From match-making to singles nights, can old-fashioned dating liberate women scarred by toxic apps?
- We investigated the surprising return of old-fashioned matchmaking methods
- We have looked at everything from glamorous agencies to an app with a twist
- So, what happened when our two writers dared to ‘get real’ with dating?
Last week, we heard from women so disturbed by the dehumanising world of online dating that they have given up altogether. Here, in the second part of our major series on Britain’s dating crisis, we investigate the surprising return of old-fashioned matchmaking methods — from glamorous agencies to an app with a twist. So, what happened when our two writers dared to ‘get real’?
Over the past decade, I have endured my fair share of knocks on the online dating scene. Single for much of my 30s — bar a two-year relationship — I gorged on the all-you-can-eat buffet of new romance apps, and suffered countless humiliations in the process.
There was the man who cancelled our date at an hour’s notice when he found out I was 5 ft 4 in (‘Nothing personal, I’m just not into short ar**s’), the oddball who wanted pictures of just my arms, and the complete stranger who ‘dared me’ to wear no underwear on our first date. Yuck.
I have been rejected and ghosted by more men than I can count. The whole experience was like taking an electric sander to my self-esteem. So I admitted defeat two years ago and swore I’d never use the online apps again.
But dating in real life, at 45, offered few prospects either. Dinner parties are dead, I’m not a hobbyist (I joined a choir but most of the men are gay) and I’ve exhausted the romantic Rolodex of every single pal with good matchmaking intentions. Resigning myself to a life of cats and jigsaw puzzles, I gave up on love altogether.
So it is with pinch-me incredulity that I find myself sitting in a picturesque Devon pub, waiting for a man who has driven over 100 miles just to have lunch with me.
I have not caved in — this is not dating by algorithm. Instead we have been singled out by a real person using her instinct for every subtle connection between two fellow humans. Yes, this is a date plucked from the books of an old-fashioned, low-tech introduction agency.
As many of us turn our backs on the damaging online game, such agencies are making a big comeback. Bowes-Lyon Partnership, established in 2009, has had its most successful year ever. I can only hope that respect for us single women will make a return too.
Before I’m sent on any dates, I meet Hayley, a frank, friendly brunette with immaculate nails, at the agency’s office in London’s Mayfair. She grills me about my background, aspirations, core values, and what a successful relationship looks like to me.
Over the past decade, I have endured my fair share of knocks on the online dating scene. Single for much of my 30s — bar a two-year relationship — I gorged on the all-you-can-eat buffet of new romance apps, and suffered countless humiliations in the process
‘With online dating, we rely too heavily on matches based on ridiculous societal things,’ she says. ‘People think, “Oh, they play tennis and I play golf, so we don’t fit” when actually you need to be looking at a much wider picture.’
She claims the average member gets into a relationship after six to eight introductions, and more than 75 per cent form a long-term relationship with another member.
Bolstered by those numbers, I press on. Hayley writes me a glowing profile to lure would-be suitors. I’m ‘exceptional and accomplished in many ways’, ‘a genuine, sincere lady with huge generosity of spirit’ and ‘a modern, feminine sense of style’.
I long to mock this version of me, and take her down a peg or two for being so pleased with herself. But then I see the profiles of eight potential matches Hayley has chosen for me, and suddenly mine feels positively low-key.
Here is Lars, a chiselled Scandinavian who sailed for his country before working for a hugely successful tech start-up in Silicon Valley. There’s the 6ft, tanned hunk who co-runs the close protection teams for the royal family and also advises the General Medical Council on ethics.
Dear God, you’d have to be Amal Clooney to keep up with this lot. Panicking, and somewhat intimidated, I plump instead for ‘warm-hearted, well-spoken’ Phil who’s also worked in journalism, like me, and is laughing uproariously in one of his photos. He looks kind, and down-to-earth.
Phil is about to travel for work for two months but he still suggests that he drive all the way from his home near Salisbury to a pub about an hour from where I’m staying on a family holiday. I am stunned. My self-worth has been so habitually undermined by the apps that I cannot believe a man would go to so much trouble to meet me.
A quiet corner of my heart long packed away begins to unfurl and I feel, well, feminine. Apps like Tinder and Bumble were meant to be the great leveller that put power into women’s hands to do the chasing, but so often the process just left me feeling exposed and vulnerable.
Phil and I chatter with ease about our careers, families and friends over lunch and he even holds my hand during pudding. Amazingly, I have not been shown a single photo of his genitals. Instead, we share a tentative kiss by his Volvo before he toots a fond goodbye and begins the two-hour journey home to Wiltshire.
Here’s where agency dating gets really good. Ordinarily, I’d begin the mental torture of waiting for him to text or call, second-guessing whether he really liked me, what he thought about the kiss. But Hayley is on hand with instant feedback. She calls to see how I felt it went and then calls back to let me know how Phil felt it went. He’d love to see me again when he gets back from his work travels.
in the second part of our major series on Britain’s dating crisis, we investigate the surprising return of old-fashioned matchmaking methods — from glamorous agencies to an app with a twist (File image)
Over the next three weeks, I meet up with two more of Hayley’s finest. Posh Daniel draws a blank for barking at the waitress when our starters don’t come on time.
