At the age of 34, Sarah Brill has ticked off many of life’s aspirational milestones.
Her 20s were spent building her career as a successful social media editor in fun and fast-paced Dubai, where she lived in a chic studio flat.
Then came a further year in Thailand, immersing herself in South-East Asian culture.
Having returned to the UK five years ago, she now runs a successful business as a financial coach and owns her two-bedroom apartment in Hertfordshire.
When it comes to Sarah’s personal life, however, a few notable boxes remain unchecked.
That she’s single and hasn’t had children may not seem particularly surprising, considering women increasingly delay motherhood and marriage is in decline. But what about the fact that she’s never had a boyfriend?
‘I feel awkward to admit I’ve never been in a relationship,’ says Sarah.
At the age of 34, Sarah Brill has ticked off many of life’s aspirational milestones but when it comes to Sarah’s personal life, however, a few notable boxes remain unchecked
‘And I’ve certainly never experienced the giddy emotions that come with being in love.
‘But it’s not that I don’t want a relationship. I have always hoped to find my “forever person” in my 30s — it just hasn’t happened for me yet.’ She puts this down to the wearying world of modern dating.
Whereas in the past boy would meet girl, they’d fall into a relationship and, if successful, marriage and children would inevitably follow, these days . . . well, it’s complicated.
I do feel lonely and ask myself what is wrong with me?
Not only has the rise of online dating led to more men ‘keeping their options open’, but it now seems there are several stages before reaching a meaningful commitment.
Young women and men will typically describe themselves as just ‘seeing’ each other — and often other people, too — rather than the more formal sounding ‘dating’.
‘You have the new term “situationship”, which means you’ve been going on dates for a while and are having fun, but are not discussing being in a relationship,’ explains Dennie Smith, who owns a number of dating apps and websites.
‘At this stage there’s an assumption that both parties are free to date other people.
Sarah says that it’s not because she doesn’t want a relationship, it just hasn’t happened for her yet, and she puts this down to the wearying world of modern dating
Young women and men will typically describe themselves as just ‘seeing’ each other — and often other people, too — rather than the more formal sounding ‘dating’ (stock image)
‘In other words, there is no commitment.’
Dennie admits that online dating ‘has introduced the “paradox of choice”, where having many options can make it harder to make decisions and commit to one person.
‘A situationship may or may not progress to being “exclusive”, meaning you’ve both agreed that you’ll stop seeing other people.
‘Many young people will be seeing each other for weeks, if not months, before they decide to be exclusive.
‘However, being exclusive does not mean that you’re officially boyfriend and girlfriend, or even that you’re in a relationship.
‘Being “in a relationship” suggests a more advanced stage of commitment and emotional involvement than exclusivity alone. However, it can take many months for today’s young daters to get to this stage.’
I’ve done all the ‘right’ things dating online only to get ghosted, be sidelined as a friend, or receive explicit pictures – Anna McPaul, 33
As such, it’s no surprise many young women these days report that they have never had an actual boyfriend.
Sarah has only ever reached the ‘situationship’ stage.
‘There was one guy I dated for a couple of months when I was living in Dubai,’ she says.
‘I felt very fond of him, so it was a gut punch to see him in a fancy restaurant with another woman. But technically I couldn’t be angry because there had been no talk of going exclusive. I couldn’t expect fidelity from him.
‘That said, even though he was clearly seeing other women, I still went out with him again.’
Sarah has only ever reached the ‘situationship’ stage and often finds herself here rather than in a relationship
Sarah says she often finds herself in situationships rather than relationships because ‘even though guys make it clear to me they aren’t interested in a long-term commitment, I think I can change their mind’.
She adds: ‘There was another chap I dated on and off, even when I knew that it wasn’t going to lead anywhere.
‘I don’t want to say I wasted my time, but I’ve spent a lot of energy on men who weren’t invested in me, and it has dented my confidence.’
This drawn-out dating process, the rise of working from home (reducing the chances of meeting people face to face) and the looks-based dating app culture all mean that even if you have a good sex life in your 20s and 30s, the odds of securing a successful relationship have diminished.
