Friday 18 October 2019

Kate Mulvey: 'How a year living as a cougar put me off younger men for good'

Last week, we told you of the appalling truth of dating significantly younger women. Now writer Kate Mulvey reveals the ups and downs of her experience with younger men

In this nod towards 'The Graduate', designer Prabal Gurung plays Dustin Hoffman while Diane von Furstenberg channels Anne Bancroft
In this nod towards 'The Graduate', designer Prabal Gurung plays Dustin Hoffman while Diane von Furstenberg channels Anne Bancroft

The dating game may have gone topsy-turvy in the past few years. Increasingly, middle-aged women are choosing to date men young enough to be their sons. Whether it's Madonna and her string of twenty-something male models and dancers or Wendi Deng swapping her octogenarian husband for a 21-year-old Hungarian toy boy beach mate, the older woman dates younger man trope has certainly come of age since it was immortalised with The Graduate's Mrs Robinson in the 1960s. But, as Kylie Minogue and her 29-year old fiance Joshua Sasse discovered, this isn't a relationship that will necessarily end in happy ever after.

A 2017 study published in Evolutionary Psychology of the relationship between age and sexual attraction is backing up what I have always suspected - the most successful relationships occur between partners of a similar age and that middle-aged women chase after men younger than them is largely a myth. Indeed, after quizzing 2,655 men and women aged 18-50, study author Dr Jan Antfolk found that most women expressed a preference for men slightly older than them.

Which makes sense, because after a year of living 'cougarly' I discovered just how difficult it really is to date a younger man.

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When I met David, a 29-year-old producer* (details changed) on a radio programme I was appearing on, I had just emerged from a toxic five-year relationship. I was 46, peri-menopausal, and facing the cruel realisation that men my age were not looking at me 'in that way' any more.

After a few disastrous dates with emotionally stunted divorcees - one who memorably told me I was hardly a spring chicken after I rebuffed his clumsy taxi lunge - I was at the end of my romantic tether.

David, however, was a like a breath of romantic air. It never crossed my mind that someone that young would think me attractive let alone a dating possibility, so when he asked for my number I was stunned.

After our first date, I was so giddy, I wanted to dance on tables and be outrageous. He wanted a woman who lived for the moment and didn't whine and ask where the relationship was going. Unencumbered by the weekly grocery shop, unpaid bills and the "is he/she the one" angst, it was a relationship which seemed playful and carefree.

I felt attractive again, stopped obsessing over greying hair and bought flirty little bras and strappy dresses. I may have looked like mutton, but I was made to feel like a goddess. I confess to a few moments of bedroom anxiety when it came to baring it all and was so nervous I got undressed with my back to him.

But I needn't have worried. When I finally relaxed, the chemistry between us was great; he was like a human anti-ageing cream shoring up my flagging, middle-aged ego.

Needless to say, my girlfriends felt otherwise. "Far too young," they roared.

Others put the oar in. "Of course, he doesn't love you," they said.

And they were right. I think somewhere between "I am going to die alone" despair and an aching need for validation, I had mistaken passion and excitement for real love and commitment.

I was not alone. Back then in 2011, the cougar craze was in full flow. We were not middle-aged frumps wearing beige, but vital, sexy women who could date down just like men. Except we couldn't. The appeal of the sophisticated older woman who knows her way around the wine list and the bedroom may be intoxicating at first, but it doesn't take long for the cracks to show. Think Demi Moore dating Ashton Kutcher 16 years her junior. They got married and he gave sensitive interviews about how their relationship worked, but it didn't take too long for him to move on to actress Mila Kunis, who is a few years younger than him and with whom he now has two children.

There are other downsides to this age-gap relationship. I remember talking films with David and mentioned how I loved the 1970s classic, Tootsie. He gave a completely blank look and that was when the penny started to drop. Points of reference are crucial when it comes to bonding past the honeymoon phase. There is nothing like having to explain what the disco era was to make you feel as if you are a hundred. Ditto any conversations about Tiswas, how you could once smoke on planes and coping when Google maps didn't exist.

Factor in the day-to-day realities: arguments over who loaded the dish-washer, whose turn is was to cook spaghetti alla carbonara (I was trying to wean him off Nandos) and soon everything about him started to irritate.

His habit of wearing high top trainers, the way he gelled his hair in the morning. Him drunk till he passed out, me acting like his mum. Me hankering after a year for a takeaway, cuddle and few episodes of the Crown, while he had a totally different idea of what Netflix and chill meant. Reader, if you too have no idea, Google it.

There was also the embarrassing moment when he would look like a rabbit caught in headlights if dinner party conversation turned to mortgages or school fees. He would shift uncomfortably in his seat, make an inane joke and I would want to crawl under the table.

The friends issue didn't help either. My male friends would make sarcastic comments about him being mistaken for my son (I know, hilarious) while other female friends would either not even bother to engage him in conversation, or, even worse, flirt outrageously every time he came in the room.

It didn't take long to start hankering after the joys of quiet companionability of someone my own age. Reading the newspapers on a Sunday and laughing conspiratorially about creaking knees and how we need trifocals just to read the small print. Being in sync energy/bedtime/nutrition-wise. Oh and leaving parties before midnight were all things I missed dearly.

The tipping point came when I caught David getting a bit too close to a blonde waitress at his local pub. I knew it was time to hang up my claws for good. I binned the sequinned party tops, threw his trainers into the bin and went back to my old life of regular walks in the park, super healthy food and lots of sleep.

The key to dating across an age divide, for men and women, is see it for what it is. Keep it fun and keep it short. What did I walk away with? Well, I made a new friend and got my romantic mojo back which made my year of living 'cougarly' all worthwhile. But, for a longer lasting feel-good feeling I'm sticking to a great moisturiser and weekly yoga classes, thanks.

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