I'm proof it's never too late to find love: Alone for decades, Liz gave up on relationships – and convinced herself she preferred being single. Then something astonishing happened…
23:18 GMT, 8 July 2012
23:18 GMT, 8 July 2012
Even now, I find it hard to carry off. I keep trying to use the ‘boyfriend’ word — dropping it casually into conversation, just like everyone else. But I still feel like an impostor.
For 20 years, I’ve been the poster girl for single life, writing numerous newspaper articles about the topic.
Looking back, it suited me that relationships never worked out. All those vulnerabilities about my body went unchallenged — no one saw me without make-up, or when I was sad or unwell.
Liz Hoggard proves you can fall in love at any age
So the fact that quite recently, in my late 40s, I have fallen deeply for someone has been quite a shock. After a painful break-up at 28, I spent most of my 30s single. In my 40s, I suddenly got a new lease of life.
I started going on dates. A strange time, perhaps, to regain a sense of optimism. Society is quick to tell us we need to settle fast — that younger women are the enemy. Which is frankly nonsense.
In fact, I found the dating scene more generous in my 40s. People don’t have the same agenda for the perfect face, the perfect figure. They want someone for fun and films and sex and travel.
Yes, I had a few dalliances that didn’t work out, but in hindsight I clearly wasn’t the right woman for them.
Honesty is always the best policy at this age. When I was younger, I did everything I could to avoid rejection. Now I think it’s quicker — and cleaner — to find out what’s really going on.
Single life was never boring. I went internet dating, joined supper clubs, even got sent to Love School for a writing assignment. But nothing quite stuck. Occasionally, I felt a little sad that I wasn’t a candidate for long-term intimacy. But no matter, I threw myself into meeting new people.
‘To Liz, The Empress of Friendship,’ my friend Marcus wrote on my 45th birthday card. Maybe romance just wasn’t my forte.
The number of single women has more than doubled in the past 30 years — 51 per cent of women under 50 have never married
But then, a year ago, I started corresponding with Chris, 51, a film and music writer, through an online dating website. It turned out we lived seven minutes apart by train, and have often been at the same film or play.
But it’s taken us more than 20 years to meet properly. And, if I’m honest, I wasn’t completely convinced at first. I’d grown so used to semi-detached relationships that it took a while to accept someone who is properly nice.
Chris has been through a divorce, so he knows what enchants — and what gives pain. I was slightly appalled by such warmth. We had evenings where I sat so far back on my bar stool I nearly fell off. I talked airily about being long-term friends.
He knows — shamefully — I asked him to my book launch only because I thought it would be good to have someone there who worked at the BBC.
But that night something shifted.
While I was trapped signing books, there was no shortage of other glamorous single women keen to meet him. Friends emailed the next day saying: ‘Who is that lovely man’
Better pay closer attention, I resolved. My friend Helen took charge. ‘Email him and say: 'So you know I mentioned a while back that you should go on dates with other women Well, being one myself and running true to form, I have changed my mind and would prefer it if you didn’t.’
I arranged a lunch. We talked for 12 hours solid. As I warmed up, he became more relaxed and teased me more. It felt very equal.
So, why did it work out this time Partly because I wasn’t desperate. I had a very nice life, thank you. But I had also experienced loss. My father died last year and I think there is a life-force that propels you towards change.
When I got the call from my sister telling me Dad had died, everything went into slow motion. I reached for my phone. And suddenly I realised there was no one I could call.
I have lovely friends. Lots of them. But this was different. I needed someone who knew my family history; how it would be changed irrevocably. As I jumped into a taxi to go home to pack for the funeral, I felt slight despair. How had I got to this age without an intimate friend or lover in my life whom I could call anywhere, anytime
Later, through the haze of the funeral, I found myself wondering would I ever be released enough emotionally to have a grown-up relationship.
Clearly, losing the first man in your life is a major milestone. Born in the Thirties, my father lived through World War II, when there was little time for luxury or sentiment.
In my teenage years we had arguments. He found me chaotic and impractical. My reaction was to look for men who judged me less strictly. But actually I kept dating men who were uncannily similar to my father. They kept me at arm’s length when I got upset or insecure.
