In a year that made isolation and physical distance a necessity, Portland matchmaker Noreen Rochester had one of her busiest summers ever in 2020.
“I’ve had more successful matches in the last eight months than eight months before that,” Rochester, owner of Cara Matchmaking on Exchange Street, said last week. “It’s just a whole different world right now.”
Especially if you’re single.
The pandemic has been a difficult period of adjustment for most people, but navigating it as a single person seeking a partner adds an extra challenge.
In an age of digital dating, Rochester said, coronavirus-related lockdowns led to a surge of interest in her personalized, curated service. She said clients have returned to more traditional forms of communication during the pandemic, like sending love letters via snail mail, and they’re planning socially distant, outdoor dates like picnics when the weather allows.
New data supports the idea that single people felt lonelier last year.
Last year’s American Family Survey found its least lonely respondents were married people with children. The most lonely respondents were single people without kids, and the loneliness gap between those two groups grew wider between 2019 and 2020.
Dating may seem easier than ever in the era of free dating apps like Bumble, Tinder, Hinge, and Grindr, but COVID-19 has further complicated meeting people on those platforms, which already have a reputation for leading to casual encounters rather than long-term relationships.
Rochester said clients sometimes come to her looking to meet as many people as possible. It is an attitude encouraged by online dating, and not one that necessarily yields lasting matches. She said she has seen fewer people with that mentality since the beginning of the pandemic, although it persists.
“What happens is they bring those habits over to this from the dating apps,” Rochester said. “I just say, ‘look, I’m not Tinder, I’m not Bumble, I’m a matchmaker, and I’m here to find you your match, not 50 dates.”
Making a match in Maine
Rochester has been a matchmaker for 30 years and used to primarily serve clients in their 40s and 50s. In the past few years, however, she has had more singles in their 30s and a few in their 20s come to her for help.
She said she thinks younger people are getting “sick and tired of the online stuff.” Matchmaking takes away some potential pitfalls of online dating, she said, like meeting up with someone who is not who they portray themselves to be online.
When a new client comes to Cara Matchmaking, Rochester interviews them about what they want in a partner and other preferences. She then compiles a list of other clients who meet those criteria, shows the client their photos, and sets up a date if both clients are interested.
She charges $399 for a year of matchmaking, and if someone does not enter a relationship in a year there is no additional charge to remain on her list.
Rochester also takes clients back after relationships end. She recently had a widowed client she matched with a spouse 20 years ago return for matchmaking services. Rochester said her work has led to “hundreds” of marriages, including five that took place on New Year’s weekend this year.
When working with a new client she often tries to whittle her list of potential matches down to the best three or five, and if the client does not hit it off with any of the selections, Rochester will offer another group.
Pre-pandemic, most of Rochester’s paired clients just went out for drinks.
But thanks to COVID-19, she said, dates have become “way more romantic” because people have to put “a lot more thought into a date” to account for virus safety.
Some people are also not able to get together as often, which has led two of her clients to stay connected via love letters.
The pandemic has also pushed many to date via videoconference, which sometimes reduces a dinner date to eating takeout “together” on Zoom. Rochester said in her experience, that approach has not been optimal.
“People are so tired of Zooming all day for work, the last thing they want to do is Zoom at night,” she said.
She admitted her business model is old fashioned, but said she feels bad for younger people who are dealing with today’s dating environment. It has an element, she said, of “instant gratification.”
“My business is old school,” Rochester said last week. “I don’t have a database, I have pink and blue and yellow files and a million sticky notes.”
Cara Matchmaking is not Portland’s only matchmaker.
Hinckley Introductions on Congress Street serves people ages 40 and up. And on Commercial Street, Ron Cater is the owner of The Matchmaker of Maine, which also has branches in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
Like Rochester, Cater has been in the industry for several decades. He was attending dental school when he first heard about matchmaking from a friend working in the industry in California. The conversation inspired Cater to make a career switch in 1984.
“He started talking to me about this whole industry and what they did and how they worked and I didn’t even know it existed,” Cater said last week. “It was just very, very fascinating.”
Cater said his business has a “certain niche within the marketplace” and that it is not trying to be “all things to all single people.”
All of The Matchmaker of Maine’s members are nonsmokers, for instance, and 86 percent have a college degree. He also said his clients are looking for committed relationships, and people age 40 and above are his business’ “sweet spot,” although he does have some members in their thirties.
