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November 11, 2009

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Cougars: Hot in Hollywood, endangered in real life

DARIN Riggio has a thing for older women - he dated his first "Cougar" when he was a 19-year-old college student. She was 43.

Since then, the 24-year-old who lives in Boca Raton, Florida, has dated women old enough to be his mother.

"Women my age don't know what they want," says Riggio, ticking off his list of why older women are better. "Two, they are usually immature. Three, there's a lot of drama involved. Four, they don't have as much experience as older women."

But Riggio, who was briefly married to a woman his age, says he probably wouldn't marry an older woman. He likes to date them more for fun.

Cougar relationships may be hot in Hollywood - from ABC's "Cougar Town" to celebrity couplings like Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore and even a reality show, "The Cougar" - but few women are married to men who are significantly younger.

Dating experts say they have seen a rise in older women seeking younger men, though not necessarily the other way around. And they say those matches don't tend to turn into long-term relationships.

In fact, only 1 percent of all marriages in 2008 were between a woman who was 10-14 years older than her husband; 2.6 percent six to nine years older, according to US Census figures. (About 5 percent and 11.6 percent the other way around, respectively.)

"I don't think we're going to see a wholesale change in our society with younger men all of a sudden wanting to marry older women," says Debbie Then, a social psychologist in California. "But I think they may date some Cougars who are still sort of looking young, hip and hot.

"I think the younger men, it's more of an adventure for them," she adds. "It's like traveling to an exotic land for a while."

Christie Nightingale of the matchmaking service Premier Match says she has seen an increase in the past six months of women requesting younger men. A 48-year-old woman used to want a man between the ages of 45 and 60, she said. Now she wants a man between the ages of 35 and 50.

The women say they are "so youthful and so full of energy," men their age or older can't keep up with them, Nightingale says.

But she has not seen a change in age preference from her male clients, so she has found herself calling them to see if they would be open to dating an older woman. While a few of them are willing to try it, she doesn't believe they are serious about it long-term.

Valerie Gibson, author of "Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men," says that is fine for a real Cougar, a term she says has been misused to describe any woman who dates a younger man. A Cougar is not looking to get married or even be in a long-term serious relationship, she says, but is looking to have a good time.

Long-term, Cougar relationships can be problematic because the man may decide he wants his own biological children, or the pair may have trouble relating to different life stages, says dating coach Evan Marc Katz, who himself is married to a woman three years older.

Most marriages - about 32 percent - were between a husband and wife whose ages were within a year of each other, and about one-fifth were with a man who was two to three years older than his wife, US Census data shows.

But that doesn't mean age - and the confidence and independence that come with it - can't be a turn-on for younger men, says Linda Franklin, author of "Don't Ever Call Me Ma'am: The Real Cougar Woman Handbook." She says men also like finding a woman who is done having children or isn't planning on having any, dodging the pressure of a biological clock.

"It's more about their energy and their vitality," says Anthony Sandford, 46, a divorced father of two in Westfield, New Jersey. The IT consultant has dated women as much as a decade older. He said older women are more grounded, their children are grown and they have the time and resources to do things like travel.

Often, age doesn't even come up initially.

Raymond Michaels, 23, thought his wife Jennifer, 41, a divorced mom of three, was in her late 20s or early 30s when he met her three years ago in a parking lot and helped her with her car. The couple, who live in Maui, Hawaii, have been married for two years.

"She was just real sweet," he says. "She had this great smile and beautiful eyes. Her personality was strong and confident. Age isn't really a factor to me. It's just the person."


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