The rise of the serial soulmate

A partner for life? No. There are now four stages of dating, say psychologists

Instead of finding a partner for life, women are choosing a different partner to match the different stages in their lives, from footloose-and-20 to 50-and-in-search-of-a-toyboy.

One of the first comprehensive studies into online dating, carried out by the University of Durham, has identified a fundamental shift in the way women form relationships. Gone is the notion that the same man will be able to fill the roles of lover, husband and father for life. Judy Richards, the study's author, said that the internet has led to women seeking more freedom.

She compared the trend to "ordering toppings on a pizza". "Dating is becoming a much more rational affair for an increasing number of women," said Ms Richards, a researcher in the department of sociology. "The romantic ideal bubble has burst and been replaced with a more realistic one of having a different man for each stage of your life."

The findings from her study Love on the Net are based on in-depth interviews with women aged from 48 to 62. They viewed middle age as a time of greatest freedom, with many searching for a younger partner and dismissing men of their age as "old and stuck in their ways".

There are now more than 150 online dating agencies in the UK and the phenomenon is matched by the growth of singletons - expected to account for 40 per cent of households by 2010.

Stage One: Looking for fun

Karen Salem, a 30-year-old publicist, met her last two boyfriends through the internet and has been with her current one, Paul, for six weeks

"I started online dating in my 20s and it is something most of my friends do now. It is easier and more convenient. I think that life-stage dating is going to become more common. We want relationships on our terms - to pick the man that we want and not to settle for second-best."

Stage Two: Looking for Mr Right

Julie Beamish, a 39-year-old franchise operator, has had a series of disastrous relationships and is preparing to go on her first date this week with someone she met online

"When I was younger I used to go for a different sort to have a laugh, but later on you do look for a family man. The web has given women a more level playing field. Not a lot of women have the confidence to make the first move and chat to someone in person, but you can online."

Stage Three: Looking for younger men

Clare Macnamara, a 38-year-old company director, has used the web to date since divorcing her husband several years ago

"I think it is a case of getting more selective as you get older. I tend to go for younger guys. My experience in life is that older men do tend to let themselves go. Women today are more financially independent, and the old stigma of being left on the shelf just doesn't apply any more."

Stage Four: Looking to settle down

Celia Record, 44, is a barrister whose friends encouraged her to go online and get back into the dating game when her marriage ended last April

"You know that, for whatever reason, those men are looking at your profile with the thought of meeting you and some of them are actually looking for serious relationships. The shock of it all is that it does work. I am now just getting to the stage that I'd like to settle back down into a long-term relationship."

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