With more than three million thirty-something singles looking for love in Australia, it can’t be that hard to find Miss Right or Mr Tonight, can it? Alex Brooks dips her toe into the dating pool for a Valentine’s Day story for Sunday Life magazine.
It’s a Sunday Life magazine Valentine’s Day mission: find the ping that makes love do its thing. The odds are against me, according to KPMG demographer Bernard Salt, who confirms: “The numbers turn nasty for women over 30.
“At June 2006, there were 1.503 million men aged thirtysomething competing for 1.518 million women aged thirtysomething. If they all paired up, 15,000 women would be left without a partner.”
Great! As a 36-year-old mother of two who just fell out of a marriage, is it possible to find love again?
“The frippery of relationships in your teens and early 20s turns into a business by the time you’re in your 30s,” Salt continues. That explains the raft of introduction agencies, online dating websites, speed dating nights, flirt workshops and pay-as-you-go tools that have sprung up to help lovelorn singles find The One.
My valentine task is to try three love-seeking strategies – a love coach, online dating and the old-fashioned get-drunk-and-meet-someone-in-a-bar method – to test whether I can flip the numbers back in my favour.
“I don’t like what Bernard Salt says about the singles scene – those alarm bells are wrong,” says Melbourne dating coach Sandy Ewing, who also runs a matchmaking service, Icebreakers . “I think there is someone for everyone on the planet and it’s about stepping up and manifesting your soul mate at the same time.”
Perhaps that means stepping up to the bar …
That fail-safe way of finding a partner while you’re in your 20s – in bars, pubs or anywhere that serves enough alcohol to drum up flirting courage – doesn’t work for me. New Year’s Eve proves it. It’s a balmy, beautiful night on Sydney Harbour with dazzles of green, red and gold lighting up the sky at the stroke of midnight.
I politely asked the man standing next to me to kiss me when the fireworks are over. He obliges. The problem was the complete lack of fireworks. Not one spark. Even after a bottle of Mumm champagne.
Oh sure, the conversation comes easily as I wobble on my heels. I discover Dave is a silver-haired corporate devil who admits we could be a perfect match – I live in Sydney, he’s from Melbourne and we will never see each other again. “I am a professional commitment-phobe,” he chirps. “Never been married. Never had kids. Probably never will.”
“And how old are you?” I politely ask as I see him squinting to read his New Year text messages.
Would a 50-year-old woman say the same thing about commitment? Men of a certain age are certainly spoilt for choice.
“It’s trivial to talk about the numbers being against women,” says Bondi-based love coach Carolin Dahlman . “It holds people back. They give up or get too desperate and freak out. We need to trust love.”
Swedish-born Dahlman, who offers love coaching sessions for $297 for three hour-long sessions (plus a free introduction session), says most of her clients have become jaded by love and need a shot in the arm to get out there and meet people.
“Most of my clients come to me believing they are unhappy because they haven’t met The One. They might think I can teach them to dress better or flirt better but finding love is not really about picking up 10 people in one night. It’s about improving yourself.”
My first love coaching session with Dahlman is an interview discussing my beliefs and my relationship history. There is no psychological torture, just simple questions: tell me what you think about love?
Then Dahlman sets homework. She asks me to keep a journal and to rephrase my negative thoughts into positive ones – so instead of “All men are bastards”, I tell myself, “I welcome a loving, nurturing man into my life.” She also suggests I write a letter outlining the anger I feel over my marriage breakdown so I can put it behind me (sample line: “I am pissed off that I was dumped”).
It’s touchy-feely-schmaltzy but I feel surprisingly happy – rather than scared witless – about the idea of a real date. She’s like a personal trainer for singles whose idea of love is flabby and unattractive.
That evening, I talk on the phone to a man I met online (see below), emboldened by Dahlman’s words that it doesn’t matter if the conversation fails or succeeds. Who cares? The worst that can happen is you have an awkward conversation.
We talk for three hours.
