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Older Women-Younger Men Relationships: the Social Phenomenon of 'Cougars'. A Research Note

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  • Callister & Associates
Older Women-Younger Men
Relationships: the Social Phenomenon
of ‘Cougars’. A Research Note
Zoe Lawton and Paul Callister
INSTITUTE OF POLICY STUDIES
WORKING PAPER 10/02
January, 2010
INSTITUTE OF POLICY STUDIES
WORKING PAPER
10/02
MONTH/YEAR
AUTHORS
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
INSTITUTE OF POLICY STUDIES
DISCLAIMER
Older Women-Younger Men Relationships : the
Social Phenomenon of ‘Cougars’. A Research Note
January, 2010
Zoe Lawton
Institute of Policy Studies
Email: zoe.lawton@vuw.ac.nz
Paul Callister
Institute of Policy Studies
Email: paul.callister@vuw.ac.nz
We would like to thank Robert Didham for his
assistance with census data. We would also like to
thank staff and associates of the Institute of Policy
Studies who, at various times, provided comments
on the emerging ideas expressed in this paper. We
would like to thank the Foundation for Research,
Science and Technology for funding this research.
School of Government
Victoria University of Wellington
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Wellington
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Wellington
Email: ips@vuw.ac.nz
Phone: + 64 4 463 5307
Fax: + 64 4 463 7413
Website www.ips.ac.nz
The views, opinions, findings, and conclusions or
recommendations expressed in this Working Paper
are strictly those of the authors. They do not
reflect the views of the Institute of Policy Studies,
the School of Government or Victoria
University of Wellington. The aforementioned take
no responsibility for any errors or omissions in, or
for the correctness of, the information contained in
these working papers. The paper is presented not
as policy, but with a view to inform and stimulate
wider debate.
1
OlderWomen–YoungerMenRelationships:TheSocialPhenomenonof
‘Cougars’.AResearchNote
Abstract
Coupleswherethewomanissignificantlyolderthanhermalepartnercurrentlyhaveahigh
prominenceinnationalandinternationalmediaandinpopularculture.Thewomeninsuch
arrangementshaveattractedacolloquiallabel,‘cougar’.Thisarrangementrepresentsa
breakfromthepastwhengenerallythemalewastheolderpartner.Ourinitialanalysisof
censusdatasuggeststhattheextentoftheolderwoman–youngermalecoupleis
exaggeratedbythemedia.Nevertheless,thedataindicateitisanimportantgroupandits
sizedoesseemtohavebeengrowingsincethe1980s,atleastforthoselivingtogetherinthe
samehouseholds.Likeotherresearcherswealsosuspectthatthenumberofcoupleswhere
thewomanisolderwhoformlongtermrelationshipsisconsiderablysmallerthanthe
numberofsuchcoupleswhohavehadshorttermrelationships.Ourbriefcanvassingof
theoriesofpartnerchoicesuggeststherearesocialandeconomicreasonsforfurthergrowth
ofthistypeofpartneringarrangement.Ifthereisfurthersignificantgrowth,itislikelythe
somewhatnegativepredatoryterm‘cougar’willdisappearoratleastchangeitscurrent
connotations.
Keywords:Women,relationships,cougars,homogamy,heterogamy.
2
Thispageleftblankintentionally
3
OlderWomen–YoungerMenRelationships:TheSocialPhenomenonof
‘Cougars’.AResearchNote
Introduction
Attheheartofthestudyofdemographyareissuesmostpeopleareinterestedin:birth,
death,andpartnering.Itisheterosexualpartnering,initswidestsensefrommarriageto
shorttermrelationships,thatweconsiderinthisresearchnote.Inhistoriesoflove,sex,and
marriage,therolesofloveandlustaredownplayedinpartnering.1Itisarguedthatthese
emotionshaveonlyrecentlyinfluenceddecisions,becausecoupleformationwasprimarily
aneconomictransaction.Butevenassocietiesmovedawayfromeconomicfactors
dominatingpartneringdecisions,otherconstraintsonpartnerchoicesoftenremained.For
example,couplestendedtobeofthesamereligionandethnicintermarriagewasoften
frowneduponorbanned,and,untilrecently,onlyheterosexualpartneringwascondoned
legally.Inaddition,historically,meninmarriedcouplestendedtobeolderthantheir
partners.2
Whilesomephysicaldifferencesaregenerallysoughtinheterosexualpartners,muchtheory
andhistoricalevidencesuggestthatcoupleshavemanycommoncharacteristics,including
heightandawidevarietyofaptitudeandpersonalitytestscores.3However,overtime,these
similaritieshavechanged.Forexample,studiesshowthatmatchingbyreligiousbeliefhas
becomelesscommon,butmatchingbybroadeducationalgrouphasbecomemore
common4.Averageagedifferencesbetweenmenandwomencanalsochangeovertime.
Insocietieswheremostmarriagesarebetweenpartnersofabroadlysimilarage,public
attentionissometimesfocusedoncoupleswithawideagegap.Oftentheattentionison
highprofileandfinanciallywelloffmenwhohavemuchyoungerpartners.Butperhapseven
moreattentionispaidtowomenwhoaremucholderthantheirpartners.Someofthese
partnershipsareformalmarriagesbutmanyareinformalrelationships,forexample,the
affairreportedinearly2010ofIrisRobinson,athen58yearoldIrishmemberofparliament,
witha19yearold.5Asoftenhappenswithsuchnewarrangements,theolderfemaleinsuch
pairingshasattractedacolloquiallabel‘cougar’.6
Inthisresearchnote,weexamineaspectsofthesocialphenomenonofcougars.Webegin
byexploringtheoriginofthelabelanditsmostwidelyaccepteddefinition.Wethenbriefly
1Murstein(1974).
