Why cougars and judgement go hand in hand

COUGAR QUEEN: If anyone's an expert on dating younger men it's Madonna.
COUGAR QUEEN: If anyone's an expert on dating younger men it's Madonna.

Madonna is currently dating a man 30 years her junior - Timor Steffens, aged 26, follows on from her two previous boyfriends, both also in their 20s. Susan Sarandon spent 23 years with Tim Robbins, a man 12 years her junior. Since they split up, the 67-year-old actress is said to be dating 36-year-old Jonathan Bricklin. Mariah Carey is 11 years older than her husband and Geena Davis 15 years older than hers. Australian actors Hugh Jackman and Deborra-Lee Furness are famous for not just the longevity of their union (almost 20 years now) but also the 13 years she has over him. And new model mum Megan Gale, at 38, has over 12 years on her Aussie rules footballer partner Shaun Hampson.

No one would comment if the gender was reversed in these relationships because historically, women have tended to partner with older men.

Demographer Bernard Salt describes this as "survival theory", explaining that men are seeking younger females to procreate with, while women are looking for a stable provider. "That's the basis of traditional relationships," he says.

9-YEAR DIFFERENCE: Fiona Scott Norman and Greg Craske.
9-YEAR DIFFERENCE: Fiona Scott Norman and Greg Craske.

Society, and women's power within it, have evolved - but not the stats. "There has been some movement, but it's not significant," says Salt, referring to data on the average age at which people get married. "Women still partner with a male two-and-a-bit years older."

So while celebrity magazines may be populated with women in relationships with younger men, Australian and New Zealand homes aren't.

"I can't see any broad shift in the aggregate numbers to show that this is a growing trend," says Salt. But he adds that there are couples "running counter to the herd" when it comes to age differences. We meet three such couples...

17-YEAR DIFFERENCE: Melinda Price and James Arnott.
17-YEAR DIFFERENCE: Melinda Price and James Arnott.

Fiona Scott Norman, 51, and Gregory Craske, 40

It was the hats. When Fiona and Gregory met at a mutual friend's birthday dinner four years ago they had both donned millinery for the occasion. Gregory, a software developer and musician, had just returned from a band tour. "I was feeling pretty good about life and I was thinking to myself I should find a chick, so I was on the look out," he says. Writer and performer Fiona recalls him "violently flirting" with her.

Although no stranger to flirtation, she was not immediately won over. "I really was going, 'Is he just a boning marauder?' " she says.

19-YEAR DIFFERENCE: Helen and Christian Williams.
19-YEAR DIFFERENCE: Helen and Christian Williams.

Fiona has a history of mostly dating younger men - largely, she says, due to demographics. "If you get older and you're still single, most of the men who are still around are in their 30s. All these available 40-something men ... it's like they're just not there. They're married, or getting over hideous divorces and are very bitter."

Their introduction had been on a first-name-only basis, and Gregory says he "almost fell out of my chair" when he found Fiona on their friend's Facebook the following day and discovered she was the Triple R radio presenter he'd been listening to for years. "I thought to myself, 'Well, I'm glad I didn't know that, because I would have been too intimidated to do anything,' " he says.

He had thought she was only slightly older than himself but asked the age question on their second date, along with "questions like, 'Do you have children? Are you going away overseas next week?' All that sort of stuff that you want to know about if you're thinking about [pursuing] someone," he says.

When he discovered their 12-year age gap, Gregory had one "moment", but that was based more on his past. Having been in two relationships with older women with children, he was concerned that a pattern was forming. Once he realised that this was a different relationship, he never considered the age difference again. "Being older, the age gap is probably not as significant as it would have been if I was 20 and she was 32," says Gregory. "That would have been a much bigger difference."

The age gap created a different concern for Fiona. "I went, 'Look, I'm 47 and he was, 'I'm fine, I went out with someone 17 years older!' But the biological reality is if you want to have kids, it's not going to happen. Before we went any further this had to be sorted, so we had that conversation really early."

Once they'd established that neither had a desire for children, and with Gregory's sisters having already produced five grandchildren, taking the pressure off them, the couple feel free to embrace their creative interests and itinerant lifestyle. "I think if [having a family] is not in the picture, it really changes the picture," says Fiona.

A shared aesthetic bonds them, they say, along with similar taste in music and a love of dancing. And, of course, the hats.


