'She put a hex on me,' my date told me, straight-faced, staring into my eyes gravely. 'If I was within a few miles of her, I would feel like I was having a heart attack.'
I pursed my lips and squinted my eyes, trying to decide if he was making an elaborate joke or if I was secretly being filmed. On his Match.com profile, he seemed normal: well- travelled, good taste in films, funny.
But the first thing he told me as we sat down for a drink was that he was recovering from a recently ended marriage. To a witch.
When he started talking about visiting rival witches to get the spell removed, I realised he was deadly serious. I gulped down my beer and lied about a meeting I had to rush to.
I'm recalling this dating disaster a few days later to Lee-Anne Galloway, a Toronto-based dating coach who refers to herself as a 'dateologist' and is now questioning me about my romantic history.
We're skyping between Toronto and my living room in New York. Lee-Anne is 34-years-old, with dark blonde hair and a friendly face. Something about her makes her exceedingly easy to open up to.
Much has been made of the idea that dating is dead among millennials, that our app-driven lives are just a trail of hook-up after hook-up. Just look at the numbers: the Match Group, which owns more than 50 dating sites in 38 languages in 190 countries, including OkCupid, Tinder, and Match.com, claims to have upwards of 59 million active users, which is roughly equal to the population of the UK.
And while I am no stranger to apps (or hook-ups, for that matter) dating isn't dead just yet – it's just going through an identity crisis.
I date all the time: I have gone on countless coffee or drinks dates that have included rapid-fire questions about life, interests and backgrounds that end up feeling more like business meetings than meaningful connections.
I'm tired of staying out late on a school night, I'm bored of sitting through long descriptions of video games and frankly, I'm annoyed that I'm still single in my late thirties. I've enlisted Lee-Anne as a coach to help me decode and navigate today's exhausting dating landscape.
Dating isn't dead just yet – it's just going through an identity crisis
I tell her that I use Tinder (or Bumble, OkCupid or Hinge – anything except Raya, the Tinder-like app for the cool kids with professional sports players and minor comedians on it, which put me on its reject pile-slash-waiting-list after I submitted an application) in fits and spurts.
Last winter, I went on at least a dozen dates, which ranged from the regrettable (an artist who told me he was married after our third date; a filmmaker who claimed his aspiration was to become a kept man) to the sort-of promising (a successful tech guy who kissed with way too much tongue). Then I'll get so frustrated by all of it that I'll delete the app off my phone for a few months.
Like so many of my friends, I lead a highly managed life and I love bespoke services. I have a personal trainer who makes me do squats until I beg him for mercy and I have a therapist to sort out issues with work and family life. And those are just the people I see weekly: I've also been to nutritionists, financial planners, life coaches, astrologists. Hell, I've even sought out a shaman for spiritual assistance. I like to put my life in the hands of experts; I like help and personalised attention.
But when Lee-Anne asks me what exactly I'm looking for, I stumble.
While I have no problem making concise life goals – I want to write a book and have a country house – when it comes to my love life, I have a problem being focused.
'Er, that's the problem,' I tell her. 'I get overwhelmed by the array of men online and instead of being proactive I end up just waiting for them to approach me.'
I like to call it Former Nerd Syndrome: so accustomed was I to being overlooked by high-school football players during my teen years that I haven't quite caught up in confidence to approach men online. The guys who seek me out tend to range from the ones who solicit nude photos upon first message (come on, really?) or l'homme fatale types (psychopaths, egomaniacs, good guys gone bad).
I envy a friend of mine who narrowed down her OkCupid searches by putting in her physical type: brunettes over 6ft tall. She now lives with a guy she met that way. But I can hear my mother's voice inside my head telling me to be open and give everyone a chance. 'One dating trap can be scarcity,' Lee-Anne tells me. 'Like, if I don't pick this person, maybe there's no one else.'
'One dating trap can be scarcity. Like, if I don't pick this person, maybe there's no one else.'
Lee-Anne, who was recommended by friends, has become a dating oracle for millennials looking to untangle the knotted landscape of contemporary dating. She's a graduate of the FastTrack Coach Academy (yes, there's such a thing) and certified with the International Coach Federation – in other words, a professional life coach (as was her mother).
I bristle at the idea of paying Lee-Anne £40-£50 an hour when her training basically amounts to an online course. Can she really have any more expertise than friends or family, or even a bog-standard love manual? But as I RSVP to another wedding without a plus one, I realise that whatever I am doing on my own isn't exactly working out.
I fit right into Lee-Anne's customer demographic. About 80% of her clients are women in their early twenties to forties.