I found men liked me when I was aloof, the classic ice queen, but when I got warmer, something drove them away. Clearly, there was a needy quality that repelled them.
So happy: Liz and new boyfriend Chris
I learned to mask it. But that left me feeling inauthentic. And, typically, the truth has a habit of coming out when you drink too much.
Fearing you may be unlovable can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. You’re looking for trouble even when a relationship is going well. I knew I needed to tackle head-on why the fear of rejection was almost more frightening than rejection itself.
I did some therapy. It was painful, but incredibly helpful. Just articulating these feelings out loud to someone in a neutral space stops them being so frightening.
Gradually, I was changing; I was prepared to take more risks. But also I could finally confront my pattern of hooking up with emotionally unavailable men.
‘When you’re younger you don’t even know it’s a pattern,’ says psychoanalyst and author Anouchka Grose.
‘You haven’t had a chance to run through it ten times and see what you repeat. And so, when you date again in your 40s, you can be much wiser to yourself, which is really helpful.’
When I met Chris, I knew I couldn’t make any more embarrassing mistakes when it came to men. Gradually, I began to trust it might be OK if he saw me with all my raw, clumsy, messy secrets. But being in a relationship in your late 40s is another country to that of dating in your 20s or 30s. I’m not sure how often you’re ‘allowed’ to see each other without seeming to crowd the other party.
And having got so used to dates who don’t want you to meet their friends, or who holiday solo, I’d learned to be independent. Even now I’m part of a pair, I sometimes catch myself pouring a cup of tea for one or putting out the light when Chris is still reading.
I keep policing myself to make sure I’m not being a boring, surrendered girlfriend, or neglecting true friends who have seen me through bumpy patches over the years.
Having been the single girl for ever, I know it can be painful when people suddenly disappear off the face of the earth after finding partners. We want our friends to be happy, but it is a delicate balance.
Nice friends are thrilled, of course. Several singletons see it as sign that relationships can blossom later and that online dating isn’t just one long horror story.
But I’ve been slightly hurt by a few reactions. One woman implied that simply because I have a partner, I’m not a feminist any more, adding that she never gets to see me on my own despite the fact I’ve been trying to arrange just that.
I’d be mortified if anything I did suggested I wasn’t a feminist and I’d hate to imply it’s better to be in a couple. I still believe passionately that you can have a great life as a single woman. In many ways being in a relationship — with all the compromises — can be stressful, too.
‘I think couples like to have a single friend or two because they remind them of the freedoms they had when they were single,’ says Mark Vernon, author of The Meaning Of Friendship.
‘They know they can access you on demand — single friends are always free for a night out. They love the part of themselves they see in you.
‘Another possibility is that now you are with someone, old friends in settled couples are secretly jealous. How dare you have a romance in your 40s! You had it all — the freedom in your 20s and 30s and now, damn you, you’ve got the intimacy, too.
‘It is as if you have had the perfect life combo, despite the agonies, while they got hitched early and so lost out on the travel, a flat of their own and so on.’
I have learned a lot. Dating is a numbers game: the more people you meet, the more likely you are to meet one that’s right.
You are probably not the best judge of who is a good match for you — often your baggage gets in the way of seeing other people clearly.
And it does get nicer as you get older (or at least over 45), partly because you’ve made many of your life choices so you know what you want. But also because you’re less defensive.
Of course, it can be bittersweet when you meet later. What-ifs hang in the air — the children you didn’t have, the houses you never bought. But on the positive side, I’d argue Chris has met a much nicer version of me than the one he’d have found ten years ago.
He understands my baggage and slowly I’ve felt my self-esteem rising. In a society obsessed with youth, it makes me smile when he says: ‘Don’t you love hanging out with people our own age’ And now I know what it feels like when someone truly likes you, when they charge across town just to see you for ten minutes.
True, I still can’t imagine living with anyone. I need my own space and so does Chris, though he has called my bluff by finding a flat to rent in the street next to my house in South London. Hopefully, we’ll manage to live side by side, like Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.
In our 40s, it’s easy to grow hard-wired to rejection and loss, but luckily there’s always something — or someone — about to come along and blow away our preconceptions.
I’m the last person to give expert advice, but maybe the trick is to stay open-minded and realistic. It’s never too late to enjoy emotional intimacy — and find love.