2Bergstrom(1997).
3Epstein&Guttman(1984).
4Kalmijn(1991).
5Stuff.co.nz(2009).
6Weusethistermbecauseitiswidelyknown,thoughwedorecogniseforavarietyofreasonssomepeoplemay
findthetermoffensive.
4
canvasstheportrayalofthesetypesofrelationshipinpopularculture.Thisdiscussionis
followedbyashortsectionsettingoutsomeofthetheoriesthatmightexplainwhymenare
generallyslightlyolderthantheirpartners,but,moreimportantly,whythispatternmightbe
changing.Wealsodiscusstheadvantagesanddisadvantagesforwomeninrelationships
withyoungermenaswellasthe‘type’ofwomanmostlikelytobeacougar.Wethenturnto
NewZealandcensusdatatoassesshowcommontheserelationshipsare.Indoingso,wecan
identifyonlycoupleswhorecordtheyarelivingtogetherinthesamehouseholdasmarried
ordefactocouples.Thislimitationrulesoutavarietyofotherimportantrelationships,such
ascoupleswhodonotlivetogetherandcoupleswhoareinshorttermrelationships.We
alsofocusonlyonheterosexualcouples.Finally,wesetoutsomeideasforfurtherresearch.
Althoughthestudyofcougarscouldbeseenassomewhatfacile,underlyingthis
phenomenonareimportantsocialchangesthataretakingplaceinsociety.Thesechanges
includemenandwomenlivinglongerandbeinginmorerelationshipsovertheirlifecycle.
Oneconsequenceofthesechangesisthataperson’schoiceinpartnerwhenapersonis
youngmayvaryfromtheirsecondorsubsequentchoiceswhentheyareolder.Social
changesalsoincludesignificantchangesinattitudesandgenderrolesofmenandwomenin
areasofeducation,paidwork,andwiderincomeearning.
Definitionofcougar
Itisbelievedthattheslangtermcougarwascoinedinthe1980sbyCanadianicehockey
teamTheVancouverCanucks.Theteamusedthetermtodescribetheolder,singlewomen
whowenttotheteam’sgamestopursueplayerssexually.Theexpressionfirstappearedin
theprintmediain2001whentheCanadiannewspaperTheTorontoSunpublishedanews
storyoncougars.ThisstorywaspromptedbytheintroductionofCanadiandatingwebsite
Cougardate.com.Theauthorofthestory,TorontoSuncolumnistValerieGibson,wentonto
publishCougar:Aguideforolderwomendatingyoungermenin2002.Inthebook,Gibson
discussedhermanyrelationshipswithmen10to20yearsherjuniorandofferedadviceand
insightforwomenwhowereconsideringsucharelationship.Thiswasthefirstdatingguide
forcougarstoattractmainstreammediaattentionandhasbeencreditedwithraisingpublic
awarenessandstimulatingdiscussiononthis‘unconventional’typeofrelationship.
SoonafterthereleaseofGibson’sbook,thetermspreadtotheUnitedStates,andthrough
itsuseinAmericanmedia,television,andmoviesithasbecomewellknownandcommonly
usedinmanyothercountries,includingNewZealand.Publicawarenessandwideusageof
thetermcougarisperhapshighlightedbythetermbeingrunnerupinthe2007Oxford
UniversityPress(USA)WordoftheYearcompetitionandaUniversityofBritishColumbia
etymologisthavingsubmittedtheadditionalmeaningofthewordcougartotheOxford
EnglishDictionary.7Therearemanydefinitionsof(andconnotationsattachedto)theterm
7Hsu(2009).
5
cougar,rangingfromempoweringtooffensive,butthemostwidelyusedandsimple
definitionofacougarisawomanaged35yearsoroverwhodates,orseekstodate,aman
morethaneightyearsherjunior.Therehadbeennoequivalenttermformaleswhohave
muchyoungerpartnersuntilrecentlywiththeemergenceoftheterm‘rhino’.8Intermsof
definingsociallyacceptableagedifferences,popularculturehasdevelopedaformulafor
calculatingthis,commonlyknownasthe‘neverdateanyoneunderhalfyourageplusseven
rule’.9
Cougarsinpopularculture
Anearlyexampleofanolderwomen–youngermanrelationshipinfilmwasMrsRobinson
andyoungermanBenjaminBraddockinthe1976dramaTheGraduate.In1979,Older
Women:YoungerMenwaspublishedbytwopopularAmericanauthorswhobasedthebook
onastudytheyhadundertakenintheUnitedStates.10InNewZealand,SueMcCauley’s1982
autobiographicallybasedbookOtherHalvesexploredtheethnic,gender,age,andclass
differencesofarelationshipbetweenaseparatedPākehāmotherandamuchyounger
Māoriman.Thisbookattractedawidereadershipandbecameabestseller.Furtherfilmand
televisionportrayalsoftheolderwomen–youngermanrelationshipwereseenin1997with
thereleaseofthefilmCougarClubandtheintroductionofthethencontroversialtelevision
seriesSexandtheCity,featuringtheultimatecougar,SamanthaJones.However,itwasnot
until2003whenactorDemiMoorebeganarelationshipwithactorAshtonKutcher,15years
herjunior,thatthemediareallylatchedontotheconceptofcougars.FollowingMooreand
Kutcher’sunion,televisionhostOprahWinfreyranacoverstoryoncougarsintheOctober
issueofOmagazine;mediaattentionanddebateescalated.Thecouplewentontomarryin
September2005whenMoorewas42andKutcherwas27.
