Mind The Gap

Twice their age and far less attractive, older men like Ronnie Woods, John Cleese and Salman Rushdie continue to attract gorgeous young girlfriends. We talk to author Judy Astley and others about the appeal of older men and why these relationships are usually doomed.

"In my experience there is a very good reason why a good-looking, young woman of around 20 is willing to go out with a man over 15 years her senior," says 43-year-old Mark Barrowcliffe. "She's nuts."

Although the author of Mr Wrong - a diary of failed relationships - has historically had less success with women than Jack the Ripper, he's still voicing a commonly held opinion.

For many of us, relationships between older men and young woman seem crazy and unnatural.

Why would a 19-year-old Russian waitress choose to date a man like 61-year-old Ronnie Wood, as reported this month? Surely his ability to hum confidently along to the film version of Mamma Mia - because he first saw ABBA live in 1974 - isn't that sexy.

But Ronnie's not the only lucky man to bag a younger woman. At 61, Salman Rushdie's latest squeeze is 27, John Cleese recently began dating an American woman aged 34, and 32-year-old DJ Mark Ronson is reportedly planning to marry 19-year-old model Daisy Lowe.

Barrowcliffe, who has dated his fair share of younger ladies, claims that the age gap relationship is a trade off.

"The reason some younger women were willing to go out with my flabby, ageing self was that no one of their own age would put up with them for more than 10 minutes. What older men and younger women have in common are they are both suffering from different insecurities. She is looking for someone to make her feel safe and he is looking for someone who doesn't answer back and is a trophy."

He puts age gap relationships down to two factors: status and physical attraction.

"Younger women are willing to go out with high status males. If you look at the kind of women Salman Rushdie attracts they tend to be intelligent arty types. For her, it's a kudos thing. The man just wants a good-looking girl, because he imagines that when his friends see him, they'll all think, 'Gosh I wish I was him'. When in fact everybody is thinking 'You sad git. Are you so emotionally immature that you cannot sustain a relationship with a woman of your own age? You just want someone who won't answer back'."

For his own part, Barrowcliffe remembers going out with a 22-year-old when he was 39.

"She seemed normal to begin with, but I soon realised she was a bit strange when she insisted on going on long walks in the cold wearing nothing but a thin blouse. Her arms turned blue."

His simplistic overview that young women and older men seek each other out due to mutual inadequacy is sure to be hotly contested by many couples with a large age gap.

In England, two years ago, 16-year-old Jessica Anderson from Cornwall left home to be with 43-year-old Clive Richards, her former religious education teacher. The couple intend to marry when Jessica turns 18 next September.

Straight A student Jessica has spoken out openly about her relationship, saying she has not been brainwashed and that she wants to marry Clive.

However her family and friends don't agree. With Jessica about to become a stepmother to children older than herself, can such a relationship really be a good idea?

According to Christine Northam, a relationship counsellor, couples with a large age difference need to work harder than most.

"The norm in this society is for people to marry and have children when they're of similar age and are relatively young," she says.

"The couple will have kids and spend their old age together - that's roughly the model that most people follow. When people deviate dramatically from this, it could indicate they have strange ideas about sexuality.

"If a man is significantly older, they're making love to someone who could potentially be their daughter. Equally, when I hear interviews with younger women who marry much older blokes, they often sound like they don't particularly want a husband or a lover, but a father figure. These situations could cause real problems in a relationship."

Although Northam adds that no relationship should be criticised just because it is different, she says that a large age gap can create a minefield of potential problems.

"Practically and emotionally you're always going to be at different stages of development in terms of your career, your social life and starting a family. He might want to be a father while she is still feeling footloose and fancy-free. Success would entirely depend on exploring these possible areas of conflict and facing them head on. And that would be a lot of work."

Fiction writer Judy Astley explores this idea in her new romantic novel, Other People's Husbands. A 25-year age gap separates her central characters, Sara and Conrad.

"I think a relationship with that big a gap can have an added spark," Astley says.

"It just depends on the person. A lot of people are born old and others are born young. Inside I'm still 17, and sometimes in shops I'll try on things that are far too young for me, and look in the mirror and think 'Who's that?' If you've still got that spark, age shouldn't come into it."

"I know a couple, she's in her 50s and he's over 80. He's kept her fairly balanced, and she's kept him young. He still can dive in to the sea off a high rock."

But she admits that the age gap can lead to complications.

"In my book, Conrad reaches 70 and starts to feel frail, and guilty that his wife will soon have to start to look after him. He begins to think she would be better off without him."

Northam agrees that this could be a very real problem.

"You've got to be feeling very confident about yourself before you embark. If you're like Rupert Murdoch who has a wife who is younger than him, then I'm sure you'd easily be able to keep up. But that might not always be the case."

But Northam says she can also understand why a woman might fall for an older man.

"Young men stay adolescent for an awful long time. You might want to live with a grown up who doesn't still expect his mum to pick up his pizza boxes from under the bed."

In Astley's opinion, it's essential for a couple with a large age gap to have interests in common.

"It's no coincidence that this type of relationship often happens to creative, charismatic older men like musicians, teachers, writers and actors. They'll have the imagination to keep up with their younger partner. I can't see an accountant who's into golf and cardigans pulling a woman 30 years younger, unless she is prematurely into golf and cardigans herself."

Barrowcliffe is slightly more cynical.

"The pair will have nothing in common but an inability to form meaningful relationships with partners of their own age. And they'll break up when you go to meet her at a trendy bar and someone shouts 'Julie, your dad's here to pick you up!'"

:: Mr Wrong by Mark Barrowcliffe is published in paperback by Pan Macmillan, RRP$34.99.

:: Other People's Husbands by Judy Astley is published in hardback by Bantam Press RRP$39.95.

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Posted by Teresa Report
my ex ran off with a gold digger [he was her boss] she is 16 years younger than him she has had pretty much a free ride in life not having to work for much in life but i wonder if she will support him when he retires me think the well would of run dry? meanwhile I went out and got my self a career and have focused on bringing up my child that he has pretty much treated like the pauper while their son is the prince! It has made me a wiser stronger person.