Studies Explain the Arm Candy Phenomenon

Helena Bala | April 7, 2017

Or why older men date younger women

Man Modeling a Suit and Matching Briefcase

Last night, in a travel-induced bout of insomnia, I watched an episode of The Golden Girls in which a 40-something-year-old Blanche, the beautiful and “promiscuous” one, hopes to date her very good-looking and much younger aerobics instructor. I’ve always remembered this episode because it turns the tables on a well-worn phenomenon: older and usually wealthy men doggedly going after younger, beautiful women. Well, it almost does.

“A husband like Dirk could keep me young another 20 years,” says Blanche as she waits for her date to pick her up. During dinner though, it becomes obvious that Dirk isn’t interested in Blanche romantically. “I really like being with you,” he says. “I like the way you sound and the way you look. You remind me of my mother… when I’m with you, I kind of feel like I’m home with mom.” That’s when Blanche orders a double Jack Daniel’s on the rocks.

This little twist holds true even today, some thirty years later: It’s quite unusual for older women to date much younger men. A fictitious Samantha Jones and the legendary Kris Jenner aside, women who date younger — “cougars,” as they’re called — are painted very much like Blanche and Samantha: man-hungry yet successful in their own right; impossibly beautiful and equally vain; deeply complicated and flawed. Superficial.

The opposite dynamic, an older man with a younger woman, has been almost entirely normalized in life, politics, and Hollywood. Generally, the older man is lauded by his peers, and the younger woman skewered by hers. But there’s a sort of omertà when it comes to these couplings; people don’t usually get knee-deep into the psychology of relationship age gaps.

“So what do you think about arm candy?” I asked a car full of in-laws in an attempt at early research. The answer from both my brother- and father-in-law was interesting, and basically the same: depends on whether you’re the arm or the candy. The gist was this: Men who marry younger women seek to reclaim youth and evade death; want status among their peers and the occasional ego boost; might believe a younger woman to be, automatically, more docile; and are looking to propagate the species by spreading their seed. Women who marry much older men are capitalizing on the only thing going for them, their looks; they’re gold diggers who seek financial stability in an older, more mature male; or have daddy issues.

How much documented truth is there to these offhand observations? Quite a bit more than I expected.

One of the rationalizations is that men marry much younger women in a misguided quest for immortality. A study found that men who marry women who are seven to nine years younger reduce their risk of death by 11%. Sure, part of it is also status: showing up with a beautiful young thing at your arm makes everyone in the room perk up and assume you’re endowed, one way or another. But really, I think it’s more a rage against the dying of the light. The ego boost men get from being seen and validated by a much younger woman makes them feel that they’re holding on to life, youth, and virility in a post-divorce, middle-age crisis, when the three are in short supply.

Part of it is undeniably tied to evolution and reproduction. While women cannot have children past a certain age, men can continue reproducing (albeit not necessarily with ease) well into their twilight years. This is significant, as we’re making big life decisions, like getting married and having children, much later in life.

Men and women also value different things in their partners. According to studies, men value youth, beauty and reproductive viability while women value resources, protection and stability. There are evolutionary reasons for this, but psychologist Alice Eagly suggests women and men value things according to changing social roles; women, then, value in their mates that which society historically has withheld from them (i.e., power and money). The more our roles in society change, the less this will remain the case.

Another reason lies in attraction: men of any age apparently find women in their early 20s most attractive. Period. Women, on the other hand, find men in their age group most attractive. This data comes from OKCupid, a dating service I briefly used while flirting with singledom. The findings are even confirmed by a personal anecdote: I went on a boozy date with a guy from OKC who said to me, and I do not kid: How old are you? (I was 24.) Oh good, because women over the age of 27 get that desperate look in their eyes, like they’re ready to get married and have babies. It’s so unattractive. At 28, I’d like to self-report that my eyes are devoid of “that look.”

And finally, an unexpected reason men prefer to date younger, beautiful women is that women are more attracted to men with beautiful girlfriends than single men. We’ve often heard that a wedding ring is an aphrodisiac, but this study goes further to suggest that women find coupled men more trustworthy, wealthy and humorous. Dating a younger woman seems to be a rite of passage for some wealthy middle-aged men, a validation of their virility and sexual viability as a mate, and — circuitously — a conduit into relationships with even younger, even more beautiful women.

So, now that I’ve spun us all into a state of romantic and existential crisis, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on these sorts of couplings. What do you think the attraction is? Do you tend to judge the women more harshly than the men? Would you or have you dated a much younger, or much older man?

Helena Bala is a writer, former lawyer and the genius behind Craigslist Confessional. Follow her on Twitter @Clistconfession. Photos by Joseph Leombruno and Bettmann via Getty Images; Collage by Edith Young.

