The Scoop: Relationships between older women and younger men are heavily stigmatized. But in reality, these pairings face the same joys and struggles as do any other couple. Dr. Sarah Hill weighed in on the benefits of female-led age-gap relationships and points out why these partnerships are often unfairly judged.
Pop culture regularly romanticizes the appeal of young “barely legal” women, while simultaneously applauding handsome older men or “silver foxes.” This inconsistency seems to imply that women are most attractive when they’re young and lose sexual value as they age. Meanwhile, men only grow in their allure with time and life experience. Relationships between young women and middle-aged to older men are not only tolerated; they’re often seen as respectable.
The same acceptance of age-gap relationships, however, does not apply when it’s the woman who is older. Relationships between younger men and older women — no matter how small the gap — are often subjected to ridicule and judgment. Younger men are pigeonholed as immature and flighty, while older women are labeled unattractive or even matronly.
Women who defy these expectations by dating younger men are judged harshly, even when their relationships are perfectly healthy.
But for many women, dating younger can be a rewarding experience. Award-winning research psychologist Dr. Sarah Hill said she believes that age-gap relationships can be empowering for older women and give them an opportunity to live on their own terms.
“A ‘cougar’ is a woman who is involved in, or is seeking, a relationship with a younger man,” Dr. Hill said. “Although this term originated as a way to label older women who date younger men as predatory, this can absolutely be seen as a good thing. These are women who don’t let their age or others’ beliefs about how older women should act get in the way of their choice of partners.”
Society often ignores older women, quickly dropping actresses, models, and female musicians as soon as they show the signs of aging. But by daring to take control of their sexual and romantic agency in dating a younger partner, cougars rewrite their personal narratives for the better.
Cougars in Pop Culture
Hollywood has become somewhat more inclusive with regard to celebrities who fall outside traditional expectations of the all-American nuclear family. Some prominent examples of celebrities with female-led age-gap relationships contribute to normalizing the cougar lifestyle.
“Nick Jonas (nearing 30) and his wife Priyanka Chopra (40) have a 10-year age gap,” Dr. Hill said. “They’ve been married for almost four years and welcomed their first child via surrogate in January 2022. Now that female-led age-gap relationships are becoming more common than in the past, I am guessing that there will be more examples to come.”
Cougars aren’t just exclusive to heterosexual relationships. Beloved couple Holland Taylor (79) and Sarah Paulson (47) have been together nearly eight years despite a 32-year age gap. When asked about criticisms of her relationship with an older woman, Paulson said that those uncomfortable with it are stuck on the “idea that to be old is to cease to have any desire.” As cougars and their partners know, this is certainly untrue.
While female-led age-gap relationships have grown more common, they are still far less accepted than male-led age-gap relationships. Even when men are engaging in a clearly power-imbalanced relationship, they often receive little scrutiny. Leonardo DiCaprio famously has only been in romantic relationships with women under 25 and has received backlash for the obvious trend after splitting with model and actress Camila Morrone.
Despite the plethora of beautiful and successful women in Hollywood, it’s relatively uncommon for them to publicly date younger people. While men seem to grow in their perceived attractiveness with age, success, and experience, women are told that theirs diminishes. Men, it appears, are intimidated by women’s success, and attempt to use it to make them feel small and unattractive.
Healthy and Organic Relationships
As scandalous and edgy as cougars may seem, their relationships usually start out the same way as any other relationship: with a shared interest and attraction. While the word “cougar” may imply something more predatory or sinister, most women looking to date younger men simply want to date someone fun and interesting who shares the same priorities in a relationship.
“When you look at the reasons that most people enter into age-gap relationships, it is usually the result of a genuine, organic connection between people,” Dr. Hill said. “For example, the results of one Cougar Life survey found that more than 4 in 10 respondents (44%) who have been in a heterosexual female-led age-gap relationship said the relationship was formed because they experienced an organic connection with someone and didn’t let an age difference interfere.”
Most cougars are not exclusively looking to date people much younger than themselves or are attempting to prey upon inexperience. Conversely, they are often going so far as to overlook an age gap that previously may have prevented them from pursuing a romantic connection. “The usual drivers of connection and attraction that play out in all relationships are at play in these relationships, too,” Dr. Hill said.
Dr. Hill said she doesn’t believe there is any reason for female-led age-gap relationships to be any less healthy than other relationships. “The research suggests that most of these relationships are born out of an organic connection between people and are mutually-beneficial,” she said. “There is no reason that these relationships should be viewed any differently than any others.”
Outside of the prejudice that prevents ageist individuals from supporting age-gap relationships, some people are hesitant to support them out of fear that they may lead to relationships with power imbalances. They worry that it could be easier for an older woman to take advantage of her younger partner, who may have greater access to wealth, connections, and opportunity. But this sort of imbalance can be at play in any relationship and is no more acceptable in a relationship between individuals of the same age.
“The metrics for judging the health of an age-gap relationship are no different than those we should use to evaluate the health of any relationship,” Dr. Hill said. “Good relationships are defined by emotional intimacy, commitment, safety, and trust (among other things), regardless of the age of the partners involved.”
Dr. Hill on the Benefits of Female-Led Age-Gap Relationships
Women considering a relationship with a younger person will find many benefits in their potential connection. “In relationships where there is a female-led age gap,” Dr. Hill said, “women report being particularly attracted to the open-mindedness and physical attractiveness of younger men.”
Being in a relationship with someone willing to experiment and try new things can be an exhilarating experience. And being deeply attracted to your partner makes every element of the relationship more enjoyable.
Partners in relationships with an older woman can benefit as well. “Younger men, for their part, highlight the emotional maturity and financial freedom of older women as being particularly attractive,” Dr. Hill said. Older women know what they want in a relationship, and they understand how to properly communicate their needs. Relationships between young people are often marked by miscommunication, passive aggressiveness, and petty behavior. This won’t fly in a relationship with an older woman.
For men who harbor concerns about women being financially dependent on them, dating older women can be a great option as they will likely have no need to ask for financial assistance. Most older women would likely prefer to keep their finances separate from that of a younger partner who may have financial woes of their own.
“Research finds that we tend to stigmatize others’ behavior when we’re trying to control it,” Dr. Hill said. The stigma around the female-led age gap is just one way society attempts to control women in action. But for those brave enough to break the stigma, the romantic relationships they find can be extremely rewarding.