When Lieselotte Achilles went to meet Melbourne man Peter Leith at her local Gold Coast airport last February she immediately knew she had ”found her destiny”. They had been in contact for three months after meeting on the online dating site RSVP. Eighty-year-old Lieselotte readily admits she’d made the first approach – months of emailing, phone and Skype calls quickly followed.
Finally 84-year-old Peter arrived for a visit. ”It was like we had known each other forever. We found a love for one another never thought possible at our age,” says Lieselotte.
Peter speaks glowingly of his new partner’s radiant smile and the indomitable spirit of the woman who spent her early teens surviving bombing raids on her German town. ”We are now an ‘item’,” he joyfully announces.
The proud couple is part of a growing trend for older single people to join the massive numbers now using online dating to search for a partner. The overall figures are staggering with up to 1200 people each day signing up as members of the largest site, RSVP.
There’s no independent way of checking membership figures but both RSVP and eHarmony claim to have 2 million members and more than 4 million people have apparently joined RSVP since it was launched 17 years ago. Indeed, Nielsen Research last year found most Australians (51 per cent) had either tried online dating or would consider doing so.
These figures reflect just how many people of all ages are now single and keen on finding a partner. These days most young people don’t settle down until they hit their late 20s and that means plenty still looking for a mate at an age when their parents had been married a good five to 10 years.
Many remain unmarried through to their 40s. Indeed, the number of women in their 30s without partners has almost doubled since 1986. Then they are joined by floods of divorced people eager to sign up for the second marriage market. And, finally, there’s the baby boomer generation which now contains increasing numbers of singles – a mix of never-married, divorced and widowed.
Few ageing baby boomers are keen on shouting over the din of noisy pubs or bars trying to chat up prospective dates. Looking for another option, many are attracted to the gradual approach offered by online dating.
It allows for the ”self-paced development of a relationship,” says the smitten Peter Leith, who likes the arms-length opportunity to read through profiles leading to emailing, phone calls, Skyping and finally a meeting when trust is established.
”Neither party is obliged to hold their nose, pray and jump in at the deep end at their first meeting,” he says. And if an 84-year-old can do it …
Success stories are attracting new groups to online dating, both young and old. ”There’s recently been a move for more baby boomers to come online as well as more younger singles,” says RSVP spokeswoman Melanie Dudgeon, explaining the shift from the 30s to 40s group that dominated 10 years ago.
In June 2013, 11 per cent of RSVP’s more than 2 million members were over 55, with a similar percentage now 18-24. The largest group is aged 25-34 (33 per cent) followed by 35-44 (26 per cent) and then 45-55 (19 per cent).
Just as many men as women are joining the major websites overall, but eHarmony acknowledges more females than males in all age groups over 35 – reflecting the gender split among singles in the overall population.
The latest 2011 Australian census figures show more unpartnered women than men in all ages over 35: for 45-54 year olds there are nearly 70,000 more single women than single men.
The increasingly social acceptability of online dating has meant these large numbers of single women have recently become far more active, joining online sites and then actually approaching men.
When RSVP started in 1997, males outnumbered females almost two to one and it was rare for women to make that first contact. Now many older men revel in finding themselves in a buyer’s market, on the receiving end of a lot of female attention. Some love it, others find it overwhelming.
”I’ve been on eHarmony on three separate periods of three months and receive approximately 600-700 matches each period,” says a successful Sydney academic and writer.
Online dating has become hard work due to the huge numbers, with some people being swamped with attention and others hardly noticed. Facing such tough online competition, many seek professional help with the daunting task of presenting a profile that stands out from the crowd.
In the US this led to a crop of new dating ”coaches” or dating ”concierges” – offering to help take the hard work out of the online process by helping with profiles, doing searches, offering strategies and support.
The American eHarmony has just launched an exclusive 3H+ Service, targeting members earning over $250,000 and charging $5000 for personalised searches and coaching.
Similarly busy professionals can outsource the daily grind of conducting searches and sorting out suitable prospects.
With more dating sites starting up all the time, choices can seem overwhelming. There are now dozens of sites in Australia, including many for sex hook-ups, and a rash of new ones targeting specific groups such as the over 50s, usually attracting too few people to be really effective.
People most in demand – the young and good-looking and well-educated, successful men – are likely to get lots of attention on most sites, from free ones such as OKCupid and Plenty of Fish, to the latest craze for the younger set, the smartphone app Tinder.
The Tinder app offers a heterosexual version of Grindr, a hook-up app that allows gays to check out local action. With Tinder, potential matches living locally are judged hot or not – on the basis of a photo and perhaps a tagline or two – and with a flick of the finger accepted or discarded. This process is not for the faint-hearted.
