Personal Luxuries

All of a piece

The matchmaking market is worth £100m in the UK alone. Lucia van der Post looks at the agencies, websites, salons and clubs targeting adrenaline-driven professionals in their 30s and beyond.

November 12 2010
Lucia van der Post

Judging by contemporary writing on the subject, there are more single people looking for a soulmate than at any other time in human history. We all know the famous aphorism that if you’re female, live in New York and you’re over 30 you have more chance of being run over than finding a mate. As for meeting a properly eligible man (ie, single, solvent and stable), apparently once you’ve hit the dreaded three-oh, he’s as elusive as the Tasmanian tiger. It’s not a lot better in the UK, for men as well as women. Speak to singletons over the age of 30 and you hear the same mournful refrain: “Most of my friends are married or partnered up and the only single people I meet are workmates.” Add to that the fact that once the carefree 20s are over, lots of things change – with more responsibility at work, there’s less leisure time, mortgages begin to take their toll and fewer carefree parties take place.

And it never ceases to amaze me how many apparent “catches” have trouble finding Mr or Mrs Right.

Column inches in the glossies are given over to attractive, successful single people bemoaning the lack of a suitable mate. Even a woman as gorgeous as Lisa Snowdon, attractive enough to have captured the interest of George Clooney, has admitted to being scared that “maybe there’ll be no husband, no baby, no wedding”. And though popular opinion is that men have it much easier than women, that isn’t how it feels if you’re a man, newly launched on the dating scene after a long-standing relationship is over. As one of them put it to me, “After my long-term relationship broke up I didn’t know how to flirt, I didn’t know how to approach women. It didn’t seem right at my age to go to clubs looking for women. I just didn’t know where to go to meet somebody compatible.”

All of which means that if you’re over 30, let alone an older divorcee, widow or widower, it no longer seems enough just to sit back and hope that someone will turn up. Today’s singletons believe in taking action. To meet the need, a host of new social and dating websites, salons, dining clubs and exceedingly discreet, high-end introduction agencies have sprung up. Today, according to James Wallman, a trends forecaster and editor of LS:N Global website, there are more than 800 dating websites in the UK alone, used by more than one in 10 Brits. The biggest in the UK, Match.com, has 5.5m members, and another popular one (no doubt because a friend has to write your profile for the site, thus, we imagine, eliminating the nutters), mysinglefriend.com, has over 1m members. The whole dating/introduction agency market in the UK is worth about £100m, and more than 7m singletons use them.

Speak to those who run them such as Virginia Sweetingham, who runs the very, very upmarket Gray & Farrar (£15,000 a year, and so discreet its website tells you almost nothing except how to contact them), and she will tell you that the biggest change she’s noticed in her 20 years in the matchmaking business is “the breakdown of community – most of the old methods of meeting people have gone. Supper parties down the road don’t happen so often, people are too busy and don’t matchmake the way they used to, and everybody now travels so much. We’ve bred a generation that finds divorce acceptable, so there are also many more older people back on the marriage or relationship market.”

She goes on to say that the rise of the successful woman has also changed the psychological landscape. “I think it’s a very difficult time for relationships. Some women come across as men, and men find that quite intimidating. I get many career women in their mid- to late-30s who have been very successful building up their careers and now they’re embarrassed that they haven’t got what they really want. Most would give up their careers in a heartbeat for the right relationship.”

Mary Balfour, who started Drawing Down the Moon – an upmarket introduction agency (£1,650 initial payment plus £20 a month for 15 months is the most popular fee) that projects itself as “the dating agency for thinking people” – also thinks that men these days have a very tough time. Women are tougher, more independent, more demanding. Now that women can earn good livings they’re more in control, less willing to put up with anything less than perfect and much quicker to call time if they think they aren’t happy.

