How to break free from the single trap: seven tips

Are you stuck in the lonely hearts’ club? The marital therapist Andrew G. Marshall says finding love is just a matter of changing your tactics

For some, being single is no longer a natural phase between the end of one relationship and the beginning of another but somewhere they have become trapped. In my new book The Single Trap I look at the underlying causes: how the internet might provide more choice but makes it harder to choose; how having divorced parents makes it more difficult to trust; and the social changes that mean we meet fewer prospective partners.

However, it is possible to break free from the single trap. The first step is to take a fresh look at yourself. Often the very things that we think protect us from getting hurt make it harder for new people to come into our lives and because like attracts like it is important to balance ourselves. The second step involves changing the way that we search for love, to become more open-minded, learning the art of mixing and making more fulfilling emotional connections, as the extract on the facing page shows.

In my work as a marital therapist I always start by taking a history of my client’s relationships. Most people knew each other casually, or even distantly, before going out together. Work has been another low-risk way to meet people; other couples have a shared interest. The key advantage of meeting someone casually — as a friend of a friend, through work or sharing a hobby — is that all the defences are down. You are not meeting a potential life partner, but chatting for 30 seconds waiting for the lift. The stakes are so low there is no need for game-playing and you are more likely to be yourself.

What I’m suggesting in effect is a return to the roots of British courting: parading, mixing, and saying “how do you do?” At parties, it’s not looking for a partner but for an interesting conversation, which might lead to a recommendation for an art exhibition and getting talking to someone else at the gallery. It’s about joining a poetry class, not to find a potential date, but because you love words and then going to a classmate’s coffee-shop performance and being introduced to someone from his or her workplace.

Mixing is about being open to new ideas, new opportunities and ultimately new people. The good news is that not only will these seven skills opposite help you to meet more people, they will also undo some of the bad habits acquired through dating.


1. Riding the flow

Have you ever been so wrapped up in something that when you looked at your watch, time had evaporated? Psychologists call this “riding the flow”. Not only is it extremely pleasurable, but your mood is expansive, tolerant and creative. Even better, we forget ourselves and are less self-conscious and self-critical. Not only is this the perfect state of mind to meet a partner, but the chances are increased dramatically; happy people are a pleasure to be around. People get more satisfaction from activities outside work — the most common examples are sport or exercise, or satisfaction could come from joining a choir or volunteering. So how do you find your own personal flow? It must be something you find personally rewarding and which maintains your interest. Set yourself small, realistic goals. It is better to aim at learning 20 French words a week than to speak French in time for your holiday. Seek to help others rather than just looking after number one. You will reap the personal benefits. Research shows that volunteering is the second greatest source of joy, after dancing, and a good way of meeting people. As your aim is to find a partner, look for ways to flow with other people. If hours disappear when you are playing the piano, accompany the local amateur dramatic society. If you enjoy squash, join a league.

2. Six degrees of separation

Frigyes Karinthy, a Hungarian author, claimed that we can link ourselves to any other human being on Earth using no more than five intermediaries, one of whom is a personal acquaintance. The idea was tested in a Sixties experiment by a social psychologist who mailed random people and asked them to forward a parcel to someone who might forward it closer to the final recipient. The average number of times the parcel was forwarded was six. But what does all this mean for mixing and finding your ideal partner? Firstly, the more friends and acquaintances, the greater chances of meeting him or her. Market researcher John T. Molloy interviewed 2,500 couples and found that women about to marry knew significantly more people than women with no proposal in sight. Secondly, six degrees of separation underlines how important it is to take every opportunity to talk to people. Look back at your previous partners. How many times did you meet someone who was a friend of a friend? Even if you met by chance, did you have acquaintances in common?

3. Becoming open-hearted

What is the best predictor for whether two people will be attracted? When I put this question to acquaintances, there was a clear consensus: looks. Yet if you look around your own circle of friends, you will find ordinary and even plain people who are never short of dates, and gorgeous ones who seem doomed to remain single. So what’s going on? Fortunately, social psychologists have always been fascinated by what attracts people to each other and the key predictor is not looks but the sheer amount of contact time. We expect to be attracted to the unknown, but are most likely to fall for the known. Social psychologists have found a second key predictor of mutual attraction: similarity. Although we might occasionally like a challenge, ultimately we choose someone similar in one or more of the following ways: attitudes, personality, demographic characteristics and lifestyle. So how do you move from a spark of interest for someone you see on a regular basis to a relationship? Becoming open-hearted Contrary to many people’s expectations, personality is more important than looks in attracting a partner; students were asked to rate qualities in possible mates, and the results were: 1) Kind and considerate; 2) Socially exciting; 3) Artistic/intelligent; 4) Easy-going/adaptable.

