He was 27, she was 42. Those were the ages of Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore when the couple tied the knot last year, making their highly publicized May-December romance official.
But even though their older woman-younger man relationship may be among the world's most visible, it's not that unusual anymore.
Braving "robbing the cradle" jokes, almost one-third of women between ages 40 and 69 are dating younger men (defined as 10 or more years younger). According to a recent AARP poll, one-sixth of women in their 50s, in fact, prefer men in their 40s.
It's not what you think -- the stamina or "re-boot" ability of the younger male. The women like the flexibility and sense of adventure of their more spontaneous, younger companions, Tina B. Tessina, PhD, a licensed family therapist in practice in Long Beach, Calif., and author of The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again, tells WebMD. For their part, the men like the sophistication and life success of their older mates, she explains. The much touted idea that women peak sexually in their 30s and men in their teens does not enter into it -- most of these couples are beyond both those age periods.
Other Reasons Behind This Trend
According to Tessina, other reasons underlying this expansion of everyone's dating choices include:
- Older women are looking better every day, thanks to creative medical advances and a gym on every corner.
- Women are more likely to come back on the dating market because of divorce and a longer expected life span.
- Not as many women are looking for the picket fence and two cars. Now companionship, travel, and fun are coming to the forefront.
- Women may also want a man with a less-developed career who could follow her or take care of children, if that is a factor.
- For their part, younger men often find older women more interesting, experimental, fun to talk to, financially settled, and more adept sexually.
But what about the notion that men are "hard-wired" to seek a smooth-faced, curvy receptacle for reproduction and thus are drawn to younger women? "Humans are relatively flexible species," Michael R. Cunningham, PhD, a psychologist in the department of communications at the University of Louisville, tells WebMD. "Factors other than biological can be attractive. You can override a lot of biology in pursuit of other goals."
Interestingly, Cunningham did an unpublished study of 60 women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, who were shown pictures of men aged to those decades. "The women," he says, "were more interested in men their own age or older."
As for the men, he says: "I guess it could be nice not to hang around a ditz with no knowledge of music or something like that."
Getting Over the "Shoulds"
"We have strong 'shoulds' on ways of partnering up," Kathryn Elliott, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, explains to WebMD. "We are victims of inner-critic constrictedness. We think we should only weigh 120. We should marry people within two years of our age. We pathologize anything that isn't within those shoulds."
The key to making older women/younger man relationships work, Elliott says, is to match what she calls voltages. "Choose someone who is your voltage type -- has the same level of intensity about life. If the voltages are different, one becomes the pursuer and one the distancer. This can create pain."
Voltages are not a factor of age, she says.
"What you don't want," she explains, "is one partner wanting to go out, the other stay in; one willing to talk, the other wanting space (and silence to enjoy it)."
Dealing With the Flak
Susan Winter is co-author, with Felicia Brings, of Older Women, Younger Men: New Options for Love and Romance. She has been in several relationships with men up to 20 years younger than herself.
She works out a lot by her own admission (and judging by her track record in this department) and often meets partners at the gym, not the bars.
Winter tells WebMD that she and her co-author interviewed more than 200 couples for their book. Though hardly a scientific study, the research surfaced three myths such couples hear every time:
- Myth No. 1 -- "He will leave you for a younger woman." Winter says they did not find one younger man who did this, at least for a specific woman and because she was younger. "In some cases, the man wanted children," she says, "and the relationship fell apart because of that."
- Myth No. 2 -- "The woman was the seducer -- Mrs. Robinson." In all 200 cases, Winter says it was the man who initiated the contact.
- Myth No. 3 -- "It will never last." Winter said some of the couples they met had been together 25 year or more. The average length of the relationships was 13 years.
Pretty Promising Material Out There
Winter is upbeat about the younger generations. "The boomers are lost sheep," she says. "All they can do to get a woman is dangle their Porsche keys." As you peel back the decades, though, the men get "cooler," she says. Guys in their 30s get her vote. "They grew up with AIDS, they are considerate. Such men (at least the ones interested in older women) are stable and mature. They don't want to be mothered. They want a woman who knows who she is."
Still, even Winter admits, this may not be for everyone.