Second-time-arounders tell their stories of finding happiness, whether they met across a crowded room, or through today’s phenomenon of online dating. And the experts give their views on ways to make a match.

Great British Life: Fiona and John Burton met at work and have been together for three decades. (c) Fiona BurtonFiona and John Burton met at work and have been together for three decades. (c) Fiona Burton

Fiona Elder was enjoying lunch with colleagues during a staff training day at their Cheshire school when she glanced up and felt her heart sink. Wending his way towards them with his tray was John Burton, a senior teacher with a reputation as rather a ladies' man. 'He was tall and good-looking but not my cup of tea at all. We’d had a few spiky encounters over playground duty. I found him arrogant and pompous,' she says.

Romance was definitely not on Fiona's multi-tasking mind. She was recently divorced, juggling home, work, and co-parenting two children: 'But that day, when there were no kids in the school, there was a completely different John in front of me. He was relaxed and I realised he had a quick, dry sense of humour and I started to think maybe he wasn't so bad.'

Today Fiona (now Burton) still glows at the recollection of a moment that led, after a few twists, to a relationship that’s lasted for nearly three decades. The couple married in 2016. 'We laugh a lot and we’re so happy together,' she says. 'I like his brain, he’s a very intelligent, kind, empathetic, reliable man.'

'It's easy to fall in love,' remarked the four-times married philosopher Bertrand Russell: 'The hard part is finding someone to catch you.' For Fiona and John a love match came about via an age-old route – meeting at work. Traditionally, courtship – first or second time around – sprang from social circles, encounters in the pub, at church, at work. Personal ads existed, of course, as did dating agencies, but they were marginal activities and viewed with curiosity, even embarrassment. Then technology threw heart-shaped curve balls into the mix, revolutionising how we meet potential partners and making life more varied – and more complex – for love-seeking later-lifers.

The first online dating website, arrived on the scene in 1995; apps such as Grindr (2009), Tinder and Hinge ( both 2012) followed, transforming the looking-for-love landscape further through the free, mobile access on offer. Last May Ofcom reported that more than one in 10 UK online adults had visited an online dating service. A report from Imperial College Business School, predicts that by 2035, couples will be more likely to first meet online than in real life.

Creative project manager Jane Crowther from Stockport was with her previous partner for 13 years. They were engaged and had a daughter, before separating. Initially wary of dating apps: 'I had heard all of the terrible stories about safety and such' – she was recommended Tinder by friends after ruling out meeting anyone at work or in bars. 'I was terrified at first and then it became exciting with all the swiping left and right.' she says. 'But it’s all based on looks and I would not have done that previously.' A few unsatisfactory dates followed – one lasting just 20 minutes – before Jane gave up on him, and Tinder.

A short spell on Bumble led to a brief, failed relationship. Then a different site – Zoosk – was recommended and Jane decided to take a different approach. 'I was a little older now and realised in your mid-40s everyone has a past, including me. I have a daughter who always comes first.' After a first choice cancelled the night before a date, she contacted a man who had caught her eye previously. 'You’ve only taken two weeks to get back to me,’ was the quick response. 'And that was exactly the sense of humour I liked,' says Jane. Enter police officer Duncan Smith, whose partner of 15 years had died the year before. They talked online, met up... And fell in love. Now together for four years, they married last July. 'He is the calm to my storm, my mum loves him and he’s a good man,' says Jane (now Smith).

Great British Life: Anji and Andy Peake were set up by Andy's daughter Hannah, who thought they would be a good match. (c) Anji PeakeAnji and Andy Peake were set up by Andy's daughter Hannah, who thought they would be a good match. (c) Anji Peake

Meanwhile, Jane’s friend Anji Peake (then Winterbottom), a dental nurse and mother of one daughter from Stockport, was also trying dating apps after the end of a long marriage. She had also ruled out meeting someone at work: 'Most people who walk into a dental practice are not looking for love,' she says. 'I was petrified. But I knew I didn’t want to be single for ever and this might be ok.' Unfortunately, for Anji, it wasn’t. 'I had a couple of conversations with chaps who were not what they seemed. One was very critical of my looks, another chap was very nice but still very entangled with an ex,' she recalls. 'Overall, dating was terrifying, I felt full of self-doubt and was probably quite fragile coming out of a long-term relationship. I didn’t know what I was looking for either.'