Othercelebritycoupleswhohaveattractedhighlevelsofmediaattentionbecauseoftheir
agedifferenceincludesingersongwriterSherylCrowe(47)andTourdeFrancecycling
championLanceArmstrong(37);recentlyseparatedbutpreviouslylongtimecouple,actor
SusanSarandon(63)andactorTimRobbins(51),whohavetwochildrentogether;and
socialiteIvanaTrump(59)andnowexhusbandRossanoRubicondi(35).Followingher
separation,Trumpwentontodatea23yearoldFrenchmodel.ActorandauthorJoan
Collinshashadmanyrelationshipswithyoungermen,andtelevisionhostMarthaStewart
hasalsorevealedsheoncedatedaman24yearsherjunior.AustraliansingerKylieMinogue
(41)isdatingaman10yearsherjunior,andNewZealandmodelRachelHunter(39)was
engagedtohernowexfiancéeJarretStoll(27).
8Davey(2009).
9Wikipedia(2009).
10Seskin&Ziegler(1979).
6
Perhapsinpartbecauseofthepopularityandmediaattentionreceivedbycelebritycougars,
thenumberoffilmsin2009aboutrelationshipsinwhichthewomanissignificantlyolder
increased.ThesefilmsincludeCheri,inwhichMichellePfeiffer(51)ispartneredupwith
RupertFriend(27);MyLifeinRuins,inwhichNiaVardalos(46)romancesGreekactorAlexis
Georgoulis(34);andTheRebound,inwhichCatherineZetaJones(39)datesa25yearold.
Spreadwasalsoreleasedin2009,ironicallystarringAshtonKutcher,theposterboyof
cougarrelationships,whopursuesrelationshipswithanolderwomanandayoungerwoman
andisforcedtodecidebetweenthetwo.TelevisionshowsfeaturingcougarssuchasCougar
Town,Eastwick,andAccidentallyonPurposealsofeaturedhighlyin2009andaresetto
screeninNewZealandinmid2010.AccidentallyonPurposetellsthestoryofaprofessional
womaninherlate30swhobecomespregnanttoamuchyoungermanafteraonenight
stand.EastwickfeaturesformersupermodelRebeccaRomijn(36)asadivorcedmotherwith
ayoungerboyfriendwhobecomesdrawntoamuchyoungernewcomertotown.Cougar
Town,arguablythemostpopularcougarshow,tellsthestoryofarecentlydivorcedmiddle
agedmotherwhoexploresrelationshipswithyoungermen.Theshowalsoaddressesthe
socialstigmasurroundingcougarsandhasbeendescribedasabrutallyrealisticcomedy
aboutoldersinglewomen“ontheprowl”.11
Realitytelevisionshowsaboutolderwomen–youngermenrelationshipshavealsobecome
popularintheUnitedStates.InAgeofLove,whichborrowsheavilyfromTheBachelor,two
groupsofwomen,‘kittens’(womenagedintheir20s)andcougars(intheir40s)competefor
theloveandattentionofformerAustraliantennisprofessionalMarkPhilippoussis.
PreviouslymentionedcougarIvanaTrumphostedasimilarrealityshowin2009
appropriatelynamedIvanaYoungMan.InTheRealHousewivesofOrangeCountycougar
housewivesbattleitoutforyoungermen,includingthesonsofcastmates.Recently,the
BBCbeganadvertisingforreallifecougarstofeatureinadocumentarytobescreenedin
2010abouttheperksofbeingacougar.Aswellasrealityshows,therearecountlesscougar
datingwebsites,blogs,andbooks.2009alsosawtheintroductionofabeautypageant
specificallyforcougars,MissCougarUSA,andacruisespecificallyforcougarsandyoung
men.
Withallthisattention,itisnotsurprisingthatcougarshavealsofilteredintoNewZealand
mediaandpopularculture.OnlocaltelevisionsoapShortlandStreetYvonne,amotherof
threeinherlate50sisinarelationshipwithamanabout15yearsherjuniorwhoisher
daughter’sexfiancée.BBCfilmTheMotherscreenedonTVOnerecently.Inthisfilm,a
grandmotherhasapassionateaffairwithamanhalfheragewhoisalsoinasexual
relationshipwithherdaughter.Radiostationshavejumpedonthecougarbandwagon,with
popularNewZealandradiostation91ZMrunningacompetitioninlate2009inwhich
11NewZealandHerald(2009).
7
listenerscouldwinprizesbynominatingtheirmother,sister,friend,aunty,orflatmate12as
theultimatecougar.RadiostationTheRockrecentlyhostedacougarpartyandhasreleased
a‘cougarreferencemanual’onitswebsite.
Themostblatant,andarguablyoffensive,cougarpromotion13waslaunchedinJanuary2010
byAirNewZealandinconjunctionwiththeNZISevens.‘Huntingpacks’ofcougarswere
askedtosubmitprofilesviatheAirNewZealandwebsitetowinticketstoTheSevensandbe
partofthe60strong‘prideofcougar’cheerleadingsquad.Cheerleaderswouldbeprovided
withcougarcostumesandequipmentto“attracttheattentionofyoungmales”andco‐
sponsor91ZMwouldprovide10braveyoungmentobe“throwninasfreshmeattothe
winners”.Thesitealsoprovidedtipsforcougars,including“youngmalesarestillquitestupid
takeadvantage”,andapromotionalvideodepictedcougarsasaggressive,promiscuous,
tragic,andoftenintoxicatedwomenout“ontheprowl”.Theadvertisingcampaignsparked
controversyandwassubsequentlyclosed.
