The media hype about older women seeking out young men for sexual contact has about worn me down. As a relationship therapist for four decades, I have certainly defended many unfairly labeled "dirty old men," who were just guys who fell in love with younger women for their beauty, energy, and potential for having children. Many of my older male patients have wanted to start families again and have created great second marriages.
Now I have a whole new group of valuable people to defend. In the past several years, I've had the pleasure of working with older women in relationships with often much younger men. They are not the "older women who frequent clubs to score sexually with younger men," as the new, and unfair definition is of "Cougars." They are quality, mature women who have been actively sought after by younger men for long-term, committed relationships. Yes, sex is an important part of their relationship, but there is so much more.
Currently, I am working with five couples where the women are five to eighteen years older than their male partners. All of them are in committed relationships. They come into therapy to work on typical issues that all couples face, but also on the challenges that they receive regularly from the outside. Society still has deep prejudices against older women with younger men, unfairly non-reciprocal when the genders are reversed.
I ask these young men what attracts them to their women. They regularly tell me things like:
"She is so incredibly smart about life,"
"She is so easy to be with, nothing fazes her,"
"She tracks me so well. I never have to explain myself or feel badly about who I am. I've never felt this known and still loved,"
"It is so great to be with someone who isn't so concerned about what people think about her. The confidence she feels about herself and what she has to offer is an amazing turn-on."
Here's what the women say:
"He is so caring and appreciative of the things I do for him that are second nature to me."
"He makes me feel beautiful and desirable."
"He is so great with my kids."
"He's always up for any adventure. So many of the older guys I dated were uninterested in the exciting things I love to do."
"He helps me so much, often before I even have to ask."
Their most pressing problem is the discrimination they face. These couples get so many covert and overt negative comments from people that clearly indicate their discomfort: Jealous friends, kids who think moms shouldn't be in love, competitive ex-husbands who may feel displaced by a younger man, implied differences in capacity to provide for financial needs, prejudices against mature women who are "robbing the cradle," and stereotypes about older women only wanting younger men for better sex. And those are only a few.
Here's one example:
Vicky and Hal met in a book club three years ago. Vicky's husband had left her four years earlier to marry a woman twenty years younger. Her kids were torn between their concern for their mom and wanting to accept his new wife. Their dad insisted they get over the fact that his new girlfriend was only six years older than his daughters and wanted them to be "great friends."
Hal was just getting over a long-term relationship with his past girl-friend and discouraged over the women he'd been dating. So many of them were over-indulgent and self-serving, looking for money and a good time. He'd felt like they just didn't understand what it was like to spend so many years building a career and trying to pay off the huge debt he'd incurred.
Vicky seemed sincerely concerned. Twelve years older than Hal, she was wonderfully alive, kind, and calm, paying careful attention when he shared his conflicts and broken dreams. He never thought about the age difference between them as a barrier to their growing intimacy. The more time they spent together, the greater their friendship deepened. Neither thought it would be anything more than that but after a year, it blossomed into a romantic relationship.
At first, her girls thought it a little odd that their mom would spend so much time with someone so much younger than she, but Hal was such a great guy and so much fun to be around. Hanging out as a family became more natural and easy over time. They had to ward off many derogatory remarks from other people, especially from their dad, but they eagerly defended their mom's choice.
Their dad didn't do as well. Somehow feeling oddly displaced, he told Vicky that he wanted to reduce the alimony he was paying her, and told her she should "get money from her new friend for his services." He also regularly told her that people were laughing at her behind her back. Though sensitive and concerned about what people were saying, Vicky took comfort in the wonderful relationship she and Hal were creating.
One of the new modal points for divorce is women over sixty leaving sedate, often self-indulgent husbands who no longer think that romance is necessary in a long-term relationship. These more mature women are searching for men who still love an active relationship, are open to new adventures, energetic in their romantic commitments, and love women who have a combination of all of those same desires plus the maturity that life's lessons provide. What is wrong with that pairing and why can't this society offer that to its women without the derogatory descriptions that seem to be proliferating?
In Ben Franklin's 1745 essay, "Advice on the Choice of a Mistress," he gives eight reasons why a young man should prefer an older woman. First he advocates why marriage is always better than a casual relationship, but then advises that, if a man is not ready, he should definitely seek out the company of a mature woman over a younger one. Though Ben's mores do reflect the times, he tells his advice-seeker that older women have better minds, offer more interesting conversation, are good at heart, have usually satisfied their need to have children, are unlikely to exploit, give excellent counsel, and are sexually desirable and knowledgeable about good love-making.
People lived much shorter lives then, and Ben was probably not talking about long-term committed relationships, but the descriptions of mature women are not very different from what younger men today feel about their older women partners. Could we possibly come up with a different description and definition of wonderful women who are treasured by their younger men than "Cougars?"