What becomes of the broken hearted?

As the party season ends, many singles turn to online dating in the search for that special someone. Rachel Shields looks at a boom time for matchmaking
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The Independent Online

While December's merry-go-round of boozy parties may seem the perfect time for singletons, the more lonely reality will lead record numbers to look for a partner once their hangovers have worn off.

Dating agencies are braced for a busy January, with 2010 predicted to be a boom year for online dating, as some of the country's 14.2 million singles – to say nothing of the 4 million divorcees and 3.3 million widows – react to spending Christmas with family and New Year's Eve surrounded by coupled-up friends.

"The first Sunday in January is the peak time for people joining up, we see double the amount of people as normal registering on that day," said a spokeswoman for Mysinglefriend. com dating agency. "Christmas is a good time for everyone, there are lots of parties and people are very sociable, but in January it goes crazy."

The agency expects to attract 18,000 new members this month. It claims to be responsible for around 200 marriages during four years of trading, and a spokesman had "never heard of a divorce".

Matchmaking is big business. The researcher Mintel estimates online dating was worth £100m in the UK in 2009, up from £80m the previous year, and looks set to grow further.

A YouGov survey in 2007 found 12 per cent of 2,192 people used dating agencies, and 15 per cent of couples had met online. A 2005 study by Dr Jeff Gavin, at the University of Bath, found relationships formed via online dating "have a similar level of success as those formed in more conventional ways".

This year saw the rise of elite dating agencies such as Berkeley International, which describes itself as being at the high end of the dating market, and charges an eye-watering £7,000 membership fee.

But not everyone is rushing to find a mate. Cultural shifts and greater economic power for women mean there is no longer any stigma attached to being single and many are happy to stay that way.

"There is less social emphasis on having a partner now," said Windy Dryden, Professor of Psychotherapeutic Studies at Goldsmiths College and a self-styled "Dating Doctor", who advises private patients on how to overcome blocks to relationships. "There is a much greater emphasis on plurality now; people can live together, live apart, get married, stay single."

Professor Dryden said that while the number of dating sites may have mushroomed to 1,400 in 2008, meeting a partner online may be going out of fashion. "The initial interest and enthusiasm in internet dating is starting to wane," he said. "What people should be much more open to is serendipity; be flexible, don't rule out the everyday chance meeting."

According to the LoveGeist survey commissioned by match.com, Wales was the area with the highest belief in romance, with greater London at the bottom. However, Londoners were the most likely to want to get married.

CASE STUDIES...

Michael Travers, 32

Director of Infinitum Consulting, London

"I've been single for seven years. I've got my own business so I've been working every hour God sends. I'm quite a perfectionist. I've joined MySingleFriend, but it is difficult to gauge chemistry online, so you can waste a lot of time messaging and then meet up and find you don't click. Christmas is a family time, and it gives you time out to think; those things combined reignites people's desire to be in a relationship."

Celia Foote, 58

Trade union official, Leeds

"I'm happy to be single. It would be nice to have a partner but I'd be reluctant to disrupt my life. In long-term relationships you get into a routine, and I feel like I have a lot of spontaneity in my life. On Boxing Day I'm jetting off to Austria skiing with 30 friends. If I want to be out every night of the week I can, or if I want to stay in and watch TV, I can. You have to be very compatible to live with someone."

Nick Richards, 25

IT consultant, Bristol

"Being single gives you the freedom to experience as many sides of life as possible – there are no limitations. However, there is a degree of loneliness, especially at Christmas. I would hate to be restricted by a relationship, but, on the other hand, if someone was on my wavelength, then I'd be open to taking it further. I would love to eventually find the right girl to settle with."

Hannah Gilchrist, 25

Journalist, London

"I like the freedom of being single. It gives you more time to spend with friends and family, which is especially nice over Christmas. I thought that Christmas as a single person would be hideous, but I'm really enjoying it. I've been single for about seven months, during which time I've been on a few dates, with people that I've met at parties or through friends. There are still a lot of single people my age, but the number is dwindling."

Sharon Allen, 38

Environmental enforcement officer, Kent

"It sometimes seems like there's no one nice out there, and it's especially difficult to meet people as a single parent with a three-year-old son. I was in a long-term relationship with his father and I miss the companionship, having someone to talk about my day with. It is definitely more difficult over Christmas and New Year; everyone is having dinner parties and it's just couples. When you reach a certain age it seems everyone's coupled-up."

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