So how do you come across as open-hearted? Smile: This will not only make you seem warm but approachable too. Maintain good eye contact — people who cannot look us directly in the eye are considered to be lying. Be positive: We like people who make us feel good about the world, and ourselves. Appear interested: This includes nodding the head, repeating back key phrases and, most powerful of all, identifying feelings (“you must have been horrified”).

4. Flirting

If you have been out of the singles game for a while, flirting can be particularly daunting. In essence, there are three key ingredients to successful flirting: encouraging body language, easy-flowing conversation and confidence.

Encouraging body language Leaning slightly towards someone — although not too close — shows interest. Nodding signals not only encouragement but also demonstrates involvement in the story that you’re being told. Blinking can also set a romantic mood. We blink every two or three seconds and increasing the rate will increase your partner’s too. Conversely slowing down a blink can be sexually attractive as it mimics a wink. Mirroring — matching your body posture to someone else’s — can amplify intimacy.

Easy-flowing conversation Value small talk: It’s a good way of warming up for a more interesting conversation and provides a breathing space to relax. When using small talk add extra conversational hooks: “At least the rain will bring on things in my allotment.” Look for areas of conversational connection. Echo the other person’s language. Don’t block topics A rant against dogs fouling the pavements will not build rapport. Never underestimate the importance of asking questions. A good listener will always be appreciated.

Confidence We like confident, outgoing people Make a list of three things under the following headings — parts of my body that I like; positive aspects of my personality; past achievements; past compliments and my potential. Check your language in case you are unknowingly running yourself down. Be upbeat: When you are interested and excited, your face muscles become more animated and more attractive. Confidence is not about being perfect. It comes from knowledge and experience, and through achieving small goals.

5. Taking a risk

When adopting this mixing skill, the first job is to reconsider people that you already know but have dismissed on possibly spurious grounds. John T.Molloy found that 20 per cent of the women he interviewed coming out of a marriage bureau had not liked their intended when they first met him. However, something made them reconsider and take a risk. The second way of taking a risk is to suspend judgment for longer and give your unconscious time to breathe and decide. If you have been thinking about someone in a new way, it is probably time to see more of them. This might be officially seen as a date, or possibly an extension of your normal routine. I would suggest you follow these guidelines:

No introspection on the date :Just enjoy the moment. Let the experience brew: Try to avoid making a judgment and instead sleep on it. Ultimately, your unconscious will tell you if there is a true match But your unconscious can talk only if you are prepared to listen — and that’s impossible if you’re too busy analysing. By waiting until the next morning, you will have avoided the snap judgment and stretched your normal window of decision-making.

6. Do as you would be done by

We frequently judge on the most superficial grounds, but demand that others consider our character and personality, not just our looks, weight and bank balance. If men knew the problems of women (who have traditionally supposed to wait to be asked) and women knew men’s fears (looking foolish), we would be kinder. These are the new rules of seeing someone: Both men and women have an equal opportunity to ask each other out. The policy should be, generally, to accept an invitation. First outings should be small events. If you promise to call or contact, it is your responsibility to do so. Whoever suggests the outing pays.

7. Be philosophical

Although we think of philosophy as being dominated by dead men with beards, it is in essence about making sense of the world around us. We have to accept the things over which we have no control and concentrate on what we can influence: our own behaviour. This means embracing all of the seven skills of mixing and, in particular, taking a risk. Sometimes when we stop trying to control — and when we least expect it — love comes to us.

© Andrew G. Marshall 2009. Extracted from The Single Trap: The Two-Step Guide to Escaping it and Finding Lasting Love (Bloomsbury, £12.99), published on February 2. The book is available for £11.69, free p&p, from Times Books; tel 0845 2712134,

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