Love life, outsourced
As modern dating fails them, some singles are turning to professional matchmakers
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Adelle Kelleher once had trouble staying home at night. She was approaching her mid-30s, listening to her internal clock tick away with each unsuccessful date. On evenings when she decided to ditch the bar for her couch, she felt more anxious than relaxed: What if tonight was the night she would have met the one?
By then Kelleher had “tried it all.” She agreed to meet the men her mother picked for her, but they fit her mother’s taste more than hers. She let her friends fix her up with their male friends, but nothing clicked. She signed up for various online dating sites and met plenty of sweet guys, but “you have to go through a lot of frogs to find that one good prince”—and somehow, she wasn’t meeting that prince.
At the time, Kelleher had a demanding but successful career at a Fortune 500 company. She has an outgoing personality, shiny dark curls, sparkling green eyes, a svelte figure, good brains, and a wide smile. She didn’t have trouble filling her calendar with dates, but the whole cycle felt exhausting: “I just felt like dating became another full-time job.”
Welcome to the modern dating world, where people have more options than ever before, yet say finding a life partner is more challenging than ever. Many frustrated daters are turning back to old-school methods. They’re hiring professional matchmakers to match them with the right person—and they’re willing to pay a hefty price for it: The average client pays about $5,000 to $8,000 for a package.
These modern matchmaking companies say they can lighten the stress and work of dating, but they can’t guarantee second dates or proposals. What clients mostly pay for is peace of mind: Someone like Kelleher can stay home on a weekend and turn off her phone, knowing someone else is date-hunting for her. These services often include in-person vetting, dating coaches, and professional photo shoots. Matchmakers ask both parties for feedback after each date, mitigate any misunderstandings between parties, and offer detailed advice.
Most people who turn to matchmaking do so after repeated unsuccessful attempts at dating. Ever since birth control pills came out in the 1960s, people have had fewer sexual restraints and relationships became less committed, less intentional, and more prone to devastating heartbreaks. More and more young people lack experience in serious dating: Singles are flirting through text messages, emojis, and Instagram likes; men are asking women to “hang out” on effortless, cheap dates that might end with the most intimate acts in bed.
Online dating only intensifies these challenges by making it so easy to find people on their screens. People seem so distracted swiping for the next taller, wealthier guy, the next hotter, sweeter girl, that they don’t view a potential date as an individual but as another profile. “It’s like a meat market,” one 39-year-old general contractor in Kentucky told me: “You’re just swiping, like, who do you think is pretty?” These dating apps can also make users lazy, selfish, and distracted: With so many more possible dates round the corner, why stick around for someone who doesn’t quite meet all your standards?
Perhaps that’s why our dating culture seems to swing back and forth from traditional courtship to casual dating. That’s especially true in conservative Christian circles that uphold traditional values and marriage, yet are in many ways still figuring out how to navigate modern dating in a Biblical way. Many Christians have tried pursuing countercultural paths to marriage such as courtship (think Josh Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye), but some Christians who tried it and failed have pushed back by advocating casual, slow-paced dating.
But it’s not just Christians who feel overwhelmed by today’s romance landscape—more and more people are longing for simpler, more traditional dating structures, and matchmaking is one such option. That’s how Kelleher met her now-husband David: If she could outsource house-hunting to a real estate agent, why not outsource husband-hunting to a romance expert?
That so many people are willing to pay thousands of dollars for relationship guidance is why Talia Goldstein was able to quit her job as a producer for E! Entertainment and start her own matchmaking company in Los Angeles in 2010. It started with a grumpy co-worker. Goldstein wanted to put a smile on his face, so she set him up with another woman she knew, and all of a sudden, he was floating into the office: “I thought, ‘If I can make this grumpy man happy, I can make anyone happy.’”
So Goldstein began matchmaking other single friends and co-workers, and when many of her matches paired up, she realized she might have a gift. To test the market, she started charging people $250 for three matches, then increased it to $500 as demand grew. When she hosted her first matchmaking party, she had 20 attendees. Two months later, she had 300, and soon 600 young people were piling into her events.
In 2013, Goldstein launched Three Day Rule (TDR). Today, TDR employs 50 matchmakers in 10 metropolitan areas from San Francisco to Chicago to Boston. TDR’s services start at $4,500 and can hike beyond $35,000 for the VIP package. Goldstein says about 70 percent of TDR’s clients are in a relationship by the end of their contract. To find suitable candidates for clients, TDR matchmakers crash medical conferences and comic conventions, approach strangers at yoga classes and airports, and once even car-chased a good-looking guy they spotted at Chipotle.
“Oh, we’re shameless,” Goldstein said. “We’ll go up to anybody, do whatever it takes.” Nobody has ever reacted negatively to TDR’s offers to matchmake them, she said. After all, it’s always nice to be noticed, and people don’t seem to notice each other much anymore—everyone’s too busy looking down at their phones.
That’s why half of the matchmaker’s job involves coaching clients on how to date well. Julie Ferman, a matchmaker in Los Angeles and Santa Fe, N.M., has worked in the dating industry since 1990. She says she used to be able to count on men to call women to plan a date, but now she has to arrange the first date for her clients, from coordinating schedules to making reservations.