However,proofthatthetermcougarhasbecomemainstreaminNewZealandisperhaps
bestillustratedbytherecentuseofthewordduringparliamentarydebatesintheHouseof
Representatives.InMay2009,andonsubsequentoccasions,Labourmemberofparliament
TrevorMallardreferredtoNationalmemberofparliamentSimonBridgesas“cougarbait”14
afterBridgesadmittedfindingolderwomanChristineRankinattractive.15Labourmembers
ofParliamentGrantRobertsonandLianneDalzielhavedescribedTaurangaas“cougar
territory”,16againinreferencetoBridgeswhoisthememberofparliamentforTauranga.
Nowdays,aGooglesearchfor‘cougarwomen’resultsin3,840,000 hits.17Thewidespread
mediaattentiononcougarsandtheterm’sacceptanceintopopularculturearealso
reflectedinAmericanweeklynewsmagazineNewsweek’sdeclarationthat2009was“the
yearofthecougar”.Thereisnodoubtthatcougarshavecarvedoutaplaceinpopular
culture.Butdoesthepopularityofcougarrelationshipsinthemediaandamongcelebrities
translateintoreallifefor‘real’womenoraretheysimplyamediacreation?Therehasbeen
littleresearchintorelationshipsinwhichthewomanismucholderthanherpartner,but
thereissomeresearchandliteraturethathelpstoexplainwhymorewomenareableand
arechoosingtoenterintothistypeofrelationship.
12ZMOnline(n.d.).
13AirNewZealand(2009).
14NewZealandParliament(2009a).
15Aaronson(2009).
16NewZealandParliament(2009b).
17Googlesearchundertakenon15December2009.
8
Theoriesonmateselectionamonghumans
Theliteratureonmateselectionbyhumansisvast.18Thisliteraturecanbefoundinawide
varietyofacademicdisciplines,includingeconomics,sociology,sociobiology,anthropology,
andpsychology.Notsurprisingly,basedontheparticularareathedisciplineisbuilton,some
theoriesfocusonbiologicallybaseddrivers,othersdrawonrationaleconomicchoices,and
othersfocusonissuessuchasstatusseekingorconceptsofromanticlove.Inaddition,
withineachofthemaindisciplinarysetsofthinkingtherearealsoongoingdebatesabout
whatdrivespartnerselection.Someofthisliteratureishighlyspeculativeandsomeisbased
onexperimentsorempiricaldata.Giventhisvastconflictingliterature,thefollowingbrief
discussionfeaturesjustafewofthesetheories.
Whenchoosingapartner,onegeneralrulethat‘likeattractslike’stillappliesformenand
women.Homogamousrelationshipsinwhichbothmembersofthecouplearesimilarintheir
ethnicity,religion,educationlevel,andbroadagegroupremaincommon.However,overall
therehasbeenasmallshiftfromthemorehomogamousrelationshipsofthemid20th
centurytothemoreheterogamousrelationshipsofthe1980s,1990s,andtoday.19Mixed
faithandinterethnicrelationshipshavebecomemoreacceptedandcommoninsociety.In
termsofage,olderhusbandyoungerwiferelationshipsarestillcustomary,especially
whentheagedifferenceisonlyafewyears.20Bycomparison,relationshipsinwhichthe
womanisolder,inparticularsignificantlyolder,appeartostillbemuchlesscommon.This
maybeattributedtoataboothatcontinuestosurroundthistypeofrelationshipasalarge
agedifferencebetweenawomanandamaniscommonlyseenasrepresentingamother–
sonrelationship.21Evenwhenthehusbandisthesignificantlyolderpartner,societyseems
muchmorelikelytoaccepttherelationshipthanifthehusbandissignificantlyyounger.22
However,relationshipsinwhichthewomanisthesignificantlyolderpartnerareslowly
becomingmoresociallyacceptableandmorecommon,perhapsthankstothemedia
attentioncougarrelationshipshavereceivedaswellasheightenedawarenessofcougarsin
popularculture.Inaddition,therearealsoseveralindicatorsastowhywomenarechoosing
thistypeofrelationship.Theseindicatorshavebeenexploredinresearchanddiscussedin
literature.
Onetheoryputforwardtoexplaintheincreaseinwomanchoosingsuchrelationshipsisthat
overallgenderequalityhasincreased,inparticularsincethesexualrevolutionofthe1970s.
Aswomenbecomemoreequalinsocietytheyarelesslikelytoconformtotraditional
genderrolesandpatternssotheyforegotheusualpatterninmarriagewherethemaleis
18Callister(1998,2000)exploressometheoriesofmateselection.
19Proulx,Caron,&Logue(2006).
20Knox,Britton,&Crisp(1997).
21Vera,Berardo,&Berardo(1985).
22Knox,Zusman,&Nieves(1997).
9
older.23IntheWesternworld,womenareincreasinglyofsimilareducationandincome
levelstomen,aretakingonseniorrolesintheworkplace,andaregainingmorestatus.A
studyspanning80yearsonrelationships,concludedmale–femalestatuswasaprimary
determinantofpatternsinagedifferenceinmarriage.24Inaddition,menentering
relationshipswitholderwomenhavebeenraisedinthepostfeministera,soarepotentially
morelikelytobeopenmindedaboutwomenandtheirroleinsociety,andmaybelesslikely
tohavepowerorstatusissues.
