Men the world over choose younger partners, but usually only by two or three years. The rationale behind this is that women look for good providers and men for good breeders. Especially successful men may be able to attract a much younger woman, and statistics suggest that a partner over 15 years younger can cut the risk of premature death by 20 per cent for men. Even choosing a wife seven to nine years younger will reduce his risk of dying early by 11 per cent, perhaps because younger women can care for their men better than older ones; natural selection may also play a role – only the healthiest older men are likely to attract younger mates. Still further reasons involve the social cues – and practicalities – of living with someone who feels there are still years ahead and of course who is interested in more physical activity. Sex drive may also be an issue – men complain women’s sex drive decreases with the menopause, but the flip side of this is that a younger woman usually wants children and an older man may not.
For the younger woman, however, marrying a much older partner does not have as many pay-offs. There are, of course, some. Women often value good treatment above good looks, and a man with relationship experience can be a much better partner than a younger man who is career-focused and perhaps more selfish. Younger men can be hormonally over-tuned, and not have the self-awareness it takes to build a good relationship, although age is no guarantee of this. However, the older man is likely to die before she does, and if she has been financially dependent on him, financial hardship may hit in the woman’s fifties. Being the caregiver mentioned above is stressful – in fact it can shorten a woman’s life span considerably.
This pattern is diminishing as the gender pay gap decreases. Women no longer place being a good provider at the top of the list when seeking a partner. Instead, a caring attitude and seeing their partner as an equal will get a man top marks. For this reason more and more women are beginning to seek younger partners. Sometimes referred to as cougars, this is a controversial term. Embraced by some as evidence of women’s new pro-active role in sexual matters, others feel it is derogatory as they do not see themselves as predators desperate for fresh meat.
Younger men are more used to the idea of equality at work and in the home than men from earlier generations. They are less likely to expect to be waited on, and the sex drives of a woman around 40 and a man who hasn’t yet hit 30 tend to be highly compatible. Partners of different ages open up new possibilities for each other, teaching alternative ways of seeing the world. The younger partner can offer stimulating new music, gadgets, cultural ideas and innovative ways of working. The older partner can offer perspective, skill in dealing with setbacks and a sense of what really matters. New ideas and ways of living can emerge when a relationship is based on what is known as ‘weak ties’.
However it is not easy to live outside what is socially acceptable. If seen with a much younger woman, men can be teased or even severely criticised for lacking gravitas or being in the male menopause. For women with younger partners it is worse – not only do they have the pressure to keep their bodies and faces attractive enough to carry it off, but they may be seen as using a younger person for their own personal gratification and depriving him of a ‘normal’ life. The relationship can come under stress if the young man has interests that the older woman has difficulty in sharing – video games spring to mind – although there are plenty of relationships between people of the same generation where the man’s time spent in the shed indicates a certain ‘cognitive dissonance’ between the two partners.
Nevertheless it does appear that women with younger partners are 30% more likely to die earlier if the age gap is over 15 years, perhaps due to the strain of living outside social norms. Social cues are immensely powerful. The ‘Mrs Robinson’ scene has entered the collective consciousness as the epitome of the taboo relationship which leads to disaster. These social constructs are difficult to shift. It takes guts to see the bigger picture and understand we are all trying, in some way, to conform to how we are expected to behave and that this may not ultimately serve us.
Julianne is a beautiful, slim, energetic woman in her fifties. She looks barely forty, and gets as many looks in the street she did fifteen years ago. “I’m supposed to be looking at men around 57,” she says. “Did you see the average man aged 57? Gut, scruffy hair, jowls….now why should I have made such an effort to stay attractive and then have to settle for that?”
There is no such thing as a right age for a partner. Although it is good to be able to remember the Abba hits or Woodstock together, this is not enough to cement a relationship. Rather what counts is shared values, mutual respect, self-awareness and the willingness to change. What is the first thing we must do if we want to attract such a person – including someone much younger – into our lives?
The answer is simple : be open to the possibility.