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Spouses to order

Great career but a shambolic lovelife? With a bit of help from your friends, you could find the ideal partner
THE thirtysomething single woman has become the great social phenomenon of our age. A third of British women in their thirties are single, and forecasters say that by 2016 a quarter of all British women will have no mate.

If a single woman is one of the growing number who occupy well-paid executive positions, the lifestyle is easy. Her flat is feng shuied to the last wing nut, her accounts are computerised and she graces Harvey Nichols only with a personal shopper. Her career is skyrocketing.

So what does she do now? Sit back and wait for Mr Right to gallop past with a gleaming six-pack and his own architectural practice? No way. This world is going round far too fast to be a shrinking violet; if marriage is going to fit in to the rest of her slick, modern life, she'll have to get it organised properly.

ORGANISED marriage: the term smacks of chattel-hungry parents and wailing 19th-century heroines. But try to get used to the word, savour it: organised, as opposed to disorganised, haphazard, sloppy. Remove the idea of grasping parents and licensed marriage brokers from the equation, and imagine this scenario instead: you spend long, drunken hours talking with your friends about exactly what you are looking for, and about your fading hopes of ever finding it. Your friends cast their nets out over their social circles and a few months later one calls to say that they think they have found your ideal partner. You meet each other for a blind date and a few weeks later get engaged.

This is how Annabel Heseltine met Peter Butler, soon to be her husband. She says: "I had never asked a man out on a date in my life." This is organised marriage, Nineties style.

In no other part of her life would a working single woman sit back and wait for it all to happen the way she does with marriage. Since the birth of the high-profile career girl in the Seventies, proactive good-time dating has been on the up. It became fine for a woman to ask a man out, there was no longer a problem with her picking up the tab, and in bed later she could detail her sexual preferences. But for her to actually admit she wanted to find a husband would seem like an admission of failure. Successful singledom was something to defend with pride, and the idea of launching an organised scheme to find a husband was just not done.

Times change. As single women in their thirties find an increasingly strong voice in the media, many of them are beginning to admit that they would like to find a husband. Attitudes towards marriage and making marriage work are starting to be rethought. Jill Dando is leaving BBC's Holiday programme to give her new, rather serious, relationship a proper chance. She is not giving up her career, rather modifying it to accommodate changes elsewhere in her life. When actress Kate Capshaw fell in love with Stephen Spielberg on the set of Indiana Jones, sheknew she wanted to marry him. During the years of their courtship she converted to Judaism, was regularly photographed with him and, eventually, they had a child. Ms Capshaw did not want simply to be his lover, she was determined to be his wife. Spinster has suddenly become a dirty word.

The problem seems to be that our expectations of romantic love have not been brought up to date with our expectations of professional life. Clinical psychologist Averil Leiman believes that we still hang on to received beliefs about love that ceased to be realistic generations ago. "There is still a huge notion that Lochinvar or whoever will come out of the night, and you will be swept up," she says. "There is an element of this that is quite an appealing fantasy for women. Despite the fact that they are very dynamic about choosing their career, there is still a belief that it is not nice for women to be as direct about the way that they go about finding a partner."

Our fantasies of marriage are profoundly influenced by books and film, which often reinforce the idea that marriage is strongly connected to romance and fate. In reality, marriage for love, or even for like, is a relatively modern concept. The bluestockings, a group of 18th-century female intellectuals who strongly promoted the idea of intellectual equality between the sexes, debated hard over the issue of basing a marriage solely on mutual compatibility, and eventually censured it as irresponsible. The heroines of the 19th century may appear to have been swept off their feet, but how many of them romanced their way round half of Clerkenwell before finding a Captain Wentworth? Did Jane Eyre's heart sing for a blue-eyed pig farmer? Not at all; she married up in the world. This was not romance, this was economics.

Dr Janet Reibstein, author of Love Life, still considers marriage and romance to be separate issues. "Once biological clocks start ticking, which is what seems to be happening to women in their thirties, then it becomes what marriage has been in the past - a very practical matter: how does one meet a suitable mate?" she says.

Since it is no longer regular practice for parents to arrange a marriage, new ways of finding a partner have developed. "At certain stages in your life structures are in place for you to do it yourself, like at university, or at school. Once those structures fade away, you have to create them; it is essentially a practical arrangement beyond the romantic thing." A network of friends who look out for one another, much as Annabel Heseltine's did, could be seen as a structure of modern marriage broking.

Such a network is not the sole preserve of wealthy socialites such as Ms Heseltine. Take the case of Peter, who found himself, at the age of 33, surrounded by friends who were either married or in long-term relationships. He and his only remaining single friend would discuss the tragedy of their circumstances. "He was very determined and organised," recalls Peter. "He started putting himself about a bit on the Jewish dating network, and was introduced by nice Jewish mothers to their daughters, one of whom became his wife. He brought her round to dinner at my house and they were so terribly happy that I said: 'I wish someone would do the same for me', and so they did."

Peter's friend and his wife had met on a blind date, so they set up a blind date for Peter, which was a great success. They had a lot in common and, most importantly, shared objectives: they both wanted to marry and have children. "We knew what we were both about; there was no kind of pretence about it," Peter says.

JOHN CLEESE is another person who had a particularly successful blind date, after his doctor, Johnny Gayner, arranged for him to meet Alyce Faye Eichelberger, who is now his wife.

"Alyce and I got on very well and I realised that, basically, my doctor had prescribed Alyce," Cleese remembers. Perhaps this is the right way to see this modern style of marriage broking - someone helps a friend resolve their problems by "prescribing" another friend who can fulfil their needs. A couple must have things in common so they can share and develop together.

This seems like a common-sense solution, yet many people still leave finding the right partner to chance. Love at first sight, Mr Right and concepts of destiny still hold sway over what is for many people the most important decision of their lives. With so many single women in their thirties living in Britain at the moment, it is a suitable time to re- evaluate our notions of marriage. As women push aside thoughts of family until the last possible moment, as work takes up more of the week, and as old-fashioned social structures crumble, can we really afford to leave it up to chance? Organised marriage, late Nineties style: take a little time to get used to it.