From pressure to find The One aged 22 to hot sex over 40, five writers reveal what it’s like to be looking for love in the swipe-right era.
20s: I need a real smile not an online bio
Amelia Perrin, 22
When my ex broke off our one-year relationship in October 2018, I assumed I’d be loved up again in no time – or so my past experiences (and ego) assured me, as I’ve spent the past four years in monogamous relationships.
This time around, I thought, I was open to anything. Of course I wanted to meet my future husband, but I also wanted to experience the fun single life I felt I’d missed out on, to enjoy meeting new people without putting too much pressure on myself to find Mr Right. What I hadn’t anticipated was how much the dating landscape had changed – for the worse.
Whereas I’d met previous boyfriends through friends of friends, now – as a non-drinker working in a female-dominated environment – I worried how I would meet any men, let alone The One. Friends encouraged me to download various dating apps, each with its own quirks and caveats, and if you told me there was a dating app specifically for people who prefer brown sauce to red, I wouldn’t be surprised.
App dating was entirely new to me, and while it’s a great way of meeting people I wouldn’t normally socialise with and broadened my horizons, I soon grew disenchanted. There are only so many times you can read that a guy wants to go ‘skiing in Japan’, or scroll past another picture of him posing with a large fish, or suspect he’s added three inches to his height.
The men blurred into one – a constant loop of likes, small talk and conversations running dry. And when I managed to sustain enough messages to warrant going on a date, I’d have to pull up his profile just before we met to remember his name. I’d either spend every evening on yet another failed date or swiping through the apps looking for the next one.
The more I swiped, the less engaged I was. I was experiencing online dating burnout. Reading the same mind-numbing opening lines – ‘Hey’ – and pinning all my hopes on them being The One was taking its toll. I forced myself to persevere, reminding myself it was all a numbers game. But it’s hard. So far, the downsides to the apps have outweighed the positives. Being one swipe among many makes me feel expendable; it’s clear the people on the other end don’t care about me.
One friend recommended that I stop looking to date. She reckons it’s not that the men I’ve met or talked to are particularly awful, it’s the experience that’s getting me down. And she’s right. It doesn’t matter how personalised the app is, internet dating will never be personal enough for me. No matter if it’s tailored specifically to your dating quirks, an online snapshot of a man will never give you the whole picture. I need that human connection.
A real-life coy smile on the bus does so much more for me than judging someone on a three-line bio. So I’ve deleted all my dating apps and am using the time I’d normally spend swiping to focus on myself. I’m concentrating on my career and taking back my weekends, finding a work-life balance I didn’t have when I was in a relationship, trying to cram in fun activities to keep a partner happy, or filling my weeknights with meaningless dates while single. And I truly believe someone will come along when I least expect it.
Because I’m taking this time out (it’s not a dating ban, just a searching ban), when the right date match does come along they’ll get the best possible version of me – someone content with their own company. And while there are apps out there that can do virtually anything for you, none of them can do that.
30s: I thought I’d be married by now
Anita Bhagwandas, 35
In my 20s, dating was less serious and I didn’t place much importance on the outcome of it. Back then I would meet people in bars and at gigs. Then, app dating was more of an add-on, because more people were single at that age.
Dating in my 30s feels more like work, not least because apps are the main way people meet and it takes a while over the course of a date to build a connection. Dating is definitely more intense. There are greater expectations because I want more from somebody now and I understand myself better than I did in my 20s – and I know my value.
I’ve found new perspectives on dating. I’m quicker to weed out the undesirables on apps because I know what I want now; in my 20s it was beards and tattoos, now it’s more beards and a kind heart. With experience, it’s easier to spot red flags in general. I’m looking for good communication, not somebody who only ever calls you back when they’re drunk (even though he’s an Armani model – true story). Yes, that is because I’m thinking about them as a partner and a father potentially – but expectations are good. Although well-meaning types tell you not to ‘expect’ too much, we should expect people to be great (not perfect) and we shouldn’t settle for less than we need or deserve.
