Age of indifference is not indifferent to age
We can't get our heads around the idea of the older woman, writes Julia Molony
Published 17/01/2010 | 05:00
As the case of Iris Robinson demonstrates, today more than ever, we seem to have a lot of trouble getting our heads around an age gap.
Judging by the editorials, and the sneering references to The Graduate, the detail about Mrs Robinson that the world seems to disapprove of most is not that she is married, nor the shady financial dealings that accompanied by the affair but that, quelle horreur, her young lover was close to 40 years her junior.
There's a special sort of opprobrium reserved for women who indulge their sexual appetites after the deadline at which society deems them to peak as objects of desire. Even more so when their quarry is a young man in his prime. These women have been nicknamed, rather snidely, as cougars. By which we can read that they must be considered somehow predatory, unfeminine and more than a little bit sinister.
The more widely recognised pairing of a younger woman with an older male may be a set up we are more used to seeing, but that doesn't stop the knee-jerk harrumphing and disapproval.
What exactly is so wrong with the notion of an older man with a younger woman, and why are we all so squeamish about it? So much so that we suspect every such relationship must be some sort of Hugh Hefner-esque pantomime of romance.
As the cliche has it, the dynamic can only ever be a strictly transactional one. It's assumed that the motivation for the female in question to be either power or cold hard cash. Or indeed, both.
But do we really believe that an age-appropriate relationship is purer in romantic terms? Is this evidence of a broader nonsensical rigidity around our conceptions of love? And can we really be surprised at our spectacular failure, as a culture, at mastering a workable formula for life-long partnerships?
For one thing, all relationships are, in a sense, transactional. In the most basic way, the rudiments of attraction are dictated by the idea of bartering our genes. We all want to get the best return, either in raw genetic material, or in creating a match that provides conditions that best allow potential offspring to thrive. Y'know, things like financial security, social status, resourcefulness, experience. Qualities generally better associated with those gentlemen who have been around for long enough to learn how to attain such things.
The male-female attractiveness formula is pretty universally accepted. And it plays out between couples of all ages. It just happens to often find the neatest expression when a young woman falls for an older man.
But as many women know, on a romantic level, there's more to it than that too. Because, though biological drives may underpin our motivations, there's a social element to romance too. While evolution may steer our attraction, what we seek out of love is much more complex.
And in reality, in age gap relationships more than others, having babies is often deliberately beside the point. A young woman who dates an older man is most likely to make the choice to do so at a time in her early adulthood when reproducing is not yet part of her plan, while a man significantly older than his partner is quite likely to have already got his family project out of the way.
Because they are released from the reproductive imperative, age-gap partners have room to allow a purer kind of romance to flourish. The sort that is based on human-to-human communication and empathy, rather than the dictates of that old tyrant, biology. And without getting too Freudian about it, perhaps in these cases, the parent-child dynamic that is the acknowledged blueprint for all human relationships, finds a healthy, and functional expression. At least both parties have a clear role.
Older men, according to the young women who have dated them, tend to be faithful, indulgent, and caring in a parental sort of way that their younger counterparts couldn't hope to muster. They set a benchmark for how to treat a partner, which for many young women would helpfully raise the bar on how they expect to be treated later on, by subsequent partners.
Then, of course, there's that old chestnut about men and their immaturity. It's an oversimplification, of course, but there is, somewhere in there, a rough general rule. Women, as we are constantly reminded, are forced to confront the finite nature of their fertility much earlier than men. And on some subterranean level, this forces an appreciation of life's limits. The biological clock provides a sort of mortality wake up call, if you will.
Men of the same age, by comparison, tend to exist in an extended, live-for-today suspended animation until well into their forties, or until they have children -- and can afford to put off emotional development for much longer. Which, if my own experience is anything to go by, can make them rather troublesome choices as life partners.