Older Woman, Younger Man: It's a Match Made in Cyberspace

(By Margaret Thomas -- The Washington Post)
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By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, July 22, 2008

What do older women want?

Younger men.

Online dating services say women of a certain age want the white-haired gent, as long as he's not too old. Women age 50 and older almost always tell eHarmony.com that they want a younger man -- 10, 15 years younger, sometimes more. And on Match.com, a 50-year-old woman is typically seeking a man who is 48.

"This is going to surprise you," says Craig Wax, senior vice president and general manager of Match.com North America. "It's the woman who is going for the younger guy."

Women have come a long way. Going for the younger guy is perhaps yet another triumph for the women's movement, which has broken down barriers between the sexes and pushed for equal opportunity in all spheres of life. The change is buttressed by the new biology of aging. Women, according to calculations based on mortality risk, are five years "younger" than men the same age. The 65-year-old woman is the biological equivalent of a 60-year-old man. So it's sensible, not just fanciful, for a woman to look for a younger guy.

But there's a problem: The men don't get it. They are stuck in the old biology of aging. They, too, are looking for younger partners. On eHarmony.com, men 50 and older are seeking women who are six to 26 years younger. On Match.com, the average 56-year-old man is looking for a 54-year-old woman. Seems reasonable, but by the time he reaches 70, he wants a 58-year-old woman.

Gender equality in the search for younger partners is creating a mating gap in gray love. A 70-year-old woman is looking for a 66-year-old man. The 65-year-old man is looking for the 54-year-old woman. And a 56-year-old woman is looking for a man who is 46! How does anybody hook up in later life with these wide differences in what men and women want?

Fortunately, age is not the most important issue in a relationship. At eHarmony, members are matched according to psychological profile and personality characteristics. What are your values? Are you an extrovert? Are you open to new experiences, or do you prefer to stick with what you know?

"The process of developing a successful relationship is the same whether someone is in the 20s or 80s. People do better if they are matched with those who are similar to them on important dimensions," says psychologist Galen Buckwalter, chief scientist at eHarmony.com. "Age, in and of itself, is not a factor in compatibility."

When two people find common ground in their values, interests and personality traits, "there is less need to negotiate differences. A lot less emotional wear and tear," Buckwalter says. There's "an implicit level of understanding."

There is also a difference in what people say they want and what they end up finding. On eHarmony, members are encouraged to report when they are dating seriously or are getting married. Of those who share their success stories, nearly one in four involves a partner age 50 or older.

For women with such success stories, the typical age gap between them and their new partner is plus or minus four years, whether they're in their 40s, 50s, 60s or 70s. For men, the gap inches upward from plus or minus four years at age 40 to plus or minus six years at age 60. That's a narrower range than what members list as their initial preference.

"Everyone would like to find someone smarter, better-looking, wealthier . . . and sure, younger. Why wouldn't you start there?" says Wax of Match.com. But once you see who is out there, "you're willing to make a number of different trade-offs. In the end, it doesn't matter what a person's age is. It matters how well they connect."

Newlyweds Ruth Johnson-Mullis, 85, and Leonard M. Mullis, nearly 87, of Littleton, Colo., met on Match.com. Both had been widowed. Each said they weren't interested in marriage but wanted "someone to have dinner with," Johnson-Mullis says. She had a hard time at first with online dating: She e-mailed eight or 10 men and never got a reply. They were all looking for women in their 60s and 70s, she says. "Who wants an 84-year-old woman?"

"I did," Mullis says. He had to drive up into the mountains to meet her. There were no restaurants, so she made him lunch. "From that point on, I was a dead duck," he says. After a three-month courtship, they married. "At my age, I don't believe in long engagements. No use fooling around."

They have much in common. Both grew up in Florida. They lived through World War II. Both are in good health and go to exercise class twice a week. "We were raised in the same manner. We were raised in the same era. We have so much to talk about," Johnson-Mullis says. And both had long first marriages.

Experience is an asset in late-life mating. As Johnson-Mullis says, "If a man stays with a woman for 59 years, he's not going to run away from me if I'm not perfect."


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