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Churches with large student populations see flurries of weddings post-university, aided by the ample socialising opportunities provided by Christian unions, church student fellowships and dedicated student pastors making introductions much simpler. Many churches hold regular events for those in their twenties and early thirties too – but what happens when you reach an age where this is no longer suitable for you? Or when you don’t feel you fit in to these circles anymore, but still want to find a mate?

Mind the gap

It can be difficult to know how to go about dating if you’re a single Christian (or suddenly find yourself newly single) from your mid thirties. Perhaps you’ve watched friend after friend settle down, get married and have children, and now you lack a peer community of friends to hang out with. Maybe you’re finding it tricky to meet a prospective spouse because church programmes are geared toward those who’ve followed life progression from student, to young married, to nuclear family.

It might feel like you’re left out or have somehow missed your chance. But there are actually many benefits to meeting someone a bit later in life that aren’t talked about enough.

There’s still a gap in the church when it comes to singles (there are fewer single people in church than in wider society, in the UK at least), something that Single Friendly Church is campaigning to change. However, online dating makes it possible to meet people who share your interests, passions, values – and even age. While churches may at times struggle to meet this need, niche markets can thrive on the internet. So for those struggling to find suitable people to date via the ‘traditional’ social methods often geared to a younger crowd, dating websites (and search filters) are an invaluable tool.

Older, but wiser

Dating can feel tougher the older you get, especially if there’s a smaller pool to pick from. However, the good news is that the wisdom that comes with maturity equips you to make better decisions, decreasing your chances of marrying the wrong person. We tend to develop better patience, understanding and empathy as we develop and mature, qualities that bode very well for a happier marriage. Plus while the pool you’re searching in may be smaller, you’re a bigger fish in that pool!

Live long and prosper in love

From a practical perspective, a major difference in this age bracket is that you – or many of the people you’re dating – may have children, be divorced, or widowed. Again, these life experiences and circumstances can do a lot to enrich a relationship and helps you know exactly what you’re looking for now. And as we’re living longer than ever you can still look forward to a very long union, even if it begins ten, twenty or even thirty years later than you’d hoped.

Age is a very personal thing. You may feel much younger or more mature than your chronological years and peers, and want to expand your search to encompass this (although this shouldn’t be based on simply wanting someone who looks younger). Every season of life brings its own riches – there’s a great freedom in leaving your twenties and thirties behind and embracing being a fully fledged grown-up! Love doesn’t discriminate, so keeping going on your journey toward finding it, knowing it may be found at any age or stage.

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To give you an example, I made a decision, early on, that my partner wasn’t very romantic – and I judged him for it. I need to be with someone more romantic, I’d say to myself, as I pondered breaking it off. I noticed friends’ partners or husbands being romantic towards them and I thought I deserved someone like that.

You know, dramatic gestures. Flowers. Chocolates. Bottles of fizz.

Fortunately, I decided that my partner’s other qualities – his kindness, gentleness, loyalty and rock-steady nature – were worth more than the presents and dramatic gestures I daydreamed about and I gave up looking for someone else who matched my image of Mr Perfect.

I chose to accept my fiancé as he was and to love him as he was, and he offered the same courtesy to me. He didn’t express any desire or need to shape me into something else. He didn’t call out my shortcomings or compare me to some picture perfect woman.

And as I accepted him and loved him as he was, guess what happened? Yes, he began to make romantic gestures.

I came home the other night to a parcel on the dining room table, decorated with a purple ribbon and a silver bow. The parcel bore the name of a women’s clothing store and I knew immediately what it was. I was over the moon.

My partner had bought me a dress I had been wavering about buying for myself for a few weeks. It was a dress I’d worn in a photo shoot for Good Housekeeping magazine – to accompany an article I’d written on finally getting married at 48 after many wrong turns. Not only that, but he’d bought the dress in two sizes because he knew I’d want to try on both. And he’d managed to keep his purchase secret for almost a week.

Every time I looked at the dress online in his presence and toyed with buying it, he said that he didn’t like it that much, or that the material didn’t look very nice, or that I might not get the right size – anything to put me off spoiling the surprise. And it worked. He’d nearly cracked once or twice, he said, but he’d held it together.

As I unwrapped the two dresses and tried them on, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I was marrying the right man – someone who knows me, who gets me, who knows that I’m going to want to try on both dress sizes, who knows I struggle to spend money on myself and who knows I’d be blown away by such a lovely surprise. And I felt so grateful that I’d had the emotional maturity to love him for who he is, rather than look around for someone I deemed to be more romantic.

My partner has surprised me in other ways. One of my biggest complaints, and judgements of him, when we first met was that he wasn’t driven enough. I’ve always been ambitious and I wanted him to be more like me. But again, I chose to accept him and love him as he is. And now, a few years on, he’s starting an evening course to learn a new skill, under his own steam, without me cajoling him into doing it.

