Robin Stanton supposes her appreciation for younger men was honed during the feminist revolution. Growing up in Ohio in the 1950s, she married her high school sweetheart at age 22. They had two children, but before long she realized her traditional marriage was killing her soul. To Stanton's dismay, her husband seemed threatened by her intelligence and high spirits, as well as her singing career.
"He would denigrate me by saying I might have had brain smarts but didn't have a lick of common sense," says Stanton. "He said I was so subject to flattery, anyone could buy me with a candy bar. I was a golf widow all weekend, every weekend. And whenever I had a performance, he refused to support me by even being there."
Then came feminism.
In a step that was unusual at the time, Stanton sought a divorce, then went to graduate school in journalism. She began as a general assignment arts writer and a rock and film critic, and soon became a daily television columnist. In later years she covered major political events and the lives of celebrities, interviewing more than 1,500 in 30 years, including favorites Gene Kelly, Cher, and writer and producer Paddy Chayefsky.
Covering the rock scene also put her in touch with young male musicians, and she wound up going out with several guitar players and a drummer. "Most of them weren't intimidated by my career or independence," says Stanton. "They kept me informed and hip, so that my writing stayed fresh and current. They taught me a lot about being comfortable with who I was."
Now a jewelry designer in Las Vegas, the 63-year-old Stanton recalls, "I swore I'd never stick with a man who hadn't grown up with the feminist revolution. I liked men who appreciated my talent and my brain," and didn't insist that she be skinny.
That was more than 30 years ago. Since then she has had several lengthy relationships -- including another marriage -- to men between seven and 17 years younger. Stanton recalls a relationship with one young man she still calls the love of her life. "I learned to cook with him, because he ate everything, even my mistakes, with great gusto and appreciation," she says. "He was tender and sweet and uproariously funny. Sometimes we'd sit in front of the fireplace singing country-western songs at the top of our voices. It was so corny and so much fun."
Stanton, who has recently settled into a relationship with a longtime friend 18 months her junior, found that men who had grown up with the women's movement tended to be less possessive. She didn't have to conform to a rigid idea of what a woman should be, she says, and her young boyfriends didn't treat her like a trophy or an acquisition. "They were much more comfortable with their own sexuality," she says. "And they seemed to love a smart woman who understood sports and classical music."
A trend on the upswing
Stanton was apparently on the leading edge of what experts say is a new trend: older women dating younger men. Although older men dating younger women has long been socially acceptable (or at least commonplace in many cities), older women are now dating younger men in record numbers. It may be a trend on the upswing: Thanks to higher divorce rates and higher percentages of people who have never married, today 40 percent of the 97 million Americans 45 or older are single. Research on dating habits of these 40-plus singles is sparse, but according to an AARP survey of 3,500 older singles, 34 percent of women in the 40-to-69 age group date younger men. And 14 percent of women age 50 to 59 say they prefer dating men in their 40s or younger.
According to the AARP survey, respondents cited fun and companionship as the main reasons for dating. Of the respondents -- 56 of whom had been married in the past -- only 8 percent said they were looking for marriage. Nonetheless, more than one in 10 of these relationships leads to marriage: The most recent Census Bureau figures show that about 12 percent of all marriages are between older women and younger men.
Women dating younger men said they appreciated the strength, humor, openness, youth, and passion of their partners. What do the men get? Stanton believes that although some of the attraction may be predicated on the mystique of the older woman, her appeal to younger men was based not just on chemistry but on "the luxury of having a finished person. With me they got great cooking, a settled home, and a bonding of souls who had so many common interests," not the least of which was rock and roll.
Whether this kind of romance leads to a happy marriage, of course, may depend on luck or destiny. For Blythe Woolston, it probably has been a bit of both.
In the late 1980s, the Montana writer was a teacher at The Writing Center in Billings. One of her students and team teachers was the man who later became her husband and the father of her children. However, neither of them saw it coming for a long time. "At one point, I tutored Chris and remember being impressed at how witty this kid was, how capable, and what a good writer he was," says Woolston. "Later, we had an assignment where we were both the graders for one teacher, and that was spectacularly fun. It wasn't that we weren't attracted to each other, but we weren't thinking about that. We just enjoyed each other's company a great deal."
They developed a strong relationship as colleagues, she says. But she was always aware that he was a student and she was not, so the boundaries were clear. Besides, she was divorced with a young daughter to raise, and a new relationship, let alone a traditional marriage, was not on her radar screen.
But as fate would have it, their friendship deepened, and one night after driving her home, Chris offered that it might be okay if their parting involved more than the usual innocent goodnight peck. "That was a success," Woolston laughs. And they eventually became a couple.
"Nobody else is quite as engaging to me as Chris," Woolston says today. Despite the 11 years' age difference -- she is 46, he is 35 -- "I have an endless joy and curiosity about him. It is a richly wonderful relationship. We're not competitive, but we're always sharpening each other," she says. "Our values are very similar," she adds, an important factor for Woolston, who found that differences in values were one of the reasons men her own age were less appealing.
