Single life in your twenties is a rite of passage, but what happens when you find yourself back in the fray in later life? In an exclusive survey, Style spoke to more than 1,000 single men and women aged 35 to 81 to discover the new rules of dating

Emma Beddington
Sunday February 09 2020, 12.01am, The Sunday Times

Dating is an adventure at any age — nerve-racking, exhausting, crushing and occasionally wonderful — but maybe even more so in midlife. The stakes are higher, whether you’re looking for a life partner and co-parent, or emerging from a long-term relationship with new clarity about what you want from the rest of your life. In a landmark survey commissioned by Style, more than 1,000 single men and women over the age of 35 talked frankly about their dating experiences: what they’re looking for, how they go about finding it and, crucially, how it feels. The results make clear that, in 2020, the dating landscape for midlifers is even more Wild West than it is for many gen Zers.

The “swipe right” culture, online pornography and the rise of sexting have all fundamentally changed the game for older millennials, gen Xers and baby-boomers. Only 25% of midlife singles are now looking to get married, and 53% are open to dating without commitment. This rises to 66% for LGB daters and, intriguingly, to 71% for the 65-plus age group. A steady proportion (36%-40%) of all age groups are up for casual sex, and 56% have had sex in the past six months, reporting an average of two partners in the past year. An impressive 68% of those who are having regular sex describe themselves as more adventurous than when they were younger: 14% had used drugs with a sexual partner; 8% had tried group sex or a threesome.

And older doesn’t necessarily mean wiser: 31% of women (and 25% of men) surveyed are not using any contraception. Women of a generation for whom contraception was chiefly about avoiding pregnancy seem to throw caution to the winds post-menopause: several mentioned freedom from pregnancy worries as a factor in their midlife sexual renaissance.

It’s a different story to the one we’ve become used to hearing about sex and relationship attitudes among gen Z and younger millennials, widely reported to be in a “sex recession”. HBO’s new series Mrs Fletcher, starring Kathryn Hahn, plays with these themes and with a midlife cohort getting to grips (so to speak) with the ubiquity of porn. In it, Hahn plays a mid-forties single mother rediscovering her sexuality at the same time as her boorish son starts college, falling foul of the strictly policed sexuality of woke American campus culture.

Suzi Godson, sex and relationship columnist on The Times, who is finalising a PhD on midlife divorcees, is not surprised so many midlife daters are receptive to no-strings encounters. “They’re not going into dating with a view to marrying again. They want to maintain their independence but to have sex, to have companionship, to have fun. Sometimes sex is enough.”

The majority (56%) of midlife daters now meet using apps and sites, and the experience is far from universally positive. The survey responses are a catalogue of dates that omit to mention they are still married, are feet shorter than their profiles claim, and “40, athletic build, long hair” turning out to mean “58, overweight and bald”. Up to 58% had experienced dishonesty on apps, and a refusal to commit to meeting up is frustratingly common (41%). The simple ego boost of a match or message is enough for some, without taking things further. Ghosting is prevalent (and hurtful): 45% of all respondents have experienced it, though only 25% admit to doing it. One felt “like I’d done something wrong, I wasn’t good enough and they found somebody else”. Others described feeling “unsafe”, “used” or “upset”.

Bad behaviour is not limited to fudged profiles, though. Some 68% of women had received unwanted explicit pictures or messages. Getting a “rude pic” is one of the reasons given for breaking off contact with a match; another was frequent unannounced visits: “It made me uncomfortable.” Last summer, US research on the unsolicited dick-pic phenomenon concluded that the majority of senders were in a “transactional mindset” — that is, they hoped to get pictures in return — and they, perhaps unsurprisingly, showed higher levels of narcissism.

For Sarah Tilley, a relationship expert who selects and counsels daters for the matchmaking service Vida, dick pics now come as standard. “A lot of men don’t realise it’s a negative thing.” Erotic connection online is great, if it’s what both parties want: 40% of daters have tried sexting and 35% have received explicit pictures from a partner (though only 27% say they send them). “There are plenty of men and women who just want to play online: it’s all about consensual play,” Tilley says. Survey responses among those who had tried it varied: “It made me feel wanted, excited,” one sexter reports. “It’s fun, but it leaves you frustrated,” says another. “A bit embarrassing” is a third verdict.

Cheeringly, all age groups report enjoying sex more than when they were younger, citing lower inhibitions and more experience and empowerment. “I enjoy it so much, if I could have sex every day I would be very happy,” is one response. For Godson, this is as much a product of the sociocultural climate as personal experience. “People who are in midlife now have had the benefit of 25 or 30 years of openness around sex, of a tremendous amount of education and less stigma,” she says. “That will translate into a much better understanding of themselves, even without those extra years of experience with however many sexual partners.”