When we need others to be a certain way and judge their shortcomings, it’s often because we’re not accepting of ourselves. We see aspects of ourselves that we dislike reflected back in our dates and partners and we want to run away. This tendency to need our partners to be taller, prettier, more handsome, more driven or more successful also often indicates that we have low self-esteem. We want to be seen arm-in-arm with a beautiful man or woman or a wealthy or successful partner because it’ll reflect glory back on us and lessen our feelings of inadequacy.

So how do we let go of this need for our partners to be a certain way? And how do we stop judging people we meet? Firstly, we can love and accept ourselves, in our entirety, as much as we possibly can, remembering that God loves us exactly as we are. Secondly, we can build our self-esteem and confidence, by treating ourselves as lovable and worthy people, so that we don’t need others to make us look or feel good. And thirdly, we can ask ourselves whether this tendency to find fault with others is symptomatic of a fear of commitment and intimacy, as was the case for me, and then we can work through that fear.

Dating involves discernment. We can choose who we want to be with. My biggest mistake, however, was to rule people out because they were too this or too that or not good enough. I did this because I didn’t accept and love myself, because I lacked self-esteem, and because I was afraid of getting hurt in relationships.

As I worked on these aspects of myself, I was able to open my heart and mind and fall in love.

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When I was internet dating, I tried to put people off contacting me if they didn’t live within striking distance of my home town in the UK. But there was one chap in the States who persisted and we ended up swapping messages for over a year, despite us both knowing it was a non-starter. One day, he announced out of the blue that he wanted to fly to Britain to meet me after all. I remember saying: ‘But the worst outcome would be if we actually like each other – because then what…?’ (We never did meet but we’re still Facebook friends).

Long distance relationships are tough. Just meeting in the first place is hard enough (see my blog Meeting Across The Miles here). But some people make it work, and go on to have happy, lasting marriages. So if you’ve met someone special who lives far away, and you’re embarking on a relationship, here are seven tips for managing long-distance love.

1. Prioritise time together

To develop a genuine, healthy relationship, there’s no substitute for spending time together. Like, in the same room. It won’t be easy – trips may be expensive and time consuming – but you need to make it a priority. If you’re serious about each other, start allocating resources and time – saving up money and ring-fencing annual leave from work – to spend time with your beloved. Never finish one visit without planning the next one, and try to set a limit on time spent apart.

2. Keep communicating

Even when you’re apart, it’s essential to be in close contact to continue getting to know each other and keep the bond alive. Email, text, instant messaging and WhatsApp make staying in touch easier than ever, but ‘face to face’ time is important too. Make use of Skype or Facetime. Have ‘date nights’ where you eat a meal ‘together’ by Skype, play online games like Scrabble while chatting, or watch a film ‘together’ and discuss it afterwards. With different time zones and sleep schedules, this might take planning and compromise. Meanwhile, think of ways to let your beloved know you’re thinking of them – a postcard, a gift, a photo of what you’re doing right now… When I was in a long-distance relationship, I’d hide little messages and tokens around the house for him to find after I’d left.

3. Share the load

It’s good to share the cost, time and energy of travelling as much as possible. There may be times when one person does more of the heavy lifting, due to other responsibilities and limits, but as a general rule you should both be pulling your weight. If one of you is doing all the hard work, it may be time to reconsider your commitment as a couple.

4. Keep it real

It’s natural to want to make your time together a special experience. However, pulling out all the stops every time can give the illusion of life as a couple being one long holiday, with no dull chores such as shopping, DIY and taking out the rubbish. When a colleague of mine embarked on a long-distance relationship, the pair made a decision to fit into each other’s normal lives, rather than fill every visit with fireworks (they’re now happily married). Little things build intimacy as much as grand gestures, and downtime together is valuable.

5. Look to the future

It’s easy to get caught up in the romance of long-distance love, but sooner or later you need a down-to-earth discussion about the future. If marriage is on the cards, which one of you will move? What are the implications for your jobs, homes and families? Will there have to be a legal immigration process? These discussions may be scary, but you should ensure you have the same goals and visions for the future, and understand exactly what’s involved.

6. Trust and be trustworthy

When you’re apart, it’s easy to slip into obsessing about what your partner is up to, and with whom. But jealousy poisons relationships, so unless they’ve given you reason to doubt them, trust your other half and let them know you have confidence in them, without constantly checking up on them. Likewise, it’s essential for you to be honest, transparent and without reproach, so they can feel secure in your love. Provoking jealousy or making them feel vulnerable is not healthy or loving.

7. Set a deadline

Long-distance relationships tend to develop more slowly, and the ‘fog’ of infatuation can last longer because, by its very nature, the romance is part-reality and part-fantasy. Some folk don’t progress to serious commitment because, in truth, they prefer to keep love at arm’s length and avoid the hassles of a day-to-day partnership. In order to not waste years on a dead-end relationship, it may be helpful to set yourselves a deadline (or have your own mental deadline) for one or both of you moving and making a serious commitment.

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By meeting up quickly with people to whom we’re chatting online and, at the same time, meeting more people in the real world by expanding our social circles, we learn about ourselves and about others. We learn about our likes and dislikes, about our ‘must haves’ and our deal-breakers, and we learn to speak our truth in relationship, even if we fear we might put our date off.