Generally speaking, I spent my entire 20s thinking very little about babies. My career and living ‘the dream’ – moving from the depths of industrial South Wales to sparkly London – were my goals. But when 29 flicked to 30, I found suddenly that marriage and babies were all anyone could think, talk, read or write about. Within seconds of entering this new decade, I became acutely aware of my ovarian function as the first of my mates became pregnant and the rest – like lemmings falling off a cliff – started following. Fun as I knew it is now over. Nobody wants to dance on tables until 5am any more (or even stay out past 11pm). Instead chat turns to Farrow & Ball wall colours and early nursery admission. I can’t help but ask myself – what the hell happened?
The truth is, at 35, I did think I’d have kids and be married by now. Even though stressful weddings, difficult pregnancies and sickly babies are part of the package, it still sounds great if you’re not even in the running – or in my case, have gone through a recent break-up with a man I met on Bumble. Experiencing this in your 30s is particularly painful – it feels as though a golden future is dangled in front of you then snatched away by the powers above. But you have to nod, smile and pretend that it’s OK.
Mostly I feel incredibly empowered by the things I’ve achieved in my life – a successful career, a flat, brilliant friends. Sometimes I don’t, and it’s good to acknowledge that polarity of feeling and the societal pressure on women. Friends have suggested egg freezing to take the pressure off dating and it’s something I plan to look into – although I’m hoping to meet somebody this year (I saw a psychic who predicted I would).
Now I’m back on the dating apps, hoping for entertaining dates and to find somebody awesome along the way. And, yes, I have had to tell well-meaning relatives to back the hell off. It’s not as though I’m not trying to meet somebody – I am. But if you resign yourself to just your biological function and forget your worth as a woman, then you’re doing yourself a massive disservice. You’ll also be miserable and miss out on so many benefits to being single. And life – with or without a partner – is far too short for that.
40s: Do I tell my dates I’m a single mum?
Sophie Heawood, 42
Now that I’m in my 40s, I’m finally happy to admit that I’m not cool any more. I’ve made the switch to Radio 2, I only go to gigs if the ticket comes with a seat and at night I read a novel in bed rather than crashing into it a bit drunk. I’ve become a boring old married person, only without the marriage.
The thing about dating apps is that they’re designed for the first bit of relationships, when you send flirty messages, get dressed up, drink and snog and spend months obsessively wondering about everything. I can’t face doing that any more. I want to fast-forward to the bit that comes years later, where we stay in watching telly and shout at Question Time.
As a single mother (I’ve always raised my seven-year-old daughter by myself) I have to stay in most nights anyway, so it’s a lot of faff to pay for babysitters only to meet up with a total stranger from a dating app – especially if he turns out to be awful in the first 20 minutes.
It’s not that I haven’t tried. After becoming a mother, I went on one excruciating Tinder date. We got on perfectly well and the conversation flowed, especially when it turned out we both came from the same town in Yorkshire before moving to London. But I hadn’t put my daughter in any of my profile photos, or mentioned her in the very brief description of myself, as I didn’t want it to look as though I was recruiting for a new dad. So when this nice bloke and I went for a drink, and we described our jobs and lives, I found myself unable to tell him the truth. The longer I left it, the worse it got.
I never spoke to him again because I felt too silly to deal with this omission afterwards. (I imagine that when he was trying to work out my reasons for ghosting him, ‘too embarrassed to mention own child’ wasn’t among them.) It sounds stupid now, but I hadn’t yet got to know this new version of myself – the one who was trying to feel sexy and exciting, while also presenting herself as a mother.
Last year was different. I decided to make more of an effort to meet people in real life, and I had two lovely flings with interesting, intelligent, kind men. All right, I met one of them on Twitter, but the other one entered my life after we were introduced by mutual friends at a party. Neither of them was anywhere near my age – one was in his 60s and the other was in his 20s. (The only 40-something men I meet are the husbands of my 40-something friends.)
