Dating & Relationships

Older Women Who Marry Younger Men: They’re Stigmatized, but Highly Satisfied

June 14, 2017 by Justin Lehmiller

Both before and after the recent election of French president Emmanuel Macron, his wife, Brigitte, found herself to be the target of constant attacks on social media. Why? Because she happens to be 24 years older than her husband.

Age-gap relationships in which a woman is significantly older than her male partner have always attracted a lot of attention and scrutiny. Case in point: remember what big news it was when Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher were together? As you may have noticed, this same scrutiny isn’t usually applied to relationships in which men are significantly older than their female partners. As some evidence of this, just consider what a non-issue it has been that U.S. President Donald Trump happens to be 24 years older than his wife, Melania (the same age gap the Macrons have between them).

Research on age-gap relationships bears out this double standard: people are more disapproving of opposite-sex age-gap couples when the older partner is female than they are when the older partner is male [1]. In the case of these woman-older relationships, the disapproval seems to be reserved primarily for the female partner: whereas older women are commonly referred to as “cougars”—a term that implies they are nothing but sexual predators—derogatory labels for the younger men who enter these relationships don’t exist.

This strong bias against woman-older age-gap relationships probably helps to explain, at least in part, why they’re so rare: according to U.S. census data, just 1.3% of different-sex marriages feature a woman who is ten or more years older than her husband [2].

But in the face of this double standard and all of the social resistance, is it possible for older women to develop and maintain long-term, satisfying relationships with younger men? According to a study I published on this topic a few years ago, the answer is yes.

I collected data online from approximately 200 heterosexual women in relationships. These women were roughly evenly divided between those who were much older than their male partners (22 years older on average), those who were much younger than their male partners (17 years younger on average), and those who were close in age to their partners (3 years different on average).

What I found was that women who were more than ten years older than their male partners were actually the most satisfied with and committed to their relationships compared to both women who were younger than their partners and women whose partners were close in age [3].

Why were the older women happier with their relationships? We don’t know for sure, but it may be because when the woman is older, it shifts the traditional heterosexual power dynamic toward greater equality. We know from a lot of research that greater equality tends to make couples happier [4], so perhaps it’s just the case that this arrangement is simply more equitable.

Though more research is needed, what these results tell us is that while age-gap couples featuring an older women and a younger man might appear to face a very tough road due to social stigma, this does not necessarily prevent them from developing strong and highly satisfying relationships.

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[1] Banks, C. A., & Arnold, P. (2001). Opinions towards sexual partners with a large age difference. Marriage & Family Review, 33, 5–18.

[2] U.S. Census Bureau. (1999). America’s families and living arrangements. Retrieved April 8, 2009 from: socdemo/hh-fam/p20-537_99

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

Image Credit: 123RF/adrianhancu

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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