What I learnt about love from a 73-year-old dating coach

Journalist Suzy Walker took coaching from psychotherapist Stephen Ellerker
Journalist Suzy Walker took coaching from psychotherapist Stephen Ellerker - Andrew Fox

My phone pinged and I glanced at the photograph on my phone and I reeled back. My friend grabbed my phone and started to laugh. “Oh my God! Your first d— pic,” she said. “Welcome to the world of online dating.”

It felt like the last straw. I had just recovered from a recent heartbreak after moving to Northumberland with a new partner and breaking up with him soon after because he “wanted to travel”.

But I was 55 and not ready to give up on love yet. Divorced for eight years, and with my son at university, I decided to brave the world of online dating. Recent research found that 50-year-olds are divorcing more often than they were in the past and it’s being called the “grey divorce revolution” so in theory there were lots of available people out there.

My single friends recommended apps – Hinge, Bumble, even Tinder. They helped me pick my best photos and write an upbeat profile. “It’s a bit grim,” they warned. They were right. I wasted hours of my life with men who seemed keen, messaged me every night and then suddenly “ghosted” me. Ghosting? I learnt a whole new language: ghosting (disappearing without a trace), catfishing (fake profile created to scam you), breadcrumbing (stringing someone along). And unfortunately, I also learnt what a “d— pic” was.

I was delighted, therefore, when I met Stephen Ellerker, a psychotherapist who at 73 had recently retrained to become a Kindling Dating coach and was teaching mid-life women like me how to date online. I met Ellerker when I had been interviewing him about an article about career change in your 70s. He had decided to train as an online dating coach when he had tried dating apps himself and had experienced the turmoil that they can create.

Stephen Ellerker made a career change to become a Kindling Dating coach after trying dating apps himself
Stephen Ellerker made a career change to become a Kindling Dating coach after trying dating apps himself - Andrew Fox

“It’s never too late to fall in love. But online dating can be a minefield and I realised early on that you have to work on your mindset if you are going to succeed,” he said. He invited me to work with him via Zoom and take the Kindling Dating six-week challenge. Ellerker was kind, grounded and knowledgeable – I accepted his challenge.

Make a list of how you want to feel

There is a lot of advice out there asking you to write a list of your ideal partner traits. Instead, Ellerker gets me to write a list of the feelings I want to feel. Safe (I need to trust the man), loved, sexy and entertained.

“When you get clear about how you want to feel, your emotions will give you instant feedback on whether you want to move forward with a potential date,” Ellerker says. “In week one, notice how you feel when you are chatting online to potential suitors,” he advises. Depressingly, I realise I feel frustrated and rejected and that online conversations feel dull and stilted. I feel a failure.

Fail fast, learn fast

“Apply the ‘fail fast, learn fast’ adage to your dating approach,” says Ellerker. “Every failure is an opportunity to learn. What are you learning?” he asks. I’m learning that I hate putting myself out there, I hate feeling this vulnerable, I hate putting myself in the way of idiots who think I would be interested in their repellent slug of a penis.

“Dating successfully is 90 per cent about mindset. There are hundreds of potential partners out there but if you close down after bad experiences, which confirm and create negative belief systems, you won’t stay the course,” says Ellerker. “What would you need to believe to create a more positive dating experience?” he asks. I want to believe that love wins, that there are loving, interesting, funny, intelligent men out there, that I am brave enough to keep going. “Build evidence to prove that those beliefs are true,” says Ellerker.

Ellerker advises that 'dating successfully is 90 per cent about mindset'
Ellerker advises that 'dating successfully is 90 per cent about mindset' - Andrew Fox

I scan the site and match with a man who looks sweet and is a “vegetable breeder”. I think he’s joking. He’s not. When we meet, he gives me a cauliflower. “Next time, I’ll bring you carrots,” he says. I never hear from him again.

Create a dating funnel 

Ellerker encourages me to speed up. “If you like their profile, then just ask them out on a ‘pre-date’ coffee,” he says. “Meet people as fast as possible and don’t invest any emotional energy until you’ve met them.”