Sex is so much better than it was when I was younger. I would hate to be in my 20s again, always sort of zoning out while still being in the room, feeling deep down that my body wasn’t enough, that my desires weren’t really valid. I’m happy with my wobbly naked tummy and I like my smiling face. Sex is passionate and funny. I am very much back in the room, sexually; it’s great.
I worry sometimes that I won’t meet anyone or that there’s something wrong with me for not yet having had a marriage-type relationship. But then I look at the depth of compromise that my married friends have made, and wonder if I was ever really prepared to do that.
For me, the crucial thing about dating in your 40s is to learn from every relationship that ends and not just see it as another failure. I do believe I’ll meet someone. I think I’m just one of those people who takes a long time to get it right. I was top of the class at school but I’m a slow learner in love, and that’s all right.
50s: The hormonal pressure is off
Liz Hoggard, 56
It still makes me laugh that I’m going on dates in my mid-50s. I didn’t do it in my 20s and 30s. Back then if you split up with a boyfriend, you cried in your bedroom for five years or waited for a friend to introduce you to that nice man they always promised to have over for dinner (spoiler alert, they never did).
I’ve been in all-female offices for most of my working life. I love parties but am hopeless at flirting. Now, thanks to a slew of dating sites and apps (Lumen is specifically for over-50s), I could meet a new person every night.
There is something interesting about having meaningful encounters at this age. Everyone has grown up. You’ve already made key decisions – about work, kids and independence – so it takes the pressure off. I’m a slow, careful dater online. My tone is open and friendly but I never flirt or talk about physical appearance before we meet, that seems weird. And it can still be nerve-racking to meet for yet another ‘audition’ – from what to wear to choosing a venue where you can hear each other and read the menu without a torch. I’ve had a few chilling encounters. (Dear Nigel, if you didn’t feel the chemistry, you really didn’t need to send lots of texts telling me so.) But when it works it’s nice to meet someone new for an hour or have a ‘culture companion’ for the cinema or exhibitions.
There’s plenty of baggage, of course. Newly divorced, the men I’m meeting have grown-up kids and even grandchildren (men tend to go on dating sites three days after splitting up; women lick their wounds for at least a year). In the past I dated men who, like me, didn’t have children which meant carefree weekends away and holidays in term time. But at this age I find it honourable that someone made a proper commitment, ferrying teenagers to after-school classes and looking after elderly parents, rather than going out dancing until 3am. And I understand their kids will always come first in any relationship. These men may find it odd that I didn’t do the conventional marriage thing (my last serious relationship ended five years ago), but I certainly don’t yearn to live with anyone; I have my own flat in a cool part of town.
Men and women in their 50s and 60s still fascinate and puzzle each other in equal measure. I’ve had several promising near misses recently when we got to date ten and it never quite took. Perhaps we were too coy (too nervous?) to articulate what we wanted. Because when you’re no longer in that crazy hormonal rush, you take it slower. In your 20s you are just desperate for something (anything) to happen. Now it can wait.
Of course there are fears about sex. Has porn changed everything? Are you allowed any body hair at all? I’m in awe of the bold young women coming of age in a ‘hook-up’ culture when it’s normal to get into bed on the first date. But I’ve learnt the hard way that sex and intimacy are very different things. So I’m not about to jump on a sofa with a complete stranger. If that makes me dull, so be it. I’d rather be on my own than lonely in a failing relationship. Recently I interviewed a dating expert in her 30s. She told me admiringly that relationships in your 50s are like a second adolescence. ‘You’re quite content in your own life, you have your house just how you like it, so you might just see each other on Saturday night like teenagers.’
She’s spot on. It’s a lovely idea. Especially if, like me, you weren’t very good at being a teenager. Second time around, you get another chance.