultimately, reduced health.
Judgment aside, marriages in which the wife is older are more likely to be troubled, according to some research. When the husband is just five years younger, divorce is three times more likely than that of same-age couples. Researchers aren’t sure why, but it may have to do with the findings that emerged from the 2006 Caron-Proulx study: insecurity and lack of social support.
Other research, however, suggests just the opposite. A study published in 2008 in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly found that women 10 or more years older than their partners report being more satisfied and committed to their relationships than women who are the same age or younger than their partners. This could be because the power dynamic in those relationships is more equitable, or because only the most solid partners pursue age gap romances given the stigma.
Still, despite the Miss Cougar contests, cougar cruises, and cougar how-to dating books, older women seem to be dating or hooking up with younger men rather than actually marrying them. This is most likely because the women are divorced and not interested in saying “I do” all over again. An analysis of census data on age difference in marriage confirms this: the number of marriages between women who are at least 5 or 10 years older than their spouses is still small, 5.4 percent and 1.3 percent, respectively. But both rates doubled between 1960 and 2007, reflecting a solid change, if not a major shift, in marriage patterns.
At the same time, the data showed the percentage of marriages of older men and younger women decreased steadily through 1980, and since then has remained stable.
Basis of Attraction
It’s interesting to note that older women and younger men are attracted to each other on a number of levels. In some cases, that attraction is mostly sexual, but an older woman’s confidence, success, and experience also play big roles. Similarly, a young man’s carefree spontaneity and physical stamina can charm a woman in her 40s or 50s. But don’t expect cougars to stop there; some women date younger men well into their 70s, thus proving age really is nothing more than a number.