Typically, she'll coach someone for three months, either in person, over the phone or via Skype. 'The first month they are excited,' she tells me. 'The second month they realise how much work it takes to invest in yourself to make changes and see the results. And the third month they begin to see the fruits of their labour.' Much like a personal trainer, then.
On her website, one happy customer has said, 'Lee-Anne has the ability to listen deeply and inspire you to love yourself. Sometimes you just need that push, encouragement and accountability to reach the best you.'
I could have used those words to describe my favourite teacher from school. I'm not sure I'm looking for someone who sounds so gentle; modern-day dating is more like warfare, and I could benefit from someone whose demeanour is not mean, exactly, but a bit tough love.
For our session, she suggests reading between the lines of the profile photos or guys' social-media presence to try to glean as much information as I can before a first date.
On Tinder I swipe right (effectively stating I fancy him) on a guy named Todd, who's wearing a vintage hat and has well-groomed facial hair.
He's younger than me but says he works in radio, which I interpret as mature. I picture him chatting with his colleagues about world events in dulcet tones as opposed to the time I spend messaging mine about whether a celebrity got breast implants. We match (meaning he swiped right on me, too), which is always a minor thrill. I force myself to initiate contact and send a message complaining about the heat. 'Do you like cold drinks?' he responds. 'Have I mentioned I own a hammock that fits two,' I write back, cutting to the chase.
The question that is still niggling me is this: why do I feel a bit desperate for soliciting the experience of a dating coach for something as big and important as my love life?
'There's still so much shame and stigmatism around being single, and not being Beyoncé-style independent and wanting to meet someone,' says Hayley Quinn, a 29-year-old dating coach in London.
She tells her clients she favours places such as Equinox fitness clubs and Whole Foods Market stores for meeting 'premium guys'. For a moment I flash to myself in sweaty leggings and a messy bun, dripping from the treadmill, buying tampons and frozen spanakopita, blithely unaware of all the potential soulmates around me. 'Millennials believe you should have everything automated; you just want to push the boyfriend button.'
But finding an actual boyfriend is a lot more difficult than ordering food. 'A whole service industry is emerging,' says Hayley, who studied English and Psychoanalysis at University College London and began her career as a ghostwriter in the men's dating industry.
She charges £195- an-hour for private coaching; I ask who her clientele is. 'High- powered women, quite a few of whom are bisexual, between 28 and 45. I tell them there are dating skills you can learn, which is a good message for women – that you're not just unlucky.'
That panic-inducing message that women are just out of luck is what inspired the American journalist Moira Weigel to write a history of dating, Labor Of Love: The Invention Of Dating. 'Like everyone, I felt like I was reading about how courtship is over and dating is dead every other week,' she tells me, and the fear that dating is over is a way of 'expressing an anxiety about how men and women are supposed to be.'
She reminds me that dating, as we know it, is a new invention.
'Historically, people only started doing this thing they called dating in the 1890s. We've since seen a rapid shift in how women make their way in the world, like entering the workforce. Women were going out in public on their own and meeting men there instead of through family or their community. Suddenly, it's on you to meet someone.'
'I tell clients there are dating skills you can learn, which is a good message for women – that you're not just unlucky.'
But where and how do you meet someone when you've come down with a bad case of Tinder thumb and removed yourself from all apps? Jean Smith, a 42-year-old social and cultural anthropologist, has started something in London called Fearless Flirting Tours. These usually start in a gallery, where they use the paintings to spark conversation.
Alex McCorkindale, a charity manager in London, was sent on the tour by her sister. At 32, she was the youngest in her group. 'I thought the advice was going to be "flick your hair" but it was nothing like that,' says Alex.
The first stop was the foyer of the National Portrait Gallery, 'which was all quite scary, like we had signs above our heads saying, "I'm on a flirting course."' But making small talk with strangers about paintings proved to be less frightening than she'd imagined, and it changed the way she thought about her approach to an approach. All of this talk of going out of my way to interact with strangers is, frankly, terrifying. But I am sort of cheered up at the idea that, like anything else, flirting rarely comes naturally and, like most skills, it takes practice.
But fun aside, there is a more depressing gender bias when it comes to finding a partner.
The world of dating monopolises on women's fears of being alone (for me, specifically, it's dying alone, only to be discovered when the guy that owns the cornershop on my block wonders why I haven't come in to buy a Kit Kat in three days) and almost all of the coaches I spoke to had far more female clients than male.
