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Outside London, the dating pool may be smaller – but there are fewer sharks | Elle Hunt

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When I left London for a smaller city, my only hesitation was over what it would mean for my love life. By moving from a large dating pool to a small one, was I committing myself to lifelong singledom?

The other thirtysomethings in my new home city seem mostly coupled up: either locals who got together in their 20s, or outsiders who have moved with partners to have kids. You don’t have to be swiping for long before you are informed that you’ve exhausted the singles in the area. Hinge responds by re-serving the same selection, like an amateur magician trying to lead you to a particular card.

But, two and a half years and a few dates into my move, I’m not convinced that the grass is greener in London. New data confirms this.

In his recent analysis of British women aged 25 to 35, demographer Stephen J Shaw found a “notable urban disparity” in the heterosexual dating market, with 47% of those in London saying the main barrier to starting a family was finding a suitable partner. The national aggregate figure, excluding London and south-east England, was 32%.

Coupled with the fact that in London women in the age bracket outnumber men by 7%, the task facing them of not only finding a good man but holding his interest – starts to seem daunting if not futile. Shaw’s conclusion was that women in London face a “remarkably high challenge in finding a family-oriented partner”, and may be better off moving elsewhere.

It may sound like extreme advice, but this mating or dating “gap” is now well documented. In her 2023 book Motherhood on Ice, the US medical anthropologist Marcia C Inhorn dismantles the persistent (and casually sexist) misconception that women who choose to freeze their eggs do so to progress in their careers. From interviews with 150 American women, mostly in large cities, Inhorn found that the overwhelming reason was to buy them time in which to find a suitable partner.

The three major “partnership challenges” Inhorn identified had to do not with her interviewees but with the men they were encountering – men who were threatened by these high-achieving women, not ready for marriage or children, and/or unfaithful, ageist or otherwise undesirable.

Seeking to explain the “London effect” preventing women from finding a mate, Shaw pointed to variables such as “demanding work schedules, high stress levels … urban cultural norms, cost of living and housing availability”. Adults are living in houseshares, or increasingly with their parents; unable to save, they may be spending for the now and have little thought for the future.

Women, at least, have the reality of their “biological clock” to contend with; in London, men need never settle down – or, indeed, ever grow up. In the decades since it was popularised by the American pop-psychologist Dan Kiley in 1983, “Peter Pan syndrome” – whereby young adults are locked in a kind of permanent adolescence – has accelerated as though on steroids, enabled (in my view, and Inhorn’s) in part by the superficial connection encouraged by dating apps.

This technology also permits those inclined to manipulative or deceitful behaviour to act with impunity. On Facebook, nearly every major English-speaking city has its own dedicated chapter of “Are we dating the same guy?”, in which local women solicit or share intel on their dates. The frequency with which men are found to be lying about partners, families and even basic biographical information is shocking. But the apps allow them to cut their losses and move on to their next match as soon as they’re found out.

Of course, infidelity isn’t specific to big cities – but it’s harder to get away with bad behaviour in a small town. Not only must you reckon with the risk of running into someone you’ve wronged every time you pop to the supermarket, but word travels. It doesn’t strike me as a coincidence that the most upstanding, mature men I’ve met of my age lately have been locals (and, being local, in longstanding relationships).

Without trying, I’ve also met their friends and even family. It’s further testament to the challenge of operating in a silo here. My single female friends and I have matched with and even dated the same men, which could strike some as claustrophobic. I find instead it engenders a reassuring social proof: if one of us is treated badly, the others will know about it. Likewise, should a single man arrive in town, it seems inevitable that our paths will eventually cross.

In any case, the experts are aligned: don’t stick around in London purely to find a mate. Dating may be a numbers game, but a larger pool isn’t necessarily better. It may just be murkier, with more sharks.

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