Helping Anji cope as she recounted her dating woes was Hannah, a younger work colleague. Hannah’s parents had also recently separated and she was living with newly single dad, builder Andy Peake. What happened next took the older generation by surprise and even now the memory still delights the now Mr and Mrs Peake. Anji says: 'Out of the blue Hannah said: "I’m going to set you up on a date with my dad." Hannah then went home and showed Andy a picture of Anji. Andy says: 'I wasn’t looking for romance, I was just plodding along but Hannah flashed her phone at me and said: "What do you think, would you like to go on a date with her?" And that’s how it started. I knew my daughter had her head screwed on, so I decided i had nothing to lose. But I was petrified too. I hadn’t dated for 20-odd years and you forget how it all works.'

Within a few days they were off on their first date and were soon inseparable, the three children they share between them welcoming the new setup. The Peakes married last May after four years together. 'It was so refreshing to meet someone who wasn’t a player,' says Anji. 'Someone who hadn’t been on the dating scene and hopped from relationship to relationship and who was an all-round nice person.' Andy’s sentiments echo that: 'It was never a game; we were so out of the game we didn’t know how to play the game., and maybe if we had gone on loads of different dates with loads of different people we would have been more cynical.'


Great British Life: Nicky Wake and her husband and soulmate Andy. After Andy's death, Nicky started a dating agency for people who had lost a partner. (c) Nicky WakeNicky Wake and her husband and soulmate Andy. After Andy's death, Nicky started a dating agency for people who had lost a partner. (c) Nicky Wake


For North-West entrepreneur Nicky Wake, dating apps have an extraordinary resonance. Back in 2002, she met her 'soulmate' Andy online. 'We were such early adopters, we’d pretend we met in a pub.' In 2020, after a happy marriage and having their son, Finn, Andy died, leaving Nicky a widow at 49. 'I realised I needed to start dating again,' she recalls. 'But it was a minefield on the mainstream apps, full of married men, people who weren’t genuine, rude pictures.'

Nicky concluded widows and widowers needed a specific site to help them connect with potential new partners who well-understood aspects such as stages of grief or a continued attachment to their late loves. 'I think we have different challenges.' she says. 'For example, my house is full of photos of my soulmate, and I thought a widower would be able to understand that.' So, in November 2022, Nicky set up Chapter 2, the UK’s first community and dating app for this special cohort of second-time-arounders, which also includes legal, financial, emotional support and what she describes as a safe space.' Many of us would not have dated for 20-30 years so there’s lots of info there on security, community forums, and face-to-face meetings in big cities.' The website tells of successes and there are plans to launch in the States.

Great British Life: Annette Williams of Silverbrook Hypnotherapy, which helps prepare people for a return to dating. (c) Andrew CollierAnnette Williams of Silverbrook Hypnotherapy, which helps prepare people for a return to dating. (c) Andrew Collier

The challenge of getting dating-ready has prompted Lymm-based cognitive behavioural hypnotherapist Annette Williams to make it a key focus of her new practice, Silverbrook Hypnotherapy. 'Dating at any age can be nerve-racking, but if you have any number of worries about getting back out there again, it can be a particularly daunting experience.' she says. 'I’ll help clients learn from their past experiences (good and bad) and identify their core values and relationship deal-breakers, to form a solid foundation for positive relationships.' Time spent on yourself in advance is time well spent, she advocates. 'Work out what qualities you rate most highly and bring you the most happiness. By getting a better understanding of who you are, you will go into it better positioned, with the confidence and tools to take you forward.'


Great British Life: Alex Mellor-Brook, who runs Select Personal Introductions, an exclusive, North-West dating agencyAlex Mellor-Brook, who runs Select Personal Introductions, an exclusive, North-West dating agency

This approach is echoed by Alex Mellor-Brook, co-founder and managing director of Select Personal Introductions, an exclusive and award-winning North-West dating and matchmaking service. 'Compatibility can be misdiagnosed,' she says. 'The fact that you both like skiing isn’t going to make your relationship work – that’s commonality not compatibility. Compatibility is about life goals, morals, your values.'

And tips for dates themselves, once safety considerations are satisfied? ‘The biggest failure people have is messaging beforehand – what you write will not be read the way it is intended. A phone conversation is much better, and then meet – you don’t know anything about a person until you sit in front of them.' A favourite, salutary, example for him is the scene in the iconic movie romance Notting Hill where the feelings of Anna (Julia Roberts) for William (Hugh Grant) grow as she listens quietly to his friends discussing him. 'It’s about taking time, listening, sitting back and not judging,' says Alex. 'It isn’t an Amazon Prime experience – you don’t order it in the morning and it’s arrived by tea time. It all takes time.'