  • Adrianna

    If I’m perfectly honest, I just don’t understand the attraction between big age differences. (This is obviously a personal preference, I’m not trying to start a debate or offend someone.) My friend and I wondered if we model our relationships or what we perceive as “normal” after our parents. My parents are three years apart, and her stepfather is 20 years older than her mother.

    I was always attracted to boys, guys, and now men my own age. My boyfriend of five years is only four months older than me. He has some anxieties about aging, whereas I tried to reassure him that it’s exciting. He’s becoming a man, and my attraction is changing and growing with him.

  • Lux Lisbon 2

    To women dating older men: try to just enjoy it and not let Freudian analysis ruin it. People talk about everyone’s relationships: if you date someone a younger man they’d call you immature or if you dated a guy your own age they’d just find something else about him to pick on. People always talk.

    • ihaveacooch

      i am going through this right now. my boyfriend is almost 40 and i’m in my early 20’s. i’m so fearful of eventually introducing him to my parents; or even telling them what his age is.

      • Anja

        when love is real and you are good for each other, there’s no need to make explanations. trust that the people who know and love you will recognize how happy you are—and that’s all that really matters!

  • Em

    I dated a dude ten years older than me, off and on, for two years. It started shortly after I turned 22 and ended a few months before turning 24.

    Part of me thought I was becoming the adult I’ve always wanted to be, seeing someone who had a stable house, career, and bank of knowledge and sense of self. Turns out he was incredibly narcissistic, closed-off, and rude to service workers. I don’t even know where to begin sometimes with this experience…

  • KayBug

    At 45+, I’ve dated men from age 55 to 27. Pros and cons to both. Overall, though, I’m looking for something different now than at 20+. I don’t need sperm. I don’t need money. I need connection as a person, sex and adventure. Most of the guys had their own issues, or were in a very different place in life. All part of my slice of the dating world. 🙂

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  • avaa90

    as an evolutionary biologist, there is an overwhelmingly large amount of data postulating that men are attracted to women at the prime of their fertility. This is all due to innate tendencies because we are all still apes. Emulating our hypersexual chimp and bonobo ancestors, we still assess each other based on ‘mate value.’ This means that men look for signs of youth, fertility, and health whereas women look for social status, health, and the ability to provide for offspring. Obviously, this is a shortened narrative and large cultural shifts that started around 10K years ago have shaped human sexuality, but it is hard to erase 5 million years of evolution.

  • Aydan

    Age differences are so fascinating! I’m currently seeing someone about five years younger than me. Its amazing how much at the outset we talked about age with our friends, though the topic was hardly a point of interest to us. Curious to see how this one plays out as I typically date 3-5 years old (not on purpose, by default).

  • Ashley

    I can’t help but feel like this article is suggesting a man will never be attracted to me as much as he would have been when I was 22…

  • ask

    my boyfriend of 1+ year is 7 years older than me (31 and nearly 24). between the 2 of us, our age difference sometimes comes up in our experiences of the world, but for the most part it seems to mean more to other people than to the two of us. i worry occasionally about how other people see us–when someone asks about our age difference, or makes a joke about how young i am. we talk about being otgether for a long, long time. <3

    i have not exclusively dated men older than me (i've dated younger), but i struggle to put my finger on why ive tended towards older. I don't have daddy issues, and I'm not particularly socially ambitious. so where does that fit into the biology?

    • Really good point. My parents have an 11-year age difference, though, and it wasn’t until my mom asked about whether I considered her part of the research for the article that I even realized that SHE married an older man. Generally speaking, I think the research is best read when figuring BIG age gaps. I would say 15+ years, where it’s immediately apparent that one person is much, much older than the other. Think: the Trumps and the Girardis.

  • Cara

    Two thoughts:

    1) I want that suit in the cover photo for myself.

    2) I usually judge the shit out of the man in these types of scenarios. I understand the appeal of an older man; people tend to grow more interesting with age. Also, I contend that 24-year-old men are the worst humans.

    However, in my view, the older man in this type of scenario doesn’t want to be challenged and isn’t interested in a truly equal partnership. I think that’s pathetic.

  • kay

    the other thing is guys in their 20s are not great at relationships. that’s a huge generalization, but….idk, i see a lot of anecdotal support for it. they just are not that mature yet emotionally and mentally, and at the same time in the grip of a libido surge and many are for the first time outside the mitigating influence of their families. obv i have met exceptions in both directions but in my experience guys 30 and over are more likely to be able/choose to engage as whole people and be willing to put more of themselves than just their penis into an interaction. but CLEARLY (bill o’reilly) there are exceptions. idk if people would say women in their 20s are just out to fuck maximum numbers but i feel like there’s less of that. i could be wrong, i wish i had some research

    • kay

      just read dr drew thinks that guys in their 20s are the worst type of people. and one comedian, rob delaney, said the same thing. thats kind of research.

