Dating in Northern Ireland by Maureen Coleman

The search for a soul-mate can be an eternal quest for many people; a constant stream of broken romances and serial dating in the hope of finding “The One”. Love may blossom over the office water-cooler or in the meal-for-one frozen food section of your local supermarket, but for others, the perfect partner might prove harder to meet.

Raising a family single-handedly, longer working hours, less socializing and financial restrictions mean that for many, the traditional ways of meeting potential suitors are being replaced with online dating and social media sites.

But according to Jennifer Haskins, who gave internet dating a go, these have their pitfalls when it comes to separating “the men from the boys”.

After an unpleasant experience with a man she met online, Dubliner Jennifer (47), a divorced mother of three, decided to join a dating agency in her native city. The agency provided a confidential match-making service and after several years of successful dating, which resulted in one long-term relationship, she decided to break out on her own and set up Two’s Company.

Now the most successful introduction and dating agency in Ireland, Two’s Company has members ranging in age from 25 to 80 years throughout Ireland, north and south. While its head office is in Dublin, it has representatives in Belfast and Jennifer says she is seeing a marked increase in the number of people from Northern Ireland signing up.

Many of her clients joined Jennifer’s agency after growing disenchanted with internet dating and the impersonal nature of meeting online.

“People are forgetting how to communicate nowadays,” she says. “That is something that we are keeping alive. When they join Two’s Company they are actually going to physically meet someone after talking to them initially over the phone. It’s so much more personal than being in touch with someone via a smartphone or Facebook.

“I’m amazed at how many people don’t know how to start a conversation with someone else any more. That really has to evolve. What I’m seeing is that people are getting disillusioned with internet dating and realizing the downside of it. What we promote is real human interaction.”

Jennifer first mooted the possibility of establishing a dating agency around 12 years ago, after reading a magazine article about an Irish woman who’d set up Berkeley International, an elite London-based matchmaking agency. Having worked in manufacturing for many years, she had the necessary entrepreneurial skills to put her plan into action. She sold up her bakery business and went back to college, to study psychology, counselling and executive coaching. In 2008, she set up Two’s Company.

“I’ve always been interested in anything that involves relationships, human nature and how people operate. I’m fascinated by psychology and what makes people tick and have built up a library of books over the years,” she says.

“Having my qualification has hugely helped me with Two’s Company because I think I have a deeper understanding of emotions and the whole human experience. Also, having been married, separated and divorced with three grown-up children helps me to empathise with other people. I come at it from a non-judgemental approach and try and understand what it is that I can do to help others.”

When her marriage broke up, Jennifer picked herself up, brushed herself down and started socialising again, trying her hand at speed dating and internet dating. She found speed dating – an organised activity where people meet would-be partners through a series of short conversations – a strange experience, while internet dating left her feeling too vulnerable.

“The reason I joined a dating agency primarily was because I had a bad experience with online dating,” she says. “It was a very significant episode for me because up until that moment, I had always felt very capable. I’d always presumed that if I found myself in a threatening, awkward or uncomfortable situation I’d be able to handle myself.”

While she doesn’t want to reveal the exact nature of the upsetting incident she says it was “very threatening” and made her realise that her personal safety was her main priority.

“I dipped my toe into online dating on and off for a few years prior to that incident,” she says. “But one of the things that’s important to point out is that we’re talking about 10 or 12 years ago when internet dating was in its infancy. There are so many more sites out there now, it’s a lot more open.

“Of course, I’d think twice about it now. If you meet someone online, you don’t know if that person is going to turn out to be psychotic, have some type of psychological disorder or a criminal background.”

Two’s Company, the only dating agency in Ireland to receive accreditation from the Association of British Introduction Agencies, operates a “sophisticated and rigorous” selection procedure. Potential clients undergo a telephone assessment first, then a face-to-face interview, which Jennifer is quick to point out is relaxed and informal.

If the team feel there is someone on their books that is a suitable match, they will take the new client on. But, as Jennifer stresses, this only happens if she is confident she can make a good match. And the interview process is the best way of separating the wheat from the chaff.

“We can’t Garda-vet our members but put it like this, someone isn’t going to come to us and go through such a rigorous interview, sharing all their information like their date of birth, their address, what they do for a living, their background and family circumstances, if they have the option of just going on the internet, where they have none of those filters, and can be a predator, looking for vulnerable women,” she explains.

