Older Men Younger Women

It rarely causes comment, even nowadays, when a younger woman marries an older man, even a much older man. Maybe there is half a minute of a slightly raised eyebrow and then the matter is forgotten.

But when an older woman dares to pair up with a younger man, she is never allowed to forget it, and nor is anybody else.

Who can forget the 18-year age difference between actors Francesca Annis and Ralph Fiennes, or the delight with which the end of their eleven-year relationship was reported?

The wide age gap was, of course, cited as the reason for the break up, never mind that it added up to a long liaison in celebrity years.

And what about 50 year old Madonna, cavorting with her 22-year old toyboy, Jesus Luz? She has now become more famous for this than any of her recent concerts.

Any story about Demi Moore will inevitably refer to the fact that Aston Kuchner, her husband since 2005, is 16 years younger than she is. And however venerable Dame Joan Bakewell may now appear, we recall that her steamy past included not only an affair with Harold Pinter, but a 26-year marriage to a man eleven years her junior.

  • Coming slightly down from the A-list, the apparent fixation of actress Sadie Frost with much younger men has been gleefully reported in the media. Frost, who was famously married to Jude Law and had three children with him, has had a series of relationships with younger men, all in their twenties, since her 2003 divorce from Law. The latest one was Tom Atkin, at 21 just two decades younger than Frost.

These women are all of course famous names, and more or less any titbit about them will make news. But for all their accomplishments, the fact most often referred to and remembered is their tendency to form relationships with vastly younger men.

But the older woman/younger man syndrome doesn’t cause comment only in the world of showbiz which is often, as we know, a law unto itself. I was having drinks with some neighbours recently, when they pointed out that their son was married to a woman six years his senior. If the age gap had been the other way round, it would never have been mentioned. I have a schoolfriend who has been married for many years to a man 10 years her junior. And I am just as bad as everybody else; whenever I talk about my friend, I draw attention to this fact about her.

When I had lunch with agony aunt Marje Proops, then aged about 85, she confided that she was having a relationship with ‘a toyboy of 70’.

Why is it? Why should such women be seen as cougars, predatory cats pouncing on their unsuspecting prey, because they have dared to form an alliance with a younger male?

It seems to upset society to a ridiculous degree. For centuries, the accepted order has been for older men to choose younger women, not the other way round. The standard, Darwinian explanation for this is that men will want younger, nubile, fertile women and that women will choose an older, successful man who can provide for them.

In the old days, at least among the aristocracy – and certainly in the novels of Barbara Cartland –the ideal match, age-wise, was seen to be between a girl of 18 and a man of 33.

This was the exact age gap between Frances Fermoy, Princess Diana’s mother, and Earl Spencer, and also more or less the gap between Diana herself and Prince Charles. Yet, however ‘ideal’ these marriages were seen to be, they both quickly came to grief. Worse, the husbands in each case soon started to age unattractively, whereas the women came increasingly into their own.

In many parts of the world, these May-December matches have traditionally been considered right and natural. In India, where arranged marriages are the custom, it was (and still is) common for a girl of 15 or 16 to be married to a man 10 or more years older, but it never, ever happens the other way round. It was even quite acceptable for a girl of 15 to be married to a man of 50, never mind that with such a wide age gap, the wife was likely to be a widow before long, and the life of widow in traditional Indian society was almost worse than death; one reason why so many committed suttee.

The pairing of an innocent teenage girl and an experienced older man seemed to satisfy the norms in most societies, whether traditional or sophisticated. But when it comes to a marriage between an older, experienced woman and a younger, more innocent man, we have difficulty taking it in our stride.

The received wisdom has always been that, with increasing age, women become elderly, whereas men look ever more distinguished. Women go grey, whereas men simply acquire silver touches in their hair. Women get fat, whereas men become – well, nicely substantial.

The truth, though, as with so many things in life, is the exact opposite. Biologically, it actually makes more sense for a woman to choose a younger man, because it is a fact that women physically age much more slowly than men, succumb to far fewer life-threatening illnesses and live, on average, five years longer.

And it is all to do with the male hormone testosterone. Although this is produced in huge quantities in boys and young men, production slows down rapidly in the later years. And once production decreases, the ageing process accelerates, causing rapid mental and physical decline in males.

This decline can be seen in action at any gathering of older people, particularly of the over sixties, where the following phenomenon can be observed time and again: the women will be trim, healthy and vibrant, chatting and laughing away, exchanging lively gossip and ideas. Their men, by contrast, will be paunchy, wrinkly and bald, staring vacantly into space or shuffling round on their zimmer frames.

One friend, attending a reunion of the long-defunct magazine Nova, which was trendy and popular in the 1960s, remarked that all the women were as sassy and attractive as ever, whereas the men looked like Methuselah.

Many of today’s women now in their sixties and beyond are as fit as a fiddle and have never felt better. Men of the same age, though, will most likely be suffering from a dozen degenerative diseases, from heart disease to gout, from diabetes to prostate problems, from macular degeneration to emphysema and hypertension.

For many older men, life becomes reduced to shunting from one hospital appointment to the next. Their bedside tables are covered with all kinds of strong medication and it takes them fully half an hour to get their socks on in the morning.

Women – or at least present-day women not worn out by childbirth - take far better care of themselves than men. In most gyms, the percentage of women to men is 75% to 25%. And they are not just doing gentle exercises aimed at the over-50s. Tough professional women such as Madonna and Michelle Obama, are lifting heavy weights, toning up their arms and abs, entering triathlons and running marathons.

Then again, women take better care of their minds than men. Book clubs and evening classes overwhelmingly attract women. When I taught journalism in an adult college, the proportion of women to men was exactly the same as in the gyms: 75% to 25%.

Older women are much more ready than men to take on board new ideas, new concepts and learn new skills. But the minds and attitudes of many older men have become as outdated as the 20-year old jackets they regularly fish out of the wardrobe.

Women are also much more prepared to eat healthily, join slimming clubs, to take care of teeth and nails, to keep looking up to date by ruthlessly editing and refining wardrobes every season and chucking out anything remotely old-ladyish.

Most men, by contrast, will happily wear the same clothes for decades. Unless they are celebrities, they hardly ever take care of their teeth or bother much with grooming. A common phrase put by men on dating sites is: ‘I’m comfortable in my favourite jeans.’ Yet you will never find a woman seeking a partner admitting that she likes wearing old clothes; quite the reverse. The words ‘fashionable and up to date’ are far more likely to be used.

The fastest-growing dating sites, apparently, are those aimed at older women looking for new partners. Although at one time, single older women may have confined themselves to sitting in their rocking chairs knitting socks, nowadays such women are going on cruises, singles holidays, speed-dating evenings – all to try and find a wonderful new man.

Few of these go-getting women will want an elderly, infirm gentleman to look after; instead, they will look for somebody who can match them physically and mentally. And that, increasingly, will be somebody much younger than they are.

So let us hope that before long, the ever-growing amount of intimate liaisons between older women and younger men will cease to be a ‘syndrome’ and start to be the norm.

The Lady magazine