From breadcrumbing to catfishing, Sabrina Fox navigates the world of dating after the collapse of her marriage.
The pandemic has brought sadness to many. For me, it brought the curtain down on my marriage. As unexpected and speedy as a shot of Pernod clouding a glass of water, in early 2020 everything went Pete Tong. From love, lust and friendship to wretchedness, betrayal and failure, it’s a story familiar to many; but when it kicks in your direction, boy does it hurt. Time heals, however. I’ve now tucked it away neatly under my Emilia Wickstead waistband and am ready to move on.
Finding love is a challenge at any age but in the second half of life it feels monumental. Like trying to find porcini in a forest of potentially dodgy funghi. Where on earth do I start and how can I protect myself from picking something that looks appealing but turns out to be poison?
I look at dating apps. Goodness, what a minefield. Hinge, Ok Cupid, Bumble, Tinder, Happn, Inner Circle, Guardian Soulmates, Plenty of Fish… the list is terrifying. And a new lexicon. I thought ‘breadcrumbing’ was what you did to a goujon – I’ll never eat scampi again. Turns out it’s when you think you’ve made a good connection and the respondent throws you tit-bits to keep your interest, but with no intention of taking the relationship further. Catfishing? That’s sending a photo of someone else and pretending it’s you. I have done some dim things in my time, but surely that’s asking for trouble.
I look for advice. Lucy Goes Dating is a vlog by a 41-year-old singleton sharing her story of trying to stay afloat in London’s dating pool. ‘The culture of dating apps is superficial and a lot of bad behaviour goes on,’ she says. ‘They can be bad for self-esteem. Men complain they feel much more disposable now, plus-size women get abuse and lots of women get sent lewd photos and sexual comments, often from strangers.’
What happened to just meeting someone and having fun? Nichi Hodgson, author of The Curious History of Dating: From Jane Austen to Tinder, offers an explanation. ‘Having worked in the industry, dating app developers and engineers have traditionally been white, middle-class men prioritising their own interests above anyone else’s. It doesn’t matter what kind of user you are, you play to their standards.’
My own initial excitement about being out on the dating scene is akin to finding Poilâne has opened a bakery nearby – before discovering I’m gluten-intolerant. Help is required. Put brain in gear. If I want the best meat I go to an organic butcher, pay through the nose – and it’s delicious. It’s time to throw money at the problem. An online search brings me to dating agency Berkeley International. ‘Berkeley International is a specialist elite dating agency and international introduction agency offering an exclusive matchmaking service to find perfect partners and soulmates for our discerning and affluent members,’ reads the blurb.
I call the agency’s Caroline Dore, who suggests coffee and we arrange to meet (pre-lockdown). She’s close to my own age and puts me at ease. I sign up. In the following days, I receive a call from Mairead Molloy, global director of Berkeley, who welcomes me and reiterates the main objective is ‘to have fun’. Finally, someone has mentioned the ‘f-word’.
First I have to fill out a detailed questionnaire. Berkeley wants to know my schooling and background, eye and hair colour (do I admit to a helping hand?), the labels I wear, what I drive, the sports I enjoy. I feel like I’m filling in a job application for a nannying role with the Sussexes. I submit to the process knowing it’s confidential.
What appeals with Berkeley is that they don’t ask for photographs. One of the agencies I looked at offered a ‘glamorous photo shoot’. I have been on shoots for work and they have little allure. Plus I don’t want to offer suitors a razzle-dazzle version of myself that bears little resemblance to reality. Even Kate Moss gets digitally tweaked these days. If Berkeley has correctly analysed my requirements, they’ll find me someone with a kind face, who’s honest, easy to talk to and makes me laugh. Deciding whether I want to snog them comes later.
So here we go. Caroline writes a short profile and description of me which she sends for approval. On the whole it’s generic, the usual likes such as theatre, food, good conversation, what I’m reading… not giving much away but enough to spark an interest for a like-minded soul. Then they wave their wand. ‘We like to work as a team,’ explains Berkeley’s Sophie Bird. ‘We need to get to know people as well as possible. A client has conversations with two or three of us but whoever their initial chat is with hand-holds all the way.’ When it comes to matchmaking, age is a big factor, followed by height and location – particularly in the current climate. Young girls prefer not to have a bald suitor, it seems. ‘There are no hard and fast rules’, says Stevie. ‘Gut instinct is always a factor in deciding who’s right for whom.’
When Berkeley hooks a fish for a client, they send over their profile for scrutiny – first names only. If you like the sound of them, Berkeley shares your number and lets you know he or she will be in touch. When I give the thumbs up, Caroline reminds me of my WhatsApp photo – ‘You may wish to remove it so you don’t give anything away before you are ready’. I appreciate the tip but leave it on.
We’re up and running. My first date, Mr Big (I’m channelling Carrie Bradshaw) texts the same day and we arrange a phone call. He likes golf and motor sport. He lives close by so we arrange our first date, a walk in the countryside. He’s tall, tick, easy on the eye, tick and pays for my coffee and croissant, tick tick. I’m in my comfort zone and head home to reflect. It was an enjoyable jaunt but no spark – he didn’t make me laugh.
We text niceties over the next few days and I call Caroline and suggest he goes into ‘friend zone’. She offers to let him know but I think it should be me so send him a note saying I enjoyed meeting him and would be happy to do so again on the understanding it’s as a friend. He says he appreciates my text and goes quiet.
Bring on Mr Big 2. By now lockdown has us all in a stranglehold. We arrange a Zoom date following our phone chat. It feels strange to be dolling myself up for a stranger on camera but I guess that’s what I’d be doing if we were meeting for a drink. It goes well. I am gaining confidence and feel comforted knowing if anything doesn’t feel right, I have the agency to fall back on. It’s like having a fairy godmother.
A few weeks down the line, I’m not feeling it with Mr Big 2 but the original Mr Big is still afloat. Friendship is flourishing and I am enjoying his company on walks. What have I learnt? I like the security of the dating agency and it’s old-fashioned approach suits my personality and stage of life. I know potential suitors, like me, are looking for a long-term relationship. There’s accountability so the likelihood of bad behaviour is greatly reduced. And the dopamine spike which keeps people hooked on apps still happens when you text – it’s fun pinging messages back and forth with a suitor. I’m in the foothills of finding lasting love again but my self-esteem is growing and I’m making new friends. And Mr Big is making me laugh.