As a biologist, I know quite a bit about animal behaviour – I studied monkey mating strategies for my PhD – but I confess that I have made some poor choices when it comes to finding a mate of my own.
In the past, like many women, I’ve been perpetually drawn to good-looking, exciting and dynamic men, lured by the sexual chemistry sparkling between us, only to be disappointed when the relationships didn’t last.
In my early 30s, I jumped head-first into marriage with such a man, but our relationship went downhill very fast. I realised I hadn’t made the best choice, but not before I had three babies in quick succession (a boy and twin girls). The relationship was over before the youngest were a year old.
Infuriatingly, as a single mum, I found myself repeating the same dating mistakes, picking the men who seemed edgy and a bit of a challenge. I was fatally attracted to good looks, super-confidence and status. It was (at times) exciting. They would sweep me off my feet with their love-bombing, but these men didn’t make me happy.
In my early 30s, I jumped head-first into marriage with such a man, but our relationship went downhill very fast
It seemed hopeless. There was clearly something very flawed in my own mating strategy. In a bid to understand the dynamics of relationships better, I switched the focus of my writing and research from animal to human behaviour.
Gradually, this work led me to understand that my choices came partly from instincts that evolved in the Stone Age, when a woman would prefer a big, dominant, high-status man who could provide for her and offer protection.
Women today often still seek these qualities — but they come at a cost. I realised that as a woman beyond the stage of looking for a father for my babies, I could go for the type of guy who would be more likely to make me happy. I decided to follow the research on attraction and completely changed the way I looked for a man — and it worked!
Rob was nothing like any of the men I had dated before. He seemed nice and definitely interesting, but certainly wasn’t what I used to think of as ‘my type’ and I can’t say I was bowled over right away.
In the past, that lack of immediate chemistry would have signalled: ‘Next please!’ But when I saw him in a bar I initiated a chat (he later told me if I hadn’t made the first move we might never have made contact — take note!), and I decided he was a good guy. I left him my business card and we met up a few times at an evening class, just as friends.
At some point he told me he enjoyed singing and playing the ukulele but it wasn’t until I watched him performing in a local bar that I properly fell for him. He’s a great singer and totally owned the room.
This confidence really enhanced his sexiness. That was 2016, when I had just turned 50. We married in 2019 and I’ve never been happier. I truly have found the love of my life — someone I can grow with.
As a single mum I was fatally attracted to good looks, super-confidence and status. But these men didn’t make me happy
I know there are many other women out there in the same position I was in — making bad choices and finding themselves unhappy or alone in midlife. So, my own relationship success inspired me to build an online business — Dating Evolved — where I help other women over 50 use science to find the perfect long-term partner, via an online programme.
It’s clear that women — particularly midlife women — need a completely different approach to the one they had earlier in life. If you thought the dating pool was shrinking in midlife, think again: there’s a whole category of fantastic men you have probably been overlooking all this time.
Some might refer to these nice guys as ‘beta males’ and the dominant, competitive men as ‘alpha males’. I’d simply suggest that a nice guy will make you happier in the long term.
Once the biological clock is silenced, you can take your time and make choices based on what makes you happy. By this stage, too, single women are more likely to be financially independent, with less need to rely on the support, protection or income from a man.
With more freedom and scope, we can cast our net wider and think about the sort of man we might want to spend the rest of our lives with.
Here are a selection of tips taken from my programme that you can use to improve your own dating outcomes …
Reject ‘tall, dark and handsome’
The science shows that prioritising charisma, charm and chemistry won’t guarantee long-term relationship happiness, so banish the idea of finding someone tall, wealthy and dynamic from your mind. Once you reach midlife, you really don’t need a competitive, dominant man.
This instinctive attraction to strong, powerful men dates back to Stone Age times when life was tough and winning a dominating, high-status mate was the best way to ensure food and protection for a woman and her children.
The science shows that prioritising charisma, charm and chemistry won’t guarantee long-term relationship happiness, so banish the idea of finding someone tall, wealthy and dynamic from your mind
But these are not qualities that necessarily bode well for relationship success. Natural selection doesn’t care about happiness.
If you do spot someone gorgeous and you feel a flutter of attraction, make sure you’re willing to get to know him properly and make sure he’s a good guy before you let yourself get involved.
Use the four scientific strategies below to filter out the dominant, high-status males until you find the type of man who has the qualities (such as consideration, trustworthiness and kindness) important for a contented, lasting relationship.
1. Pick someone whose ‘mate value’ (the measure of how appealing they are as a potential partner) is roughly equivalent to yours.
If theirs is high, they will be getting a lot of attention from other women and they might not value you in the way you would like. Too low and you might feel dissatisfied and not particularly invested in the relationship.
If you go into the dating game feeling good about yourself, you will be better empowered to turn down approaches from less than perfect men, and more likely to stick to your ‘nice guy’ guns.
Confidence is also an extremely attractive trait, and one well worth cultivating! So write a list of your good qualities (if you find this tricky, ask others to help), then read your list aloud every day – with conviction! Tell yourself that the right man would be lucky to be with you.
2. Favour men who score high in ‘agreeableness’ and empathy — which means they are likely to be considerate and treat people well.
Watch their behaviour with others (a waiter or their friends), especially when they think you are not looking, and do this over the course of a number of dates.
Some men are great at pulling out all the stops at the beginning, only to change once they have got their feet under the table.
3. Prioritise those with what psychologists call a high ‘welfare trade-off ratio’, which is the degree to which they will sacrifice their own benefit to help someone else.
The higher the ratio skews in your favour, the more chance he will have your best interests at heart. If you shiver, will he take off his own coat to wrap around your shoulders? Does he make sure you get home safely or leap in the first cab and leave you stranded?