A recent survey found that one in five people aged 50 to 64 met their partner by chance while out and about.
I’ve never had that head over heels feeling with anyone
But for Gen Z and Millennials, only one in 20 people in their 20s met their partner at a bar or elsewhere by chance.
While 22 per cent of people aged 50 to 64 met their future partner at work, a similar percentage of 25 to 34-year-olds meet their partner online.
And then, of course, there are those who have had no partners at all — online or otherwise.
Dennie Smith believes this is partly due to the hard-won online dating experience.
Women like Sarah have become so well-versed in the downsides of dating apps that they are understandably wary of men. At the same time, they have been taught the importance of not ‘settling’.
‘The trap many fall into is assuming there will always be someone better,’ she says.
‘But this can mean you are forever dating and avoiding the deeper, more meaningful stages of a relationship.’
Sarah says she spent her teens and early 20s ‘casually dating’ and it was only after she returned to the UK to set up her business at the age of 29 that she started looking for a relationship — without luck.
Anna McPaul, 33, a dental nurse from South London, is another 30-something who has never had a serious relationship
‘I’ve been on dating apps on and off over the past decade,’ she says. ‘There was one person I did speak to and liked the sound of, but then the pandemic happened.
‘Like many other single women, I spent three years with my dating life on hold.
‘I’ve stayed in “situationships” longer than I should —with men who came in and out of my life, not speaking to me for months.
‘It can be a bit soul-destroying and it’s not great for my mental health. I’ve had days when I’ve looked at friends around me who are married or in long-term relationships and thought: “Why can’t it be that easy for me, too?”
‘My parents married almost 40 years ago after meeting at the age of 18. I know they’d love me to meet someone.
‘I was a bridesmaid to my younger sister, and was the only single person at her wedding. This made me feel like an outcast, with the unspoken question on everyone’s lips: “How are you still single?”’
As such, it’s no surprise many young women these days report that they have never had an actual boyfriend (stock image)
Despite her pangs of loneliness and ticking biological clock, Sarah says she tries to focus on the fact she has a ‘great life’ — and meanwhile is still plugging away determinedly at the dating scene.
Anna McPaul, 33, a dental nurse from South London, is another 30-something who has never had a serious relationship. ‘I go through times feeling very lonely and ask myself: “What is wrong with me?”
‘I’ve invested so much time and effort in matching and then talking to potential boyfriends online, only to be ghosted, be friend-zoned or receive explicit pictures. The whole experience just makes me feel bad about myself.’
Anna, whose parents are happily married, was 17 when she went on her first date.
‘It was quite obvious we were never going to be boyfriend and girlfriend,’ she says. ‘It was me who built up the courage to say it couldn’t lead to a relationship.
‘Since then I have been on dates with eight men — but it’s never led to anything serious,’ she says.
‘There is a real stigma to never having been in a relationship. If you’re not in a relationship by the time you are 30, then there must be something you aren’t doing right. But I’ve done all the supposedly “right” things.
Anna, whose parents are happily married, was 17 when she went on her first date
While 22 per cent of people aged 50 to 64 met their future partner at work, a similar percentage of 25 to 34-year-olds meet their partner online (stock image)
‘Even just talking about it makes me want to cry. A real low point for me came last Christmas, when I brooded over the fact that all of my friends had found someone. That’s when I did worry about what was wrong with me.
‘I’d like to experience being loved — to be held in someone’s arms and told “I love you.” I’ve never experienced that head-over-heels feeling with anyone.’
Anna’s friends have suggested that rather than ‘moaning and complaining’ about her love life, she should apply the ‘quantity over quality approach’ to dating — going on date after the date to increase the probability of meeting ‘the one’.
‘My mum thinks I’m too fussy,’ Anna adds. ‘She likes to tell me about her experience of being approached by men on the train, in a bar or even while walking down the street. I have to tell her that it just doesn’t happen that way today.’
Anna isn’t alone among young women struggling — or indeed being unwilling — to engage with men ‘IRL’ (in real life).
These days, many young women admit that if they spotted someone they fancied in a bar, the idea of approaching them would seem ‘desperate’ rather than serendipitous.
