People don’t seem to bat an eyelid when a relationship blossoms between a man and a younger woman. But, even with all the equality we enjoy these days, when the woman is older, people are often surprised…
Sofia Middleton had no intention of acknowledging her 39th birthday. Still reeling from a painful break-up with her fiancé of five years, going out and having fun was the last thing on her mind. ‘I was in a really bad place,’ says Sofia, now 50. ‘I’d been engaged and it fell apart. All I wanted to do was stay in and be miserable. My friends had to drag me out.’
But it pays to have pushy friends. They persuaded her to go to a bar in Puerto Banus, near her home in Marbella, where Sofia, originally from Staffordshire, was living and setting up her own marketing consultancy business. It was there she met Brian. ‘He was on a golfing holiday,’ says Sofia. ‘We swapped numbers and I suggested a coffee. We spent the next four days in each other’s pockets until he had to fly home to Aberdeen.
‘We discovered that we liked the same music, and that we both loved good food. Brian’s an avid golf player, and he started teaching me.’ She adds, ‘I’d been at my brother’s wedding two weeks earlier and, as we were sitting on a beautiful verandah, my mum had said, “This time next week you could meet the man of your dreams”. At the time I thought “Oh shut up, for goodness sake!” – but then I met Brian.’
Six months later, the couple married and soon after Sofia discovered she was pregnant with their daughter Ellie, now nine. Now settled in Aberdeenshire, their lasting relationship has defied expectations, and not just because the relationship started out as a holiday romance – but because Sofia, who turned 50 in February, is almost a decade older than her husband, who recently turned 40. ‘It helps that I have a young outlook, whereas Brian’s always had a mature head on his shoulders, so we balance each other out,’ Sofia says. ‘Any relationship is about compromise, especially if there’s an age gap. If we had got together when I was younger, it might not have worked out, but as we both had that hedonistic phase of life out of the way, we were on the same page by the time we met.’
As for disapproving looks from friends and family, this has never been an issue. ‘They were thrilled I’d found someone nice,’ says Sofia. ‘Everyone says you shouldn’t clamour for approval, but when you’ve made a big mistake in the past you do want to know what the people you love think. So you ask, “Is he OK? Is it just me?”’
She is not the only woman in her 40s or 50s to have fallen in love with a younger man and made it work: at 43, Kate Moss is dating Count Nikolai von Bismarck, 13 years her junior; while Cheryl Cole, 33, has had a baby with 23-year-old One Direction singer Liam Payne.
And famously, in 2009, the film director Sam Taylor-Johnson fell in love with the actor Aaron Johnson on the set of Nowhere Boy. She was 42 and he 19. ‘I don’t really listen to other people’s opinions. I just follow my heart and my instincts,’ she said at the time.
Their union sparked much debate, and the tuts were almost deafening, but the pair have since silenced their detractors and seven years on remain visibly smitten. They married in an intimate ceremony in Somerset in 2012 and have two children together, Wylda Rae, six, and Romy Hero, five (Taylor-Johnson also has two daughters from her previous marriage). It’s a refreshing example of romantic endurance at a time when many Hollywood couples are parting ways.
In fact, it is a growing trend: it seems that 16 per cent of relationships now comprise an older woman and younger man, compared with just 10 per cent in 1960, according to a study of European relationships by the French statistics bureau Insee.
The data appears to have the official seal of approval – France’s former economy minister Emmanuel Macron, widely tipped to be elected the country’s new president this month, is 25 years younger than his wife, Brigitte Trogneux.
Meanwhile, dating website Elite Singles analysed the upper and lower limits of more than 450,000 of its members and found that men between the ages of 20 and 29 prefer a more mature partner. ‘With age often comes a great deal of confidence and security,’ says psychologist Emma Kenny.
‘Older women have gone through so many experiences and are usually less willing to compromise or be silenced by a man. They tend to be more self-reliant and accepting of themselves, which means they’re naturally more sexually engaging and a lot less willing to let life pass them by. All of these qualities are hugely attractive.’
An increased awareness of health and fitness means we’re also looking better for longer. ‘Age gaps are less visually obvious than they once were,’ she adds. ‘A 45-year-old woman can go out with a 30-year-old man and easily pass for his contemporary.’
Helen*, 57, a company executive from Belfast, Northern Ireland, agrees. She struck up a conversation with a ‘wonderfully attractive’ colleague at a Christmas party six years ago and the pair hit it off – but they were shocked when they discovered she was 15 years his senior.
‘I guess I’ve always looked good for my age and I take care of myself, too,’ says Helen. ‘I do yoga every day, eat well and have a very full life. Phil* and I clicked right away. We have similar interests and want the same things – we’ve both been married before and neither of us has ever had any desire to have children. Age is immaterial.’
‘The key to a successful relationship that cuts across the decades is to have the all-important conversation about the future,’ advises Kenny. ‘To a certain degree, you should be ruled by your head and not your heart. If you’re 45 and can’t have children or aren’t interested in doing so, and you’re seeing a 25-year-old, you have to acknowledge that there may come a point where he wants a family and this could potentially cause pain on both sides.’
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should walk away from a good thing. ‘It’s all about whether or not you have the mindset for a younger man. You have to consider your security levels. As time goes on, you’re going to be contending with younger women and it’s important to have the confidence and mental resilience to cope with that. The good news is, these days, lots of guys don’t see an older woman as any different from women their age.’
Sofia has never questioned the stability of her relationship with Brian. ‘I sometimes wonder whether it would have made a difference if I’d known right away that Brian was younger. But age never came up until we were well into the relationship. It’s about knowing you have the support. If you’re lucky to find that, then age is not an issue.’
*Names have been changed. Text by The Telegraph Group Ltd, London, 2017. Photos by Alamy/Gettyistock/Shutterstock
5 celebrity couples who prove there’s nothing wrong with romancing a younger man:
Cheryl Cole & Liam Payne
Age gap: 10 years
The X Factor judge got together with the One Direction singer in early 2016. Their relationship has withstood an enormous amount of media scrutiny, and they welcomed their first child in March
Julianne Moore & Bart Freundlich
Age gap: Nine years
The stunning actor met her writer/director husband on the set of one of his films in 1997. They have two teenage children – Caleb, 17, and Liv, 15
Sam Taylor-Wood & Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Age gap: 23 years
The director met the actor on set in 2009 when Aaron was just 19. Sam has two children from her first marriage, and the couple have had two daughters together, Wylda, six, and Romy, five
Eva Mendes & Ryan Gosling
Age gap: Seven years
The two actors met on the set of The Place Beyond the Pines back in 2011 and have since had two daughters, Esmerelda, two, and Amada, who is turning one this month.
Cameron Diaz & Benji Madden
Age gap: Seven years
The actor married the singer in January 2015, two months after they met. She has been quoted as saying that all of her past relationships and exes melted away when she met Benji.