The Science Behind Cougar Relationships

Anthropologist Helen Fisher knows a thing or two about relationships. Her expertise in the field has led to numerous books on the biology of love and sex. Here, Dr. Fisher explains the science behind May-December romances and why they're here to stay.

By Helen Fisher, PhD, as told to Daniela Jelaska
Photograph: iStock

The human brain was built to reproduce.  Our minds are naturally inclined to believe an older man, younger woman pairing is the best reproductive match. (She’s got the fresh young eggs and he has the money to support them.) But in today’s world there are many cultural aspects that override that biological need. We want fewer children (they’re expensive) and we're maturing a great deal later because of education.   A high divorce rate means relationships have a lot of turnover, and a man in his 30s may very well already have a child.  This gives him the option to seek a woman solely for companionship, rather than a mother for his child. From a Darwinian perspective, this older woman cannot reproduce. So when we see that young man, who’s in the height of his reproductive years, with a woman who is a reproductive dead end we can’t help but think, what’s the point?

Well, the point is love. And romantic love is not an emotion. As I said in during my 2006 TEDTalk seminar, I had always thought it was a series of emotions, from very high to very low. But through the years I’ve found that love comes from the motor of the mind, the wanting part of the mind, the craving part of the mind. It’s the part of the mind that reaches for that piece of chocolate,  that wants to win that promotion at work. It’s a drive.

The most important relationship right now in America is the relationship with your significant other. Not with your kin, your community or even your parents. Modern relationships are changing in ways that give both sexes more freedom. But it wasn't always this way.

For almost 10,000 years we lived in an agrarian society. In these hunting and gathering societies women worked— they picked fruits and vegetables that contributed to 60-70% of the evening meal. The double income family was the rule. When societies moved onto the farm, women lost power and their jobs were reduced to having children and working around the home. The Industrial Revolution opened the door for women to move off the farm and into factories. Their roles were expanding and with that they began marrying later, having fewer children and divorcing more regularly— all because they could economically afford it. The need to seek a reproductive partner was lifted—giving both men and women a larger range of partners to choose from. Women no longer had to marry up and men no longer needed a childbearing vessel.

I’ve always admired the men who date older, interesting women in lieu of arm candy. Women become more fascinating with age— they know more people, they’ve been more places and they’ve read more books. To call them cougars, a word that carries such a predatory connotation, would be inaccurate. The younger man is just as eager to find the older women as the older woman is to find the younger man.  A recent study showed that 69% of men have dated an older woman, with 27% of those relationships having an age gap of 10-20 years.

When you think about it, so much of our body is built to display our age, particularly on the head. A man or woman who exercises a lot won't have much physical change– but their hair color and skin are just a few signals of age, and of course those signals mean a woman is not longer of reproductive age. It’s interesting that the brain circuitry for romantic love is so powerful it can overlook this ancient biological strategy.

This is only the beginning of a huge global trend. It’s been called the marriage revolution—and this older woman-younger man pairing is part of that revolution. We’ll continue to see more of it around the world.

Helen E. Fisher, PhD biological anthropologist, is a Research Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Rutgers University. She is also the Chief Scientific Advisor for chemistry.com.

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First Published January 13, 2011

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KT9 04.21.2011

Cathy, I agree, "cougar" is a disgusting term. I don't know why a magazine geared toward older women is embracing it like it's some kind of badge of honor.
And not only is "cougar" used in a derogatory way about women who date younger men, it's become a blanket term for ALL older women and it's fully intended as an insult. Cougar = long in the tooth = out to pasture = undesirable, etc.
So, to title an entire magazine section as "Cougar Cafe" is nothing but a slap in the face. Hopefully someone on More's crack staff will get a clue and rename it.

serkan talip04.08.2011

I don't appreciate my opinions being deleted. Shows how ignorant whoever deleted my comments are. I am entitled to my opinion and it should stay on the Site.
Hyenas is becoming an accepted term to replace Cougars.
There is nothing more disgusting then an old hag with a young man and vice versa. Our society is all about using/abusing/sex/shelfishness. Older men and women are full of baggage and they strap it on younger naieve kids who have daddy/mommy issues.
If you erase my comments I will be taking some steps to make "more" look like "less". I am entitled to my opinions.

d Cambridge03.14.2011

I agree with Cathy...I think it is a totally derogatory term. The man I am dating is 25 years younger than me..I am 54 years young. He pays for dinner, he treats me with respect. He has me reading classics I have never read (and he's from Italy not even an American), took me to the opera..we enjoy movies and discussing them, cooking together and he chased me. I had no idea and wasn't looking...calling women like me a Cougar makes me want to cancel my subscription to your Magazine. I resent it...and don't tell me to lighten up...we've come a long way...you're setting us back.

Cathy Isbell02.23.2011

I couldn't believe when I read that you have named this item "Cougar Cafe"..every woman I know despises the label "Cougar" and the notion that somehow an older woman dating a younger man has a predatory connotation...shame on you for perpetuating this stereotype!
I would think that a magazine such as yours, which is meant to celebrate a woman of a certain age would know better!

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