Shelley was a single woman in her 30s looking for Mr. Right. She had her MBA, was outgoing, attractive, and networked all over Chicago. But, sigh, cupid's arrow just didn't strike.
So she turned to a dating service, something she never thought she would do. To her surprise (she was looking for a Jewish doctor), the agency fixed her up with Stu, an orchestra conductor whose busy schedule and nocturnal lifestyle left him with little time to meet people. They were married a year later.
Stories like Shelley's and Stu's, in which singles seek help from "public matchmakers," are becoming not only a national but a global phenomenon. Singles populations are burgeoning, as people in most industrialized countries and many developing ones are delaying marriage longer or experiencing divorce. Singles are now 44 percent of the US population, and in many world cities, from Paris to Los Angeles, they account for half the population.
Yet despite the numbers, the same plaintive plea - "Where do I go to meet people?" - can be heard in a multitude of languages. Singles of all ages are finding it difficult to connect, and they are less inclined to just wait for the right companion to turn up.
Many professionals, and particularly single parents, say that their lives are so busy they don't have time to play the dating game. And in societies where arranged marriages have given way to more freedom to choose a "love match," singles find they can benefit from outside help.
Where to meet people is the No. 1 question asked of Judy Kuriansky, syndicated radio-show host known as "Dr. Judy" and author of several books about dating. "My favorite suggestions are: Go do something you enjoy without the specific aim of meeting someone, and go where the people you think you like would be."
Nearly everyone would like to connect on their own, but many singles see value in cutting to the chase. The result: a boom in the use of dating agencies, personal ads, singles mixers in various institutional settings, private consultants, and services on the Internet. It would seem that the mating dance has come full circle - from the old days of family and traditional matchmakers to the new days of personal, community, or global matchmakers.
From The Destiny of Heaven and Earth Club in Beijing to the citywide Fish Seeks Bicycle party in Berlin, to Mate Search International operating worldwide, the partnering industry is flourishing.
"People are approaching their personal lives with the same proactivity they use in negotiating their careers," says New York writer Katherine Davis Van Law, who is working on a book about young women's views on marriage.
Personals and dating services, once considered the domain of the desperate, are increasingly losing their stigma. "Let's face it, personals cut out some of the awkwardness of the mating dance," says Lamar Graham, editor of Swoon, an Internet Web site devoted to "dating, mating, and relating." When you're at a party, you have to go through the routine of "I'm available, are you?" But one downside to personals is that people can easily misrepresent themselves.
Worldwide, the number of personal ads has skyrocketed in the past five years, in newspapers, magazines, and on the Net. Love at AOL, on America Online, has seen its photo personal ads go from 50 last year at its inception to more than 30,000 today. Chinese Dating Net, founded on the Web in the US two years ago for overseas Chinese, has followed the Internet into China.
Dating services have become just another face in the service sector. In a world where people can hire someone to walk their dog or do their grocery shopping, having a prescreened date arranged has become a time-saving business transaction. By one estimate, there are more than 2,000 dating services in the United States, pulling in close to $400 million in revenue. In Britain, dating services have developed around specific interests, and are even used to get a date for the weekend.
The slogan of "It's Just Lunch," the third largest US service, speaks to the point: "It's time to take a professional look at your personal life."
Not that mating is becoming a cold, calculated process. Robert Davis, founder of Mate Search International based in Villanova, Pa., says people are beginning to "get it" - that a good potential partner can't be judged simply on credentials and looks - or just a computer match. "Everyone wants chemistry, but what they really want are shared values, morals, and beliefs ... not to mention loyalty, respect, and love."
To find that, many singles still look not to agencies but to places they expect to find someone with shared interests. In response to demand, churches, museums, and sports clubs have developed special programs for singles or weekend events. They are catering to today's clear preference for group rather than one-on-one settings.
"So often you go on a matchmaker date and think, 'How soon can I get out of this?' There's too much pressure in the first few hours," says Linda Bips, a psychologist at Muhlenburg College in Allentown, Pa., who studies dating patterns. Dr. Bips, a single mother, has herself tried personal ads and dating services and been dissatisfied. "The best way is through someone who knows you both well," she concludes.
Services can claim responsibility for a growing number of marriages, but the overall percentage is said to be very low. "People continue to meet as they always have," says Mr. Graham of Swoon, through friends, the workplace, school, and special-interest activities. Services just augment the ways.
Here's a look at how singles in several cultures are seeking companionship:
Under a constellation of mirrored ceiling tiles, the couples sway slowly on the dance floor, waiting for a surge of big-band rhythm to set them in motion and sweep them back to their youth.
Parisians of all ages have been wooing each other at Le Balajo's afternoon tea dances since the Depression. Once the haunt of Maurice Chevalier, Le Balajo is still a place where people gracefully move through some of courtship's timeless steps: a hand on the small of a back, a head on a shoulder.
