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The latest dating trend? Romancing someone 10, even 20 years younger. While May-December romances are nothing new, it seems more common than ever, especially for high-profile couples. Singer Patti LaBelle’s new man (and drummer) Eric Sears is 30 years her junior. Actor Johnny Depp, 52 is married to 29-year-old Amber Heard. With 84-year-old media kingpin Rupert Murdoch marrying 59-year-old model Jerry Hall, along with at least seven high-profile couples with serious age gaps at this year’s Golden Globes, there is definitely something in the air.
If you watched the Golden Globes on Sunday, you may have noticed that the wider the age gap, the more starry-eyed the couples seemed. There was Murdoch grinning ear to ear with his arm wrapped around Hall. 46-year-old Christian Slater gushing onstage about his wife, 18 years his junior, Brittany Lopez. Ditto Sylvester Stallone, 69, who has been married to Jennifer Flavin, 47, for almost 20 years. Spy actor Jason Statham walked the red carpet with his glowing 20-years-younger fiancée, Victoria’s Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. Harrison Ford, 73, posed for after party pictures staring into 51-year-old Calista Flockhart’s eyes. Not to be outdone, Jennifer Lopez was escorted by her boyfriend, choreographer-dancer Casper Smart; he’s 28, she’s 46.
So what are the benefits of a big age gap, and who exactly benefits the most? According to Manhattan psychiatrist Dr. Gail Saltz, the younger partner may be looking “for some sort of parent, protector, nurturer.” While, for the more senior person, the relationship may boost confidence. “Some people really do relish being the caretaker, the nurturer, and the wiser paternal figure,” says Saltz, who says being needed is a big ego boost. “It’s a way to feel more confident.”
Then there are more complex issues that the pairing creates. For the older partner, scouting out someone who is in a different generation may be a way to reclaim their youth. “Many people say, ‘I may be this age, but I feel like I’m 25,’” explains Saltz. Could the key to feeling younger be as simple as romancing someone who was born when you graduated high school? Possibly, but it’s a lot more complicated to date someone in a different age bracket. For starters, a relationship with a big disparity in income and power is more common with age gaps, and it opens up the door to an unequal playing field, dependency, and resentments on both sides.
The other big problem? The relationships tend not to last as long. Someone who is robust in their late 50s may not be when they hit 70. There are changes that come with each decade, and understanding someone else’s issues becomes harder when you’re experiencing vastly different things. “Marriages with bigger age gaps tend to have a higher divorce rate,” explains Dr. Fran Walfish. “One of the reasons is that each decade of age difference puts another generation of communication distance between the partners. Partners from different generations may have different cultural reference points and values, and polar opposite tastes in music and film, and even friends, and also have different approaches to sex. Sex drive goes up for women in middle age, but sexual function decreases for men.”
Despite their waning sex drive, it’s more common for men to be the older partner in May-December romances. You would think, at least sexually, it would be the opposite. But there is still a double standard. “I think it’s got a more positive connotation, unfairly, for men than women. Cougar doesn’t have a positive vibe, it’s more of a predatory notion, and for men there is more of the pat on the back, with the ‘You go buddy!’” says Saltz. However, Saltz is noticing more and more women dating younger. “For a time men were more likely to have the money and power, so they were in a position to buy youth, in a way,” says Saltz. “Now women have more power and also have the money to recruit youth.” However, high-profile women like J.Lo and Robin Wright dating younger are changing the perception. See a woman dating a younger guy and the response is more like “Why not?” than “Why?”
As for the soon-to-be-newlyweds, Hall and Murdoch, Dr. Saltz sees benefits on both sides. “An 84-year-old man actually has a lot to gain by a partner who will be conversational, able to share intimacies, and share what’s going on,” she explains. “It may also be beneficial to [Hall], but less so. With an 84-year-old partner, you are probably looking at future caretaking.” However, she is quick to point out that with their ages, almost 60 and early 80s, the age gap isn’t as wide as if she was 25 and he was 50. “They have been through much of life already, it’s not as disparate.”
As with all relationships, it all depends on your perspective. Walfish cites one of the best quips about an age gap ever coming from actress Joan Collins: “81 years old at the time, she married her theatrical producer husband, Percy Gibson, 32 years younger, in 2000. When asked by reporters if she was worried about their age difference, she replied, ‘If he dies, he dies.’”