“Cougars” And “Dirty Old Men”: What Happens When They’re Your Parents?

Mallory was nearing 30 when her 60-something father got divorced from her mother and started dating younger women. As in much younger women—none more than a few years older than Mallory, and some even younger. Naturally, a few issues came up.

“First of all, he’d be a hung over mess every Sunday,” says Mallory. “It was impossible to get him on the phone, never mind keep our regular Sunday breakfast date. And he started to think he was cooler than me, or something. Like, he’d tell me about new bands, or clubs or restaurants I ‘really should try.’ He’d make fun of me for staying in on a Saturday night.”

But even more than that, seeing her father running around town, literally, with younger women struck Mallory on an emotional level. She was jealous, in a way, of all the fun he was having, and uncomfortably aware of her own passing youth. When a man her father’s age wanted to date girls younger than she, what did it mean for her own prospects? Was she already an ‘outdated model’? She became more self-conscious of her appearance both when she was around her father and when she wasn’t. “I couldn’t help but think that my father might think I was somehow too old to be worthy,” she says. “And then I started to believe I was too old. I worried about my appearance in front of him more than a daughter should. And I’d see how he looked at my friends. It was all-around creepy.”

We used to look at May to December romances as something sort of scandalous, but they’re becoming far more common as divorce rates rise and our obsession with youth continues. More parents of adult children are dating, and marrying, partners who are as young as (or even younger than) their adult children. But not without consequence: When your parent dates someone near your age, it can cause rifts in your relationship, even if you’re an adult. You don’t want to act like your parents, and you don’t want them acting like you.

Then, of course, there’s the matter of sex. Jamie’s mom started dating one of Jamie’s co-workers, a guy Jamie had a secret crush on. “So there was that,” says Jamie. “The fact that she was literally helping to shrink my dating prospects. But then thinking of them together forced me to see her as a sexual person. And I don’t want to think about my mom having sex,” she says—especially not with one of her own co-workers.

Because it’s not just dads. Although I don’t approve of the term “cougars”—after all, men who date younger women do not get likened to a predatory animal—there has been a definite rise in women dating younger men. And while I am all for equal opportunity dating, moms who flirt with or date guys closer to their daughter’s age than their own risk compromising the mother-daughter bond. On one episode of reality show “My Mom is Obsessed,” teen Chelsea complained about the fact that her 48-year-old mother, Kathryn, dates much younger men. Their mother-daughter nights out would often devolve into Kathryn drinking heavily and making out with random guys. Chelsea felt it was ruining their relationship. “I felt she was wasting her time with me,” she said. At one point, Jamie’s mother approached Jamie about double-dating. “She thought, why not? We’re after the same guys,” says Jamie, who routinely refused for that very reason. “It’s not like I don’t want to be friends with my mom, because I do. But I don’t want to ever have to think of her as my competition. And everyone acts a little differently on a date, especially with a new guy. I didn’t want to see that in her.”

28-year-old Cara says she felt conflicted about her mother’s two-year relationship with a 26-year-old artist. “In one sense, I thought it was great she could attract a young, good-looking guy,” says Cara. “At the same time, I couldn’t help but think she was being immature and a total hypocrite. She was always very strict while I was growing up, and there she was running around with someone who was barely out of his teens.” More than once, Cara threatened not to talk to her mom anymore unless she started dating men her own age.

Seeing a parent date young may impact your own choice of relationships. Having to witness your father date overtly sexy women might make you question whether men are only interested in sex. Seeing Mom run after a guy you might have fancied in high school might seem as if she’s trying to steal your thunder. Their interest in younger partners can make you wonder if you ever knew your parent at all. Although it was years after his divorce from her mother, Kari was still shock when her father began dating younger women. “Many of them were his secretaries,” she says. “It made me feel gross, like he was taking advantage of them in some way. I wondered why he didn’t look at them like they were someone’s daughter.”

What can you do? Though at times you may be feeling like more of the adult in the relationship, the fact is that your parents cannot be grounded. The best thing you can do is talk to them. Let them know how you feel, but also try to approach with some understanding. Moms and dads are human beings, too, and as may struggle following a stressful life event, like a divorce, which can often bring out the “teenager” in your parent and leave them wanting to feel loved, lusted after, youthful. Re-entering the dating scene may be frightening, and many men and women turn to younger partners because they see them less threatening—and less risky. Chances are they’ve been hurt before, and through their younger partners are seeking the same things everyone’s seeking: respect, love, a chance to feel good about themselves. Go into the conversation with that understanding, and chances are you’ll emerge with a better understanding of your parent—if not a promise to stay out of your dating pool.

(Image via Shutterstock).