Over the course of your twenties, you’ll almost definitely have been told ‘you need an older man’ at some point by a well-meaning friend or relative unless, of course, you’re already dating one.
The mythologising of older men is at once frustrating and intriguing in equal measure: they’re often referred to as ‘silver foxes’ and ‘dad or shags’. An age gap can be good, it can be bad and it can be downright creepy. A young woman dating an older man is often romanticised but it can be very, very problematic too – take Lynn Barber’s story as told in An Education for instance.
At the slightly smuttier end of the spectrum during the research process of this article, I uncovered an entire subsection of erotic fiction on Amazondevoted to the ‘Daddy Complex’ with titles such as ‘Her Mother’s Boss’ and ‘Her Guardian Neighbour’. It seems to be rather popular.
But assuming that both parties are consenting adults, there’s no doubt that there is just something about an older man. As one self-described ‘grandad botherer’ aged 30, (let’s call her Daisy) told The Debrief ‘during my twenties I just realised that older guys were classier and cooler about most stuff than men by own age’. She added that, following extensive research in this area, she discovered that guys who were 40+ were also ‘in general, better in bed, had their own place, made excellent breakfasts, were never a dick about it if you didn’t want to see them again and don’t mind when you get pissed and called them 15 times in a row at 4 AM. Often, they also had cool mid-century furniture in their flats as opposed to Ikea and would make you a martini if you booty called them after the pub’.
We tend to portray older men as more romantic, wiser and kinder. Obviously, this is completely flawed because age doesn’t always prevent you from being a terrible person but, as dating apps take over and millennial men becoming increasingly hard to pin down because they’re all too busy nurturing their bromancesanecdotally at least, it seems that older men who remember the world before Tinder are having their moment.
We think we know why we’re attracted to older men but is there more to it than we realise? Professor Madeleine Fugere is the author of The Social Psychology of Attraction and Romantic Relationships. She says that there is scientific evidence which suggests that ‘dad or shag’ is both a psychological and evolutionary phenomenon and not just a cultural cliché.
‘The research in this area shows that not only are younger women attracted to older men, but older men are attracted to younger women, a convenient situation for heterosexual couples’ she explains. ‘When we ask men and women what aged partner they would prefer, men tend to say that they would like a female partner who is a few years younger and women tend to say that they would like a male partner who is a few years older. This preference exists cross-culturally which suggests that it is nearly universal’. Professor Fugere points out that this phenomenon persists throughout our lives, as men age they prefer even younger partners while as women age they continue to prefer older partners until around the age of 70.
In evolutionary terms, Professor Fugere says that for men it is, simply, about ‘ensuring that a prospective partner is fertile’ while women consider the resources an older man might have ‘such as income’. ‘An older partner may be in a better position to provide stability, he may also be more mature which a woman might prefer’, she explains.
The maturity aspect certainly speaks to Daisy’s situation. ‘He’s really kind and right on and never a twat compared to some of my friend’s partners, who are their own age’. Is this what attracted her to him in the first place? Yes, she says, ‘I think that might have something to do with when he grew up – he remembers Thatcherism properly, and what it was like when New Labour came in, and he’s never been exposed to 21st Century lad culture in any way, which I think is really nice’.
Similarly, Susan (not her real name) is 27 and currently about to move in with her 44-year-old boyfriend Shaun (yep, not his name either). She was, in part, drawn to him because, unlike men her own age, he ‘didn’t behave as though he had endless options on Tinder and [she] was just another drop in the ocean. Susan thinks there’s definitely an issue with younger men today behaving badly because dating apps and bro culture endorse it.
Initially, Susan says, she resisted the idea of dating someone older than her because of the cliché factor. ‘I was so torn about this’ she says ‘I still am sometimes. I fucking hate this. I hate the older men/younger woman thing. I can’t stand it…that thing with Brad Pitt being linked to Ella Purnell, who was 21 and looks exactly like a young Angelina Jolie made me furious. It’s always the case in films, older men having their pick of younger women’. Indeed, there is a definite imbalance when an older man dates a younger woman that, as a woman, it can be hard to shake. This is something I struggled with when dating an older man, I couldn't help thinking about all of the women his own age he didn't have his shit together for and finding myself siding with them.
But, reservations aside, Susan fell for completely for Shaun. Why? ‘He’s really fit, but also, he’s got it together and his age probably helps with that. He’s got it sorted, he doesn’t play any games. When he was ‘wooing’ me, he was quite straight up about it. He just said ‘I fancy you do you wanna go for a drink or something’, so I said ‘yeah I fancy you as well’ and then went for drinks. Then he was like ‘what do you want to do because I know you are connected with another relationship. I’m happy to wait for you, and if not that’s fine.’ There were just no games and there never is games with him. He never plays it cool just so that I think he’s playing it cool. I can just not imagine ever getting a text from him and wondering how to respond to that.’ How does that feel? ‘Refreshing’ she says simply.
I ask Professor Fugere what she thinks of all of this? Is young women’s attraction to older men nature, nurture or a combination of the two? ‘It is funny that you contacted me about this when you did’ she says, ‘last weekend I met some friends from college and I realised that we were all married to older men. Most of us had husbands about three to four years older, but some of us had husbands that were ten years older. So, from a personal perspective, it is intriguing’. Psychologically speaking, however, she says ‘the majority of researchers do believe that the preference for older man can be linked to our fathers. Women are statistically more likely to marry men who resemble their fathers in hair colour and eye colour, and women with older parents may be more likely to marry older men.’
There it is, all roads lead to dad. But is it a conscious or unconscious choice? ‘This is definitely an unconscious preference’ says Professor Fugere, ‘if women consciously realise that men resemble their fathers, they are less likely to find them attractive. However, based on the research I mentioned before, I believe that this preference is driven by both sexes…it just so happens that it is advantageous in terms of both sexes for younger women to be attracted to older men.’
Susan reflects on this. ‘Maybe what I needed was someone who was older to sort of look after me a bit’ she says, having met Shaun after several ‘not great’ relationships with guys her own age. ‘All the guys I knew in my circle, who were my age, were just fucking flying all over the place. I think the one thing you do get with going out with someone who is older, and again not always, is that he just has a calm still centre to him that younger guys don’t have’. That said, she says, ‘Shaun knows what he likes and what he doesn’t but he’s also very open to stuff which means, while he is a lot older than me, he doesn’t seem old.’ What’s the main thing that stands out to her in their relationship as a benefit of the age gap? ‘He just doesn’t get stressed by stuff. It’s all happened to him loads. He doesn’t get worked up about things the same way I do.’
Interestingly, this is almost exactly what Daisy says when she reflects on her current relationship with an older guy. ‘The only time when it’s a problem’ she says ‘is if he’s complaining that I haven’t used shower spray in the bathroom (it happened this morning, and I had). When that happens, I can’t just go ‘alright dad,’ because I couldn’t face the uncomfortable, slightly too long silence that would follow’. ‘But’ she says ‘99.9% of the time it isn’t a problem because we have the same values, the same sense of humour, and want the same things out of life – I’ve got plenty of friends with partners their age, and they spend so much time arguing about the big fundamental stuff – but he’d already worked those things out before we got together’.
Does Daisy think she'd be with her boyfriend if they were the same age? ‘I’m not sure you know’ she says, ‘I definitely like that he is older. The only real downside is that I also do worry about him getting older, that’s the one thing that gets me down’.
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.