‘How did you two meet?’ might not be the most original question to pose to a couple you are introduced to for the first time at a party, or over dinner, but as an icebreaker it’s guaranteed to work. Most marrieds love to reminisce, even to complete strangers, about the moment they clapped eyes across a crowded pub, or how they were college sweethearts, or their initial chance encounter on a plane or boat or train.
But these days the answer to that question is increasingly likely to be a succinct ‘online’, prompting a barrage of further questions about the whats, whys and wherefores of internet dating. For the uninitiated, the world of online encounters tends to remain arcane, possibly inappropriate and potentially dangerous.
A 2011 YouGov survey of 20,000 adults found that one in five of today’s relationships in the UK starts online, and online dating has become the second most common way for couples to meet, just behind meeting through friends. If you thought this applied more to youngsters than anyone past 50, you’d be way off the mark. Men and women between the ages of 40 and 69 are more likely to use an online dating site than any other age group – and their ranks are swelling.
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According to an Oxford University study, carried out by the Oxford Internet Institute and covering 1997 to 2009, of the 24,000 men and women interviewed, 36% of the 40-69 year olds had found their current partner online, compared with just 23% of 18-40 year olds. Slower to catch on when online dating first began to make waves at the end of the Nineties, mature daters are becoming increasingly valuable targets for dating websites. Professor William Dutton, co-author of the study, said, ‘The popularity of online dating seemed largely down to its accessibility and the fact that people seem comfortable disclosing what appear to be personal details in a pseudo-anonymous online setting.’
Looked at from a financial perspective we are talking big business, estimated globally at almost £2.5 billion and more than £170 million in the UK alone. In austerity Britain, online dating seems to be immune to the downturn – and the Office of National Statistics has now added it to the basket of goods and services used to calculate the cost of living.
Behind the dating phenomenon among older age groups is a heady convergence of social, cultural, technological and economic factors, reflecting the attitudes and lifestyles of the Baby-boom generation, born between 1946 and 1964. It means the sell-by date for love has grown ever more distant.
In the Seventies it was common to feel that if you were female and unmarried at 25, you were on the shelf. Nowadays, with later marriage and 42% of all UK marriages ending in divorce, we jump on and off that same shelf with what some feel is alarming alacrity.
When it comes to second marriages, the divorce rate goes up to a whopping 67%. While there’s evidence that divorce rates overall are beginning to fall slightly, so-called ‘silver separation’ among the over-60s is still on the up. And the latest census figures, published in December, show that while the number of couples marrying is falling, cohabitation is on the increase. Cohabiters tend to split up even faster than those who tied the knot.
What these figures tell us is that the old maxim ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again’ is more apposite than ever.
Another factor that ties in with the online dating boom is the remarkable rise in the number of people living alone in the UK, especially among those in their middle years. Between 2001 and 2011, the number of people aged 45-65 living alone jumped from 1.78 million to 2.4 million, an increase of well over a third. Even the growing numbers who are single by choice are unlikely to rule out relationships.
Mature dating in popular culture
Popular culture, too, has begun to wake up to the love lives of the older age groups. The TV comedy drama Last Tango in Halifax, starring Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid as a couple in their seventies who reconnect online some six decades after losing touch as teenagers, notched up more than 6.2 million viewers for its first episode.
Hilary Boyd’s first novel, Thursdays in the Park, about a woman of 60 who falls for a man she meets in the playground where she takes her grandchild once a week, has become a phenomenal word-of-mouth success and Amazon bestseller.
You can barely go to the movies without seeing 63-year-old Meryl Streep having hot (and sometimes cold) sex, and not with toy boys, but with men of a similar age.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, featuring a doughty cast of oldies including Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Judi Dench and Ronald Pickup, all in their seventies, was one of last year’s biggest grossers worldwide. The over-50s aren’t just consuming culture – they’re inspiring it.
Starting online dating
The main issue for those hoping for a new relationship is that the opportunities for meeting attractive, interesting and eligible partners diminish as you grow older. Bars and discos, friends and the workplace offer countless prospects for younger people, but they’re not designed for mature matchmaking. Mr and Mrs Right may well be living a short distance apart, but they’re unlikely to find one another unless they go online.