Thetheorythatgenderequalityandstatushaveastrongimpactonagedifferencein
relationshipscanbesupportedbyacomparisonofdevelopedcountrieswithdeveloping
countriesinwhichthereisoveralllessgenderequality.Inacrossnationalsurvey25in
developingcountries,whichhavepatriarchalsocietiesandsocietiescharacterisedby
patriarchalkinshiporganisation,researchersfoundthattheagedifferencewasrelatively
largeandunionsinwhichthehusbandis10yearsorolderwererelativelyfrequent.26With
fewexceptions,marriagesinwhichthewifewasolderwereavoided.Theresearcherswho
conductedthesurveyconcludedthatagedifferencedistributionsinmarriagearedirectly
attributabletokinshipstructureandthestatusofwomen.Interestingly,theresearchersalso
concludedthattheagedifferenceisrelativelysmallindevelopingcountriesinwhichthe
traditionalsocialstructureallowsforthemoreequalstatusofspouses,whereWestern
formsoffamilyformationhavebecomecommon,orwhereexposuretotheWestandthe
processofmodernisationhasimprovedthestatusofwomen.27
IntheWesternworld,genderequality,thesexualrevolution,andinparticulartheadventof
thecontraceptivepillhavegivenwomenmorefreedomwhenchoosingapartner.The
contraceptivepillbroughtaboutadistinctionbetweenchildbearingandsexuality,enabling
womentochoosetobewithapartnerwhosuitedthembutwhowasnotnecessarilythe
mostsuitablepartnertobearchildrenwith(usuallyanoldermanwitharelativelygood
income).Thepillalsogavewomentheoptionofdelayingchildbirthorrejectingthenotionof
havingchildrenaltogether.OnarecentBBCradiointerview,28relationshipspsychologist
SusanQuilliamattributedtheincreaseofolderwomen–youngermenrelationshipstothis
divisionofchildbearingandsexuality.Quilliamalsonotedthatthepillfreedwomenupto
earn,beeducated,andhavemorepowerinsociety.Theoverallincreaseofwomen’sincome,
education,andstatusalsoenableswomentoenterintorelationshipswithyoungermen
becausetheyarenolongerfinanciallydependentonoldermen.
23Knox,Britton,&Crisp(1997).
24Atkinson&Glass(1985).
25Casterline,Williams,&McDonald(1986).
26Ibid
27Ibid
28BBC(2009).
10
Awoman’slackofchoiceastopartnerhasalsobeenattributedtowomenenteringinto
relationshipswithyoungermen.Socialresearchersgenerallyacceptthatthereisa‘marriage
squeeze’forsinglewomenastheyage.29Thisisparticularlythecaseforwomeninthebaby
boomergeneration.Amarriagesqueezeoccurswhenwomenhavethesmallestpoolof
compatiblemenwithwhichtopartnerupasconventionallydefined,thatis,menwhoare
twotothreeyearsolder,ofsimilarbackground,andwithhigherlevelsofeducationand
income.Contributingfactorstothismarriagesqueezeincludethetendencyofmentomarry
youngerwomen,thehighermaledeathrate,andthatmorewomenaredelayingboth
marriageandchildbearingtopursueacareer.30Therefore,withfewer‘ideal’menoftheir
ownagefromwhichtochoose,womenmayincreasinglywish(orneed)topartnerwith
youngermen.Researchhasalsoshownthatolderwomenhavemuchmoreflexiblepartner
criteriathanyoungerwomen,31whichcouldbeattributedtothemarriagesqueezeorthe
tendencyofolderwomentobemoreopenmindedbecausetheyhavehadmoreexperience
withrelationships.
Therearealsopossiblebenefitsforwomenwhochooseayoungerpartner.Inthelateryears
oflife,awomanwithayoungerpartnermaynothavetosupportherspouse(physicallyor
emotionally)intheirfinalyearsastheirhealthdeclines,butratherbecaredforbytheir
partner.Alternativelyeachpartnermaybeabletocareequallyfortheotherastheyageat
relativelythesamerate(basedontheassumptionthatwomentypicallylivefouryears
longerthanmen).32Thisresultsinabetterqualityoflifeforwomenintheirfinalyears.One
studyevenconcludedthatwomenmarriedtoyoungermenlivedlongerthanexpectedand
womenmarriedtooldermendiedsoonerthanexpected.33Anotherstudy,whichinvolved
interviewswith76womeninolderwoman–youngermanrelationships,highlightedthefact
womenareattractedtoyoungermensimplybecauseoftheiryouthandthephysical
attractionsthataccompanyyouth.34Thewomeninthestudyalsoreportedthatoneofthe
bestpartsaboutbeinginvolvedinthistypeofrelationshipwasthatitmadethemfeel
younger.Sexandsexualcompatibilitywereadditionalmotivatingfactorsbehindthese
relationships.Thegrowingacceptanceandrealisationinsocietythatwomenmightstillbe
interestedinsexoncetheyarepastchildbearingagehasgivenwomenmorefreedomto
chooseyoungerpartners.Internetdatingsiteshaveenabledeasieraccessforolderwomen
toyoungermenwhowouldotherwisebedifficulttomeet.
Despitethebenefitsthatcomewitharelationshipwithayoungermantherearealso
drawbacks,astherearewithanyrelationshipregardlessofagedifference.In2006,an
29Levesque&Caron(2004).
30Michael,Gagnon,Lauman,&Kolata(1994).
31Levesque&Caron(2004).
32Callister&Didham(2009).
33KlingerVartabedian&Wispe(1989).
34Seskin&Ziegler(1979).
11
exploratorystudyonmarriedcouplesinwhichthewifewas10ormoreyearsolderthanher
husbandwasundertakentoidentifytheimpactofagedifferenceontherelationship,the
issuesthatariseforsuchacouple,anddifferencesinhusbandsandwivesexperiences.35One
ofthemajordisadvantagesidentifiedwasthesocialstigmasurroundingtherelationship,
withalmosthalfthewomeninthestudyidentifyingthisasamajorissue.Thisfinding
supportspreviousresearchindicatingthatwomenintheserelationshipsfeelpressurefrom
theirfriendsandfamily.36Halfofthemenandwomenreportedthattheirfamilyand
childrenhadproblems,atleastinitially,withtheirmarriagebecauseofitsunconventional
nature,andcoupleswereoftenhesitanttodivulgetheirrelationshiptofamilyandfriends.
