The first woman I ever fell in love with was 20 years older than me. Her name was Judith and she worked as a matron at my boarding school.
I was 15 years old — the same age French Presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron was when he had his first tentative encounter with wife-to-be, Brigitte Trogneux. She was his drama teacher, married and 25 years his senior.
I can understand the attraction. Being more than twice my age only made my matron seem more intoxicating. The fact that she was strictly out of bounds added greatly to the mystery and the longing.
I’d grown up with two older sisters so being around more mature women was nothing new but this felt different — very different.
Like many boarding school boys forcibly removed from their mother at an early age, I tended to place women on unfeasibly high pedestals. With her statuesque figure and alabaster skin, Judith wouldn’t have looked out of place atop a Doric column.
She had luscious hair like Agnetha, the blonde singer from Abba, and a smile that could floor a pubescent boy from a hundred paces.
But it wasn’t just her dreamy looks that had me hypnotised. Her poise and self-assuredness stood in contrast to my gauche inarticulacy. She was the most sophisticated creature I’d ever met.
No wonder I spent so much time staring out of the window, fantasising about what it would be like actually to go out with someone so graceful and mature. Oh how I yearned to stroll hand in hand with Judith across the playing fields, while the rest of the boys looked on in jealous disbelief.
In what I can only imagine was a deliberately cruel move on the part of the school, Judith’s living quarters had been tantalisingly positioned bang next door to the boys’ dormitory, just the other side of a paper-thin wall.
So while we were forced to lie in petrified silence on pain of punishment, Judith could clearly be heard giggling into her phone and dancing along to her transistor radio.
Here was a woman old enough to be my mother tearing a hole in my heart. All the boys were in love with Judith, but she and I had a special connection, or so I surmised from her flirty glances. It was all very innocent of course but that didn’t stop me from posting love notes under her door at night.
My attraction for older women stayed with me long after I’d left school. Indeed, my first long-term relationship was with a woman 12 years my senior. I was 26 when I started dating Ann, a successful 38-year-old TV producer.
Looking back, the age gap doesn’t seem so cavernous, but I remember feeling anxious at the time. She was so much more together than me, despite the fact she’d just emerged from a long and painful marriage break-up.
I found her poise and strength of character extremely sexy and attractive, although I did worry about how she would deal with my straitened circumstances as an out-of-work actor.
My struggle with rejection came not only from my career choice, but from the sorts of women I’d been dating. Girls my own age appeared to take great delight in being flighty and unreliable. I really wasn’t into the party-girl scene and longed for a bit of stability.
Ann cut through my insecurities and uncertainties, assuring me her love depended not on what I was, but who I was.
Having survived the vagaries of an unhappy marriage, there wasn’t much that could phase Ann, and although I initially found her career success slightly intimidating, she never once made me feel diminished or emasculated, even on days when I struggled to leave the house.
Her quiet confidence and unflappable nature helped me mature as a man. I’m not sure that would have happened if I’d continued floundering around with flaky women my own age.
On occasion, my more conventional friends would question how long a relationship like ours could last. They joshed about desperate, predatory cougars, but what they failed to grasp was that her maturity and solvency meant she no longer had to worry about judging men along shallow lines such as bank balance and career status.
She’d reached the fortunate position of being able to choose a man she actually liked rather than one who ticked boring, predictable boxes.
Ann would laugh whenever I brought up the subject of age. ‘Who cares as long as we like each other?’ she’d cry.
While the traditional template of older man/younger woman still dominates, there appears to have been a shift. Research suggests the older woman/younger man relationship has been on the increase since the Eighties.
The loosening of gender roles means more equality when it comes to choosing a partner.
The ubiquity of older women dating younger men in the media over the past 20 years has demystified what was once considered a taboo.
Underlying the phenomenon are important social changes. The fact that men and women are now living longer means they often experience more varied relationships over a lifetime. A person’s choice of partner when they are older may vary considerably from the sort of person they’d choose in their youth.
And there have been significant changes in men’s and women’s attitudes too. The loosening of gender roles means more equality when it comes to choosing a partner.
The ubiquity of older women dating younger men in the media over the past 20 years has demystified what was once considered a taboo. You only have to look at the choices made by women such as Joan Collins, whose fifth husband Percy Gibson is more than 30 years her junior, or artist Sam Taylor-Wood, 50, who’s married to actor Aaron Johnson, 26, to see that the stigma of age no longer acts as a barrier to true love.
The old image of the desperate cougar prowling the streets for young prey seems hopelessly out of date today.
Men increasingly see growing up and settling down as an unnecessary bind and something to be feared.
The psychologist Emma Keeble believes the current crisis in masculinity may also have some bearing on the trend. ‘Men increasingly see growing up and settling down as an unnecessary bind and something to be feared,’ she says.
A more mature woman might therefore seem less demanding for a man still clinging to his youth. More equality between the sexes also means women feel less inclined to conform to traditional gender roles and patterns such as meeting and marrying an older man.
Those of us in our late 40s are generally more flexible about a woman’s role in society. We tend to worry less about power and status.
Relationship psychologist Susan Quilliam attributes the rise of older woman/younger man relationships to the division of fertility and sexuality. The Pill has given women the option to delay childbearing or reject having children altogether.
Research has shown older women tend to be less fussy about their partners than younger women because experience has made them more open-minded. Another eye-opening study has revealed that women who marry younger men outlive their life expectancy, whereas those marrying older men die sooner than expected.
The study shows that women who choose younger men tend to be better educated and marry later, meaning they often have more liberal views about the institution of marriage.
During my 30s, many of my male contemporaries were settling down with younger women, mostly in their late 20s, although a few were holding out for something less conventional.
A friend of mine living in the country had grown weary of dating anxious girls on the cusp of infertility. Having no interest in siring children of his own, he deliberately avoided girls suffering from what he called ‘thirty-five-itis’. All he wanted was to find a fun-loving soul with whom he could have a laugh.
Having worked hard all his life, he felt he deserved to have a bit of fun rather than channel all his wealth into domesticity and child rearing. He eventually found his ideal match in an unmarried, childless woman in her late 40s, ten years his senior.
She had accepted the fact she would never have children and was free to share her partner’s dream of travelling the world and living life to the full.
Even now, in my 40s, I have unmarried male friends the same age who prefer the company of older women. One such man is dating a divorcee in her late 50s with three adult children.
He is thrilled to have been welcomed into a dynamic, ready-made family and has no issues with the age discrepancy. Indeed, his partner’s beauty, experience and zest for life have given him a new sense of purpose.
There are drawbacks, of course. Dating a much older woman has its limitations if expectations change. An acquaintance of mine suddenly decided, in his mid-40s, that he would like to have children, even though his much older partner was beyond childbearing years.
Although still very much in love, he had to make the agonising decision to leave their three-year relationship in order to fulfil his dreams of fatherhood.
I know of another man who grew to resent his older, high- achieving partner’s success, and felt the balance of power within the relationship had shifted too far in her favour. Emasculation can kill a relationship.
I would certainly have no issue with dating an older woman now, apart from the fact that I am in a stable relationship with a woman several years my junior… not that that should have any bearing on anything.
We ought to be thankful that we live in a society free from the rigid structures that have imprisoned us in the past.
Who knows, perhaps in the future, we will forget about age altogether.
We could start by removing birthdays from the calendar and making it unacceptable to ask another person’s age regardless of circumstance. After all, as one of my middle-aged friends keeps reminding me, ‘time only exists on your wrists’.