Can’t find anyone who meets your exacting standards, got app fatigue or forgotten how to flirt? If you’re serious about finding The One, a dating coach could guide you through the minefield, says Laura Silverman.
On Valentine’s Day last year, Hannah heard that her ex-boyfriend Ed was engaged. They had gone out for four years, but Ed had refused to discuss the idea of living together. Fearing he would never commit, Hannah broke up with him, yet struggled to get over the split. But when she heard about his engagement, the 33-year-old graphic designer knew she had to move on. She tried Tinder, and went on a couple of awkward dates with the colleague of a friend, but it never felt right. ‘Yet I was desperate to meet someone,’ says Hannah. Then she heard about a dating coach – an expert who she hoped could help her find someone new.
These days, anyone who is serious about finding and staying with a partner has a coach. They not only guide you through the world of apps, they also help you overcome issues that might be holding you back, from a lack of confidence to a fear of intimacy. A modern coach is more like a therapist. Coach Ané Auret explains: ‘People are looking for help, but don’t feel they need counselling because they aren’t overcoming a major trauma. Like therapy, coaching uses the past, but it also looks to the future.’
A typical session involves an hour-long conversation at the coach’s home, office or somewhere quiet such as a private room in a members’ club. Many offer Skype sessions, too. It’s a bit like an honest chat with a friend, but the focus is solely on you and you can’t ignore their incisive questions and insightful suggestions. Under the surface, the coach is directing the conversation, trying to find out why you are having difficulties. Sessions tend to be weekly or fortnightly, and you may well be given homework (perhaps an exercise such as striking up a conversation with a stranger you like the look of at an event, or keeping a diary about an ongoing problem such as your relationship with your parents or getting over an ex).
Charly Lester, founder of the UK Dating Awards, has seen a substantial rise in new coaches being shortlisted, while Auret and other coaches Jo Hemmings and Madeleine Mason have all noticed greater demand for their expertise. Mason and Hemmings are also psychologists, although anyone can market themselves as a coach. Hemmings has many clients in their 30s. Some have been concentrating on their careers, others are looking for relationship guidance. Their friends may think meeting the right person is a matter of time, but they fear it will never happen.
Coaches use varying techniques, but Mason and Hemmings base their methods on cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), challenging someone’s assumptions to help them change how they behave. Given that CBT is often used for serious conditions, from depression to OCD, it might sound extreme to use it for dating. Yet there are reasons why people are doing so.
Jenna, a 36-year-old literary agent, had been single for four years. ‘I’d been focused on work in my 20s and early 30s, and hadn’t wanted to be tied down to a relationship,’ she says. ‘When I finally decided I might like to meet someone, I found that the men my age wanted somebody younger and the guys who were interested in me were ten or 15 years older. It was disheartening.’ Jenna’s experience is not uncommon. ‘Dating has become really competitive, especially for women in their 30s,’ says Hemmings. ‘At that age, there seems to be more women than men on apps. Once men know they’re scarce [and therefore more in demand], they look for younger women.’
App fatigue is very common, she adds. People get fed up and stop dating altogether. Hemmings suggests joining two apps at most (perhaps Bumble, where women have to approach men, and Happn, which prioritises potential matches based on how many times you cross paths with them) and spend just half an hour a day scrolling through people. And a dating coach will show you how to get an edge. Hemmings might suggest you remove that profile photo of you at a wedding (‘group shots are a bad idea unless you are the outstandingly good-looking one’) or become more persistent in your messages (‘momentum is essential or a man will drift off’). She might also advise you to lower your expectations. Apps can give you the impression that there are any number of men out there and that you will meet someone who fulfils all your criteria – looks included. ‘I have to persuade women that there’s more to people than their appearance,’ says Hemmings. ‘They might need to prioritise different qualities and look more carefully.’
Jenna was initially resistant when a coach recommended she improve her profile with better quality pictures. ‘I thought that was superficial,’ she says. ‘I ignored friends who’d made the same suggestion; I needed an expert to tell me. A friend took new pictures of me and I got more attention.’
But most women don’t enlist a coach just for tips such as these. They have often gone on a few awkward dates and want to know how to make them run more smoothly. Experts say we now spend so much time online that meeting people in person feels daunting. As for flirting, forget it. ‘People don’t do it [any more] because it’s easier to go home and swipe,’ says Hemmings. Natasha, 31, a recruitment consultant, says: ‘I thought I was attracting men with no social skills because they appeared to have nothing to say. My coach asked me more about the dates and I realised I was so anxious that I would chat away and never let the man speak. I was scared that if there was a gap they would think I was boring.’
Other women think their dates went well, but then never hear from the man again. Hemmings recommends texting the man you’ve been out with that evening to thank him. ‘Women often think they will appear needy,’ she says. ‘But if you like someone, tell them.’ If you want a relationship, move the conversation along. ‘If you are still chatting about hobbies on a third date, you will never go beyond friends. Introduce momentum. Talk about family or past relationships.’
But this can take courage. A fear of intimacy often goes deep and can sometimes be traced to your relationship with a parent or a past boyfriend. Hannah’s coach helped her rationalise her break-up. ‘I needed someone to confirm I had made the right decision,’ she says. ‘I had been following Ed on Instagram, looking for a sign that he was missing me. As soon as I admitted this to my coach, I realised it wasn’t going to help. I ended the relationship for a reason. I’d wanted to feel that someone was serious enough about me to discuss moving in together and one day having children, but Ed said he didn’t like to think that far ahead. I needed guidance about what to do next.’
Many come for coaching with little idea why they struggle to form relationships. Auret says: ‘Usually the problem that someone says they have – apps are superficial, they attract emotionally unavailable men – is not the real issue.’ It’s the coach’s job to find out what is really going on. ‘We all have blind spots.’