But outside the dance hall's metal doors, things have changed. Divorce and the trend to delay marriage have boosted the number of singles. France, which prides itself on having invented romance, has suddenly found itself a nation of lonely hearts, and l'amour is big business.
"We have been operating for 12 years and demand is definitely increasing, because there are more and more single people," says a spokeswoman for Natalie Buclet, an agency that, for a fee, will "arrange high-class blind dates."
The market is immense. Singles number 26.5 million of France's 58 million population, according to European Union statistics. Popular magazines trumpet the fact that Paris not only claims more singles than any other European capital, but that more than 50 percent of Parisians live alone. In magazine ads, on the radio, even on subway walls, innumerable firms offer help in the search for a soulmate. And while there are other options, the agencies seem to have won the day.
"Marriage agencies are full of young people who are afraid of AIDS," explains Christophe Carriere, a writer who tried a few agencies and wrote about the experience. "They believe the agencies act as a sort of screen. [The agencies] were full of people very serious about looking [for a partner]." The oldest agency, Family Center, charges from $200 for a monthly newsletter to $1,300 for profiles of prospective mates and the help of a counselor. Their success rate? "A little better than 30 percent," says spokeswoman Monique Huck.
The singles phenomenon has embedded itself on the social radar. The cars on my street are regularly plastered with canary yellow fliers reading "Long Live Singles!" courtesy of a gym club that caters to a single membership. And a recent farcical film deals with the misadventures of an agency employee's attempts to find a mate for a client from the country.
"There are 30 million women in France," the farmer wails in a fit of lonely frustration that many audience members probably identify with. "Why can't I meet one?"
- Nicole Gaouette
China's march toward modernization and capitalist-inspired reforms is having a curious side effect: the erosion of centuries-old matchmaking customs. A more people-oriented press, television, and even the Internet are changing the ways single Chinese meet each other, at least in larger cities.
In a practice that dates back dynasties, everyone from the humblest peasant to members of the Chinese aristocracy once consulted a matchmaker to find a spouse.
Social class, wealth, official position, and cosmological influences were all figured into the potential marriage equation, and an agreement was often reached between parents when the engaged were still infants.
"Traditional matchmakers are still used in parts of the countryside, but most city residents have more freedom of choice in finding a partner," says a recent college graduate in Beijing. "Newspapers, magazines, and television all advertise dating clubs now, and they are replacing the planned marriages of the past," she adds.
Although the Communist revolution was partially aimed at freeing the masses from the bonds of feudal beliefs, in many cases party officials took over the task of mandating unions for workers and peasants.
Yet China's two-decade-old economic reforms are fostering not only increasing prosperity, but also an expanding realm of social and cultural freedoms.
The Beijing Evening News, still under the nominal control of the government, is one of the many papers that have begun publishing features and advertisements geared toward the emerging marriage market. The paper began printing personal ads several years ago, along with classifieds for a growing number of "friendship clubs."
"Ten years ago, we could not even imagine reading personal ads in the press," says a young professional. "But now, it seems they are everywhere."
"Whether you are searching for a lifelong partner or just a friend, please try The Destiny of Heaven and Earth Club," reads a recent ad. "We combine an extensive data base with strict confidentiality," it adds.
"Since opening in 1994, Heaven and Earth has brought together more than 6,000 people," says a spokeswoman for the computerized dating service. "We have copies of marriage certificates to prove that our success rate has climbed to 46 percent," she adds to a potential customer.
One of the most popular shows on state-controlled Beijing Television is the dating show "Tonight We Meet for the First Time." To appear on the show, applicants pay 300 yuan ($35), and "First Time" producers make a video of each single to be aired twice. Hostess Yang Guan has earned the nickname "Beijing's public matchmaker" during her seven years on the air, which have included specials on honeymoons of the most successful couples.
China now has about 100 million single men aged 16 or older, compared with only 75 million woman, says an official at the State Statistical Bureau. The Chinese press says a traditional preference for boy children plus medical technology that allows couples to screen for gender and abort unwanted girls have helped create the gap.
Chinese Dating Net, carried on the World Wide Web, allows women, but not men, to register for the service for free, and Chinese women are using it to meet prospective partners overseas.
"The opportunity to go abroad is becoming one of the top considerations for many Chinese women in choosing a potential partner," says the college graduate.
- Kevin Platt
For Atsuko Mori Gatling, a Tokyo native recently married to an American, giving up the single life wasn't all that easy. "I felt so self-fulfilled," she says of her former position as a manager for an accounting firm. "I loved the financial independence."
The biggest trend among Japanese singles is not a new way to find a mate but the realization that the self-reliant lifestyle has a lot to offer - especially for women.
