Mariah Carey, 42, has had twins with Nick Cannon–that’s a 10-year age gap. J-Lo, 42, is dating a 24 year old–that’s 18 years. But top of the tree, as ever, is Madonna, 53, who is at least considering a marriage proposal from her 24-year-old boyfriend, Brahim Zaibat. But no one raises an eyebrow at a 29-year age gap any more. We live in the age of the Cougar. There’s Cougar Town on television and dating sites like CougarLife.com. And it’s not just for celebrities-according to a 2008 AARP poll, almost one-third of women between the ages of 40 and 69 date men who are 10 or more years younger.
But how do you make a cougar relationship work? What will Madonna have to do to make sure her relationship lasts longer than W.E. did at the box office? We asked dating expert Susan Winter, co-author of Older Women, Younger Men, for some advice.
Don't Assume He’s Going To Cheat. “The assumption that a younger man will inevitably cheat on an older woman is part of the historic nonsense by which women are made to feel fearful, valueless and undesirable,” she says.
It doesn’t seem that way, admittedly. Judging from US Weekly, infidelity is by far the biggest issue cougars face. Look at Halle Berry and Eva Longoria, who ended their relationships when their younger men allegedly strayed with younger women. Then there was Ashton Kutcher who stepped out with a 23-year-old, leading Demi Moore into a whippet-induced 911 scandal.
But these stories skew the picture, says Winter. “In the hundreds of cases I've researched, the couples I know and with whom I've worked, there is love and fidelity,” she says.
Besides, these younger men usually have little reason to stray. "As women mature, they can more fully enjoy the complete scope of their sexual expression. Meanwhile, the younger man is still in a stage of robust sexuality and more apt to explore his desires with a currently open and willing partner. These two factors create a powerful chemistry between the two."
Watch Your Insecurities. It doesn’t help that women have been wired for centuries to equate their worth with youth and beauty. But fall victim to that stuff at your peril. “It is often the limiting thoughts a woman has absorbed that can create problems for the couple,” says Winter. “If she is fearful, insecure and doubting her merit, she will never be able to accept that her younger man loves her.” Winter adds that media reports about Demi Moore’s obsession with looking young are “the perfect example of how the ideal of youth and beauty can torture even the most lovely example of a modern-day woman.”
The idea that one must maintain an illusion of youth to keep a younger partner is illogical. “The younger man knows she's older,” says Winter. “It's an up-front buy that he's willing to accept, because he values the totality of who she is and what she brings to his life.”
Talk about family planning. Insecurity and infidelity are juicier issues, for sure, but the most common reason older women’s relationships with younger men end is more prosaic. “Children are the deal-breaker,” says Winter. “That’s usually what it comes down to.”
The most common disagreements arise when the younger man wants a child, and the older woman is done having children, can no longer do so or is simply committed to her child-free lifestyle. Yet women shouldn’t assume that all younger men will eventually want children.
Says Winter, “More and more, I'm meeting young men partnered with women 15-20 years older, both of whom don't want to have children.” In fact, the desire to remain child-free may account for many younger men seeking older female partners in the first place.
The important thing is to talk about it.
Be courageous. Despite the prevalence of the cougar trend, older women shouldn’t expect society to treat their relationships with younger men as “normal.” They will likely field their share of raised eyebrows from friends and family members. Even the term cougar, with its predatory connotation, is one that many women would rather not associate themselves with.
So a woman’s ability to successfully date a younger man may ultimately come down to being an independent thinker who is brave enough to buck the system (kind of like Madonna).
“Madonna lives her life boldly, openly and without regard for social convention. Indeed, this is a woman who would have the courage to love a younger man,” says Winter.
So Madonna may have famously flamed out with former husband Guy Ritchie, but that’s not to say that things won’t work out with Zaibat. At a mere 10 years younger, perhaps Ritchie was just too old for her.