This works like a treat. On week two, I have three pre-date coffees in the diary. What do you wear? Where shall we meet? (Jeans and a cute top, an indie café with good coffee in Newcastle.) Ridiculously nervous, I am exhausted before I even get there.

My first date looks even more terrified than I am and never quite meets my eye and then tries to kiss me on the mouth as we are leaving and I almost headbutt him trying to get out of his way.

The second date just doesn’t turn up. I sit there, fuming that I wasted petrol and my posh lipstick. But I keep focused on being brave. Love wins, I intone. Bingo!

The third date is with a charming French ballroom dancer who wants to waltz with me. He texts me before I get home from our coffee date and invites me for dinner.

Stop waiting to be chosen

It’s a whirlwind of meetings with Frenchie (as my girlfriends call him) and he gives good date. We sit in a restaurant on the beach and eat lobster, he takes me to the cinema to watch a film about a Cuban dancer, we take a painting class together, go to a vintage market. I feel like I’m in a romcom. He’s great company but he does not make a move. Not one kiss. Maybe he doesn’t find me attractive.

“Should I make a move?” I ask Ellerker. “How does he make you feel?” He’s definitely entertaining, I reply. But safe, loved, sexy? Nope. Ellerker encourages me to put myself in the driving seat. “Stop waiting to be chosen,” he says. As I discuss our new-year plans, I’m brave and tell him: “I would like a boyfriend in 2024.”

“I don’t want to be your boyfriend,’ he answers. “Well, I don’t want to be your wife!” I quip. The joke falls flat. He’s recently divorced for the second time.

“I’m seeking an alternative to the forever relationship and choose instead to love deeply in the moment.” What does that mean? “Friend with benefits,” he shrugs. I want to punch him.

“Write about your anger in your journal. Dating is about learning how to process all the emotions that come up, so you can continue looking for love,” says Ellerker.

Be clear about what YOU want 

On week five, I feel like giving up. “It’s easy to get demotivated, lose trust, let your self-esteem drop and construct defences to protect yourself,” counsels Ellerker. “Think of dating as a self-development exercise to learn and grow – stop doing the same thing and expecting different results.”

I definitely have a type. My ex and Frenchie are men who wanted the fun and intimacy without the commitment. As I rant to Ellerker, I realise I wasn’t angry with them, but with myself – for not getting the clarity I needed sooner. I was admirably polite with Frenchie and told him I didn’t want to be his friend with benefits.

'Stop doing the same thing and expecting different results,' says Ellerker
'Stop doing the same thing and expecting different results,' says Ellerker - Andrew Fox

I vow to Ellerker to be more upfront about what I want from now on. I tweak my profile. I am looking for a fun, loving, committed, kind boyfriend in 2024. I ask five new men out on a coffee date.

Commit to the process

Life is getting busier at work, my dog sitter goes AWOL and my car breaks down so when Danny, 57, from Durham, says yes to a coffee date, I have to cancel at the last minute. We rearrange but on the next day we are set to meet, it’s pouring down. I wonder whether I can be bothered. But I decide to commit to the process and arrive with my wet, smelly dog under my arm, drenched to the skin.

Danny holds my wet dog while I dry myself off. He’s funny, kind and straightforward. He flirts and grins and tells me he wants a girlfriend in 2024. Our coffee date becomes a three-hour chat-fest and I feel I have known him for ever.

We meet again for three more dates – a beach walk, an art exhibition, then dinner – before he asks if he can kiss me. I say yes. How do I feel? Safe, loved, sexy and entertained. Three months on, he is making my heart – and phone – ping every day. And not a d— pic in sight.

Ellerker is delighted for me. “Everyone can learn how to date online – it’s about taking baby steps, being clear about your goals, not rushing in. It’s remembering that falling in love is possible at an age. It’s about having hope and never giving up,” he says.

For more information on coaching sessions with Stephen Ellerker, visit Kindling Dating.