Lovelorn? The 3:1 problem

For every three 50-plus women looking for a date, there is only one available man of the same age. Just one of the reminders that Valentine's Day delivers The Times’ Suzi Godson

Ever since I was a kid I’ve hated Valentine’s Day. In the first two weeks of February, the anticipation at my all-girls convent boarding school was relentless.

Out loud, we prayed for the starving black babies in Africa. Silently, we prayed for valentine cards from secret admirers. Big ones. Delivered on the right day. Preferably in ostentatious red envelopes.

Year after disappointing year, my prayers went unanswered. On the day, Sister Agnes, the headmistress, would hoik up her habit and climb on to a chair in the draughty assembly hall, brandishing a too-small handful of envelopes. It was a hideous form of public humiliation.

Every shriek of frenzied excitement was matched tenfold by the silent despair of those, like me, who realised that despite months of hinting, our mothers had, yet again, failed to preserve our dignity by putting a card in the post.

The greatest deceit of Valentine’s Day

By the time I was in the sixth form I had a proper boyfriend, but he never got it together to send me a valentine card either. Of course, one of the greatest deceits of Valentine’s Day is the idea that men buy into it too. They don’t.

They may be expected to proclaim their love and verbalise their feelings, but all they are doing is reading from a script that is fundamentally female. It is an incongruity that surely explains why every valentine card I have ever received has said something as deep and meaningful as “Guess Who”.

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I can look forward to a jokey card and a bunch of flowers purchased on the way home from work

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I wasn’t bothered by my boyfriend’s failure to deliver, because by then, I had taken matters into my own hands and sent myself an anonymous valentine card as a safeguard. It was a tactic that I subsequently realised most of the other girls had adopted years before.

In fact, if I had only been smart enough to examine the postmarks on those much-envied early valentines, it is highly likely that they would all have borne the franking mark of the local post office.

Sending yourself a valentine card is a particularly tragic admission, but research suggests that it is not a behaviour pattern confined to lonely Catholic schoolgirls. According to the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association, women buy 85 per cent of valentine cards, which is a lot when you consider that 24 per cent of all cards produced by the card industry are for Valentine’s Day.

A large percentage of them are undoubtedly being ‘returned to sender’ because, according to a survey by Date.com, 75 per cent of single women admit to having invented a faux valentine and 80 per cent of those have also sent themselves flowers.

The smuggest celebration of the year

To be a single woman during the smuggest celebration of the year is a test. And the older a woman gets, the more depressing it feels, because from birth onwards, the male-female sex ratio alters in favour of men.

Although an equal number of boys and girls are born, testosterone-fuelled risk-taking behaviour means that boys have a higher mortality rate. By the time a girl is 18 there are 51 girls for every 49 boys in the population.

That imbalance becomes even more pronounced later on because there are double the number of gay men to lesbians, and far more men wind up in prison.

For the older woman with a shrinking social circle, online dating might once have seemed like the perfect way to ensure a date for Valentine’s Day, but although most dating sites do their best to engineer an equal gender balance, they can’t factor out the distortion created by the male fixation with youth.

Men seeking younger women

When specifying the age of the women he would potentially date, the median 31-year-old male sets an ideal age range of 22 to 35 years. That means he is willing to consider a potential date who is nine years younger, but only four years older, than himself.

This skew only gets worse with age. The average 42-year-old male is willing to date a woman who is up to 15 years younger than himself, and his maximum upper limit is just three years older. To add insult to injury, although women have more pursuers than men until they reach 26, after that, men are more in demand.

By the age of 48, men are nearly twice as sought-after as women. And on dating sites, for every 50-plus man looking for someone of the opposite sex and same age, there are three women.

If Valentine’s Day sucks for singles, it isn’t much better for couples. Since it is mandatory for everyone who is ‘in a relationship’ to ‘celebrate’ Valentine’s Day, this 14 February 14 I can look forward to a jokey card propped up against the marmalade and a bunch of flowers purchased on the way home from work.

Obligatory commercial gestures

Though intended as an expression of affection, the lack of genuine emotion attached to these obligatory commercial gestures only ever serves to remind me that Valentine’s Day is a con orchestrated by women like myself who have an unending, almost pathological need for validation.

Men can’t get it right. In fact, the stress of living up to Valentine’s Day expectations creates so much pressure that, according to a 2004 study conducted at Arizona State University, couples in ‘moderately strong’ or ‘weak’ relationships are two and a half times more likely to split up during the two weeks surrounding the event.

Any kind of public holiday tends to amplify existing concerns about a relationship. Christmas, arguably the biggest celebration of the year, is followed by a flood of January divorces, most notably in the second week, when work recommences and the kids go back to school.

The next big bonanza in a divorce lawyer’s calendar is 14 February, a day on which there has been a 40 per cent increase in requests for divorce, according to US legal website Awo.

The good news, I suppose, is that all those break-ups mean there are more potential mates on the market. And of course, if you are male, single, and 50-plus, you can stratospherically increase your chance of finding a valentine simply by dating a woman who is your own age.

In contrast, if you are female, single and 50-plus, you will fare better if you date from the remaining pool of single men in their early twenties; the ones who can’t compete for age-appropriate women because they are being hit on by older men with bigger pay cheques.

The bad news is that couples who are in ‘moderately strong’ or ‘weak’ relationships are probably best advised to either split up now to avoid spending 60 quid on heart-shaped tat, or to dig a hole, climb into it and stay there until the rest of us have fraudulently acted out our special heart-shaped day of compulsory love.