Ahead of Sunday’s presidential election in France, Emmanuel Macron, the centrist front runner, is breaking the mould in his home country. Namely, he’s thrusting his wife, Brigitte Trogneux, into the spotlight.
In France, that’s an unusual move as first ladies (or potential first ladies) don’t play a very public role in their partners’ political ambitions. In North America, however, her inclusion is notable because she’s 24 years his senior.
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Unlike U.S. President Donald Trump, whose 23-year jump on his wife has people yawning and rolling their eyes, the age difference between Macron and his wife is treated as downright scandalous in more puritanical circles.
One headline in the U.K.’s The Sun tabloid screamed: “French Kiss: How French election front-runner Emmanuel Macron, 39, seduced gran, 64, who he fell for at FIFTEEN.”
Another Daily Mail headline reads: “How Macron and his 64-year-old wife first fell in love.” The article then goes on to detail their romance that started when he was a 16-year-old student and she was his 39-year-old teacher.
While the beginning of their romance is undoubtedly scandalous, it remains unclear why we still find it shocking when an older woman marries a younger man.
“Women who are fun-loving and have lots of energy are attracted to younger men because they’re a great match. The draw is to feel young,” says Nicole McCance, a relationship psychologist in Toronto. “When men marry younger women, it’s tied to ego and self-worth.”
Surely, we should be desensitized by now. Just look at all the examples Hollywood has provided: Julianne Moore is nine years older than her husband, Bart Freundlich; Hugh Jackman is 12 years younger than Deborra-Lee Furness; Eva Mendes is six years Ryan Gosling‘s senior, same with Julianna Margulies and her husband, Keith Lieberthal.
According to a very small study published in the Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, relationships in which the woman is at least 10 years older than the man found positive attitudes among the couple themselves, but their union was also informed by a fear of stigma from outsiders.
“It’s a relationship like any other, despite what society might say,” Nichole R. Proulx, lead author of the study, said to The New York Times.
But judgment persists, and according to the study, it leads women to feel insecure about their age and aging in general — a fact that’s especially poignant considering a large age gap in a married couple has been linked to higher mortality in women (although this applied whether the woman was older or younger).
“Couples with younger husbands violate social norms and thus suffer from social sanctions,” Sven Drefahl of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research said to HuffPost. “Since marrying a younger husband deviates from what is regarded as normal, these couples could be regarded as outsiders and receive less social support. This could result in a less joyful and more stressful life, reduced health, and finally, increased mortality.”
Another study out of Emory University concluded that the larger the age gap in a couple, the more likely they were to divorce. A couple with a one-year age gap were three per cent more likely to divorce, whereas a couple that was separated by 10 years was 39 per cent more likely to split. The numbers get scarier with a 20-year gap, too (95 per cent).
Although, this might not apply to Monsieur Macron and his madame, who live in a country where their relationship is viewed as “social revenge” for the cradle-robber-sugar-baby paradigm that pops up much more frequently.
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“Why can’t we marry younger men? I date them all the time,” Martine Bergossi, owner of Alternatives, a second-hand couture shop in Paris, said to The Washington Post. “It’s normal to see men with younger women. So it’s rather great to see the opposite.”
Her sentiments were echoed by Karin Lewin, an artist with a studio in Paris’ Montmartre district: “Did men ask anybody when they started marrying younger women? Who sets the rules?”
Although this liberal and laissez-faire attitude toward love and lust is considered de rigueur in Paris, McCance says there are some considerations to keep in mind before plunging into a Mrs. Robinson-like arrangement.
“Women are generally more emotionally mature than men, and it’s been my experience that they tend to get hurt more often in this kind of scenario,” she says. “It works if it’s purely sexual, but the woman has to be upfront about her feelings if she wants it to turn into more than just sex.”
She says timing has a lot to do with the success of an older-woman-younger-man pairing. It typically won’t work if she’s in her 30s and he’s in his 20s, because at that stage of life, there tends to be a huge gap in shared goals — women want families.
“I’ve seen it work more often where the woman is in her late 40s and the man is in his 30s. Because at this point, the woman has either already had children or decided that she doesn’t want them, and she finds a man who shares that view,” McCance says.
And while the “cougar” stigma still persists, she says it doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative.
“Some women who are older feel that being called a cougar is sexy. At the end of the day, the only way to get around it is to be happy. People tend to judge less when they’re faced with a happy couple.”
This kind of relationship relies on the same things all relationships hinge on: finding a person who shares your interests, beliefs and principles. And if it scandalizes onlookers — all the better.