Those with less obvious attractions need to work much harder, choose their dating site carefully and make sure everything is working for them.
Take professional women seeking to find a partner from the sparsely stocked pond of well-educated men. Even for women in their 30s the outlook can be grim. According to 2011 census figures, almost one in four women in their 30s who have a tertiary degree won’t find well-educated men of the same age – there are only 85,000 unattached 30s’ graduate men for 113,000 single graduate women.
This means graduate women must find a website with the largest possible pool of these highly eligible men – less likely to be found on the free sites – and one where they choose their own search criteria to find the best prospects.
n Australia, the obvious choice is RSVP, since eHarmony doesn’t allow members to search but rather provides members with matches based on personality tests. RSVP also enables members to remain anonymous by hiding profile photos, a major attraction for women in big jobs nervous about their public reputations.
Having posted an online profile, professional women can’t afford to sit back and wait to be approached, particularly if they are not displaying their photos. Many men limit their search to profiles with pictures. Yet women can still do well if they are prepared to make the first move – on RSVP they can show the photos privately to men they approach.
It’s surprising how women resist taking that initiative. That’s one of the most perplexing discoveries from my recent work as a dating coach – old-fashioned 1950s’ dating rules still have a firm grip on many otherwise cluey women.
They trot out all the old cliches – like ”men prefer to be the hunter” and ”they don’t like pushy women”. Obviously there are some men like this but most male clients report being delighted to be approached, particularly when the woman pays for that vital first contact.
That’s a bridge too far for Sydney divorcee Diane Rymple, 54, who has been using RSVP for more than three years under the name ”ladylikestodance”. She’s willing to make the first approach, sending free ”kisses” to prospective dates letting them know she’s interested in making contact. Often they respond positively to her attractive photos showing bright-red lipstick and a wide, warm smile.
But then, instead of paying the $5-$15 (depending on how many she buys) for a ”stamp”, which enables her to initiate email contact, she sends another free kiss, once again suggesting she’d like to hear from them.
”I think they are put off, but I’m just old-fashioned like that. A chivalrous man will have the breeding to be willing to make that move,” she says. It doesn’t help that she’s set her sights high – quite literally. She is 175 centimetres and limits her search to the small pool of professional men more than 182 centimetres. ”Men want a woman who wears heels. When I tower over a gentleman it doesn’t feel right.”
It isn’t easy teaching people that they need to be more realistic about what they are looking for – they can’t date anyone they can’t attract. It’s particularly difficult with older women whose last date was 30 years ago when they were in their prime, knocking young men back like flies.
Many don’t take kindly to rejection – the dating world is full of women complaining they meet only losers, hardly the attitude likely to turn their luck around. Miffed women often write profiles that include snarly comments about men such as ”No players need apply”, an approach that is unlikely to deter a womaniser, and other men may be put off by this negativity.
Men also make this type of mistake. I told one of my male clients that he was doing himself no favours stating in his profile that he had no interest in women with ”hidden agendas” – a dead giveaway that here was a man who had been burnt.
So often people have no idea they are giving the wrong impression. A woman chooses a profile photo from her recent trip to Paris hoping to display her sophistication, not realising it can put off even some well-heeled men who decide she’s a spoilt princess.
I tell male clients not to mention sex in early email exchanges after hearing from one man who was getting no response at all to his lively, witty profile and attractive photos. When he sent me some of the emails he was sending out I discovered he was boasting he was ”tactile, sensual and sexy”, which was as subtle as a sledgehammer and likely to put off even women in his age group still keen on the dancing doona.
Not everyone can cope with the online process of finding a partner. Some people are remarkably resilient, dealing well with the inevitable kicks to the kerb and treating the whole thing as an interesting adventure. They are the ones most likely to end up finding partners, or at least some welcome new friends. Others give up too easily when their search for a soul mate doesn’t immediately pan out.
Yet success stories are everywhere. We all now know couples who proudly acknowledge they met online and that new openness is contributing to the current explosion in membership.
Canberra man Paul James talks glowingly about his first online dating experience saying .
”It was a fantastically successful for me,” he says, describing the woman he met online and who became his partner as ”absolutely wonderful”.
Sadly, seven months into their relationship, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died 18 months later.
It took him a couple of years to be able to face the idea of looking again for a new relationship. But he’s now back on RSVP (using the name ”distantthunder”).
Paul felt online dating was his only real option as he works in a male-dominated industry.
”The circles I move in don’t have many women. Through online dating I can get into contact with women I just wouldn’t meet any other way.”
He knows the process can work and is just hoping lightning can strike twice.
Bettina Arndt is a journalist and dating coach.