The subscribers to Jean's course consist of about 70% women. 'Men often sign up, pay and don't show up,' she says. My dating life certainly differs from that of my male friends, none of whom have worried for a moment about dying alone. Dating for them is loose: an endless succession of girls they meet, sleep with, go to movies with. Why define something when you're having fun?
'We still think of dating as work for women and recreation for men: a man is a player while a woman is on the market. Women learned they had to worry about being desired more than about what they desire,' says Moira. 'These gender norms are outdated but people still feel bound by them, so there are high-achieving women who are feeling tremendous anxiety about being as go-getting in their romantic lives.'
None of my gay or lesbian friends have used a dating coach, which doesn't surprise me, since much of what they provide is hard-won insight into how the opposite sex sees you.
'I do have LGBTQ clients and I ask them what their goals are in dating, and what they are looking for,' says Lee-Anne. 'Their experiences tend to be more complicated as there are more roads to explore. Each client needs to start with themselves and find contentment in their life, no matter what their sexual preference; that always remains that same.'
Dating culture is lagging behind the rest of the progress we have made in the world, and it's lumped us with some odd scenarios and confounding terminology.
There was the novelist (so attractive he doubled as a model) who asked me out to dinner, lavished me with flirtatious emails and then vanished, only to resurface weeks later and like one of my Instagrams or corner me at a party to tell me how good I looked.
I stopped responding to any of it when I realised he had no intention of ever dating me and it was all to fuel his own ego, AKA 'benching'. That's not to be confused with 'ghosting', where someone disappears for good after what seemed like a promising start. This has happened to me and my friends so many times that our ghosts could haunt a castle.
Dating culture is lagging behind the rest of the progress we have made in the world, and it's lumped us with some odd scenarios and confounding terminology
At their worst, dating coaches are just another example of throwing money at a problem.
And if you speak to enough of them, you'll find their advice isn't exactly cohesive: there are many schools of thought. For example, one coach might tell you to go on a minimum of three dates per week with anyone who messages you, while another will say it's all about finding a quality match. But employing a dating coach at least makes me feel like I'm trying.
I'm beginning to see my dating coaches not as all-knowing prophets of love, but as wiser, more objective versions of my friends for whom no question is too dumb or annoying.
I tell Laurie Davis about my match with Todd.
She is a dating coach who splits her time between New York and Los Angeles and whose packages range from $750 to $4,000 a month (£613-£3,266). It's hard to tell what, or whom, is good value in this industry. 'Todd seemed nice,' I say, 'but our back-and-forth texts (sample: "Really long commute") were slightly anaemic. Should I meet up with him?' 'Is he worth a margarita?' Laurie, who is 34 and a former marketing consultant, asks. 'I always say "margarita" because margaritas are fun. If you meet on an app, you have to meet in person to find out if you have chemistry. It's not a hot date, just a meet-up for a coffee or a cocktail.' At first I think this advice is a little dumb, but it begins to grow on me as I swipe my way through men. Sorting becomes easier when the question isn't whether we would settle down or not, but does he look interesting enough to warrant a margarita?
So Tinder Todd and I have drinks: beer for him, rosé for me, no margaritas in sight. We talk about our jobs, a trip he took to South America, Frank Ocean. This is what Lee-Anne calls the 'screening phase', sussing out whether he has the basic things I'm looking for.
A few hours pass and it is clear we get along, have similar interests and like each other. We linger saying goodbye, and for a moment it seems like he is going to kiss me on the street. As I'm readying to kiss him back, he goes in for a hug. It's slightly awkward, but we recover and plan dinner, which is second base in dating chronology.
By the time we meet at a Brooklyn Italian restaurant, I have had enough time to wonder whether he really likes me, if he only wants to sleep with me and how many girls he is juggling, without actually thinking about where my own feelings are fitting into all of this.
I text Lee-Anne and she gives me a solid pep talk: 'Think "Wait, do I actually like you? Do I want this to happen? If I do that, am I OK with feeling that vulnerability?"' I take a deep breath, chug a glass of wine and vow to be in the present, have fun and keep my feelings centred. A few hours later, Todd and I are sat on my roof.
I'm not thinking about my coaching as we chat easily about books and politics, and squint at the glittering skyline in the distance. When he leans over and kisses me, I let go of my education and let instinct take over.
Will it work out? Your guess is as good as mine. We watched the presidential debates at my place recently. I couldn't think of anything less sexy than Donald Trump, but I needed to be held throughout and Todd was there. I do know that, fortified with all this new dating knowledge, I'm less scared by the whole business of dating. Modern love may seem to lack logic, but I now have a road map to help navigate it.
This article originally appeared in the December issue of ELLE UK