Trendy tie-ups don't always work
Published 10/10/2011 | 05:00
Reading the newspapers last weekend my eyes were drawn to a photograph of the colourfully attired Duchess of Alba. The report was not in the fashion supplement but in the international news section, reporting the forthcoming wedding of the 85-year-old duchess to her 60-year-old fiance, Alfonso Diaz, a civil servant.
Her children were objecting to the marriage and so, to overcome their protestations, she divided her £3bn (€3.5bn) fortune between them.
Older women in romantic liaisons with much younger men are not unheard of and include Demi Moore and her 15 years younger husband Ashton Kutcher -- whose marriage has been in the news recently -- as well as Madonna (52) and her 24-year-old boyfriend Brahim Zaibat.
Cougarism, as such relationships between younger men and older women are also known, has been grippingly portrayed in movies such as 'The Graduate' with Mrs Robinson seducing graduate Benjamin Braddock while 'Notes on a Scandal' dealt with teacher/pupil sexual relations.
Society has always been squeamish about sexual contact between older women and younger men. Of course, it depends on the age gap and if it is two or three years there would appear to be little or no concern. However, once the gap reaches five years or more there is unease.
Is society right to look askance at liaisons between mature adults such as the Duchess and her civil servant? The sense that an older woman is a mother figure doesn't sit comfortably with her as also a sexual partner.
Yet, increasingly older women are joining specialist cougar dating sites. In addition, women are believed to reach the peak of their sexual prowess between 35 and 45 while for men it is about 10 years earlier, so sexually speaking it might make sense for older women to get together with younger men.
However, in evolutionary terms, if men seek fertility and women seek providers, younger men might abandon their partners and offspring once the age of fertility passes, leaving them to fend for themselves as they move, literally, to more fertile territory.
In real life, long-term relationships are not just about sex but also friendship, trust and caring. The role models for age-discrepant relationships, mainly involving movie stars, are not good and many in these circles seem to be relatively short-lived. In society outside Hollywood there is little information on how long these age-discrepant pairings last.
There are good reasons to believe that they may not be resilient. Those men choosing older women may do so not just for the sex but also because of their own dependency needs for a mothering figure. Women may collude because of their mothering needs.
Even when ages are roughly similar, relationships driven by unhealthy needs cannot survive the emotional intensity.
The attentions of a younger man may be flattering to an older woman and provide a much-needed ego boost but this is likely to become fraught with insecurity and possessiveness as the ravages of ageing become apparent and the glow of her skin starts to dim in the mid-40s.
What if a woman in her 30s wants a child with her boyfriend in his 20s who is unable or unwilling to settle down at such a young age?
A study from the Max Plank Institute in Germany and published in 2010 in the journal 'Demography', shows that women in cougar relationships have a mortality rate that is higher than those in relationships with men who are older or of a similar age.
According to the author Sven Drefahl, women who marry a man seven to nine years their junior increase their mortality risk by 20pc and he speculates that one possible explanation may be that since these partnerships are outside what is considered the norm, they are subject to more stress and less social support, thus increasing the risk of illness.
In terms of mate selection, marriage data from the US and UK shows that for the most part women prefer a partner of roughly similar age even though younger men are available.
Women by and large just don't want younger men and, notwithstanding the current fashion, men are not terribly attracted to Mrs Robinson figures, except, perhaps, for sex.
For the moment, cougar relationships are trendy in some quarters, but they do not fit into the natural order of things. It will be interesting to see how the duchess fares.
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