Heart Searching: Mrs Robinson seeks graduate: When you're 43, he will only be 31. None the less, Lyndsay Russell writes in praise of younger men

He's so young, I don't know whether to date him, or adopt him, giggled a girlfriend a year ago. She's no longer laughing. What started as a joke has turned into love. And falling in love with a much younger man is no laughing matter.

It started so unexpectedly. To celebrate my birthday, a crowd of us went skating to recapture our lost youth. My friend Sabrina went one step further. She slipped on the ice, and was picked up by one: a 19-year-old unemployed kid with the good looks of Keanu Reeves.

Sabrina, a 34-year-old PR executive, had just broken off her engagement to a very complex man. In exchange, this boy was a total tonic - uncomplicated, undemanding, and very, very loving.

'Sean's so open - he says what he feels.' Of course, Sabrina. The boy has never been hurt. Why shouldn't he be open? As I watched her get more involved, I felt sympathy. You see, I'd been there before.

When I was 33, a 21-year-old blond Australian wheedled his way into my heart. As always at the start of these relationships, everyone assumes its all to do with good sex. It is. But unlike The Graduate, it's nothing to do with you playing 'the teacher'. These days, he's likely to be just as open and experienced. Which, really, is a lot more fun. So that leaves the connection of the mind. And here's the unexpected twist. As you slowly explore each other's view of the world - your young lover with innocent freshness, you with the wisdom of age - the closeness that develops can take you unawares.

Before you can say Jackanory, the next time friends tease you about your 'toy-boy', you find yourself adding phrases like 'it's not just sex y'know, he's really intelligent'.

Eventually, friends' comments begin to hurt.

If only they could see him through your eyes: to hear the way he describes the sea, watch the way he moves so gracefully, understand his thoughts on the ozone layer, saving the lesser-spotted whale and the Bwotanizi rain forests. That's when you pluck up the courage to accept dinner invitations for two. You want to be accepted as a 'normal couple'.

Sabrina's first social occasion with Sean sticks in my mind. Most guests around the elegant dining table were in their mid-thirties. Over port, conversation switched to 'what was your most embarrassing moment?' Hoots of laughter swept the table as we recounted hideous moments from our past. But Sean remained silent, until he was forced to answer. 'Er . . . well, about a year ago, there was this time at school . . .'

Sabrina's most embarrassing moment was happening in front of our eyes.

It's a two-way situation, too. Sitting around with your lover's gang of beer-swilling, head-banging youths discussing Top of the Pops can be disheartening. Especially when the only group you can remember are the Monkees.

Then, of course, there's the obstacle of parental disapproval. On your side, you're old enough not to care. Besides, watching your mother cope with your father's prostate troubles, dodgy ticker and fleabitus leg does not exactly endear you to the age difference of conventional marriage.

On the other hand, meeting HIS folks is another story. Be warned. They'll see you as Caligula's Mother, trapping their baby boy with your wiles.

But all that is nothing compared with the real crunch. One cosy Sunday morning together, curled up with the papers and a croissant stuck to your bottom, you make the big mistake. A little voice inside you starts to question the future. Sums start forming inside your head. 'When I'm 40, he'll only be 29]' Panic. You realise that when you were having your first kiss he was still in nappies.

You try playing with the sums. 'When I'm 43, he'll be 31.' Does that sound more acceptable? You convince yourself it does, then run through the entire years of your life, picking out the combinations that don't make you wince.

That's when the old biological clock starts to tick. How much more time can I afford to give this relationship? A month? A year? When he's ready for kids, will I still be able to have them? You wonder about breaking free in order to date more 'suitable' men.

Worse, responsibility lies with age. Even if he declares you're the love of his life, you find yourself taking the role of The Wise Parent. You utter cliches like 'You're too young to have a family/I can't rob you of your youth/In a few years, you could hate me for it.' You shake your fist at the cruelty of Cupid.

And you bore friends with the repeated question, 'Do you think it could really work?' In answer, they'll dredge their memories and come up with a reply like: 'My second cousin's-aunt's-friend's neighbour has a successful marriage where the age difference is just as great as yours.'

Then comes the greatest sin of all. You scan Hello] magazine in the beauty salon (increased visits), and check out the ages of celebrity couples in desperate hope of role models. 'Oh great] Olivia Newton-John is married to some guy 13 years her junior.' Then you catch sight of yourself in the mirror. Will you look like Olivia Newton- John when you're 45? You don't even look like her at 35. Suddenly, wrinkles resemble the San Andreas Fault; cellulite, the Rocky Mountains.

Finally, wherever you go, you see much older men with younger girls - in restaurants, theatres . . . everywhere. It's okay for THEM, you mutter, everyone accepts that as normal. And you feel bitter.

But enough of all this. That's the bad news. Here's the good. Our generation has the chance to be pioneers. To help change perceptions of conversation. There's plenty of time for babies. Nowadays, hospitals are used to women having their first-born in their forties. And it's a fact that with today's health information and cosmetic technology, females are looking better than ever. A glance at friends of equal age and sex shows the men in poor light, aerobics and skin-care beating beer guts and no hair.

Joan Collins and Cher set a precedent in praise of younger men a decade ago. And where celebrities dare to go, the masses always follow. Already, age differences raise a less serious eyebrow, and many women positively seek out the younger man. 'My three long-term relationships have all been with men 10 years younger,' says Anne Hill, 45.

'Most men my own age have commitment problems, ex-marriages and heavy emotional baggage. Who needs all that? I'm also self-supporting, I don't need a man to be a breadwinner, I can choose him for all the right qualities.'

Indeed, young men have a lot going for them: enthusiasm, energy and fresh idealism. You can learn a lot from each other. So should you find yourself caught in the 'syndrome', don't panic. Mrs Robinson had the right idea. There are many reasons to graduate towards a younger man.

Next week: A younger man writes . . .

(Photograph omitted)

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