In a country where many corporations expect women to resign when they marry or at the latest when they have a child, staying single offers a longer experience in the working world. Japanese of both sexes are marrying and having children later than previous generations, but many aren't just putting things off. Japan's Ministry of Health and Welfare predicted earlier this year that 14 percent of women born after 1980 would never marry.
Japan's long tradition of matchmaking by parents and professional intermediaries is on the wane, as more people meet their mates through friends, the workplace, and dating services. More and more Japanese are choosing a "love match," rather than pairing off with someone their families deem appropriate.
When she was a teen, Ms. Gatling says her mother proposed arranging an introduction to a potential spouse, but the issue hasn't been raised since. In recent years, she says, work and going out with friends offered ample opportunities to meet men.
An introduction, though of a less traditional sort, resulted in her marriage this past April. In November 1995 the manager of a Tokyo business and social club suggested to Lance Gatling, an American businessman living in Tokyo, that he might enjoy meeting another member - Atsuko Mori. A year later, the two were engaged.
- Cameron Barr
Mexicans are experiencing the same trends as the US - later marriages, more divorces, more single parents - although the numbers aren't yet as high as north of the border. The national statistics institute reports that in 1995 42 percent of men and 36 percent of women were single, although that includes those over the age of 11.
Mexico City newspapers carry adds for "Teleamigos" services where people can call to meet prospective friends and partners, but such measures are an anomaly. The Mexican family remains close-knit: Children still generally don't move out of the nest until marriage, and the average marriage age, though rising, is relatively low: 20 for women, and 23 for men.
For both social and economic reasons, it remains uncommon to live alone in Mexico. The nuclear family is the most common living arrangement, and between 1990 and 1995 the fastest growing living unit was the "extended family." Many partners are still met at large family-organized gatherings such as weddings, baptisms, the quincena - a "coming of age" bash for a girl's 15th birthday - or big parties for friends.
"A lot of meeting of eventual partners goes on in our [parents'] houses, maybe a birthday or some other occasion, where you'll invite 20 or more people," says Pablo, a young lawyer with a Mexico City firm. "They don't all know each other," he adds, but it's a pre-selected group of young people with the same types of interests and economic level.
In the popular barrios, such parties may be outside in a cement courtyard or even on the street, while the wealthier set - as the society pages of the Mexico City daily Reforma chronicle every week - may rent a hot Mexico City restaurant or even fly off to Acapulco or Ixtapa.
- Howard LaFranchi
When Simon and Alison each signed up to join the Social Dinner Dates agency, owner Hillie Marshall had a feeling the yuppie couple were meant for each other. The agency, which specializes in staging group dinners for professional singles of all ages in expensive restaurants, private clubs, and top hotels, had been asked by a TV producer to supply two individuals to take part in a televised blind date."
"I asked them if they'd like to go out, and they agreed. The next week they went horse-riding, three months later they were engaged, and now they're happily married. It was all very romantic," says Ms. Marshall.
Once most young Britons fell in love with their classmates, the girl next door, or the vicar's son. People rarely strayed from their village or neighborhood to meet a potential spouse, and unmarried people over age 25 were considered over the hill.
But as careers now often take precedence over personal lives, people are finding it increasingly difficult to find the time to find a mate. "A lot of people are just really busy and don't have the chance to actually go out to social clubs and meet people," says Elaine Sainsbury, a spokeswoman for The Picture Dating Agency, which has some 2,000 clients.
To help fill the gap, over the past 10 years a slew of dating agencies have cropped up. But instead of providing the usual one-to-one dates, most British agencies now offer safe group events, and provide tailor-made activities that appeal to clientele with narrowly defined interests. The Active Club, for example, attracts those interested in sports, while Opportunities is for country-loving singles.
"Only Lunch" serves busy professionals strapped for time. An annual fee of about $750 provides an unlimited number of lunch dates over a 12-month period. Membership is restricted to professionals aged 25 to 45.
Social Dinner Dates specializes in group dinners of 32 people, where the men rotate seats between every course, and also offers skiing holidays and cruises.
Perhaps the most unique is The Nerd Free Club. A "social adventure club for Londoners in their 20s and 30s," it offers everything from group flying lessons to comedy club evenings. The only criterion apart from age is that trainspotters and people who wear anoraks are not allowed.
- Wendy Sloane
In Germany, the ranks of singles are swelling, particularly in urban areas. Half of all Munich households, for example, have only one member. Marriage has gone out of style, and even personal ads and TV dating shows are losing their luster. German matchmakers with entrepreneurial savvy are coming up with new ways of connecting people.
For the past three years, the Berlin city magazine "Tip" has thrown "Fish Seeks Bicycle" parties, in humorous reference to the feminist declaration that a woman needs a man as much as a fish needs a bicycle. Many personal ads in the magazine list a special number that singles fortunate enough to get into the party can then display in hopes that the number's owner will approach them.
