Photo by Phil Klein/AP
Kimberlee Turner enjoyed the cougar life after a brief teen marriage to her high school sweetheart ended in divorce.
She started off dating guys a few years her junior, then graduated to age spreads of a decade or more.
"I was terrified of men my age or older than myself. Really, really afraid," said Turner, a 46-year-old bookkeeper from San Luis Obispo, Calif. "They wanted to marry me and put me in a house and keep me there. They seemed incredibly boring."
As the years rolled on, though, her dates were closer in age to her 25-year-old daughter. Some of her paramours joked that if her offspring was just a little bit older, " 'I'd be dating her instead.' "
So after years of playing "Jane to their Tarzan," Turner is happily an ex-cougar, living with a man four years older in a relationship five years strong and getting stronger.
Much is made of age as a meaningless number in relationships as the cougar craze has become cultural wallpaper akin to older men-younger women couplings. But does age, in fact, sometimes matter -- and perhaps more for women than for the Hugh Hefners of the world?
The impact broad age spreads have in how well cougar-cub marriages fare decades down the line has been little studied. What happens when a man, say 10 years younger or more, decides he wants a biological child? What about a financially independent career woman who's ready to retire and hit the road on permanent vacation while her younger hubby has years left on the job?
David Arquette, 39, said 46-year-old Courteney Cox tired of being his "mother," so they separated in October, 11 years and one child into their marriage. Cher and Madonna both married and are divorced from younger men, with no indication whether age was a factor.
In a 2004 study of divorce at midlife and beyond, the AARP noted a likely uptick in decouplings among older people overall as life expectancies increase and the less traditional baby boom generation ages. In real numbers, women married to younger men were a thin demographic slice, less than 15 percent in the study released four years prior to cougars taking on the world in a noticeable way.
Pepper Schwartz, the sex and relationship expert for AARP and a sociology professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, said cougar dating is one thing. "You play around with somebody for a while and have a lot of fun, but it's another thing to say, 'Hey, we're signing up for a long haul.' "
Sometimes the age factor isn't a factor at all, she said. For others, it doesn't become one until well into a marriage.
"It sometimes doesn't really hit until you're in a different health cycle. You have to pay the piper if you're the younger person. The older person doesn't eat the same way anymore or run marathons with you anymore," Schwartz said. "Sometimes people who marry a young man worry about those things. Some say I don't even want to test those waters."
Turner was done having children, for instance. "I had many, many men -- easily 50 percent -- who said 'I want you, I don't want kids,' but later said, 'I need a baby. I need to have a child.' "
Ed Hale, 42, is nine years younger than his wife, Nahal. She has two daughters from a previous marriage. His desire for biological children and her reticence about more babies nearly did them in. "I didn't know if there was a future for us," said the 51-year-old Nahal. "All I knew was I was madly in love with Ed."
The feeling was mutual and they decided to marry in 2009. "When it comes to the whole cougar-cub marriage thing, the idea of not being able to have children with your wife, it's heartbreaking," Ed said. "It puts you in direct conflict as a younger man between the love you feel for your wife and your lifelong aspiration and assumptions that you were always going to have kids of your own."
The couple splits their time between Seattle and New York City. They've been trying to conceive a child through fertility treatment, with no luck.
For Deborah Becker, 41, of Eau Claire, Wis., it's not about babies but about maturity and responsibility.
Becker's husband is 10 years younger. They tied the knot three years ago.
"I love the guy. I do. I love it, but I don't know how to bridge that generation gap without potentially getting a third party involved to help us learn how to better communicate," she said. "I saw the Courteney Cox thing and I was, like, I know where she's coming from."