They would be more likely to check their dating app to see whether the man happened to show up there — possible because so many of the apps work on a geographical basis — than actually speak to him.
As to how they would feel about a stranger approaching them to offer to buy them a drink?
Sadly, they would probably be repelled by such an overture, finding it an imposition or ‘weird’ — especially if they were out with friends at the time and so not considering themselves to be in a ‘dating space’.
Anna says she goes through phases where she feels ‘very lonely’ and asks herself ‘what is wrong with me?’
Yet relying on meeting people through dating apps can lead to its own problems.
‘This is sad to admit, but I’ve never been physically attracted to any of the men who have asked me out,’ says Anna.
‘I agreed to go on a date because I can’t complain about being single and then not go on dates when people ask me out. But I couldn’t look at them and say, hand on heart: “I’d love you to be my boyfriend.”’
Dennie Smith, who runs tradi- tionaldatingclub.co.uk, warns that today’s dating landscape means younger women are more prepared to let bad behaviour and lack of commitment slide.
Guys were upfront about wanting one night stand
‘Older women, however, have a clearer understanding of what they want in a relationship. That might make them more selective in their choices,’ she says.
‘This could lead to them being perceived as “fussy”, but it’s often just that they know what they want and aren’t prepared to take any rubbish.’
Ask make-up artist Diana Bruton for a description of her ideal man and she has a rather traditional response: ‘A gentleman, who will make me laugh and is kind-hearted.’
Ask make-up artist Diana Bruton for a description of her ideal man and she has a rather traditional response: ‘A gentleman, who will make me laugh and is kind-hearted’
Diana, 32, lives with her parents in Surrey. While her elder sister met her husband aged 18, Diana has never had a boyfriend.
She dated one man for six months but still a relationship didn’t materialise.
‘My mum has tried to find me a man. When she used to commute to London, she’d tell me about eligible bachelors on her train. Then there was a guy in her church choir she thought would be perfect for me — he wasn’t.
‘The trouble is that neither my mum nor my sister has ever been single. Mum met my dad when she was in her teens. She’s never experienced the brutalities of single life like I have.’
Diana spent her 20s working on cruise ships and travelling to far-flung locations such as the Caribbean, where dating was off the agenda and ‘work hard, play hard’ was the motto of the crew.
Diana, 32, lives with her parents in Surrey. While her elder sister met her husband aged 18, Diana has never had a boyfriend
When she returned to London in her late 20s, she worked as the manager of a high-end spa in a London hotel.
It was then that she joined the ‘usual apps’ and got something of a surprise.
‘Guys were extremely upfront about being interested only in one-night stands,’ she says.
‘I was contacted by so many married men who wanted an affair. But I’m not the kind of person who wants to be involved with married men.
‘One charmer told me I was fat and ugly, but that he’d still be happy to hook up with me!
‘I was astounded he thought that would make me want to sleep with him. I blocked him and deleted the app — I don’t need that kind of negativity in my life.’
Diana freely admits she was a late developer, losing her virginity at 19 to a friend, and says that despite going on dates over the past 15 years, nothing has progressed.
Diana dated one man for six months but still a relationship didn’t materialise and added that even her mother has tried finding her a man
‘I’m not shy,’ she says. ‘I’m happy to flirt if I think there could be chemistry between us.
‘I like to think I am open-minded, and I’ll usually agree to date a man just because he’s asked. I take the approach: “Who knows what could happen? I might fall madly in love.”
‘The trouble is, I invariably discover we’re not compatible.’
Diana says the fact she doesn’t want to have children removes a degree of pressure, and credits her parents and married sister, who’s 35, for ‘ensuring I am never on my own’.
As for how her parents got together — they met in the pub where her mother worked.
‘Dad asked her out several times,’ says Diana. ‘His charm won her over in the end.’
She is not alone in wishing modern dating was as simple.
‘It’s so hard to meet men in bars or pubs now,’ says Diana.
‘I’d bring back social dances. Then genuine single men could approach me and ask me to dance — wouldn’t they? It’s all too complex these days.’