We learn to say with confidence that we need to go home at a certain time, or that we do or don’t drink alcohol, or do or don’t like cake. We learn to say that we definitely want children, that we don’t, that we’re unsure, or that we already have three. We learn to speak about our faith and our beliefs. We learn to ask questions and to pay attention to our intuition. We learn to tune in to how we truly feel when we’re with someone. We learn to gather the information we need to make a healthy choice. We learn to say Yes when we want to say Yes and No when we want to say No.

As we date successfully, without chaos, drama or crisis, our self-esteem and confidence grow. As we move into relationships and, if we decide they’re not right for us, move out of them again, we learn that we can date without hurting others too much or getting too hurt. We mature emotionally and lay some great foundations for our next relationship.

And the good news is autumn is a lovely time of the year to meet new people, on and offline, even if a recent Christian Connection poll concluded it was the least romantic season. The weather may be changeable and the nights aren’t long like in the spring, but we have that motivating ‘back to school’ feeling plus plenty of bright, crisp days and social occasions to look forward to.

So why not make it your goal to find a date to go to a Festival of Light with at the end of October or to watch the fireworks with on November 5th? Or why not suggest to someone whose profile you like that you meet up for a walk through the conkers and leaves, followed by a spiced latte or hot chocolate at a cosy cafe?

Strike up some conversations about the season and then find an autumnal activity to enjoy together. Dating online requires an investment of time and energy. We get back what we put in. When I was dating online, I chatted to people but I rarely managed to meet them in real life. Nowadays, if there’s a connection, I suggest people meet really quickly if distances aren’t too great. It’s too easy to form an emotional connection with someone over text, WhatsApp or email, only to find we don’t like them in real life. We’ll save a lot of time and energy by keeping the virtual conversations short.

At the same time as investing in online dating, make an effort to meet people offline. As a fan of exercise and getting outdoors, I often suggest to my coaching clients that they try out hiking groups or running clubs. When I was single and living in London, I went on a few group hikes and met some singletons who shared my love of nature. But there are lots of other ways to expand our social circles – guided walks around our city or town; a painting, dance or cookery class; a concert or a choir. Think of something you’d love to try and go and do it. Fill this season with opportunities to meet new people.

Then, once you’re out there, practise – practise speaking to the person sat next to you in the queue for coffee, at the cloakroom, or at the concert. Practise speaking your truth on dates, saying clearly what you like and what you don’t, without fear of rejection (after all, rejection is God’s protection). Practise going home on time. Practise stopping drinking after one glass of wine. Practise identifying how you feel when you’re with someone – do you feel relaxed, at peace or on edge and anxious? Practise tuning in to your intuition and to God’s will for your love life and paying attention to that.

Practise saying No, thank you to people you don’t want to see again – until you meet someone to whom you want to say Yes, please.

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Dating has more dimensions

While our own stories and lives are complex and multi-faceted, the ones on screen must follow a relatively linear path to fit neatly into a couple of hours. Time jumps help encompass a bigger picture. But they also cut out the fine details and flotsam and jetsam, which make up a large and integral part of our daily experiences.

These apparently unremarkable relational building bricks may not seem as exciting to live out than a fast moving plot. However, it’s also steadier and far less stressful than living out a film script would be – more like a tortoise, rather than a hare.

Dating isn’t as glamorous

It may seem like an obvious statement, but spending a lot of time absorbing the Hollywood standards of lifestyle and beauty, can subtly influence our expectations. Multi million budgets, the world’s best locations and cinematographers, designer gear, make-up artists, atmospheric soundtracks and great lighting, all provide a lovely idealistic scenario. But it’s a far from accurate portrayal of the nuances of everyday life.

It’s fine if you take films for what they are, but be really careful that you don’t deep down begin to alter your desires accordingly. Your dates won’t be perfectly scripted or styled and the person you’re meeting is unlikely to look like a stunning actress or handsome actor. But those movie characters you adore are not real – your date is and beauty is way more than skin deep.

Dating doesn’t (usually) have as much drama

As well as unachievable levels of perfection, on-screen dating is fraught with problems too. Perhaps you assume that the course of true love must be rocky, problematic and full of heartache. While some people do encounter issues, your journey is unlikely to be littered with the number of break-ups, misunderstandings and mishaps of comedies or dramas. So don’t go looking for, or encouraging them under the assumption that it’s normal, or more romantic.

Hollywood may give us a false perspective on what to expect from dating, a relationship and ultimately – marriage. Taking on these ideals can lead to disappointment, disillusionment and unrealistic hopes, when our own experiences don’t match up.

But that’s not to say that life away from the big screen is bad news. Far from it. The complexity and comparative ordinariness of reality brings its own kind of joy. The kind of love that is built on solid ground, the kind of love that lasts and endures (more than two hours). So keep on enjoying these movies, but moderate their influence on your own perfectly imperfect, dating journey.

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