    • Adrianna

      Maybe guys in their 20s who live in large cities? I’ve lived in NYC for ten years and I like to joke that I had to go to NJ to find a boyfriend.

    • KarenC

      I have to agree about men 30+. I knew a handful in my 20s who were worth a damn. I could tell by the way they looked and spoke to their girlfriends – with respect, and near awe. I can picture both in my mind even now and clearly telling myself that is what I needed to hold out for. And I did.

  • Charlotte

    There’s truth to every stereotype, and the mid-life crisis man/gold digger woman certainly exists among couples with a significant age gap. But sometimes two people just meet and fall in love without an agenda. And being the younger woman in one such scenario, I actually find it surprising that so many open-minded progressives who profess to eschew stereotypes still pass such harsh judgements on this. People love to make assumptions from the outside looking in, even in the age of “love wins” and “love is love”.

    We’ve definitely had our “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” struggles and I actually sometimes feel bad for my sweetie knowing that people rush to peg him as predatory or only interested in status/arm candy. Just thought I’d throw in my two cents from the other side, knowing that I was the one who swept him off his feet 🙂

    • XJ JX

      Exactly! My ex husband’s 21 years older than me and we were married for more than 10 years.
      Now currently dating 20 years older than me. Love moves in mysterious way you know!

  • Brittany

    As much as I think all these things can be true, it doesn’t mean they always are. My husband is almost 8 years older than me (I’m 23, he’s 31) and I’m definitely not with him because of money reasons, and he’s not with me to “feel younger”. Sometimes you meet someone, and fall in love. I used to be worried about what people would think about us early in our relationship, when we were dating, but I decided who really cares? It’s our relationship and we know why we’re together and what we love about each other. To be honest, I would judge other relationships with such an age gap before we were together. But really, what does our opinion of someone else’s relationship really matter anyways? If someone’s happy, then I say go for the relationship you want to be in. You love who you love and you should never be ashamed of that.

    • Hi Brittany,

      I’ve mentioned this elsewhere in the comments and perhaps it should have been stated in the article more clearly: I think the studies make much more sense when looked at in the context of big age gaps (much older men, much younger women). But you are right: sometimes people do just fall in love!

  • deee_cue

    Boys in their twenties are oftentimes just that– boys.

    My dear friend (25) told me recently after a breakup, “Most guys my age– myself included– have their heads up their asses 90% of the time.”

  • sarah veltin

    What really bothers me about this issue: why is the man still depicted as the great provider and vice versa the woman as the ”arm candy”? Maybe the woman in that ominous relationship is self-assertive and despite her age already a fully grown character. And maybe some men do not turn into some sort of lechers when the clock strikes twelve. Sometimes it seems to me like we are still working with clichés.
    I’m actually in that kind of relationship myself. I intentionally chose my partner because he’s so like-minded, although he is 13 years older than me. I do not need a breadwinner, and I will surely earn more money than he does.
    Maybe this is all what love is actually to me: a huge, lucky coincidence.

  • This is a great article that helps to show what we’ve always known.. Kinda weird and gross that men like the looks of women in their young 20s…

    http://thedianaedition.com

  • Anja

    I’m 27 and married to a 42 year old man…! Just writing that is freaky, as age is something we stopped talking about a while ago.. (I was in my last months of being 24 when we met, he was 39.)
    He had never settled down, never had kids, still lived (lives) the moderately successful artist’s life. By moderately I mean that he’s been lucky enough to live off his music, but by no means attractive to anybody who could be considered a gold-digger..!
    In fact, it’s me that’s the more stable of the two, and I often think of myself as the “old” one. This being said, I don’t kid myself—I fully recognize the allure of a man who’s been through enough to be emotionally intelligent in the way a 20-something could never be, and it is a big part of why our relationship is so good—no bullshit. Ever.
    But sometimes you just find the person you’re actually perfect for and, well, there’s not much else to do. Our age difference was definitely something we had to grapple with once we found out about it a few dates in, but these days my only source of grief is the thought that we won’t exactly grow old together. Better late than never, eh!
    I would have totally judged a couple like ours from the outside before being with him. But ah, love.. it has no gender, color.. or age, apparently 🙂

  • Caroline

    My husband is 15 years older than me. We met 5 years ago. We disnt even talk avout age like the first 6 months of dating due to me being quite mature, and him looking younger and being quite immature haha. So we have not had that issue. I dated men all ages, even older than him. I knew i wanted someone ti match my maturity, and i knew he had to be older because guys my age were idiots. I think for us somehow, we just fell in love and it worked out due to ua mentally being in the same spot… and i live in france and here there is a saying that the man should divide his age by 2 and add 7, thats a womans perfect age… haha i fall right imto that! LOL

  • Leila

    What a disappointing and pointless article. People love to obsess over others’ relationships. Life is much more enjoyable when you stop judging others. You’ll find that many couples with age gaps simply found happiness with each other. In fact, when you’re actually open-minded, you tend to enjoy life much more. For those couples that do fit into this close-minded stereotype you describe – good for them. Everyone is free to make their own choices!!