RSVP – owned by Fairfax, which publishes Sunday Life – is Australia’s largest dating site with 1.2 million members and an average of 1000 newbies joining each day. According to marketing manager Lija Jarvis, membership spikes to 1500 a day from January 3 as singles make New Year resolutions.
I swallow my pride, search for flattering digital photos and voila! I’m officially on the internet meat market and shopping for a man aged 35 to 48, ideally with his own children and within 25 kilometres of the CBD. It’s kind of like eBay with an emotional check list. Height. Check. Looks. Check. Spelling mistakes. Uncheck.
Online dating is clinical and strangely back-to-front. You send an electronic “kiss” to members who pique your interest before you’ve so much as swapped an email. I click a kiss to MC65 – I love that his profile says, “If knowing my star sign is important … please close this page.”
An array of other men send kisses, which you can decline politely or invite emails and instant-chat. Not one man is sleazy; the email banter is pleasant. I’m surprised by the number of seemingly available and non-psychopathic men - I correspond with policemen, corporate types, academics and accountants.
Jarvis says the RSVP breakdown is 52 per cent men, 48 per cent women but most dating websites have a heavier male skew. Internet dating is not without its Nigerian money-getting scams and a male friend likens dating sites to “shooting fish in a barrel”, so easy is it for him to score women (particularly single mothers).
A 2006 Swinburne University study found almost 63 per cent of online daters were either married or in de facto relationships when they went love shopping.
MC65 and I swap 120 emails and Facebook messages the following day. Intimacies are exchanged freely. (His earliest memory was seeing chickens being beheaded.) We agree to meet on Tuesday for lunch and then move it to dinner on Monday. The sooner the better, the spark has gone off.
Date day is a day-long anxiety attack. Maybe he’s going to dump me? (Love coach rephrasing: if we don’t like each other, that’s fine.) Maybe he’s an axe-murderer? (Love coach rephrasing: maybe he’s a great guy.) I’m trying on dresses at 3pm to make sure I’m ready for a 7pm date. My palms are as moist as a rollerskating 14-year-old waiting to be chosen for the couples’ session.
A friend drops me to the restaurant – for safety reasons – and my heart skips a beat. He doesn’t look like his photo – there’s more kindness to his face. And while I knew his voice was soft, I wasn’t prepared to discover the man has more camp in him than a VW Kombi with a pop-up roof.
He has fathered two children but my gay-dar is going off. What’s with his wrist? And the “God strike me dead” he keeps blurting?
I tell him I am unsure he’s the love of my life but that I like the idea of a second date to check whether the gay thing is going to bother me. The conversation flows faster on the second date and before I know it, the restaurant has closed and we are ushered out.
He politely drives me home. The next day, an ice bucket filled with bottles of French champagne, chocolates and one dozen roses arrive on my doorstep along with a handwritten note torn from a spiral pad: “Apparently the secret to a solid relationship is ‘pace yourself’. Unfortunately, I’m hopeless at advice. I just want all of you now. MC.”
The man is a romantic. He’s not gay. I’m sure he’s not gay. Whether this is love and a successful relationship is another story entirely.
Jason, 32, and Jane Kennedy, 39, married in 2004 – two years after they met at the pub. They have two children: Reece, 8, from Jason’s previous relationship, and Daniel, 2.
When Jason Kennedy first saw his future wife, Jane, six years ago, she was the only woman in the pub, which was roaring with the thrill of World Cup football and belch of beer.
“There she was, this woman who works in the city all dressed up in a workingman’s bar full of swearing and footy shorts,” says the mine worker. He and his workmates were watching England play Brazil; he’d had a couple of beers. “I went over to her and said, ‘You’d better come and stand with us. You can’t be on your own here.'”
Jane had no qualms about being alone. She didn’t own a television and, as a Somerset-born football diehard, had gone out to find one.
“It wasn’t like going to the pub to pick up a bloke; it was more like a quiet night in, watching the telly,” says the advertising producer. “I was stone-cold sober. One soft drink only; I had to drive.”