Anothermajorissuewasthatthewomenwerecomingtowardstheendoftheirfertileyears
ordidnotwant(more)children,asopposedtotheiryoungerpartnerswhowereinterested
instartingafamily.Intimacyandattractivenessissueswerealsoamajorconcernforwomen,
particularlyastheywillreach‘oldage’beforetheirpartner.Nocouplereportedmoneytobe
anissue;manymenstatedthattheirpartner’shigherincomewasanadvantageratherthan
aproblem.However,otherresearchhasshownthiscanoftenleadtoconflictbetweenthe
couple.37
Thisleadstothequestionofwhatcostsandbenefitsthereareforbothpartnersinthistype
ofrelationship.Thebalancingorexchangeofcostsandbenefitswithapartnerisotherwise
knownasthesocialexchangetheory.38Thistheorycouldbeusedtopartlyexplainthe
emergenceofolderwomen–youngermenrelationships.Accordingtothistheory,individuals
seekthe‘bestvalue’theycaninamate.Eachindividualisassumedtocarryanapproximate
marketvalue,dependingonthedegreetowhichheorshepossessesvaluedtraitssuchas
beauty,intelligence,charm,wealth,andsocialstatus.Itisassumedthatifeveryindividual
seeksthebestvalueinamate,individualsofapproximatelyequalvaluewilltendtopairup.
Inthismanner,individualscanbesaidtoexchangetheirassetsforthoseinapartner.39
Applyingthistheory,singlewomenintheir40sand50smightbeseenashaving,onarange
ofcharacteristics,thehighest‘marketvalue’theyhaveeverhad,sotheyarenowmuch
moreattractivepartnerstobothmentheirownageandyoungermen.Onaverage,women
nowaremoreeducatedthanever,earnhigherincomes,haveahigherstatusinsociety,can
haverecreationalsexwithlessfearofpregnancy,andaremorelikelyandableto‘look
younger’duetodiet,exercise,andcosmeticprocedures.Comparethiswiththe‘market
value’ofawomanofthesameageinthe1950s.Shewouldhavehadalowereducationlevel,
hadlittleornoincomebecauseherhusbandwouldhavesupportedherfinancially,notbeen
35Proulx,Caron,&Logue(2006).
36Seskin&Ziegler(1979).
37Brings&Winter(2000).
38Thibaut&Kelley(1959);Homans(1961).
39Kenricketal.(1993,p.951)
12
abletohaverecreationalsexwithoutfearofpregnancybecauseofthelackofcontraception,
havehadseveralchildren,andnothavebeenabletolookasyoungaswomencantoday.
Single,orevenpartnered,womenintheir40sand50sarenowabletogetintothedating
markettofindanewpartner.Thesewomenmaybemorecompatiblewithyoungermen
thanmenofasimilarageintheshorttermbecausethebenefitsforbothpartnersoutweigh
thecosts.Bothpartnersmaynotwanttoenterintoalongtermrelationshipbecausethe
femalepartnermayhavealreadybeenmarriedandwanttomaintainindependence,and
themalepartnermaynotwanttosettledownatayoungage.Bothpartnersmaybemore
sexuallycompatibleaswomenreachtheirsexualpeaklaterinlifethanmen.The
relationshipcouldalsobemorefunforthefemalepartnerbecauseherpartnerisyouthful,
opentonewexperiences,andmoreattractivethansomeoneherownage,andthemale
partnermayenjoybeingwithawomanwithahigherincomeandforavarietyofother
reasons.
However,olderwomen–youngermenrelationshipsmaynotworkinthelongtermbecause
ultimatelyeachpartnerisnotthe‘bestvalue’fortheother.Theolderwomanmaynotwant
tofinanciallysupportherpartnerandintelligence,statuslevels,anddifferentinterestsmay
becomeproblems.Inparticular,someofthesewomenmaybeconcernedthatiftheystay
withtheirpartnermorethanthreeyearsandthenseparatehewillbeabletoclaimhalfher
assets.Themalepartnermaywanttopartnerupwithsomeoneyoungerorhavechildren,
whichmaynotbepossiblewithanolderwoman(forphysicalreasonsorbecauseshe
choosesnottohave(more)children).Theyoungermalepartnermaynotwanttobecomea
stepfathertoexistingchildren.Researchhasshownthatchildbearingcanbetheultimate
dealbreakerinthiskindofrelationship.40Thisoverallunsuitabilityisalsoexacerbatedbythe
continuingsocialstigmaaroundthesetypesofrelationship,especiallyoncetheybecome
formalised.
Inadditiontoidentifyingthereasonsawomanisnowableormightchoosetoenterintoa
relationshipwithayoungerman,researchershavestudiedthetypeofwomenmostlikelyto
entertainsucharelationship.Theresearchshowsthatwomenwhomarryyoungermentend
tobemorehighlyeducated41andmarrylaterinlife.42Thetwotraitsareinterlinked,as
highlyeducatedwomentendtomarrylater,whichreducestheirpoolofpotentialpartners,
andtohavemoreliberalideasaboutmarriage.43Womenwhohavepreviouslybeenmarried
arealsomorelikelytoformrelationshipswithyoungerpartners.Onestudyfoundthat
womenwhowereinsecondmarriageswereseventimesmorelikelytobeinrelationships
40Proulx,Caron,&Logue(2006).
