The course of true love never did run smooth – and especially not for men, it seems. New research suggests that, when it comes to the minimum and maximum ages that men and women consider acceptable for a new sexual partner, women tend to opt for someone of a similar maturity; men, however, are less willing to restrict themselves. So as a man grows older, while the upper age limit of his prospective partners rises, his lower limit hardly changes. And this could be a problem – for him, at least.
While the likes of Sir Mick Jagger, Hugh Grant, Leonardo DiCaprio and Paul Hollywood appear to have little trouble attracting younger women, these men may well be the exception, rather than the rule: the study of more than 2,500 people by researchers at Abo Akademi University in Finland suggested that many older men interested in younger women might be condemned to a life of unrequited love.
“Their potential interest in younger women is not likely [to be] converted into sexual activity,” the authors write delicately.
However, in the same way that youth fades, so too does a middle-aged man’s impression of his attractiveness to women young enough to be his daughter. It is only when he hits his fifties that a man would consider a woman of his own vintage worthy of pursuit.
It is a conclusion that Ed, 46, arrived at a few years early – that, having tried for some time, dating younger women was a non-starter. Having separated from the mother of his two teenage sons in his mid-40s, the IT manager from South Yorkshire was keen to get back on to the dating scene. He was, however, unprepared for what he found there.
“After a 20-year relationship, I began online dating,” he says. “I was talking to girls in their 20s because those were the ones I felt most attracted to. But none seemed interested. All they wanted to do was send me titillating pictures of themselves.
“When I tried to take things further, they just ‘ghosted’ me, and that was that. They disappeared. I hadn’t expected them to be so immature.” Trial and error eventually taught Ed that women his own age were perhaps a better bet.
For other older men, it’s the technology that throws them. Dating a “digital native” – part of the generation born or brought up with digital technology, and thus innately familiar with the internet and smartphones – when you yourself are anything but is no easy proposition.
This is one of many dating truths exposed by First Dates, the Channel 4 reality show that returns to our screens for its 10th series tonight. As Michele Kurland, its executive producer, says: “What often happens is [when] men suddenly become single for whatever reason, it’s quite hard for them to get back into a relationship. Where do you go? What do you do? If you’re older, you’re not used to online dating.”
Andy, 38, who has appeared on the Channel 4 dating programme previously, hinted at just this. “I’m a bit old-school,” he admitted on the show. “I prefer getting to know someone, as opposed to the human Argos catalogue of swiping left and right.”
Jonathan, 68, a divorcee from Kent, has chosen a different route to romance, becoming a client of dating agency Drawing Down the Moon, instead of logging on to Tinder. But with four adult daughters – and a sensible approach to the practicalities of relationships – he has his sights firmly set on a woman his own age. “If you are with someone 20 years younger than you, they’ve probably got a different life experience,” he says. “Also, when you get to a certain age, you start to creak a bit at the seams. If you’re dating someone younger, there may well be a mismatch in your pace of life.”
According to Gillian McCallum, CEO of Drawing Down the Moon, Jonathan’s view is typical of the approach her clients take to dating. “The men might be attracted to women who are younger, but when they want a relationship, they want it with another adult,” she says. “Men are not coming to us and asking for a much younger model.”
Finding the right age match is not the only challenge that men on today’s fast-paced, often cut-throat dating scene must contend with, however. As is so often evident from a show such as First Dates, many men struggle desperately when it comes to finding love.
“Older women are very good at keeping their female friendships, at networking and at keeping up with their favourite activities,” says Kurland. “Sometimes, older men lose the art of dating. They can become a bit isolated if they have been widowed or made redundant. I think it often comes down to confidence. Men aren’t always as good at talking about their feelings, but saying you’re lonely and want to meet someone is the first stage to finding a partner.”
Often, only by finding a way to open up can they achieve intimacy with another person. Yet for many, the cultural expectation that men don’t share their feelings can make this incredibly tough.
Andy, a 6ft 1in Yorkshireman who grew up in a post-industrial community where men traditionally hid their emotions, agrees. “As a male of my generation, you don’t have the tools; you don’t want to admit to people you’re suffering [any] pain,” he tells me.
Outwardly chipper, he suppressed his own depression following a car accident for years before finally speaking out. “I didn’t talk to anyone about feeling depressed,” he says. “That’s not something you do. I have a way of acting like everything’s fine and putting a mask on, but one day I had a conversation with two of my best mates in the pub. I was the loneliest person in that crowded room so I built up to it and had a few drinks, then we spoke for about 20 seconds. They said: ‘Come on, mate, have another drink,’ so we got another pint and watched the football.” He decided to speak about his problems on First Dates in the hope it could benefit other men stymied by an inability to show vulnerability.
Although attitudes are gradually shifting, and the stiff upper lip may be on the way out, even millennial men looking for love don’t always find it easy. Griff, a 26-year-old farmer from Shropshire who appeared on the show previously, grew up in a male-dominated household. “We’re avid Welsh rugby fans so a lot of the chat is about that,” he says.
Whatever threats and challenges the dating world throws out, Kurland has one piece of advice that applies to all men: “If you like someone,” she says. “You have to take a bit of a risk.”