But dating on the net does have pitfalls and conventional manners often fall by the wayside. Novice dabblers bewail the fact that emails and text messages are ignored and, even when you’ve been on a date, the person can disappear from your life without a word of explanation.
People also tell lies; most people shave a couple of years off their age and post the most flattering photos they can find. Men, in particular, seem to feel the need to exaggerate their height by some inches. But the truth comes out on that first date – and when you meet face-to-face, minor fibs may become irrelevant. Research by Dr Wendy Watson, of Bowling Green State University in Ohio, found that older people market themselves differently from younger ones, focusing less on appearance and status and more on honest self-representation and compatibility.
But some of the fears that people express are real.
It is tougher on women when large numbers of men are looking for younger partners – but there are numerous examples of couples of a similar age getting together. Women may just have to be more patient. Both men and women have voiced concern about treating potential partners as though they were items on a supermarket shelf: you look at the product (the online profile) before tasting the goods (the first date). Will you buy the product again?
Relationship psychologist Susan Quilliam and her colleague John Seymour, both of whom tried internet dating in their fifties and sixties, went on to develop their own online dating and relating programme, offering coaching (online or face-to-face) to those who are nervous about dating online, or struggling with their emotions.
Seymour, now 65, divorced three years ago and met his same-age current partner after about a year of online dating. ‘It’s true that men often look for younger women,’ he says, ‘but it’s important to remember you’re looking for only one potential partner, not hundreds. And it’s important not to get trapped in self-limiting beliefs.’
Seymour advocates that you view the whole business of online dating as a self-development course. ‘After the high of the first few weeks, and if you’ve had some bad contacts and rejections, it’s easy to give up. But you need to realise that while the odd person gets lucky and meets someone special right away, you need to be in this for the long haul.’
Another important thing to remember, he says, is that sexual fears run both ways. Women may worry that their bodies aren’t up to scratch, but performance anxiety is equally an issue for some men.
The stigma of online dating has virtually disappeared. Online or off, when it comes to searching for a mate, there are no guarantees. But at least dating online increases your chances in the lottery of love.
Internet-dating action plan
- Before you start, be certain you are fully over your last relationship. Be positive rather than embarrassed about signing up and believe that finding a new partner is possible.
- Know your criteria for a new relationship; don’t compromise because you’re scared of not finding anyone.
- Check out lots of websites before you decide which one or more to go with.
- Once you’re signed up, treat it as a time-consuming hobby, involving up to eight hours a week to manage emails, read profiles, spot new people, make and take calls, and gently and kindly close people down when you feel they are unsuitable. If you don’t make the time, you’re less likely to succeed.
- Expect rejection and don’t take it personally. Given that this person doesn’t know you, it can’t be personal.
- Remember that the first meeting is often the final one. And always take precautions such as meeting in a public place and getting a friend to phone you at a given time.
- Continue to contact other people online until you are sure you want to focus on one particular person. That’s good online dating etiquette, not infidelity!
For details of courses on online dating and one-to-one coaching, contact email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
The new rules – for women
Remember The Rules – the dating etiquette book of the Nineties? The two authors are back this month with a new book all about dating do’s and don’ts for the digital generation – written in conjunction with their daughters.
Called, rather logically, The New Rules, it’s aimed at women, mainly the young – but the rules are the same for all ages – and suggests some techniques for finding a successful relationship online. Here are some examples:
- Wait at least four hours before answering a guy’s first text. (The older you are, the longer you should try to wait. Over-forties should wait a day to reply.)
- Don’t ask guys out by text – or any other way. (Men love a challenge and the feeling of pursuing.)
- Don’t answer texts or anything else after midnight.
- Stop dating a guy who cancels more than once.
- Always end everything first – get out of there. (Whether it’s an email exchange or phone call, leave him wanting more.)
- Don’t send a guy anything you wouldn’t want him to have if you later break up.
The New Rules by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider (Piatkus, £9.99).
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