How to date after divorce
As a nervous Anthea Turner appeared on TV's 'First Dates' last week, Lucy Cavendish has some advice for those hoping to meet a new soulmate
The writer Deborah Moggach was not wrong when she said: "Most of us are lonely, and we all want the same thing." To meet another person, that is.
Yet, the process is rarely straightforward, not least when, like Moggach (67), you are past the first flush of youth.
Among her tales of dating disasters is the man who removed his false teeth at dinner and then attempted to eat shitake mushrooms; and the men who want to be taken care of; the men who bore on about cars; and those who really just want someone to tuck up next to them in bed so they feel less alone.
So if we all want more or less the same thing, why is dating in later life so difficult?
Initial encounters are a minefield, as Anthea Turner (55) found out in a special celebrity edition of the Channel 4 show First Dates this week. As she stared at her "date", a handsome but cocky banker called Jeremy, over dinner, only the coldest-hearted of viewers could have failed to feel for her.
She looked unhappy and totally out of place as she revealed to her date that she hadn't been single since she was 14 and found the whole thing terrifying.
Here is a woman, twice married, who never thought she'd end up telling a man she had never met before how she cried when she had to go on holiday alone. "I sobbed all the way to Gatwick," she said.
There is not a singleton alive who hasn't had moments when they wished they were not single. I remember going to Lyme Regis on my own for the first time after splitting from my partner of 13 years. I thought revisiting a place I had been to with my ex would be cathartic. It wasn't. I ended up thinking I was called "Table For One". That is all I heard the entire time I was there.
"Will you be joined by someone?" the waitress asked me the first night I stayed in a hotel.
"No," I said, brightly. "I am on my own."
"Table For One!" the waitress yelled.
Everyone turned and looked at me and I felt ashamed. I ordered too much wine and cried into my napkin, surrounded by couples and a table full of hen-night women who were having a much better time than I was.
It is hard to be single, especially if, like Turner, you haven't spent much of your adult life fending for yourself. I was single for four years after my relationship broke up and it was like learning a new language. You go to parties alone, you sit at dinner on your own, you buy two tickets for the theatre and rack your brains to find someone to go with you.
There's no one to gossip with after a night out; no one to steer you out the door when it's time to leave a party. Valentine's Day is horrible, Christmas is painful, birthdays can make even the strongest-hearted weak with pain.
But, if you want to meet someone, you have to date, and some experiences are better than others. One friend of mine, Jo, tells of a man who took her out for dinner. Conversation flowed as easily as the wine and it seemed the perfect first date. On the second date, he took her to a swingers' party.
"I was so desperate to meet someone, I almost went along with it," she says. "It all felt so lonely and miserable. I honestly think I would have dated anyone."
Most women I know who have started dating after divorce have felt that way at some point. Not only do you have to negotiate a world of bad dates before you get a good one, you then have to navigate the minefield of what happens next.
My friend Anna - single after a 10-year marriage - is gorgeous, yet she's terrified of taking her clothes off in front of anyone.
"Why would anyone want me?" she wails, convinced that she is ugly and unattractive.
Of course it's terrifying, but with the rise of online dating, we all have to dip our toe into the water again at some point.
So what are the rules for first-date divorcees?
1 Know what you want from a date
The best thing to do is to go for something far shorter than dinner - a coffee, for example - and maybe just hope for some lively conversation, no more than that.
2 Rearrange your head
We all think we are looking for The One, when actually having a fun friendship may be just what you need. Lots of women now go online to find people with whom they can go to the theatre/art galleries/dinner.
I once went on a date for which we met at a sculpture garden. It gave us something to talk about. Sometimes dates like this evolve. Sometimes they don't, and that's okay.
3 Dress up
It is daunting to be back on show again but it can be the upside of dating. I spent years wearing baggy jeans and large jumpers covered in baby sick. All that had to go when I was back out there. I invested in "new hair", all cut and highlighted, and good clothes, and suddenly felt like the old me again.
4 Think about what you want to talk about
Find a few topics that are safe. Do not talk about your children all evening. Same goes for your ex. It is off-putting and never a turn-on.
5 Never go on dates if you are broken-hearted
There is nothing worse than sitting through a date when all you want to do is go home and cry. You have to give everything time. Dating when miserable is never a good idea - a box set and bottle of wine is a much better bet.
6 Do not get drunk
My friend Anna - going on a date with a man she really liked - drank most of the bottle of wine, then threw up outside the restaurant. Her date put her in a cab and she never heard from him again. Funny that!
7 Remember, dating has changed
People multi-date and the idea of exclusivity has gone out of the window. Meet as many people as possible and be broadminded.
One friend met a man who came to the first date carrying a ladder, still in his painting overalls. But she'd got a babysitter, so she decided to have a drink with him anyway. That was a year ago and they have been together ever since.
And lastly, remember, by the time you come to take your clothes off (if you get there), you won't care what he looks like and vice versa. The chances are, you'll both be so relieved you have managed to be so brave as even to attempt anything more intimate than a shared plate of pasta - a few wrinkles, stretchmarks and grey hairs aren't going to put anyone off. Enjoy!