41Shehan,Berardo,Vera,&Carley(1991).
42Atkinson&Glass(1985);Bytheway(1981);Shehan,Berardo,Vera,&Carley(1991).
43Proulx,Caron,&Logue(2006).
13
withyoungermen.44ABritishstudyofmaritalpatternsinthe1970salsofoundthatpeople
whoremainunmarriedintomiddleagewerelikelytomarrypeopleyoungerthan
themselves;thiswasparticularlytrueforwomen.45
WhattheNewZealanddatashow
Thefollowingdataaredrawnfromthe1986and2006NewZealandCensusofPopulation
andDwellings.The1991,1996,and2001censuseswerealsoexaminedbutthedatadidnot
changethebroadtrendsidentified.Therefore,tokeeptheanalysissimpleonlythe20year
changebetween1986and2006isdiscussed.
Datawereobtainedformenandwomenlivingincoupleswhorecordedtheirages.Ifoneor
bothdidnotrecordtheirage,theywereexcludedfromtheanalysis.Legallymarriedandde
factocouplesareincluded,butonlyoppositesexcouplesareincluded.Itispossiblethatthe
characteristicsofthosecoupleswhochosetolivetogetherinthesamehouseholdcouldbe
differenttothosewhohavearelationshipbutdonotlivetogether,butthelatterdataare
notavailablefromthecensus.
Tofurthersimplifytheanalysis,weconsideredthreeagegroupsformenandwomen.These
arethegroupsaged40,50,and60.Theagedistributionofthepartnersofmenandwomen
ineachofthesesingleagegroupsarepresentedasgraphstoshowbroadchanges
(Figures1–6).However,moredetaileddataaredescribedinthetext.Thefinalgraph,
Figure7,showsfor2006thepercentageofpartnersofmenaged30to70whoare10or
moreyearsolderor10ormoreyearsyounger.
Figures1to6showssomesimilarities.First,ineachfiguremostmenandwomenareina
broadlysimilaragegroupwithrelativelyfewpartnersmucholderormuchyounger.
However,eachofthegraphsalsoshowssometendencyforwomentobeyoungerthanmen
incouples.Butthecomparisonof1986and2006datashowsashiftawayfromthispattern.
Fewermenin2006than1986hadyoungerpartnersandequallymorewomenhadyounger
partners.However,therearealsosomeminordifferencesbetweenthegraphs.
Forwomenaged40,in2006justunder1%hadapartnerwhowas30yearsoryounger,that
is,10ormoreyearsyoungerthanthemselves(Figure1).Thisislittlechangefrom1986.
However,therehasbeenagreatershiftinthepercentageofpartnersfiveormoreyears
younger.In1986,3.8%ofwomenaged40hadapartnerwhowasaged35yearsoryounger.
By2006,thishadrisento5.8%.
44Shehan,Berardo,Vera,&Carley(1991).
45Bytheway(1981).
14
Figure1
Relativelyfewmenaged40hadapartner10ormoreyearsyounger:5%in2006(Figure2).
Butamuchhigherproportion,24%,hadapartnerfiveormoreyearsyounger.In1986,less
than1%ofmeninthisagegrouphadapartner10ormoreyearsolder,andthishad
increasedtoonly1.4%in2006.Overall,in1986,13%ofmenaged40hadapartnerolder
thanthemselves(41yearsorolder);by2006,thishadincreasedto24%.
15
Figure2
Forwomenaged50,1.4%hadapartner10ormoreyearsyoungerin1986,increasingto
1.8%in2006(Figure3).Formalepartnersfiveormoreyearsyoungerthanthewomen,the
figurewas3.9%in1986,increasingto6.7%in2006.
Figure3
Age of partners of women aged 50, 1986 and 2006
0
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6
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age
%1986
2006
Formenaged50,9.6%hadapartner10ormoreyearsyoungerin1986,decreasingslightly
to9.2%in2006(Figure4).Formenaged50withapartnerfiveormoreyearsyounger,the
figuresare35%in1986,decreasingto31%in2006.
16
Figure4
Forwomenaged60,1.0%hadapartner10yearsoryoungerin1986,increasingto1.7%in
2006(Figure5).Forwomenaged60withapartnerfiveormoreyearsyounger,thefigures
are4.0%in1986,increasingto5.4%in2006.
17
Figure5
Formenaged60,11.4%hadapartner10ormoreyearsyoungerin1986,butthishad
declinedmarginallyto10.8%in2006(Figure6).Equally,thepercentageofmenaged60with
apartnerfiveormoreyearsyoungerdeclinedfrom35%in1986to31%in2006.
Figure6
Theoverallpatternsfora10yearagegapincouplesin2006isshowninFigure7.Thisfigure
showsthatforallagesofmen,lessthan2%haveapartnerwhois10ormoreyearsolder.
18
However,thelowestpercentageisamongstoldermen.Theoppositesituationisseenfor
menwithapartner10ormoreyearsyounger.Inthiscase,itisoldermenwhoaremost
likelytohaveasignificantlyyoungerpartner.Althoughthisstillrepresentsaminorityofmen,
formenover50overatenthhaveapartner10ormoreyearsyounger.
Figure7
Basedonthecensusdata,cougarwomenaged40,50,and60arerareinNewZealand.
However,olderwoman–youngermancouplesareincreasingasaproportionofallcouples.
