- People are more disapproving of age-gap relationships featuring an older woman than an older man.
- Despite the double standard, older women dating younger men are more satisfied than other women.
- When a woman is older than her male partner, this may shift power dynamics toward greater equality.
- Older women may also feel more empowered to get what they want in their relationships, sexually and otherwise.
Relationships in which an older woman has a significantly younger male partner have attracted much media attention over the years. For example, remember what big news it was when Demi Moore married Ashton Kutcher, who happened to be 15 years younger than her? Or perhaps you recall the international media obsession surrounding the relationship between French president Emmanuel Macron and his spouse Brigitte, who happens to be 24 years his senior?
Or, more recently, maybe you've heard the chatter about the television series MILF Manor, the entire premise of which is a group of 40- and 50-something women taking part in a reality dating show with younger male contestants? (Although to be fair, a lot of the attention MILF Manor has attracted hasn't been about age gaps per se, but about the shocking twist that the women were going to be dating each others' sons. Freud would have had a field day analyzing this show.)
This same scrutiny isn’t usually applied to relationships in which men are significantly older than their female partners, Leonardo DiCaprio notwithstanding. So there's a bit of a double standard when it comes to age-gap relationships based on the gender of the older partner, and this bias is reflected in scientific surveys.
The Age-Gap Double Standard
Research finds that people are more disapproving of male-female age-gap couples when the older partner is a woman than they are when the older partner is a man. In these woman-older relationships, the disapproval seems to be reserved primarily for the female partner. Indeed, while older women are commonly referred to as cougars—a term that implies a predatory nature—derogatory labels for the younger men who enter these relationships don’t really exist.
This bias against woman-older age-gap relationships probably helps explain why they’re relatively rare. In fact, according to census data in the United States, just 1.3 percent of marriages featuring a man and a woman include a woman who is 10 or more years older than her husband.
Being in a marginalized relationship has the potential to take a toll on couples. When our relationships aren't accepted by society and the important people in our lives, that rejection and lack of social support can stress the relationship.
Relationship Quality in Age-Gap Relationships
In light of this double standard and social disapproval, what does research tell us about the relationship quality of older women partnered with younger men?
I conducted a survey of approximately 200 heterosexual women in relationships, who happened to be about evenly divided between those who were significantly older than their male partners (22 years older on average), those who were significantly younger than their male partners (17 years younger on average), and those who were close in age to their partners (three years different on average).
What I found was that women who were more than 10 years older than their male partners were actually the most satisfied with and committed to their relationships compared with both women who were younger than their partners, as well as women whose partners were close in age. In other words, in spite of the stigma associated with older women dating younger men, the women in these relationships were thriving on average.
Why Older Women Dating Younger Men Are More Satisfied
Why were the older women the most content? There are several possibilities. For example, it may be because when the woman is older, this shifts the power dynamic toward greater equality. We know from a lot of research that greater equality in a relationship tends to make couples happier, so perhaps it’s the case that this arrangement is just more equitable.
Alternatively, maybe it’s not as much about equality as it is about putting women in a more dominant position. We know that a lot of men are into the idea of submitting to a dominant, powerful woman—and they tend to see older women as having those characteristics. After all, this is a big part of the reason why MILF-themed porn is so popular. Maybe it’s a feeling of empowerment that ultimately underlies older women’s greater satisfaction—and perhaps that empowerment allows women to get more of what they want, sexually and otherwise.
In short, these results suggest that while age-gap couples featuring an older woman and a younger man might face much social resistance, this does not necessarily prevent them from developing strong, highly satisfying relationships.
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Banks, C. A., & Arnold, P. (2001). Opinions towards sexual partners with a large age difference. Marriage & Family Review, 33, 5–18.
Lehmiller, 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.
Lehmiller, J. J., & Agnew, C. R. (2008). Commitment in age-gap heterosexual romantic relationships: A test of evolutionary and socio-cultural predictions. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 32, 74-82.
Winn, K. I., Crawford, D. W., & Fischer, J. L. (1991). Equity and commitment in romance versus friendship. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 6, 301–314.