There are more over-thirties looking for love than ever before. But why so many – and where do they start their search? Sally Brampton meets the adults who, like amorous adolescents, find themselves anxiously waiting for that email or phone call…
A friend, recently divorced, is in a state of high excitement. She has a date. What should she wear? How should she behave? She met him at a party. It took him five days to call. Does that mean he likes her a lot, or just a bit? How many dates before she agrees to have sex? Is one too few and five too many? Should she supply the condoms? What’s the etiquette here? All normal stuff, except that she is 45, not 25. She has teenage children – a backdrop of amused, rolling eyes: ‘Oh, for God’s sake, Mum, just chill.’ All very well for you, their mother says, but how exactly are you supposed to behave these days?
It is not an idle question. Our dating days used to be over by our late twenties. No longer. The age group making most use of dating agencies is 35 to 49, and the over-fifties are the fastest growing demographic, according to the Nielson/Net Ratings. The increasing rate of divorce and relationship break-ups means that thousands of us are back out on the market – that hideous, but apposite, phrase. The age of divorce has risen, too, from 39 to 43 for men, and 37 to 40 for women over the past ten years. There are mow 12 million single people in Britain, a figure that has quadrupled since the 1960s. Only 6.5 million people now live in a nuclear family of parents and children, fewer than the number of people living on their own.
So there are a lot of us out there and, far from sliding into resigned middle-age, we are as expectant as hormonal adolescents. All of us, either covertly or with terrifying transparency, are looking for love. Not that we us that word. We talk about ‘a relationship’ or ‘a partner’, as if considering a business deal and not the prospect of heat breaking intimacy.
Last week I walked a friend round the park. She has just broken up with her boyfriend of a year. Should she call him or not? They agreed they would speak after two weeks, once the dust had settled. She is in agony. The two weeks is up, by 12 hours, and still he has not called.
It’s not so different from conversations I had in that same park in my twenties. Will he? Won’t he? Should she? Shouldn’t she? This, though, is not a couple of eager young things. She is 42 and he is 48.
Between them they have six children. She owns her own house, has a thriving career, is financially independent, does not want or need a father for her children. So, what is it that she wants from him? And what does he want from her? What can he give her? Not much. Once the biological reasons for dating and mating are satisfied, what’s left? In other words, the issues today are both simpler and infinitely more complex.
As for dating, how do you start? There are always friends, or friends of friends, but anyone who has ever been on a blind date knows the perils that lie there. One friend says, ‘I like bad boys, dark and dashing and Byronic. So why do married friends think I’ll suddenly go mad for a blond born-again Christian? It’s like saying to your child, “There’ll be another eight-year-old at the party, you’ll have a lovely time.” Being single, or being a child, doesn’t affect your critical faculties.’
Caroline, who is divorced after 20 years, says, ‘When I was married, I honestly thought the world was filled with gorgeous, available men. In my more frivolous moments, I thought that if my husband went off, I’d get a new husband in no time.’ She laughs. ‘It wasn’t quite like that. A man who looks gorgeous from a distance looks quite different when you’re up close and personal and thinking of sharing a toothbrush.’
And do our pre-date nerves settle as we mature? Not exactly. It’s still the same bubble baths and butterflies routine before the event. Stephanie reels off the list: ‘Hairdresser, facial, leg wax, new outfit, don’t eat for a week in the insane hope of losing half a stone. Then there’s not being able to concentrate on your work, your stomach dropping to the floor every time the phone rings and palpitations every time you open up your email. Will he cancel? Should I have played it cool? Am I completely mad to have agreed to go out with him?’
And after? What’s different now,’ Caroline says, ‘is that it doesn’t take more than one date to know, whereas when I was younger I might have hung around for weeks. I’m old enough to know that people don’t change. If there’s something you don’t like on the first date, you know it’ll drive you mad by the tenth. I’m not so desperate for attention that any attention will do.’
Caroline, though, has children. What about those women who don’t? Or those men? Michael, 40, has never married or had kids but would still like to find love. Except that everyone around him is in such a hurry. ‘If a woman is 35 or older and doesn’t have kids, I know there’s going to be a lot of aggravation about children. I dread those words, “is this relationship going anywhere?” How do you know, after six months?’
Karen Mooney, the owner of the Sara Eden introductions dating agency, sees more and more men in their thirties ‘who are desperate to settle down but are discovering that the women they meet don’t want kids’.
It is not just childless thirtysomethings who are flocking to her agency in droves. Business is booming, particularly in the older market. ‘Women are looking after themselves, they have a far longer shelf-life than when I started the company 18 years ago.’ But Mooney doesn’t focus on age; instead she talks about ‘life stages; and ‘reasonable expectations. Unreasonable is a man in his forties after a twentysomething. Ditto ladies of a certain age keen to acquire a trophy boy.
She sees plenty of those. She is adept, too, at spotting panic. ‘Sometimes they’re desperate to replace somebody, other times they’re just desperate to have someone – anyone.’