Partygoers range in age from 25 to 50. To ensure a balance of the sexes, half of the 2,500 tickets are sold to women, the other half to men. Stefan Lehmann, a co-founder of the party, says that he's received postcards from former partygoers on their honeymoons.
German singles reluctant to attend big parties have a host of other opportunities to meet potential partners. One club called "Meet You" has come up with the "Flirt and Follow" bumpersticker. Interested drivers can call a central phone number to find out more about who was driving the car in front of them. For a monthly fee of $17, members have access to barbecue parties or chess matches depending on personal tastes and aptitudes.
- Lucian Kim
Today, in the heart of a region once famed for its rural, family-centered living, Atlanta is known as a transient town and a singles city.
Its mild temperatures and myriad corporate headquarters have, over the last decade, drawn young and old from across the country. And with the boom, a host of singles has arrived. Gen-Xers and divorcees cross paths at work, but also in their volunteer activities, at church, and in the great outdoors.
Atlanta has a healthy club scene, where jazz, country, and rock groups are on tap any night of the week. But Shannon McClintock, editor of Atlanta Singles magazine, says singles tend to steer clear of the noisy and crowded bar scene in favor of more intimate, comfortable settings. Ms. McClintock's magazine, for example, sponsors supper clubs, where groups of 10 singles gather for dinner and conversation.
Churches are another setting popular with singles here. Area churches host dinners and seminars that often draw thousands of participants.
The First Baptist Church of Smyrna, Ga., stepped up its singles activities two years ago and now offers to singles six different Sunday school classes, weekly Bible studies, dinners, hiking trips, museum outings, and even large events like music concerts and comedy nights.
Many younger, single Atlantans join outdoors groups, soccer leagues, and running teams. The city has the largest singles tennis organization in the nation and an active singles golf association.
- Christina Nifong
If there's something that makes Chicago's social scene unique, it is this: People in this blustery metropolis by the lake like to warm up to each other in the presence of dinosaur skeletons, beluga whales, and Impressionist masterpieces.
For several years, Chicago's downtown cultural institutions have been opening their marbled corridors at night to a well-coifed group of minglers.
It all began three years ago when officials at the Shedd Aquarium were looking for ways to promote a special exhibit of white alligators. They hired a jazz band and a caterer and threw open the doors on a Thursday night. It was a rousing success.
Today, according to aquarium spokeswoman Amy Ritter, "Jazzin' at the Shedd" has grown from a summer diversion to a year-round tradition, and has inspired other institutions to follow suit. The Art Institute hosts a similar weekly gathering, and the Field Museum began its own evening social program this summer.
"These events definitely draw people who appreciate art or fish or archaeology," says Elizabeth Wicker, a veteran of mixers at the Art Institute. "But almost everybody seems interested in socializing."
According to Ms. Ritter, the majority of attendees are young single professionals or people on dates. There's also evidence the jazz events have created more than a few lasting relationships. "We get a lot of requests from people who came here on their first date and are now getting engaged," she says. "Some gentlemen want ... special access to the coral reef or the whale exhibit. We see proposals happening all the time."
For the more adventurous, Mike Craychee's Chicago Extreme Adventures organizes excursions geared for singles ranging from skydiving trips to mountain biking, rock climbing, and whitewater rafting.
"People are with each other for a three- or four-day span, and the whole group is doing activities together," he says. "Sitting around a campfire is a better opportunity to meet somebody than in a bar."
- Sam Walker
In an age where personal conveniences are the darlings of the marketplace, Los Angeles is taking the notion to the arena of finding a mate. In this town where people feel naked without their personal phones, private trainers, or drivers, the boomer-age group that is demanding an individually tailored diet is putting the personal matchmaker on its plate.
"We tailor our program completely to the client," purrs Loretta Carpenter, who works with Debra Winkler, the self-described largest matchmaker in southern California. "Busy schedules and complete clarity about their desires is what brings clients to our door."
Ms. Winkler does not use videos, or any of the standard client profiles. "We do everything on an interview and strictly personal introduction basis," Ms. Carpenter explains. "There's nothing formulaic about what we do," including the pricing. Carpenter estimates the agency matches nearly 300 clients a month.
"Great Expectations," a national organization with 175,000 members charges $2,495 per year. The group swears by the use of videos and client profiles. "We're seeing people more and more want to take control of their lives...," says Beth Rosenburg, marketing director. "Dating is just the last frontier."
While this may be true of many of this town's busy workaholics, not every single has succumbed. Lisa, who did not want her last name used, says she doesn't want to turn such an intimate affair into a business transaction. "I'd like to keep it on the intuitive rather than the rational level," she says, but laughs when she observes that most of her friends, and many of her most happily married ones, met through matchmakers or dating services. "Maybe I'm holding out for something unrealistic," she adds wistfully. "I've been dating a long time. Who knows? Maybe sometime soon I'll go to a matchmaker, too."
- Gloria Goodale