The game finished – England lost – and the bar closed. “But we were still talking, so I invited him to my place,” says Jane. “I warned him there was no alcohol and he said, ‘That’s fine, I’ll have a cup of tea.’ He still drinks tea, even in restaurants.”
The night was perfectly proper – with lots of talking and tea. “We clicked and I wanted to be near her all the time, to keep talking,” Jason says. “I’m not normally a confident person, so it helped that I met Jane in a pub. I wouldn’t have asked for her number if I’d met her at work. There’s something about pubs and bars that makes it easier to talk to people.”
Jane agrees, with one caveat: “Oddly enough, if we’d been at the pub and he’d been drinking tea, there is no way I would have talked to him. I would’ve thought he was a freak.”
Shane Dunlop, 35, met Emily Saxon, 28, through an internet dating site in October 2006. The Geelong couple are engaged and expecting their first baby in April.
“I hate telling people we met on the internet,” says nurse Emily Saxon. “It’s like you couldn’t do any better. But it worked!”
The pair emailed each other after Shane noticed Emily’s profile on RSVP. She’d lost interest in internet dating. “I’d met a couple of duds and was just deleting messages. But for some reason, I opened Shane’s and thought, ‘He’s nice.'”
Shane asked for her photo password and liked what he saw. “Unfortunately, you go by cosmetics first and then find out whether you can stand what comes out of their mouths,” he says.
The pair quickly moved to instant-chat. “Getting to know someone by email is just like having a conversation,” says Shane, who works in IT. Emily says, “The messaging was like a rushed version of going on dates.”
The couple planned to meet for dinner the following week but chatted online until 3.30am and decided to meet at Shane’s house the next evening. “It’s unlike me to agree to go to someone’s house,” says Emily, “but it felt like the right thing to do, like catching up with someone I had somehow known.” (RSVP safety guidelines suggest the first meeting should be in a busy, familiar public location.)
The couple watched DVDs, ate pizza and talked for hours. “She officially moved in within three or four months,” Shane says. “But basically, Em never went home after that first date. Since we met, there has only been one night we’ve been apart.”
On the anniversary of their first meeting, the couple booked a weekend away on the Mornington Peninsula. “I proposed to Em after cooking her breakfast in a mankini.” Shane had bought a lime-green Borat-style G-string for his proposal. “For some people, it’s red roses but for us it’s humour and mankinis.”
Shane admits it can be hard to express emotions over a computer, “but when the intention is good behind the system, it’s good. You just need to weed out the serial killers.”
Brian McAleer was 23 when he embarked on love coaching in 2006. He soon met Anna Kealy, 27. They’ve been together for 16 months.
It took three sessions with life and dating coach Sandy Ewing for Brian McAleer to admit he wanted a serious relationship. “Having been single for years, I had been down in the dumps,” the youth worker says. “Part of my coaching was to act like the person I wanted to attract so I made an effort to be more social, outgoing, happy and positive.”
Eight coaching sessions with the Icebreakers dating coach helped – but Brian did most of the “real work” himself, writing a “future vision statement” about the relationship he hoped to be in and devising 10 reasons to be in a relationship. “Sandy would make me focus on my goals and ask what I had done to move towards them.”
Brian aimed to meet a woman when he went to work at a US holiday camp – and that’s what happened in Pennsylvania. He met Anna Kealy, another camp counsellor who lived 20 minutes’ drive from his Melbourne home.
“He did talk about the coaching,” says Anna, a disability worker. “Not just saying, ‘I want a girlfriend’ but ‘how I’m going to get one’ and a three-page summary. I did think, ‘What have I got myself into?’ but we work together with our own goals now,” she says.
Since returning to Melbourne, the couple have attended an Anthony Robbins seminar and set their mutual goals for 2008, which include holidaying together and exercising.
“What I wrote out [in coaching] ended up happening,” says Brian, now 25. “Anna is energetic, happy, adventurous and outgoing. No matter who she meets, she treats people with respect and genuine care. Those were the emotions I wanted to have around me.”