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.