She, too, thinks that the need for agencies such as hers has grown because of huge social upheaval. Whereas our ancestors got together for economic survival, procreation and, higher up the social ladder, for dynastic reasons, for the consolidation of power and land, today’s lonely hearts are looking for an emotional connection. “That is both the key and the problem,” she’s found. “Practical considerations are no longer enough. People want to find a ready-made relationship, and they want it to be rather more perfect than they’re likely to find. They forget that they themselves are probably not perfect. If somebody offers only 70 per cent of what they’re looking for, they say, ‘Next please.’” Many of her clients are in adrenaline-driven jobs and so “the urgent takes over from the important, and taking time and trouble over relationships falls by the wayside”.

She spends much of her time persuading her clients not to reject others too early. “You have to be prepared to kiss a lot of frogs and frogesses. People think that they have to fall in love straight away, and if they don’t fancy the other person immediately they say they’d rather not see them again as ‘they’d be leading them up the garden path’. I tell them that, among my clients, it is often the ones who aren’t oil paintings who are the nicest, and if only people would take the trouble to get to know them properly they could have a lovely relationship.”

Over the years, both Balfour and Sweetingham have learnt a lot about what works and what doesn’t. Both are full of sensible advice for those embarking on the nerve-racking search for a new relationship. Keeping the first meeting short and sweet is key. Don’t have long phone calls before you meet. Don’t go for dinner – meet for a drink or coffee somewhere neutral and leave with each of you wanting to know more about the other. Balfour offers date coaching for those who feel nervous (£150 for an initial consultation, £100 a session thereafter). Many people, she says, are nervous and so talk too much about themselves and don’t know how to flirt. She thinks clients should meet a lot of different people – it takes the pressure off any single relationship. Her clients are expected to meet everybody she suggests – “If they do the choosing, they just repeat past mistakes.”

A lot of research has been done into that moment when friendship sparks off into something else. “It’s often when you do something new and adventurous together like paragliding, taking cookery lessons, sailing – so if an opportunity presents itself, grab it” is Balfour’s advice. And you shouldn’t meet again too soon after the first meeting. “Let the momentum build up and don’t worry if there is no instant chemistry – it’s much harder to have that instant buzz in an artificial dating system.”

Marriage is not always the main objective these days, either. Quite often, according to Balfour, people who come to her don’t want a live-in partner; sometimes they don’t even want a sexual relationship. “A lot of people over 40 these days want a loving and intimate relationship, with fidelity, but they don’t want to live in each other’s pockets and sometimes they each prefer to keep their own establishment.”

What is certain is that attitudes to matchmaking have changed enormously. Right up until the mid-1990s, the lonely hearts ads were still seen by many as a last resort. Though some very happy long-term relationships were undoubtedly formed, those who used them – or an introduction agency – kept it deathly quiet. The social networking revolution has changed all that. Chatting to strangers via the internet is part of many people’s daily lives, and as for introduction agencies, according to Sweetingham, “Now it’s seen as the smart thing to do. Today’s professionals believe in using other professionals. In the way that they’d use a proper headhunter at work, so they call on us to do the social headhunting for them. It’s a dignified and discreet way to meet people like themselves.”

Speak to anybody under 40 and it’s almost a given that they’ve considered internet dating. It is clearly a cheaper option than the bespoke introduction agency, but it is riskier. At Gray & Farrar, for instance, Sweetingham tells me that one of the reasons for the high fees is “it means we know our clients are committed to looking for a real relationship. It also means they’re financially independent, which eliminates those just looking for a meal ticket.” Both Gray & Farrar and Drawing Down the Moon claim to have arranged any number of very happy partnerships and insist that we’d all be amazed if we knew how many high-profile, “in the public eye” people had met through an organisation like theirs.

I spoke to one couple who met through Drawing Down the Moon, who seemed enormously contented and compatible. Both had come out of very long-term relationships, had very busy careers and scarcely knew how to start dating again. As Alex, the man, put it, “It took me a year to get my courage up. First I tried internet sites but I got very disillusioned. Most of the photographs bore no relationship to how the women really looked, and most lied about their age and whether they were in a relationship or not. What both Angela [the partner he met through Drawing Down the Moon] and I liked was that we could say what we were looking for – the time that saved was fantastic. We enjoyed meeting almost all the people, even before we met each other.