Amy, a 39-year-old English teacher, couldn’t work out why she never seemed able to convert dates into anything serious. Sam, her last boyfriend, had cheated on her a week after they moved in together. Now, a year later, she thought she had moved on. The future had looked promising with James: they had gone on six dates. But when he invited her to meet his friends, she grew distant and kept making excuses for why she didn’t have time. ‘It wasn’t like me at all,’ she says. ‘We got on really well – we both loved cooking and travelling and I found him really easy to be with. I couldn’t have asked for more.’
Her coach saw that she might be finding it hard to trust anyone because of Sam. Was she scared of getting too close in case James was also unfaithful? ‘I had thought about that,’ says Amy. ‘But I hadn’t considered how all these fears were affecting my behaviour. By talking it through with my coach, I realised there was no connection between Sam and James – and no reason why a betrayal should happen again. I called James to apologise and he was amazingly understanding. We’ve decided to give a relationship a go. When we make plans – even just going to a friend’s birthday party – I tense up. But I recognise the signs and can stop myself running away.’ Sabotaging a potentially good relationship is extremely common, says Auret.
She believes the impact of our families is also underestimated. ‘It’s assumed that we should all know how to have relationships,’ she says, ‘but many of us haven’t had the greatest example from our parents. Lots of people struggle with that.’ Olivia, 31, a junior doctor, had held a gloomy view of relationships ever since her parents divorced when she was 14. ‘I felt as though my relationships would always fail,’ she says. ‘My friends hinted that I should have got over it by now. I’d never talked about it and I wanted to move forward, so seeing a coach felt like a practical step.’
Kate, 28, thinks her relationship with her parents might have made it hard for her to go out with anyone for very long. ‘My parents worked in fashion and travelled a lot for work,’ she says.
‘I rarely saw them. When they came home, sometimes just for days at a time, they would shower me with gifts, but it didn’t make up for them not being there when I had a bad day at school. I saw relationships as selfish. Every time I was in one I worried I might eventually behave like that myself and would try to get out of it.’ She also realised that relationships made her think of her parents not being there for her. ‘Being in a couple reminded me of how unhappy I’d been as a child. I never connected the two until I saw a coach.’
Kate’s parents were by then living in Hong Kong, so she rarely saw them. ‘I realised we had a dysfunctional relationship. I still resented them for the way they brought me up and felt distant from them because we had never talked about it.
I flew out to see them and explained how I had felt as a child. It was hard for all of us to be honest, but they admitted they wished that they had been around more.’ Kate felt that resolving her relationship with her parents made her more positive about relationships in general – and especially between couples. ‘I now feel much more open to meeting someone – and staying with them.’
Our casual dating culture makes these issues worse. When it’s so easy to get another date on an app – especially if you lower your standards – no wonder you’re tempted to jump from one relationship to another rather than dealing with a problem when it arises. And many women, like Hannah, experiment with dating or try to get over a break-up without any guidance because they feel they are expected to solve the problem alone. But the help is out there. ‘The person you choose to spend the rest of your life with is an important decision,’ says Auret. ‘We need to take dating more seriously and invest in it more.’
Laura on the loveseat
Our writer Laura, 36, has been single for 18 months. Her last relationship ended because she and her boyfriend realised they were just going out with each other so they had someone to accompany them to weddings. They were already friends so it seemed to make sense – at the time…
I didn’t think I needed a dating coach. I was sociable, I went swing-dancing several times a week. I was on various apps – Tinder, Happn and The Inner Circle (for ambitious professionals). And I knew what I was looking for – someone who took their career seriously but wasn’t obsessed by it, loved films, had an extensive collection of books and could cook an excellent tuna steak. Yet I hadn’t met anyone I liked in a very long time. Settling down had always sounded conventional, I thought. I had always wanted a more independent life where I wouldn’t be tied down to doing things with the same person. It was only recently, at 36, and with most of my friends in couples, that I had started wanting to meet someone.
When I saw Jo Hemmings she asked me how often I told anyone on an app (or anyone I met in real life) that I liked them. Rarely, I admitted, because no one appealed. Had I tried to meet commuters on the train? (I lived in Brighton and worked in London.) No, I replied; I preferred to snooze. What about dancing? Dancing is great, I explained, because you don’t have to talk to your partner. The more questions Jo asked, the more I realised that, as the psychology cliché goes, my main obstacle was me. We spoke about potential reasons: fear of rejection, fear of intimacy and fear of failure. A love of independence? I suggested. We talked about my family (my parents, I should add, are happily married) before discussing past relationships. About ten years ago, I said, I was in a relatively serious relationship that fell apart when my boyfriend, Alex, moved to Zürich for work. Could I be worried that someone else might leave me if we became close?
Jo was extremely perceptive. ‘The fact that you feel you are doing all the right things but aren’t actually attracted to anyone may be in part because you are shielding yourself from further hurt by subconsciously rejecting all would-be new relationships,’ she said. ‘Also, you might not be focused enough on trying to find someone with a similarly unconventional view on life. Perhaps you are instinctively veering towardsa safer, more conventional option, and therefore simply not feeling the connection. You might need to be a little bolder.’ I realised she was probably right.
I rarely talk about relationships with friends because I am better at listening than sharing how I feel. Jo said I might benefit from more sessions if I really wanted to uncover what was going on and move forward, and I am thinking about it. Just by acknowledging that my dating ‘problem’ might have more to do with myself than the availability of men, I have made progress. I have recently given my number to a couple of possible dates at parties – quite willingly – and am actually looking forward to seeing them. It’s a start.
For more details, visit Jo’s website datingcoaches.co.uk. Prices from £225 for an hour’s face-to-face coaching and an email follow up