Date three, Rufus, is a poppet (he picks a lovely restaurant and is 20 minutes early) but we have no chemistry and keep clawing back to our one common interest: films.
Neither man is a match, and yet both have turned up, dressed up and listen attentively when I have something to say. What a depressing indictment of modern — predominantly online — dating that this feels like a small miracle.
So this is what it’s meant to be like. A few months later, things haven’t worked out with Phil but that one date has created a lasting impression. My experience of online dating was wild, hilarious and deeply damaging. And it taught me to be cynical about men. But my time under Hayley’s kind and careful watch, and the confidence boost of only meeting men you know are ready to settle down, has rekindled my faith in the dying art of courtship.
I have been made to feel special, like an actual human woman rather than a jumble of body parts with an email address.
It’s time we consigned the apps to the dating dustbin of history. Now if only I had the £10,000 annual membership fee to spare in real life . . .
For more information visit bowes-lyonpartnership.co.uk or call 0203 866 4440. Some names have been changed.
Singles nights are back — and just as terrifying!
Thursday night and I’m standing outside a bar buzzing with men, wishing I wasn’t going to my first ‘singles night’ on my own. As I descend the stairs of the London Cocktail Bar, I start to feel like a gazelle entering a pride of lions, but a gazelle who hasn’t considered that wearing heeled boots that make me 6 ft 2 in won’t exactly help me to blend in.
I am both intimidated and excited. I’ve been writing about dating on and off for eight years, but singles nights are a new phenomenon to my generation. They seem to me, aged 32, a relic of a more innocent time, perhaps the 1980s or 1990s.
But now they’re back. Their revival coincides with the knock that dating apps have taken from users complaining of sleaze and time-wasting.
Many women feel apps have turned the search for love into an impersonal cattle market, in which all manners are dispensed with and dates often comprise little more than a short, brutish exchange.
Hurt and disenchanted, my generation are desperate for something more real, more genuine, than a swipe and a hook-up.
So here I am, at one of the nights run by an outfit called Thursday — yes, it is an app, but not a conventional one. The difference with Thursday is that in order to combat ‘dating fatigue’, you can only use it one day a week — Thursday. As well as organising singles events on that night, like the one I attend, it encourages users to match, exchange contact details and arrange a date within 24 hours. In theory this makes it much more spontaneous, cutting out the need for lengthy flirtatious conversations which may never translate into meeting up.
If you match someone and don’t meet, the match disappears and you may never see them again. Try to access the app any other day of the week and you get a countdown instead . . . to the next Thursday.
The 2022 version of the singles night certainly has advantages over its older incarnation. As veterans of a dating world offering unlimited quantities of partners, I think we’re much better than our parents at instantly appraising dates, gauging their potential and scanning their small talk. It wouldn’t surprise me if we were better at flirting.
Here I am, at one of the nights run by an outfit called Thursday — yes, it is an app, but not a conventional one. The difference with Thursday is that in order to combat ‘dating fatigue’, you can only use it one day a week. Pictured: Lucy Holden
The room at the London Cocktail Bar is no half-filled room of awkward people cringing into their drinks, but a packed bar of confident and experienced singletons (lots more men than women, and the calibre is high).
In fact, I reckon I’m the most nervous person here. I go straight to the bar and start talking to someone called Pete who works in IT and has come with his brother.
After an hour of conversation, however, I don’t really know how to get away. He’s nice, but I don’t feel a proper attraction and don’t want to spend the night talking to just one person. How do these things work when you have manners?
Saying I need a cigarette, I get up and go back to the bar. I do a lap ‘looking for bathrooms’ and wish I was here with a friend because most people seem to be hunting in small packs.
I start talking to a jazz drummer, who seems to also work in IT. He’s from Norway, and has never been to Bath, where I live part-time, so I suggest he comes down for a weekend. ‘Not to stay at my parents’ house,’ I add quickly, ‘because there’s a no-boys rule.’
Clearly not one of my finest chat-up lines. But I am starting to feel there is definitely something about in-person conversation that makes it more thrilling than app-chat.
At a singles night you can judge personalities and your level of attraction so much more quickly — and you can tell what they look like far better than a few flattering profile pics allow.
When I tell him I’m leaving London that night and have to make the last train — quite a nicely romantic goodbye — he asks for my number and I leg it to Paddington feeling like it’s gone well.
The next day, reflecting on the night, I know I’ll go again. I’m surprised by how much I enjoyed it — having everyone in the same room and not on an app just seemed more human and interesting.
But I also have the feeling, as I do when using apps, that there is just too much choice. I need a method to get around the room quicker and talk to more people.
Plus I need a single friend to drag along with me. If I go in a pack, and work out some exit strategies, then, maybe I’d enjoy being a gazelle.
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