Cougars and Gold-Diggers: The Double Standards Facing Women in Relationships with Age Gaps

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Imagine going out to dinner with your significant other. A friend you have not seen in years spots you, says hello, and asks if your significant other is your father. This is the often awkward reality facing individuals involved in relationships with significant age gaps.  

One study that classified relationships with an age difference of ten years or greater found that approximately 8% of heterosexual couples have this age gap. Relationships of an older woman and younger man only made up 1% of these relationships. This statistic goes back centuries to the longstanding tradition of marriage between an older, wealthy man and a young, fertile woman for status and the maintenance of fortunes. The 1% will likely see marginal growth in the future, but it is still tied up in negative connotations, such as the views that older women are taking advantage of younger men, or that younger women are pairing up with older men for money. 

Most couples meet through friends, during school, or increasingly via social media apps. Therefore the tendency is to match up with someone at a similar stage in life. For some, meeting and becoming attracted to someone of a very different age demographic is not part of the plan. Yet often, it is a scenario that plays out favorably and leads to a happy, satisfying relationship.  

The concept is so unusual that it has even inspired a British reality show, Age Gap Love, that documents the lifestyles of couples around the world who are in such relationships. The show demonstrates firsthand the difficulties facing these types of relationships as the societal perception can be quite negative. 

Age gap couples are often subjected to criticism and double standards. Women who marry older men are frequently accused of gold-digging. One notorious incident of a particularly eyebrow-raising marriage is that of Courtney Stodden and Doug Hutchison. Stodden met her future husband via the Internet when she was sixteen. Hutchison, Stodden’s acting coach, was fifty years old when their relationship began. He married Stodden, his third wife, with the approval of her parents, who believed their teenage daughter was capable of making this choice. Stodden, a devout Christian, cited her faith in God and belief in the sanctity of marriage as fundamental in her desire to wed at such a young age. Both Stodden and Hutchison received backlash due to their courtship, with Hutchison being labeled as a pedophile and Stodden being called a gold-digger. Stodden suffered a miscarriage in July 2016, and shortly thereafter the two legally separated. She cited their age gap as a major factor in their issues as a couple. In March 2018, Stodden filed for divorce from her husband of seven years.  

Conversely, men who date women who are their elder are less likely to be labeled a gold-digger and more likely to be seen as having an oedipal complex. Freud’s psychoanalytic theory relating to the Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex. According to the oft-critiqued theory, due to a child’s unconscious desire to have sex with their parent of the opposite sex, they may seek a partner similar to their parent. 

References also abound to the classic 1967 film, The Graduate, in which Ben, a young man fresh out of college, is seduced by his parents’ friend, Mrs. Robinson, and later falls in love with her daughter. There is something desirable about being with an older woman, or “cougar”, that makes this sort of relationship high-five worthy, but still looked at somewhat disapprovingly. The take home message of The Graduate, which perhaps set the standard for such couplings, seems to be that cougars prey upon young, vulnerable men who should truly be with young, innocent girls like the daughter, Elaine. When an unfeeling and jaded Ben agrees with his parents’ insistence that he takes Elaine Robinson on a date, he brings her to a strip club. We see pure Elaine on the verge of tears at the insensitivity and incivility of Benjamin. 

George Clooney was briefly married to Talia Balsam for four years before their divorce in 1993. Since then, he has been known as an elusive bachelor for most of his career as an actor, causing speculation that he simply was not interested in being tied down by a wife and family. However, he met and fell in love with international human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin. In the case of Amal Clooney who proved herself to be an intelligent and sophisticated woman, her younger age is augmented by her independence as a career woman. The pair tied the knot when she was thirty-five and he was fifty-two. Despite the seventeen year age difference, their mutual interest in humanitarian work has helped them to have a successful relationship. In 2017 they became parents as they welcomed twins Ella and Alexander.  

The decision to have children often factors into relationships with an age gap. In the case of Mr. And Mrs. Clooney, neither of their ages effected their ability to have healthy kids. However, becoming pregnant past the age of thirty tends to be more difficult and risky for women. While men do not face the same challenges in having babies, children of older parents are at a greater risk for physical and mental disabilities. Many older women then who decide to have kids later in life are viewed as irresponsible for waiting so long, while men are reminded of how old they will be when their children get married.  

While relationships with significant age differences remain a bit of an anomaly, the evolving gender dynamics of the modern age will likely pave the way for a shift in the perception of these unions. The success of any relationship depends on the individuals involved, and for some, an age gap may be just the thing what makes it work.