Melinda Price, 43, and James Arnott, 26

Melinda and James first met in the way so many couples do: drunk on a nightclub dance floor. Neither had intended to go out that particular evening, but fate intervened. What started as a casual thing five years ago has since grown into a serious relationship, with daughter Lily entering their lives three years ago, at the same time as Melinda was battling breast cancer. "James looked after both of us," says Melinda, who is now in the clear and studying naturopathy.

James, an accountant, had only just turned 21 when they met. Melinda was 37. "We didn't go public for a very long time because of the age thing," she says.

At first they didn't know whether this would be short-term or develop into something more, and decided there was no rush to meet respective families and friends. Looking back, Melinda admits she "did myself a lot of brain damage" trying to come up with reasons why it couldn't work, until she finally made peace with the fact that age is just a number. "There are far more important things to worry about in a future partner than just how old they are."

But with an approaching 40th birthday, Melinda was hearing the ticking of her biological clock loud and clear. "I started to panic about the future," she says. Fortunately, James had always wanted to have children and loves being a father.

"I remember what I was like when I was 21, and probably was the same when I was 31," Melinda says. "There was no way I was ready to do all of that, but luckily James is a bit different."

Describing herself as "young at heart", Melinda felt welcomed by James's friends, once they got over their disbelief. "That was quite common throughout the relationship," he says, "because when I introduced her to people they'd think, 'This can't be the older woman you've told us about' because she definitely didn't look her age."

The age gap, however, meant their incomes were very different. At the start of their relationship, James was only earning trainee wages, while Melinda was earning considerably more in the automotive industry, and had assets. "So if we went out, Mel would be paying," says James, adding that he isn't concerned because he knows she will most likely retire well ahead of him. "It will just even out at the other end."

Melinda admits "the other end" plays on her mind sometimes. She points out that when James hits the age she is now, she'll be 60. "At some point you'll be a young man and I'll be an old lady," she says to him.

James says he's thought about this as well. "If I'm 43 and Mel's 60, it means we've been together for 22 years. If you've been together for 22 years, obviously the love has grown so much you're not going to stuff it up. You don't knock back love when it's there and age is a very, very silly reason to not go after a person you're extremely compatible with. We only thought about age for the first few months and then never again, really."


Helen Williams, 46, and Christian Williams, 27

Helen and Christian had only been dating for two and half weeks when he, clean shaven and wearing a baseball cap backwards, was mistaken for her son. "It did throw me because I'd only just met him and I didn't know whether I was going to start a relationship with him," recalls company owner Helen, who is now married to the former elite athlete.

When they first met at a work-related social event 18 months ago, the encounter was so brief they didn't even exchange names. But Christian was sufficiently interested to find out who she was and text her the next day.

"Things just happened so naturally and it was like we'd been together for years," says Helen of their compatibility. "I would normally never introduce my children to someone for four to six months," she adds, referring to her two teenage sons. But two and a half weeks after meeting she and Christian were on a family date, and three months later they were engaged.

Although the proposal took her by surprise ("as a woman you're analysing everything"), she realised she didn't have any reservations. "This is a second chance for me to really know what love is, so I'm going to take it," says Helen, who separated from the father of her sons eight years ago.

Says Christian, who now works as a primary school teacher after an incurable heart condition cut short his sports career, "I'd only ever go out with someone I admire or thought I could learn something from. I couldn't go out with an athlete because I want to be with someone who has a different set of life experiences and can show me a different perspective."

All of his past relationships have been with older women, on average 17 years his senior. Helen, however, had never considered younger men. "If you'd asked me before I met Christian, 'Would you go out with someone as young as he is, or who has a terminal illness?' I would go, 'No, absolutely not!' "

Originally, they both thought the age gap was much smaller. "I looked a lot younger than I was and he looked a little bit older. And my girlfriend had told me he was 32 and he thought I was 38. I was like, 'Oh, six years, I don't know!' " Helen laughs.

But she soon got over any reservations. "He's packed what a 50-year-old would do in his life into 27 years ... so it's like he has the heart of a 50-year-old in a gorgeous 27-year-old body!"

Christian has embraced his "instant family" and bonded with his stepsons. "They adore him," says Helen. Wider family members were "shocked but excited at the same time", she says, and friends have also been supportive, though the couple have been the subject of gossip - "People who are jealous and want to damage you," says Helen.

But they haven't let that get them down. "We're soul mates and we're meant to be together," she says. "And I have never been so in love."

- Daily Life