One big subgroup is men in their 40s who are established financially and professionally and are looking to start a family, along with women in their mid-to-late-30s with the same profile. Another is people in their 50s and 60s who have been married before and are hoping to get back out there.
Many of his clients have tried online dating and found it “frightening,” Cater said. His process for finding and matching clients puts a large emphasis on safety and involves criminal background checks, marital background checks, psychometric testing, and creating compatibility profiles.
Like Rochester, Cater said social distancing hurt business last spring, but it has recovered.
“We are very appealing to the baby boomer that is looking for an effective way to get back into the social mainstream, to save themselves a lot of time, (and) not have to deal with the online nonsense,” he said.
‘It sucks worse now’
Portland resident Amberly Larkin, 21, is well-acquainted with the “nonsense” referred to by Cater.
Larkin, who turned 21 last July, said she already found using dating apps tough before the pandemic. She said Portland’s dating scene has only gotten worse in recent months.
“I feel like it’s always kind of sucked but it sucks worse now because you can’t meet people in person,” Larkin said last week. “Nothing’s natural, there’s not that organic connection.”
Having to decide if she should risk meeting someone from a dating app when she doesn’t know “where they’ve been” during the pandemic has been especially difficult, she said. People now have to “build a trusting relationship,” Larkin said, before they can meet in person.
Larkin has tried Tinder, Bumble, and Hinge. She said Tinder has lots of people looking for hookups more than dating, and she does not like Bumble because it requires women to message their matches first.
According to a study published by Pew Research Center last February, while three in 10 U.S. adults said they have used a dating app, the numbers differ greatly by age group.
Forty-eight percent of Americans ages 18-29 had used the apps, compared to 38 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds, and only 16 percent of people over 50.
Sexual orientation also plays a part. Lesbian, gay, or bisexual adults were almost twice as likely as straight people to have used the apps.
Pew also found that people said using the apps left them feeling more frustrated than hopeful.
Portland resident Chelsea Locke Miller, 31, was among the frustrated – until she found love through Rochester’s Cara Matchmaking. She married her husband Charlie, 35, on New Year’s Day. Before meeting him she struggled with using dating apps to find love.
Miller said she decided to try matchmaking because she did not like online dating, and she usually only went to bars with her friends, which meant she was not looking for dates.
Her approach with matchmaking was to date one man at a time, and she echoed Larkin about the pitfalls of using apps, especially as a straight woman hoping to settle down.
Free apps, she said, seem to attract a lot of men not looking for serious relationships.
“With guys, there are so many options for them like Tinder and Bumble and all of that stuff,” she said. “If they have something for free they usually don’t want to pay for something when they have endless women that they can get on those sites.”
She sometimes struggled with the illusion of having endless options through online dating, too, and has watched her friends have difficulties with it during the pandemic.
Miller was Charlie’s first date through Cara Matchmaking in early 2019 and said she feels lucky to have found him before the pandemic. He canceled his membership the day after he met her.
“Noreen was able to make a connection with us that we wouldn’t have found otherwise, (because) we had no mutual friends,” Miller said. “If we didn’t have her I genuinely don’t think that we would be married.”
South Portland resident Jenelle Jahoda had a different experience with dating apps. She met her girlfriend on Tinder in 2018, and they have now been together for more than two years.
Jahoda said as a lesbian she thinks it is “super easy” to find women on dating apps in the Portland area. For her, however, matches usually turned into friendships instead of romance. She was surprised when a Tinder match turned into her long-term girlfriend.
Larkin, meanwhile, still uses Hinge, which bills itself as the app “designed to be deleted,” and requires users to answer prompts about themselves in an effort to forge deeper connections. But she still thinks it’s a “weird environment” for dating.
She has seen men answer her more quickly on the apps during the pandemic, which she attributes to everyone being “desperate to have a conversation with someone.” She has also ghosted matches more often because sometimes using the apps at all during the pandemic feels futile.
Larkin moved to Portland in 2019 from Colorado and said she thinks the dating scene there was better and included a wider variety of people.
She currently has her location preferences set as far as Boston to give her a larger pool of potential love interests.
“Colorado is just bigger and there are more options,” Larkin said. “I literally have a tweet in my drafts that says ‘I just know the love of my life is not in Portland, Maine.’”