Liz Hoggard, 53, explains how to go about online dating as an older woman
It’s never boring but often surprising – keep your wits about you
At 50-plus, you need to be brave and tough to avoid getting hurt
Hi, Liz, your profile filled me with joy. I’m tactile, ambitious, optimistic, youthful in spirit. I’m looking for someone who enjoys being feminine and wants to be loved.
What a nice message to land in your inbox on a rainy Thursday. But I think I may proceed with caution.
The word ‘tactile’ worries me (visions of Benny Hill). Will I have to teeter around in heels to be feminine enough? And while I applaud a youthful spirit, why doesn’t ‘Midlife Man’ mention his age (like the rest of us on the site)?
Welcome to the world of internet dating in your 50s. It’s a minefield – never boring, often surprising, but you need to keep your wits about you.
By 50-plus you’ll be a grown-up with a loyal circle of friends and family, fulfilling work/life projects and a sense of who you really are in the world. You’ll know your romantic/sexual tastes. You’re not desperate about being single. You’d like more intimacy, but not at any price.
However, in dating terms, you’re a child.
The adoption of technology has changed the way we connect and converse with others and dating is no exception.
There are hundreds of online dating sites from which to choose (if you’re bookish, political, religious, a divorced parent . . . you name it, there’s one for you). Not to mention all the whizzy new dating apps, such as Tinder and Happn (where you swipe through a sea of faces on your smartphone).
In this new, modern world, it’s painfully easy to get it wrong. There was much mirth when it emerged that Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, 56, ‘accidentally’ dated a dominatrix. He says that when he courted her on Match.com, he did not know of her job in a fully equipped dungeon.
Maybe the gentleman protests too much – but it was a cautionary tale for all silver surfers.
Many 50-plus daters don’t have a conventional career path. So, it’s good to ask a few questions.
‘Why do so few of these men have jobs?’ my married friend, Helen, inquired sharply, after looking at the men who had ‘liked’ my dating profile recently.
‘Well, at 50 they may be going through a bit of a sea-change,’ I tried to explain. ‘They may have left a marriage, been made redundant, had a mid-life crisis and decided to travel. That’s when they have more time on their hands to address being single.’
‘But you like work. So wouldn’t you want them to have a job, too?’ Helen retorted briskly.
She’s right. If you want to meet someone genuine – and genuinely compatible – you need to learn to decode the clues on dating profiles, which can tell you an awful lot about lifestyle, dependants, work, sex, love. Things they don’t always tell you in person.
If a man’s photo is taken in a house with very little furniture, that rings a warning bell. Ditto if they’ve cut someone out of the photo. And beware romantic-sounding professions.
Once I had a date with a ‘classical musician’ who turned out to be a busker. He arrived with a violin case of coins, which he counted out methodically to buy (himself) a beer, then proceeded to talk about being sectioned and arrested in the past.
That was the moment I devised my minimum requirement for dating: ‘No talk of madness or drugs in the first five minutes, and must be prepared to spend £8 minimum at Pizza Express.’
It’s not our fault we’re a little naive about love. In the pre-internet days, we didn’t really go on dates. When a relationship ended, you drowned your sorrows in a wine bar, a la Bridget Jones, and lived in hope your married best friend would introduce you to ‘that nice man’ they’d been mentioning for five years.
They never did. Not because they’re uncaring, but married friends with busy lives are too shattered to have dinner parties. We lack the village hall barn dance (where our grandparents met).
Many of us work in virtually single-sex environments. ‘In a 25-year office career, I’ve sat next to only two men,’ a friend observes feelingly. Those are Jane Austen statistics, ladies. We need to be more proactive.
No wonder the internet has become our best matchmaker. I know of three Match.com marriages, four Guardian Soulmates babies. Nearly all my younger friends, gay and straight, met online.
Even friends whose marriages have unravelled after 20 years, now the children are off to college, are tentatively signing up.
In many ways, I can track my love life through the developments in dating technology. In my early 30s, working in an all-female office, I tried what was coyly called the Lonely Hearts pages – where you paid for an advert with a PO Box.
I remember waiting weeks for the postman to deliver replies (the sack could be disappointingly small!). As I discovered, it’s hard to judge personality from a hand-written page of A4 and a tiny passport photo. Remember, this was in the days before mobile phones. Even if you did get a date, you could end up waiting for hours in the wrong cafe.
But then I dabbled in online dating in my mid-40s after I accepted a passionate on-off relationship was going nowhere. And, heavens, it had changed. Online sites offered lengthy biographies, reams of photos, likes and dislikes. Dating site eHarmony’s 200-question survey results in a detailed profile entitled The Book Of You.
No waiting in for the postman now. You’re a computer click away from five dates in a week – not to mention dating supper clubs, cocktail gatherings and evenings at art galleries.
I am hopeless at flirting. But I was heartened to read so many profiles; it gave me permission and a workable structure – a few coffees here and there.
I met a divorcee online and we were together for two years until, reluctantly, we accepted it had drifted into friendship. The passionate ex got back in touch (suggesting we become friends with benefits). I laughed hollowly and reached for my laptop.
Now, at 53, I’m back on the internet dating scene. More realistic than romantic, perhaps. But I’m glad it exists.
Once upon a time, lovelorn singles were expected to slink away in shame. Now we’re out and proud. We order love online, in the same way we do our grocery shopping or buy theatre tickets.
It’s reassuring how many other people are still looking for a significant other. And it’s good to be put into a situation where you can’t fall back on your usual defences. The men I’ve met have made me laugh, blush, think seriously about kissing and (yes) weep. But it’s never dull.
Sex tends not to be on the agenda on a first date (unlike twentysomethings, who hook up with wild abandon). You’re meeting for a chat to see if you would like another chat. It can feel like an audition or a job interview.
So do ask for help. Barbara Bloomfield, a Relate counsellor who has written books on dating in later life, advises 50-plus daters to get an adult child to help with research.
‘Older people are sometimes too shy to tell their younger relatives they want to date,’ she says.
‘But they mustn’t be, because their relatives can be incredibly helpful. They might laugh a little bit, but what does that matter if they can make you dating savvy?’
The problem is, many of us are so delighted a date is interested in us, we jump straight in.
In contrast, young people check out credentials first. They are used to Googling their date as soon as they have their name and job; while Tinder won’t allow you on unless you have a Facebook profile. This means you can check where they work or if you have mutual friends.
Teens can also make a profile stand out, help you find out who is in your neighbourhood and single and stop you being ‘matched’ with an ex or someone from work.
They are also great at taking suitable pictures: (‘no to the LK Bennett dress, yes to the leather jacket’) and can help decipher tricky acronyms such as LOL (laugh out loud) and ILY (I love you).
Because, at 50-plus, we need to be braver and tougher. ‘Middle-aged people tend to invest emotionally quite quickly and have the values of the Sixties and Seventies much more than young people today,’ says Bloomfield.
‘And you need to be careful you don’t get hurt.’
Traditional courtship – picking up the phone and asking someone on a date – required courage, planning and charm. Texts, emails and Twitter can be more casual and cynical.
If you’re thinking of signing up for online dating (and I think you should), it’s a good exercise to write out your profile, even if you never post it, as it helps you define who you are – and what you want.
‘We are the baby boomers, the first generation to have a whole-life career,’ says Bloomfield.
‘At this age you’re likely to be better off financially, not looking for someone to give you a home, so you have choices. And the world’s easier for single women than it was 30 years ago.’
In the meantime, here are some guidelines, based on the experiences of many friends and colleagues. Basically, we kissed a lot of frogs so you don’t have to.