4. To qualify as good relationship material, he must be secure in his attachments, happy to talk about your needs and to do what he can to accommodate them.
A man with attachment issues (a fear of getting too close which might have its roots in his childhood or previous relationships) could pull back and resist commitment. Give this type of man a very wide berth.
Separate your wants from your needs
You might think the man of your dreams is wealthy, good-looking, popular, that he shares your hobbies, your sense of humour and has a full head of glossy hair. These are your ‘wants’, but are they what you really need?
Make a list of your wants (the nice-to-haves which you could potentially compromise on to widen your potential pool) and your needs (non-negotiable qualities you believe to be essential for a lasting, happy relationship).
You might want a man with money and a washboard stomach, but is that a need? A more pressing need might be someone tactile who will hold your hand or cuddle you, or is keen to spend their retirement travelling with you.
Don’t go to bed for months
Resist all temptation to rip each other’s clothes off and leap into bed before you have properly got to know each other. This is not for reasons of morality, or for fear that you might appear too ‘easy’, but because sex sets off a cascade of brain chemicals which can get you strongly attached to a man before you have had a chance to work out if he is good for you or not.
Far better to resist those feelings of desire at the start and progress the relationship slowly, taking your time to build up a proper picture of that person before you tumble into bed together. That might mean waiting days, weeks, or even months, depending on the relationship. Yes, sex might be tempting, but there’s no point wasting your emotional energy on someone who is no good for you long-term.
How to fancy a nice guy, not a bad boy
Don’t be put off by an initial lack of chemistry. Research shows that if you like a man’s personality and humour, you can gradually come to find him physically attractive and the desire will grow.
Nice guys might prefer to keep their light hidden under a bushel but it is worth digging, and arranging to see him in his happy place, preferably in public
The key to lighting the touchpaper of desire is find his confidence sweet spot — maybe he’s a demon cricketer, a great cook, or a wonderful singer.
Nice guys might prefer to keep their light hidden under a bushel but it is worth digging, and arranging to see him in his happy place, preferably in public.
It was only when I watched Rob singing in a bar that I properly got the hots for him. Witnessing other women finding your man impressive or attractive can turbo-charge the process, too.
Be the boss of online dating
Most women hate the idea of looking for love online, but finding a good man is a numbers game, and this is a good way to meet a lot of men.
The more men you can sift through, the better your chance of finding the one who can make you happy.
The key to bossing the online dating system is ruthlessly to flick past the charmers and the players, and to keep your options open for the men who could be properly interested in you. Here’s how:
1. Create a personalised profile which highlights all your points of difference.
Women tend to think they should create a profile that makes them look slim, attractive and sexy, with a broad range of interests, but different men like different things.
Most women hate the idea of looking for love online, but finding a good man is a numbers game, and this is a good way to meet a lot of men
Admittedly, some men will run for the hills when they discover you are an opera fanatic, a physics nerd or a New Age hippie, but you’re not missing anything. These are the men you don’t want.
Instead, own your idiosyncrasies and be confident that you will be attractive to the man who is right for you. There is no point trying to deceive with touched-up or filtered photographs.
Research shows that you are more likely to get a response from a man who is right for you if you show your unique qualities than if you aim to portray a generic all-round attractiveness.
2. To filter out the players, include a line in your profile which describes something you would really like to do (drink merlot in a jazz club, see the sunrise on Kilimanjaro, watch all the Harry Potter films back-to-back).
Then ignore any generic ‘hi!’ messages and focus on the men who respond to the specifics of your profile and take the time to craft a relevant reply. It shows they are tuned into you.
3. Avoid responding to men who say they ‘don’t know what kind of relationship they’re looking for’ or ‘let’s see what happens’ as this could be a sign of a player or someone who is ‘attachment avoidant’.
4. Don’t waste too much time messaging. Instead arrange to meet up (in person or over Zoom) early in the dating process so that you can rapidly decide whether this man has potential, and move on if he doesn’t.
Avoid a ‘scarcity mindset’ that would have you thinking you’ve got to make things work with a man because there is no one else, and adopt an ‘abundance mindset’ because there is always someone else, and no relationship is preferable to a bad one.
How to bump into a decent man
It is no good leaving the important job of finding a romantic partner to chance. If you sit back and wait for men to come into your orbit, you will tend to get hit on by the super-confident men with all the moves.
The nice guys – those who are more respectful and care what people think — will tend to hang back. If you want one of those, you have got to get out and find them and be ready to make the first move. If I had not taken my own advice here, I would never have met my husband.
It is no good leaving the important job of finding a romantic partner to chance. If you sit back and wait for men to come into your orbit, you will tend to get hit on by the super-confident men with all the moves
1. Get into the habit of striking up conversations with strangers (male and female) on the train, in the supermarket, when you are walking the dog, until making the first move when you see someone interesting is second nature.
2. Check out clubs, courses and meetup.com where groups with shared interests get together.
3. Whenever you arrange to meet a friend in a bar or cafe, make a point of arriving early, sit facing outwards into the room (with an open body posture — no folded arms) and stay off your phone. Look around the room, make eye contact with people and smile.
4. Don’t be afraid to make the first move. Nice guys tend to be respectful and might hang back, especially if they think you are really amazing.
5. Carry a business card to leave with a man if you have enjoyed chatting. Hand it over when you get up to leave and say, ‘Here’s my card if you would like to stay in touch’, then walk away without fear of embarrassment.
- Sign up for Mairi’s free masterclass on how to Get Ready For Successful Dating For Women Over 50 at datingevolved.com. @mairi.macleod
As told to Louise Atkinson.
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