Internet dating helping singles find love after age 45
When she was still single in her 40s, Debra Siegel made a list of qualities for her yet-elusive perfect husband: honest, family-oriented, a hard worker and physically fit.
But the years passed, and the list went unfulfilled.
"When I hit 50, the bells went off," she says. "I didn't want to be alone for the rest of my life."
That's when she took what she calls "drastic action."
Her future husband, Dan Furlin, was of a similar mind.
"I didn't think marriage was in the picture for me," he says. "Once you hit 50, you don't want to go through the rest of life without your soul mate. I was a little bit more aggressive."
Both went the online dating route and met within months. The Dunedin, Fla., couple are both fitness-conscious and vegetarian. They were also both natives of New York state, and each had lived in Los Angeles. They moved to Florida -- Furlin to Clearwater and Siegel to Orlando -- before meeting online. They married in 2003.
Siegel-Furlin, 56, and Furlin, 58, are among a small but growing group of older adults marrying for the first time after age 45. Years ago, these older singles would have been known as the "spinster" neighbor or the confirmed "bachelor" friend. But now, longer life spans mean 50 is the new 30 -- there's plenty of life ahead. That, coupled with the baby boomer "never-wanna-be-old" attitude and a greater number of aging singles in the population, makes it more likely that those who want to marry actually will.
A USA TODAY analysis of Census records of Americans ages 45 to 55 shows that the percentage of those who said they had never been married in 2006 had doubled since 1990, and the percentage of those who were currently married had dropped by 9 percent.
It's fairly difficult to get a real handle on this segment of the singles population because no federal entity tracks first marriages at specific ages. The closest count is the median age at first marriage, which in 2006 (the latest year for which data are available) was at its highest point: men at 27.5 and women at 25.5, according to the U.S. Census.
A tally by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is available just for a 20-year period, 1970 to 1990, shows that in 1990, only 0.4 percent of women and 0.6 percent of men married for the first time at ages 45 to 49.
According to the most recent data from the federal Survey of Income and Program Participation, which includes marriage, 13 percent of those who wed in 2003 were 45 and older.
Internet dating has largely made it possible for many of these later-life first marriages. It's only in recent years that some sites have started monitoring that demographic. Among them is Yahoo Personals, based in Santa Clara, Calif., which reports a 33 percent increase from January 2006 to November 2007 among users age 45 and older who say they have never been married. Since 2005, Match.com reports an increase of almost 10 percent of new members age 45 and older and who have never been married; these now make up almost 14 percent of its members.
New patterns, new people
"As people get older, they tend to find themselves in fairly established patterns, so the ability to meet new people goes down over time. They've got to do something new if they want to meet different people," says Craig Wax of Dallas, senior vice president and general manager for Match.com for North America.
Brian Lebowitz, 57, and Lise Goldman, 53, are to be married June 22. They met online almost two years ago and found out at the time that they lived within blocks of each other. Lebowitz, an attorney, lives in Washington, D.C. Goldman, who works in economic development, now lives in suburban Chevy Chase, Md. Lebowitz says his job and his hobby as a book collector took up most of his free time. But when he turned 55, he decided to give online dating a shot.
"I'd pretty much given up, but then thought I would give it a try and see what it was like," he says. "Some people -- myself included -- would be more comfortable starting off communication by e-mail rather than going up to somebody at a party. It's a less threatening way to go about it."
Goldman says she always wanted to be married. She had been engaged twice -- once in her mid-20s and again more than a decade ago -- but she says it just wasn't right until she met Lebowitz, whom she says is intelligent and kindhearted.
"There are wonderful people still out there who are hiding away in their work," she says. "He's an international lawyer, so he needs to work evenings a lot. That's been one of the blessings that kept him away from the dating scene."
Dating websites have been reinventing themselves since online dating took off in the mid-1990s. They've refined their methods, largely emphasizing a more scientific approach, which often includes compatibility and personality testing. Others have focused on niche marketing, including Spark Networks.
LavalifePRIME surveyed 1,001 adults ages 45-65 in the USA and Canada last month who are not in a serious relationship and found almost one-third (31 percent) have never been married.
Carl Weisman of Redondo Beach, Calif., author of "So Why Have You Never Been Married?," conducted an online survey for the book and found that 48 percent of the 1,533 bachelors ages 40 and older who responded said they were afraid of marrying the wrong person.
"They'd rather go to the grave unmarried than marry someone wrong," says Weisman, 49. "The No. 1 fear is marrying the wrong person -- more than not marrying at all -- by 10 to 1."
In addition to the online survey, Weisman conducted lengthy telephone interviews with 30 men. He says writing the book changed his own perspective.
"I was interviewing men 10 years older than me, and I felt like I could look into my future. I was not necessarily afraid, but I realized if I didn't change things, it was not going to change," he says.
Just weeks after completing the book, Weisman says he met a woman at a wine-tasting event and they now live together. They've talked about marriage; by the time they tie the knot, he expects they will have known each other three years.
Pepper Schwartz, a sociologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, says the Internet has given never-marrieds new hope for matrimony.
"If you were 50 and you went to a dinner party, what's the chance of meeting a good selection, if any, of eligible people• People would show you the one person they knew who was single, and you would consider that person very closely, even if they were slightly disturbing, because you weren't going to meet many," she says.
Despite being engaged in her 20s, Stacey Kono, 48, of Beaverton, Ore., says she really didn't think about looking for a husband when she was younger because she wasn't sure a long-term relationship was for her.
"It was never on my list of things to do. I just wanted to go to work," she says. "Because I am financially stable on my own, I did not need a partner."
Her husband, Terry Kono, 51, also was focused on his career. Because he's in the military, he was moving at least every three years, which he says made developing a long-term relationship difficult.
But as they got older, both decided to try eHarmony, a site that matches members based on a lengthy compatibility questionnaire.
And they didn't limit themselves on location: He lived in South Dakota; she was in Las Vegas. They dated for two years until he was transferred to Virginia. She moved to Virginia, and the couple were married last year.
Unlike the Konos, Richard Elliott, 54, a software engineer from Bedford, Texas, says he had always wanted to be married, but "it just never happened."
"I thought I'd buy a house and pool and work on an immaculate lawn, and I thought somebody would just show up. You get all these things and it makes you more attractive, but it doesn't work that way. You have to get out there and be more proactive," he says.
In his 40s, he says, he sold the house and bought a sailboat, which led him to meet people. He was in a short relationship with a woman 15 years younger, and after they broke up, he decided to look online. That's where he met his wife, Cindy. They dated for a year, were engaged a year, and now they've been married a year and a half.
Cindy Elliott, a marketing manager, 49, says she had been in a five-year relationship during her early 30s, and then figured it was too late for her.
"There was a time when I thought, 'It's just not going to happen.' But the World Wide Web is a wonderful thing," she says.