Incontrast,relationshipsofmenwithsignificantlyyoungerpartnersaremorecommon,but
arestillreasonablyrare.Inaddition,theproportionofolderman–youngerwoman
relationshipsisdecreasing.Whatthecensusdatadonotshowarethemoreinformal
relationshipsandrelationshipswherecouplesdonotliveinthesamehouse.Forvarious
reasons,researcherssuspecttherearehigherratesofshortertermrelationshipswherethe
womanisolderthantheman,butwhichdonotshowupinofficialstatistics.
Finally,howdotheofficialNewZealanddatacomparewithsimilardatafromcomparable
countries?Ina2009NewYorkTimesarticle,dataonlegallymarriedcouplesweredrawn
fromseveraldatasources.46Thisarticlesuggeststhatbetweenthe1960sand2007,the
proportionofhusbandsfiveormoreyearsolderthantheirpartnerdroppedfromarounda
thirdtojustoveraquarterofmarriages.Forhusbands10ormoreyearsolder,thisrate
droppedfromabout10%toabout7%.Whenolderwivesareconsidered,thedatashowthat
theproportionofcoupleswherethewifewasfiveormoreyearsolderwasaround4%inthe
46Kershaw(2009).
19
1960sincreasingtoaround6%by2008.Forwomen10ormoreyearsolder,theratewas
risingbutstillunder2%ofallmarriedcouplesin2008.Thesedataarebroadlysimilartothe
NewZealanddata.
Furtherresearchneeded
Mostoftheliteratureonrelationshipswherethereisasignificantagegapbetweenthe
partnersexploresrelationshipsinwhichthemanistheolderpartner.Relativelylittlehas
beenwrittenaboutrelationshipsinwhichthewomanistheolderpartner.Thiscan,perhaps,
beexplainedbythefactthatrelationshipsinwhichthemanisolderarestillfarmore
commonthanrelationshipsinwhichthewomaninolder,asthistypeofrelationshipisstill
anemergingtrend.However,someinterestingaspectsofthistypeofrelationshipshouldbe
addressedinfurtherresearch.Issuesaroundpregnancyandparentingcouldbeexploredas
thesehavebeenidentifiedasareasofconcernformenandwomen.Theolderwomanmay
notbeabletobearchildren,mayhavealreadyhadchildrenandnotwantanymore,ormay
notwantchildren.Furtherresearchfocusingonthemenwhoenterintothistypeof
relationshipshouldalsobeexplored.Itwouldbeofinteresttolookintothelongevityof
theserelationshipstodeterminewhethertheytendtobeshortorlongtermincluding
whetherthelengthofsuchrelationshipsisstronglyinfluencedbyoutdatedsocialnorms.
Researchintolongevitycouldalsoexploreintimacyandappearanceissues,whichare
concernsformanywomenastheyage.Lastly,astudycomparingthetwovariationsof
heterogamousrelationshipscouldbeundertakentoidentifywhichtypeofrelationshipis
bettersuitedtomenandwomenindifferentstagesoftheirlives.Forwomen,researchhas
indicatedthatyoungerwomenpreferoldermenandviceversatoacertainextentforolder
women.47Overall,thisisanareathatisuntappedforresearchanddeservesfurther
attention.
Conclusions
Asdemonstratedinthisexploratoryresearchnote,thesocialphenomenonofcoupleswhere
thewomanissignificantlyolderthanhermalepartnercurrentlyhasahighprominencein
nationalandinternationalmediaandinpopularculture.Itisalsobeginningtobeexamined
bytheresearchcommunityand,indeed,furtherresearchiswarranted.Ourinitialanalysisof
censusdatasuggestsinterestinthesecouplesmaybeexaggeratingtheextentofthis
phenomenon.Foravarietyofreasons,thesecouplesareanimportantgroupandtheirsize
doesseemtohavebeengrowing(albeitmarginally)sincethe1980s,atleastforcouples
livingtogetherinthesamehouseholds.Likeotherresearcherswesuspectthenumberof
olderfemale–youngermalecoupleswhoformlongtermrelationshipsisconsiderably
smallerthanthenumberwhohavehadshorttermrelationships.Ourbriefcanvassingof
theoriesastowhytheremaybemorecougarsemergingsuggeststherearesocialand
47Levesque&Caron(2004).
20
economicreasonsforafurtherexpansionofthistypeofpartneringarrangement.There
wouldhavealwaysbeencougarsinmanysocieties,butoverallthegrowthintheolder
female–youngermalecoupledoesrepresentabreakfromthetraditionalpartneringpattern
amongheterosexualcouples.Withwomenincreasinglybettereducatedthanmales,there
will,inevitably,befarmorecoupleswherethewomanisbettereducatedand,sometimes,
betterpaidthanherpartner.Itwilltaketimetoseeiftherealsocontinuestobegrowthin
coupleswherethewomanissignificantlyolderthanherpartner.Ifthereisfurthermajor
growth,itislikelythesomewhatnegativepredatorytermcougarwilldisappearoratleast
changeitscurrentconnotations.
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In 2012/2013 the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) included a comprehensive Sexual Relationships and Activities questionnaire (SRA-Q). A total of 7,079 men and women aged 50 to >90, primarily heterosexual and in a coupled relationship, completed the SRA-Q answering a series of questions about their attitudes to sexual relationships, their own sexual activities, problems and concerns with sexual functioning, and quality of intimate relationships. The questions aimed to gain insights into the ways in which sexual relations and activities related to health, well-being and other lifestyle factors as people grow older. The primary mode of data collection was a tick box response to a series of questions. However, at the end of the questionnaire an open comment box was provided, which asked respondents whether there was anything else that they would like to say. 1,084 respondents provided additional information and these comments created a unique qualitative dataset. The analysis of this data then illustrated how people’s health, relationships, experiences and perceptions of ageing, along with sexual satisfaction, impact on sexual relationships and activities.
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