"The only place where age was ever an issue was because I felt that being with me should not limit his choices profoundly," she adds. "I didn't want to tamper with his life." When Chris went away to graduate school, Blythe was embarrassed by how much she missed him. It turned out that he felt the same way, and after he finished his master's degree in biology, they married. They have successful careers (both are writers) and two children of their own, ages 2 and 10; by choice, Blythe is no longer the chief wage earner. And, she says, Chris has been a wonderful father to her first daughter. "He made it possible for her to believe in the goodness of men. That's a real gift to give to a girl."
Old prejudices linger
The phenomenon of older women dating younger men "results from older women feeling much better about themselves: sexy and attractive," according to sex therapist and author Lonnie Barbach, PhD. "They're taking care of themselves and looking for men who can keep up with them. That often points to younger men."
Barbach, who penned the best-selling books Going the Distance and Turn On, two books about creating satisfying relationships, says that "in past decades a younger man might have been interested, but the older woman wouldn't have thought it was possible. So she wouldn't have acted on it. Today, however, women have a lot more options. The dictates of social norms don't run our lives like they used to."
Still, old prejudices haven't disappeared entirely. Although the majority of friends accepted their unconventional courtship -- and later marriage -- without question, there were still times when Ashland, Oregon resident Susan Johansen* doubted the wisdom of dating 26-year-old John Moreno*, who was nearly 13 years younger. Some friends assumed her relationship was simply about sex -- and told her so. There were raised eyebrows and whispered innuendos about her being a "Mrs. Robinson." Johansen, who married Moreno a few years later, is still surprised by insensitive comments from acquaintances.
"One day, the little girl who lived down the street came over and said, 'My dad says you're way too old to be with a husband that young,' " says Johansen, now 43. "There are definitely situations where people wouldn't socialize with us because of it. And then we had this one friend: Every time we got together she said, 'I just can't believe how young John is!' After a while, it got old."
Moreno, on the other hand, feels that his friends and family have been quick to accept the relationship. He was attracted to Johansen, his company's art director, for her intelligence, warmth, and "artsy personality," he says. He didn't realize she was in her mid-30s until they'd been dating for several weeks, but by then, it didn't matter. "I was 23 at the time," he recalls. "I remember telling her, 'I feel 30, and you look 29. So I think that makes me older than you."
"I really didn't care about her age," says the software engineer, now 30. "I needed somebody to bring out my intellectual side."
Ironically, Moreno showed more emotional depth and maturity than men closer to her age that Johansen had dated, she says, and he embraced the commitment of helping her raise her son, then 10 years old.
Not all men dating older women are ready for a lifelong relationship, however, nor are all the women. But some women looking for long-term commitment have been stymied by the differences in age and maturity. Alice Brydges, a 46-year-old Feldenkrais instructor and former dancer in San Francisco, is divorced after a 10-year marriage and bustling with energy. "Younger men are fun and passionate, and I love that," she says. "But I am ready for a healthy relationship, and they don't seem available for that kind of commitment. They seem terrified of losing control."
Barbach agrees that "the difference in maturity levels and life experience can be a problem in any relationship where a large age gap exists." Discrepancies in income and self-esteem, as well as later caregiving if the woman is significantly older, can also cause rifts. But it's difficult to generalize, Barbach says. "For some couples, it becomes a problem later in life if the younger man finds the older woman less attractive physically. For other couples, aging isn't an issue at all."
When the vulnerability is his
Of course, health problems can afflict the younger partner as well. Moreno, for example, developed hip problems so serious that even walking became unbearable without a cane. Recently, he underwent two separate hip surgeries in more than a year, forcing Johansen into round-the-clock care for her young husband during the weeks of his convalescence. It was fortunate, Johansen says, that she had been a candy striper at a local hospital when she was 15.
"My first sight of my bloated, tube-encrusted husband came very late on the day of his surgery, when he was moved to the progressive care unit," she says. "Nothing had really prepared me to see him so, well, vulnerable and just plain messed up."
Moreno recovered quickly, however, and was able to return to an exercise regimen that would make a triathlete envious. Johansen accompanies him on 15-mile cycling trips; as a result, she says, her physical stamina is better than it was in her 20s. Today, the couple often gets up at dawn to go mountain biking together.
For her part, Woolston feels no desire to accompany her husband and older son on all their all-day hiking and fishing trips. She can use the time to work on her new novel (her first novel, Freak Observer, came out recently.) She knows other happy couples in which the woman is several years older than the man, and she believes this trend will continue as women realize they have more options than before.
"A lot of single women my age have careers or children, or they're settled into a comfortable life as independent women. They don't wake up every day thinking there's a big chunk missing out of their lives.
"In retrospect, however, there was a big chunk missing in mine. It turned into a wonderful relationship, but it never occurred to me that this was the path Chris and I were heading down. You have to be open to possibilities, especially that someone younger can fall in love with you. I wasn't, until somebody pointed it out to me."
*Names with asterisks have been changed.
Interviews with Robin Stanton, Blythe Woolston, and Alice Brydges
Interview with Lonnie Barbach, PhD, sex therapist and author
Lifestyles, Dating and Romance: A Study of Midlife Singles for AARP Magazine. September 2003