Focus: Will he still need her, will he still feed her, when she's 74?

A quarter of UK brides are older than the groom. Elizabeth Heathcote on why this season's must-have is a younger man
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Sheryl Crow's announcement earlier this month that she is going to marry a man nine years her junior - the cycling legend Lance Armstrong, 34 - barely caused a stir. It has become so de rigueur for stars to settle down with men a decade or two younger than themselves that the celebrity press can barely rouse itself to trot out a toy-boy jibe. At 42, Demi Moore is 15 years older than her lover Ashton Kutcher. Judy Finnigan is eight years ahead of her 49-year-old husband. Madonna, Emma Thompson, Susan Sarandon, Cameron Diaz, Whitney Houston, Charlotte Rampling and Joely Richardson are all with men at least five years younger than themselves. Barbara Hershey's lover of seven years, the British actor Naveen Andrews, is 21 years her junior.

And where thespians lead... A new study by Dr Maire Ni Bhrolchain of Southampton University and published by the Office for National Statistics shows that in a quarter of British marriages, the bride is now older than the groom. In one in 10 she is at least five years older, and this proportion has doubled in 20 years. You can write off a celebrity's penchant for a pliable younger buck as the logical extension of the control freakery that got her name in lights in the first place, but something bigger is clearly going on.

There are obvious contributing factors. Women look, act and dress younger for longer. Many are no longer hunting for a (typically older) breadwinner. There are more second marriages, and the age difference is most pronounced where the woman has been divorced previously. Plus women are having children (and therefore often looking for a mate) later, and as any single woman over 35 will tell you, men in their late 30s and 40s have usually had their children already or don't want any.

Adrienne Burgess, a relationship researcher, believes this last in particular has persuaded women to widen the net. "My feeling is that men have always been prepared to look at older women," she says. "It was women who used to say, 'I can't go out with him, he's a child.' Plus women were looking for financial security, but that's no longer the case."

Sally Rogers, a 39-year-old teacher in London, was "surprised" when she found herself with Adam, 31, her partner of three years and the man she hopes to marry. "I did expect to go out with someone older - someone sorted, with their own house and so on," she says.

Does she resent the fact that he's still renting and earns less than she does? "Who stays with someone because of material things? Women have their own lives, jobs, money, houses," she says. "All they want men to give is themselves. I had been looking for long enough when I met Adam to appreciate how brilliant he is."

Janet Reibstein, a psychologist and teacher at Exeter University, believes that women having children later has eroded the taboo for men, too. "It is the fundamental change," she says. "By having children later, women have stretched the image of the 'sexual woman' into what used to be the 'older woman'. That makes it more permissible for a man to be with her - if she's seen as sexy, desirable and powerful, then so is the man who is with her."

I call this the Mick effect. Four years ago I discussed older women with my friend Mick, who made it clear that they are very sexy when a man is in his early 20s, pretty sexy when he turns 30, but sorry, from 40 on he is only going to fancy younger women. But when I ask him again (now aged 45), he musters the courage to admit that he does fancy women in their 50s.

"There is basically a war going on inside a chap's head," he says, "between identity and instinct. The truth is that you think two or three times before you let yourself fancy a woman who is older - it's about how it reflects on you." In other words, if Ashton Kutcher and Justin Timberlake can do it, he can own up too.

Both sexes are clear about the positives. "Adam has no catalogue of failed relationships, no children," says Sally. "He's a physically strapping man with no sign of decay. And he doesn't have erectile dysfunction, which was an issue with some of the men in their 40s whom I dated. It's fun - he has all his life ahead of him, and he's excited by it. And I do think sometimes, hopefully this way I won't be left a widow."

The appeal of the older woman, says Mick, is that she is powerful, sexy and financially independent, which can look particularly attractive to a generation of young men in search of more equal relationships.

"The overwhelming evidence is that men in their 20s want to share the burden of breadwinning," says Ms Burgess. "In fact, younger couples where the woman doesn't contribute financially are the least likely to last."

Maybe what stands out in these relationships is a strange equality. "Men still have more social power," says Ms Burgess. "If she earns more and is a bit more worldly, it evens things out." It is certainly a far cry from the cliché of the bottle-fed man latching on to a mother figure. "Those relationships don't last anyway," says Dr Reibstein. "Sex goes out of the window."

But what happens 30 years down the line, when she's collecting her pension and he's middle-aged? "I don't think it's much of an issue in reality," says Ms Burgess. "When you live with someone for a while, you stop 'seeing' them in that way - you see the person. In fact, I think it could be a positive. Women after the menopause have more testosterone - they really get into their stride in their 50s and 60s. But men are slowing down then and this can be a big problem as he is older - he wants to retire just as she wants to grasp life."

Sally is optimistic: "I do have the thought, will he leave me for someone younger, but he could leave me for loads of reasons, couldn't he?"

'I loved the fact that she had more experience of life'

Rita Beard, 55, and Mark Stanymyr, 46, live in Nassington, Northamptonshire, where they run the village store and post office. They have been together for 19 years.

"In the early days I felt very insecure when we went out and conscious of every wrinkle," says Rita, "but he made me feel like a sexy older woman. People didn't approve. Sometimes I think that made us stronger."

Mark says: "The age gap never bothered me. I loved the fact that she had more experience of life. It's great being with someone who takes equal responsibility. Age is immaterial when you've found someone you love."

'I relate to older people'

Maria, 34, and Chris, 26, Zoumides have been together for three years and are expecting their second child. Chris works with Maria at her hair salon business in Kent.

"Age was a big issue for me, but he kept persisting until it just hit me that I loved him," says Maria. "I didn't notice the age gap after that. I don't worry about what's going to happen when we're older because I'm more lively than him."

Chris says: "Women my age seemed spoilt. I relate better to older people. She is just full of energy. Her mind will always be there and that's what I'm attracted to most."

'In 10 years the age difference might have an effect'

Annabel Turner, 44, a film editor, has been with Mickey Olliffe, 34, a builder, for four years. She has a child from a previous relationship and they have a daughter together. They live in Suffolk.

"I was in a very strained relationship with an older man," says Annabel, "and when Mickey came into the house, he brought life and happiness with him. He was always singing and joking.

"I didn't think about the age difference at first, but I worry now about the shift that will come later, when that difference will start to show. I'd like to have a relationship where you live together till you die, but in our case it might be a bit tricky. Men in their 40s are in their prime, and by the time Mickey is that age, I'll be in my 50s and he'll probably start looking round for something juicier. I feel a little resigned; separation is a possibility and I have to accept it."

Mickey says: "I didn't think about the age difference between us, not for one second. Now, four years later, I admit there are disadvantages. I would really like another child, but I think Annabel's too tired. Another problem is that her friends are all much older and I find mixing with them difficult.

"She still has a great body but in 10 years' time the age difference might start to have an effect and I don't know how I'll feel. Sometimes it's hard to see a long-term future. We come from very different backgrounds and have different tastes, but we laugh a lot and enjoy each other's company."