“We don’t attract those type of people. In seven years we have never had one incident, not even a hint of anything happening. We are very safe. People are investing physically, financially and emotionally in this process. It really does sort out the men from the boys, the women from the girls.

“We only attract people who are genuinely looking for a relationship. It’s not a platform for one night stands or flings. They have made a decision to come to us, they are looking for a life partner, a soul-mate. That’s what they come to an agency for.”

Jennifer based her agency on the model of the now-defunct Dublin one she previously belonged to. She also went over to England to check out dating agencies there.

“It’s huge business in the UK,” she says. “Each area has its own agency. And it’s even bigger still in the US and Australia.”

While her experiences of internet dating and speed dating may not have been positive, Jennifer was impressed with the calibre of men she met through the agency she’d signed up to. And though she is currently single, she did meet a man whom she went out with for several years.

“I’m not in a relationship at the moment,” she says. “But I did meet someone for a period of time and I found the whole experience a very positive one.

“The people I was meeting through the agency were far superior to those I met in other situations. There seemed to be a higher level of sincerity, they weren’t just in it for fun. I was meeting people on a one-to-one basis. I’d have one date, if it worked, we’d take it forward. If it didn’t work, we’d go back to the agency and we’d be introduced to someone else. It wasn’t multiple dating though. There was no juggling around or anything like that. It was all very respectful, secure, honest and transparent. That’s what I wanted for my agency too.”

Jennifer says she would never dream of using her own agency to meet a man, although her friends tease her that she’s in the perfect position to sift through the suitors to find Mr Right.

“I’d never do that,” she says. “I’m very particular about that. I have to be ultra professional. I’m always in business mode, so that would never be on my radar.”

She believes the stigma of joining a dating agency is slowly fading, but that Ireland has still some way to go before it catches up with other countries, where it’s common practice. Nevertheless, she admits that her clientele are still reluctant to go on record and talk publicly about their experiences.

“We have all sorts on our books,” she says, “from farmers to very professional types, TDs, people in the media, well-known celebrities. Our clients come from right across the board and we have memberships to suit all budgets and types.

“We have a huge database of people from all over Ireland, including quite a lot up North. As time goes on that is building and building. Something else I’m very particular about is that we have a healthy ratio of men and women. The national average is 30% men, to 70% women but I prefer to work off a more balanced and even rate.”

Men are more reticent about coming forward to join up which means that quite often, there is a waiting list of women. Jennifer finds that when it comes to looking for love, men are less pro-active. And that’s where she feels many people fall down when it comes to meeting The One.

She says: “Of course you can meet someone in the supermarket or a book shop, but not everyone finds themselves in those situations. If it hasn’t happened, how long are you going to wait or are you actually going to play a part and be pro-active in making it happen?

“The universe can do so much for you but you have to get up and make things happen. Whatever we’ve achieved in our lives, from going to school or college, getting a good education, a good job, playing sport, has been the result of being pro-active. So why would we not apply this to our love lives?

“We’ve been conditioned and programmed as young children to believe in fairy tales and love stories and to believe that love is the one thing that happens to you rather than you making it happen. Chick flicks like Love Actually and You’ve Got Mail are lovely, but they’re not real life. If I want to meet someone, then what am I going to do about it? I can go to a bar or a club, take up a hobby or sport, or join a dating agency. Then the universe will respond.”

Love has no age limits either, she says. Everywhere in the world, there are lonely people from 19 to 90 who want to feel loved.

“As long as your heart is beating you will want to give love and you will want to be loved,” she says. “I’ve had people as old as 80 come to me. Others says to me: ‘Oh my God, you’ve taken on someone at 80!’. But why should we differentiate? They have as much right to be loved as someone in their 20s.”

In the eight years that Two’s Company has been running, Jennifer and her staff have seen many success stories, including engagements, weddings and babies. Last year was a particularly bumper period for happy endings, with a total of 10 proposals. But if you think the agency boss is brushing off her hat, Cilla Black-style, to attend numerous weddings, you’d be wrong. She prefers to maintain a discreet distance from the loved-up couples, but says she gets plenty of thank you cards in the post.

Does Jennifer still hold out hope that she’ll find Mr Right?

“Absolutely,” she laughs. “I’m a true romantic, always have been, always will be.

“I still believe in The One, it’s just I’m too busy right now looking after everyone else’s love life to think about my own.”

If you are from Northern counties and are looking for your “Mr or Ms right”, don’t delay, we would like to hear from you!

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