Matchmaking to Find Love

Mary Balfour met her husband up a ladder …Despite the chance nature of that meeting and its subsequent romantic outcome, Mrs Balfour believes that not everyone can rely on luck to find the right partne

Mary Balfour

Date professional coach Mary Balfour

Rachel Lipman, thirties, graduate, attractive, good sense of humour, seeks interviews with owners of upmarket introduction agency. London/anywhere

MARY BALFOUR met her husband up a ladder. Or rather, she was at the top of the ladder and her next-door neighbour and husband-to-be was at the bottom. Despite the chance nature of that meeting and its subsequent romantic outcome, Ms Balfour believes that not everyone can rely on luck to find the right partner.

You may be a successful career person, perhaps in your thirties, with a degree or professional qualification – a typical Independent reader, in fact – but there is something missing in your life: someone to share it with. What do you do?

An increasing number of people in that situation are reluctant to put their faith in a chance meeting at work, in the pub, at a dinner party or in the supermarket. Whether you are looking for a playmate, soulmate or just a mate, placing an advertisement in Independent Hearts or joining an in Introduction agency may not guarantee a life of wedded bliss – but you are, at the very least, increasing the odds of meeting a potential partner.

Mary Balfour: ‘They are not loners or losers, but positive people who want to take control of their lives’

Which is where Ms Balfour, and people like her, come in. In 1986 she bought Drawing Down The Moon, “the thinking person’s introduction agency”, and has built up a thriving business with a turnover of more than ?200,000 a year. With a suitably fashionable address in Kensington High Street, West London, it’s one of a number of upmarket agencies catering for professional people.”

“There used to be more of a stigma about going to an agency,” she says. “Now, for those in the know, there is no stigma at all. They are not loners or losers, but positive people who want to take control of their lives and want to be in the driving seat about whom they meet.”

But why should so many members of the chattering classes find it difficult to find someone? After all, don’t people with fulfilling professional careers, who are interesting and intelligent meet lots of likeminded souls? The answer, according to Ms Balfour, lies in the changing pattern of modern life. Many people have spent years concentrating on their careers at the expense of their social lives, they work long hours in a competitive environment, they are geographically mobile, sometimes working abroad, and have probably lost touch with their roots – and lost track of people. Office romances can cause problems and, in the case of people like doctors and lawyers, there are ethical reasons why they cannot form relationships with the people they meet professionally – “they can’t chat up their clients”, Ms Balfour points out.

“Such people may not be lonely – in fact they probably have a wide circle of friends, but no intimate partner. They may have postponed settling down while studying, training, or building up a career, and perhaps have put their personal lives on the back burner until they are 30 or 35.”

Another category are the divorced and separated who, perhaps after long relationship, are faced with starting all over again. Too old for discos, out of practice at making new friends of the opposite sex, where do they go? If they go to Drawing Down The Moon – the name derives from the Greek legend of Glaukias and Chrysis – they will pay £550 plus VAT for a year’s membership; a second year costs £150 plus VAT.

After a consultation with Ms Balfour or one of her staff of eight, they fill out a personal profile, giving details of their educational background (95 per cent are graduates or similar), career (media people are the biggest group, followed by the medical and legal professions and business), what newspapers and magazines they read (the Independent heads the list, followed by the Guardian and Times), what books, films or plays they have recently read or seen, other interests, plus more unusual questions such as whom they would choose to be in a different life. From the profiles, and accompanying photographs members choose 10 people they wish to meet and their details are then sent to those 10, who may or may not decide to get in touch.

The agency keeps in close contact and every six weeks there is the option of a review session at which members may choose to seek more introductions. People who find their first dates are not being followed up can discuss why – for example, men might be advised to talk less and listen more. For those who prefer a more traditional setting in which to meet people, there are monthly social gatherings in a wine bar.

Ms Balfour admits that there is no guarantee of meeting the right person. “It’s a risk, like life itself. It doesn’t work for everybody. People make choices, and must take responsibility.” Only one in five of those who inquire actually end up on the agency’s books, and she will not take money from people who have little chance of being matched up. Heavy smokers and the overweight are also difficult to match; if that sounds harsh, it is the agency’s clients who decide what kind of people they wish to meet, most of us have fixed ideas about that.

There are hundreds of agencies, good, bad, indifferent, and sometimes disreputable – anyone can start one, though most fail. Ms Balfour’s advice to people looking for an agency is choose one of the 30 or so that belong the industry’s professional body, the Association of British Introduction Agencies – “a guarantee that agency is reputable”.

She sees herself as a businesswoman, but one who genuinely cares about her clients. Success comes when a couple decide to “go on hold” together: membership is suspended and they are sent no more introductions until they ask for them. About half the 800 members are “On hold” any one time. Some forge long-term partnerships -many get married, some of whom invite Ms Balfour to wedding. Others, oddly, “want to forget that they met through an agency”, which suggests that the stigma not completely died.

“It’s difficult to see why. What could be more exciting and romantic?” Certainly as romantic as meeting by the photocopier, in the checkout queue …or up a ladder.

Drawing Down The Moon

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