“If I’d met Angela in the business world I wouldn’t have dared approach her – it would have seemed inappropriate and anyway, I’d have had no idea if she was single. Meeting her through Drawing Down the Moon I knew that she was, like me, looking for a relationship. Mary made us both feel very safe. We knew everybody we met had been checked out.”

A mole at Morgan Stanley tells me that many of its “always in an aeroplane” staff use the US-based agency Valenti, which on its website insists that it is “not a dating service…” but a “…professionally mentored process lead by Irene Valenti and a team of licensed and PhD psychologists” for those who want a “long-term committed relationship”. I met recently a highly successful, very well-connected and charming young woman whose even more high-flying sister didn’t approve of her current boyfriend (“Family is very important to me,” said the younger one, “and if my sister doesn’t get on with him, that really matters.”). The older sister was going to enrol the younger with Valenti where, she was convinced, she would find a mate worthy of her.

The age limits are being pushed up all the time, too. When I last interviewed Balfour, some 15 years ago now, she didn’t take on women over 50 “because I don’t want to take their money when I know I won’t be able to help them”. It is still much harder to find suitable men to match the older women, so she uses “ambassadors” to headhunt men from the internet dating sites that she also runs (including grownupdating, the site specifically aimed at older people). She also finds that she gets a lot of “refugees from the internet – it works well for some people but for some it’s too techie and ultimately disappointing. Some people need something much more bespoke. We go to great efforts to look for similar lifestyles, similar spending patterns, friends who’d like each other. We find out what books they read, which newspapers.”

Today, as people live longer, look younger and are fitter, many in their 60s, 70s and even 80s are still optimistic and wanting, at the very least, companionship. Sweetingham also tries to help older people. It started when she was asked by a QC to match up his 62-year-old widowed mother and she found her a lovely retired entrepreneur. She has on her books a man of 82 and recently a mother aged 83 came in with her middle-aged daughter. Balfour is busy “building up an archive of older men and women”.

But other methods of meeting people are starting up. Most importantly, there’s the growth of the salon culture. Real-world conversation is coming back. Salons such as The Last Tuesday Society and debating organisations such as Intelligence Squared are becoming new places for the literary and intellectually inclined to meet. Intelligence Squared has just started Intelligence Shared, a supper club where around 40 like-minded people meet in various venues around London.

Meanwhile, private singles parties are one of the latest ways to meet potential new partners. One highly attractive, very successful middle-aged divorced man has tried many methods and for him that’s the one that wins hands-down. “As you get older, finding the right partner becomes more important – you’ve got less time.” He first tried online dating, then Drawing Down the Moon. “I met two or three women who were perfectly nice but didn’t seem to offer me much more than my social life did. I then bumped into an old friend who introduced me to singles parties. They’re fabulous. They’re held in private houses, you pay about £50 and you meet a lot of new, very like-minded people.”

Kate Wake-Walker is the woman behind the parties my friend goes to but the snag is, of course, that you have to “know somebody who knows somebody” – it’s by invitation only. Kate started them in 2004 as a hobby because she’d been divorced and she found in the divorce process that “my social life collapsed. I tried the internet dating scene but oh, the horror of it. You go raw and exposed to a complete stranger and have no social references. So I decided to try and recreate the chemistry, the social dynamics of the parties that I went to when I was in my 20s, and started having parties with groups of single friends in each other’s houses. Everybody loved it, and now once a month I organise singles parties in private houses. I find the 45-to-65-year-old age group is particularly eager to be involved because they have a limited amount of time to socialise. I charge £40-£50 and some 70 or so lovely, educated and interesting people turn up. Twelve to 14 serious relationships have been formed, and there’s possibly a wedding later this year.”

So here’s the thing. If you’re on your own and looking for somebody new, don’t just sit there. Start your own singles parties among your own group of friends. If you trawl through your network you’ll find everybody knows somebody who in turn knows somebody. There are lots of other people out there, dying to come to your parties. Find – or start – a salon that suits your interests. And if you’re too shy for all of that, then try an introduction agency. It’s worked for many, many people before – and could just as easily work for you.