Body confidence is, however, a thornier issue for women in midlife, with 58% reporting concerns. “I hate my body now,” one laments. “I looked better when I was younger,” says another. Men aren’t immune either: 46% report body anxieties. “Now everyone wants Channing Tatum,” is one complaint.

But improved confidence generally — 72% reported feeling more confident than when they were younger — inspires good sex. “I know what I like and I know what I want, and I am now not afraid to tell a man when they are doing it wrong,” is a typical response. “I am not scared to be naked or have fun,” says another.

That increased confidence can also help midlife daters navigate what some experience as increased pressure for sexual experimentation. “There are more expectations for trying things — threesomes, anal and so on,” says one. For Godson, this is clearly linked to 24/7 porn streaming: 25% of daters say they had watched porn together. “Respect your own boundaries,” advises psychotherapist Hilda Burke. “What feels pleasurable to you? When sex becomes performative, your mind is on that rather than in the moment, in your body.” That seems to be a message most have taken on board: “I’m more at ease and know that I can say no,” says one respondent.

One thing is clear, despite an admirably busy minority, 77% of midlife daters had only been on between one and three dates in the past year. “It’s not enough,” says the author Stephanie Nimmo, who has written about her own dating experiences after being widowed at 47. “It can be a problem where people emotionally overinvest, then they’re really disappointed when they do go on a date and it doesn’t work out. It’s a numbers game.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising people aren’t dating more: under half of women and barely half of men surveyed say that they enjoy it (for Nimmo it’s “a necessary evil”), though the percentage rises for older daters. Is it possible to make it more enjoyable? Dating advice often counsels clarity about what you want, but for many, working that out is part of the — sometimes painful — process. “You find out who you are, what language you want to use, how playful you can be,” says Tilley, who is now happily coupled up. An open mind about what you might get out of it helps. Nimmo is also in a relationship now, but the friendships she made dating were a precious unexpected benefit. “I’ve made some great friends, people who didn’t know Steph when she was married and all my history. That’s lovely.”

As told to Sophie Wilkinson

Eleanor*, 57, on navigating male behaviour
I’ve been in a relationship with my boyfriend for 18 months, after meeting him on Plenty of Fish. I waited for more than a month to sleep with him for the first time — I didn’t want to scare him off, so I followed his lead. I had only been on there for six months, and I’m so lucky we clicked because the apps were weird. One guy I dated really showed off about the money he had, and how successful he was as a businessman. So many men were sleazy, too. They would do the rounds, reappearing after a short relationship, looking for more women. We would get chatting on the phone — I always did that to try to weed out the weird ones — and they would ask, “So, do you wear a bra?” I’d tell them if they wanted a dirty phone call, there are better numbers for that.

Often, a man would tell me, quite plainly, that he was married. They would say: “I’m married, we don’t get on, but if it’s not for you, fair enough.” It was shocking how many men were thick enough to be wearing wedding rings in their profile photos.

I’m now semi-retired, but it has always been important to me that I’m with a man who works. I don’t want him hanging around me all day.

Paul*, 42, on misadventures in dating
After I got divorced, I started using dating apps, then I dated an old friend for a couple of years. Since that relationship ended a year ago, online dating is already so different. I suspect it may be because I’ve tipped over that 40 watershed. I’ve got a nine-year-old daughter and want more children, so I’m really keen for a long-term relationship. I know my age limit on the apps of 32-40 is more biased towards the younger age, but if you want more kids, then that’s what you’ve got to do. And I feel like single women thinking about having children might want only to date men under 40 themselves.

I’ve been ghosted four or five times, and it is always surprising, because there would be loads of excitement and mutual interest after a few dates, then they would just be gone. I’ve ghosted, too, in the past, but I know in dating karma it’s not a good thing to do, and I’ll always try to get back to them in a month and explain what happened. It’s like road rage — people can get away with stuff they wouldn’t normally do. I’m going to take a break from the apps for a bit. I know I’m way more suited to meeting women in real life.

Claire*, 62, on rediscovering her libido
I’ve been divorced for 28 years and have never been monogamous since. My sex life is so much more adventurous now. I know I’ve got 25 years left to live, so I’m going to accelerate! Two years ago I started HRT, thanks to a new doctor who prescribed me hormones to fix my severe hot flushes. It may be a placebo effect, but I’ve gone completely off the rails: I’ve had 31 first dates and slept with 19 men, and five are now regular partners. I have such a rich life, culturally and socially, and I’ve not found anyone who could match that, so I date to have fun and sex. All my lovers tend to be in their forties, which is 20 years younger than me, because older men only want younger women. I wouldn’t date men in their thirties, because my children are that old, but I do lie about my age. I took five years off my age on Tinder, and it meant all the men who might have put a barrier on 60 are looking at me. When they find out I’m 62, they’re even more excited. It works for me!