She also has to untangle the many knots from long-term online dating: Many clients come to her jaded and bitter from bad dating experiences, and “that’s not sexy at all,” Ferman tells them. She encourages clients to be open-minded and teachable and realistic, because how they’ve dated hasn’t worked so far. One 74-year-old male client, for example, refused to date women older than their 50s. When Ferman matched him up with a 64-year-old woman, he met and liked her, then balked when he found out her age—and so did that woman. Another female client requested a 6-foot-2-inch man, yet she’s only 5-foot-4. Ferman constantly has to remind her clients, “The best catch in the room is not the best-looking woman or the wealthiest man.”
MATCHMAKERS ALSO TELL ME tell me one of the challenges of modern dating is changing gender dynamics. More women are earning university degrees than men, and while women’s wages are increasing relative to men’s wages, many male-dominated jobs are disappearing. Yet most women want a man who’s better-educated and better-paid than they are. Those men are getting harder to find, and the ones who fit their criteria are also incredibly picky in other ways.
That means matchmakers often have to persuade clients to consider changing their criteria. When Kelleher first hired TDR, she thought she was going to be an easy client. She told her matchmaker that she didn’t care if the guy was bald, chubby, or wrinkled. She wanted her match to be Jewish like her, someone who wants to be a husband and a father, someone who’s close to his family, someone who drinks socially but doesn’t do drugs.
Then she received her match, “and I didn’t know what to do with him.” She liked everything about David’s profile, but he was blond and blue-eyed, and she had never in her life dated someone so blond and fair. So she told her matchmaker no. Her matchmaker pushed back: “This guy is everything you’re looking for. He may not be your type, but your type hasn’t worked for you so far.” Kelleher agreed to meet him for a drink but says she had already decided they wouldn’t have chemistry.
People seem so distracted swiping for the next taller, wealthier guy, the next hotter, sweeter girl, that they don’t view a potential date as an individual but as another profile.
They met at a bar. Kelleher ran fashionably late as usual, and when she arrived, she saw David waiting for her outside. He was wearing jeans that fit him well and a button-down shirt with the sleeves slightly rolled up, revealing strong, muscular forearms. When Kelleher approached him, he looked up from his phone and smiled—and that was when Kelleher tossed aside any reservations she once had: “Second I saw him, I was like, ‘Dang, he is hot!’”
Kelleher’s date with David lasted five hours, with conversations flowing naturally into topics such as politics, religion, and family. Later, as they weaved through a thick crowd in the restaurant, David turned around and grabbed her hand to help her through—“and I melted,” Kelleher recalled: “It showed he was assertive, but it was also a very thoughtful, gentlemanly gesture, and I felt like that was kind of hard to find these days.”
After 11 months, David proposed on a gondola in Venice, Italy, and Kelleher said yes. They married in November 2015, and today Kelleher, now 37, has a 15-month-old blond-haired son who’s the spitting image of David. Had it not been for her matchmaker, Kelleher said, “David could be standing right in front of me and I wouldn’t have given him the time of the day.”
Not everyone has a good experience with matchmaking, however. My Le, a 34-year-old elementary school teacher in Los Angeles, had also “done it all.” Le, like many young Christian women, prayed hard about her future life partner. She believed God would open the door “if it’s meant to be,” but that she had to put in the work of putting herself out there, too.
At the time, Le attended a small church in Orange County, and most people her age there were already dating each other. She tried eHarmony, Match, and speed-dating, but most of the guys she found online weren’t committed Christians, and their cheesy, sometimes creepy pickup lines turned her off. Also, talking to multiple guys at the same time confused her, and Le had to be very careful not to mix them up.
So when a friend told her about a local Christian matchmaking company (that’s now defunct), she perked up. Maybe that’s how God would open the door for her, Le thought. She found comfort in the idea that the matchmaker professed to pray over every match, and she agreed to pay $4,000 for her matchmaking services.
But Le got only a total of two dates from that service. The first match showed up 20 minutes late to Starbucks, and then fumbled to pay for their drinks with three different gift cards. Le never saw him again. The second match took place at a nice Italian restaurant, but Le felt she and the guy had nothing in common. Her matchmaking service offered coaching, but she only got to talk to the dating coach once on the phone and didn’t feel their talk was helpful. “I feel like I was swindled,” Le told me.
Le returned to online dating. She tried an app called Coffee Meets Bagel, which limits the number of profiles a user can view each day. “By that point, I was going to give up on the dating stuff,” Le recalled. “I was at the end of my ropes.” Then a friend pinged her the profile of a guy named Kevin. After 11 days of texting and phoning, Le and Kevin met at a poke restaurant.
After dinner they continued their conversation at an Asian bakery next door. Le thought he looked cute in his black wool peacoat, and she thought he was even cuter when, before they said goodbye, he loaned her DVDs of the movies she had mentioned she hadn’t seen. “Does this mean we’re going to see each other again?” she asked playfully. He grinned back: “Yeah!” Within seven months, they were talking seriously about marriage. They married in October 2016.
As the booming market for matchmaking services shows, dating is not easy. Modern daters blame the maze of online dating, the increasingly self-focused culture, and shifting gender roles—but was there ever a time when relationships were easy? When two individuals open their hearts to one another, they risk heartbreak, rejection, and disappointment. That’s a risk even a matchmaker can’t prevent.
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