Remona AlyMonday 09 March 2020 The Guardian
Hope and heart-sinks
Hope and heart-sinks: what it is really like to date online as a woman in your 40s
Last week, I pushed myself to go on the first date I have had in a year. I wasn’t bounding with enthusiasm, at the age of 41, but hope is hard to shake. “Be open to the universe and the universe will throw something back,” a friend advised.
In this case, it flung back a guy who lied on his dating profile about his age, used a photo that looked 15 years out of date and told me a bizarre story about how he had done time on a chicken farm because the prisons in his native country were too full – all, and this was the really confusing bit, for a crime he did not commit.
I may have laughed a little about the experience with my friends – direct access to fresh eggs could be a bonus, after all – but it didn’t stop me from shedding a tear outside Zara afterwards at what my dating life had become.
It hasn’t been all bad, of course, I have had lovely experiences, too. One man I met fairly recently was thoroughly decent, honest and a good laugh – but, sadly, there was no “click”. But women in their 40s are likely to have run the gauntlet of hope, heart-sinks and uncertainty that are part of the dating trajectory, from traditional meet-ups to the rise of the planet of the apps.
My process of natural deselection is trawling hundreds of profiles that pass in a blur of torso selfies, confusing group photos and grinning men in their 50s holding out large fish (this choice of profile picture is one of the many mysteries of online dating). I don’t know whether to feel flattered or fatigued by the hundreds of swipe-rights on my profile.
So, I speak to Dr Martin Graff, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of South Wales, who confirms my fears that it is just a numbers game after all. “Men are trying to maximise their chances by swiping on as many matches as possible. Women tend to be more selective, as well as more invested in their own profile,” he says.
Dr Graff, whose research interests include the psychology of online dating, explains why the hours of swiping feel draining. “Online dating is like relationship shopping; it’s the eBay of the dating world,” he says. “But the paradox of choice is that the more you have, the less likely you are to be satisfied.” In other words, while apps offer the illusion of choice, the reality for women in their 40s feels different.
For a start, fewer men in that bracket are looking for women of a similar age, compared with younger men. Graff agrees that men in their 40s are more likely to want a partner in their 30s or 20s. “Older men will look for younger women for their reproductive viability,” he says.
But Graff has not quite razed my optimism to the ground. He thinks online dating is still the most effective way for women in their 40s to find a partner, because people in their 40s tend to be more confident, discerning and instinctive.
That is true for 49-year-old Helen James, an author and single mum from London who has been dating for almost a decade, starting when her son was four. “When my ex left, I became a single mum who was occasionally a single woman,” she says. “I had to shoehorn dating in between mothering. Early on, I realised that the traditional methods of meeting in a bar or at an event weren’t open to me. So, I turned to online dating.”
Helen has attracted men her own age, as well as men more than 10 years younger. She prefers meeting men similar in age, but over the past nine years her attitude has changed significantly in other ways. “At the beginning, I was so stressed and so anxious to build a family that I might have attracted a ‘rescuer’,” she says. “As time has gone by, my son and I have become a tight-knit team. Now, I’m more independent and fulfilled through work. I don’t particularly want someone’s underpants on my radiator or a guy telling me I have too many cushions.”
Instead, Helen has created “options” – three men she meets every few months, each of whom knows about the others. “Life is full of surprises. If someone told me when I was in my 20s what I’d be doing now, I would never have believed them. But you find yourself where you find yourself. I’m authentic, and my life is fuller than it’s ever been.”
It sounds so liberating. I wonder if I, too, will experience less anxiety as I get further into my 40s – maybe become a Muslim version of Carrie Bradshaw, a sort of No Sex and the City?
After years of being online, I did worry that I had suddenly become less “marketable” when the age on my profile finally, callously, flipped from 39 to 40. Dating can leave you feeling vulnerable, but Olivia, a 43-year-old secondary school teacher from Sussex, is impressively stoic. “I take it all with a pinch of salt. I don’t put my heart and soul into it, in case it doesn’t work out.” She is selective, meeting men only after putting them through her own “filtering” system.
Olivia often finds that men want casual hook-ups, but she is looking for a meaningful relationship. She has tried the “organic” route of meeting someone in real life, without success. “By the time I was 30, most of my friends were already in relationships and they only knew couples, so when we went out I was meeting men who were already taken.”
What about speed dating? “I tried it once; it’s not really for me,” says Olivia. For Helen, though, it offers the best answer to dating woes, since it combines numbers with the chance of chemistry. However, she says that “not many speed dating events cater well for women in their 40s”.
Sarah Payne, the events manager for a site called SpeedDater, says she has seen an increase in women in their 40s attending their events. However, she says there can be a mismatch in interest: “We find that the women like activity-based events such as wine tasting, cooking, and salsa dancing”, as do younger clients, whereas older men tend to be less keen on activities.
But there can be consolation where there is no click, Payne adds: she says speed dating has nurtured a culture of female bonding. “A lot of the women comment on how lovely it is to meet other single women. They exchange numbers to attend events together in the future, as they have fewer single friends to do things with,” she says.
This chimes with me: looking for a partner has resulted in me finding more friends – or at least opening different avenues in life, if not in love. One guy became a genuine figure of support for my work. Another has tried to introduce me to potential matches, as I have for him. Also, the number of married women who tell me that they envy my freedom, and that I should savour my best single life, has been eye-opening.
At this stage in my life, as opposed to in my 20s or 30s, I know myself better, I have a broader notion of happiness and I approach dating with a far more open mind than I did previously. Dating – either online or in real life – requires courage, resilience and willpower. Being yourself and opening yourself up to the universe, whatever it chooses to give back, is something I will continue to embrace.