  • emmsy

    It’s 2017 and I am sick of some men who think they have the right to say women are most attractive in their 20s. Some of them have never even been attractive their entire lives.

    • Saskia Ebeli

      Hahaha, TRUE!

  • Saskia Ebeli

    Wow this is all so stereoptypical! I think MOST couples with a big age difference are together in spite of the age thing and not because of it. Isn’t it quite small minded to think of a same-age-partner as standard and any other variety as suspicious?

  • Samantha B

    Alice Eagly’s suggestion made me think of a Bumble ad that’s currently on NYC’s west side. It says in large letters “Be the CEO your parents always wanted you to marry,” and then in smaller letters “and then find someone you actually like.” Bumble is geared more toward women, right? So I thought it was kind of cute.

  • I think it’s fascinating that the same men you anecdotally interviewed lauded men for having a younger woman on their collective arm; that the pursuit of youth, beauty, and status is an accomplishment, whereas women who seek an older man are associated with traditionally-vilified terms like “daddy issues” or “gold-digger.”

    “Evolution and reproduction” seem to me a convenient go-to scapegoat for what can be almost entirely attributed to sexist norms and deeply-rooted double standards. Men valuing women in their early twenties isn’t due to “fertility” – it’s due to the commodification of women’s appearances.

    http://www.ashleyinman.com

  • BarbieBush

    I guess this article is based on stereotypes and also “norms” supplied by statistics but in my own situation this is the exact opposite. We all only have opinions based on our own positions in life and mine really couldn’t be farther than any of these examples.

    Without going into all the specifics of defending myself and my relationship, it annoys me that this article purports facts as statistics but also comes off hella biased. Sometimes people just meet and love each other. There will always be somebody not approving of your relationship. I am happy and in perfect step with my partner who is 15 years older than me and a man. We aren’t in different phases of our lives, we have things in common and learn and love each other for our differences that come from being in different generations.

    My biggest problem with the relationship is the impending knowledge that I am v likely to end up widowed.

  • KarenC

    I remember being a twentysomething grad student and waitress in a fine dining establishment. I’d occasionally get asked out by a customer, a man 25 years my senior. My thoughts at the time? Ooooh, gross. I preferred men my own age, plus or minus 5 years. Generationally, I wanted to be on the same page. I had a feeling that had I been the same person but their own age and perhaps a colleague, they would have no interest. And they just seemed like too near time to worry about their prostate gland for my taste.

    Now 54, I’m a decade married to a man 4 years younger than me. Educationally and professionally we are at the same level, although he makes about $20K more than me. We share the same values and sense of humor. Met him at work and found a mutual respect that evolved into much more over the course of 6 months.

  • Ashley Steenson

    On a tangential note, as much as we want to believe that we “just fall in love,” as John Dewey reminds us, humans don’t exist in a vacuum and biological as well as societal variables like the ones mentioned above often play a part in our choices without our knowing it. So, I don’t think she’s saying that there is no romantic component, one just has to accept that other factors are at play here to fully understand either.

    Also, the idea of love as a spontaneous event that “just happens,” can also cloud our understanding of love as an art that we actively take part in, rather than the commodified seemingly random versions of love that are portrayed in film and media.

  • F

    I am in one of these relationships. My boyfriend and I have been dating for a little over 3 years and have a 7 year age gap (25-32). We met when I was in law school and he had already graduated and started practicing. When we started dating, I would get a number of off-putting comments about being a “gold-digger” which all but immediately stopped the moment I graduated. I don’t notice our age gap until he makes some sort of cultural reference that I don’t understand (or vis versa), but even then, half of the time these moments are attributable to the fact that he didn’t grow up in the US. Personally, I think the age gap only becomes a pronounced issue when there are obvious power dynamics at play. Otherwise, the topic never even comes up. I think age gaps become more of an issue when you’re in different stages or places in your life. For the most part, I tend to dismiss people who make a big deal out of our age gap as immature or close-mindedly conservative. It very rarely, if ever, comes up in conversation, but this could be because he looks quite young for his age (he passes for 27-28).

  • Liz Negrete

    Im a 21 year old woman and my ex is 46, my current boyfriend is 19, i know this makes me sound somewhat immature in a way, but for me the turning point in a relationship is always the conversation. Obviously the aforementioned 46 yo guy had so much to talk about and we were always discussing about a million kind of things. Now with my 19 yo boyfriend while he is younger than me, he’s a fan of books and travelling, so theres sooo much to talk about too. Age ends up being just a number. I never thought I’d date someone so much older than me, but it was never about money or even stability. It was all just the way we got along