On New Year's Eve 2017, Judith made a resolution she'd never made before: She wanted to be in a meaningful relationship.
She was 32 years old and frustrated with her experiences dating men in New York City, where she works as a hospital administrator.
Judith, who asked not to share her last name to protect her privacy, remembers thinking to herself that the way she was approaching dating wasn't working out. She paraphrased a common piece of wisdom: "Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is just a form of insanity." And, she added, "I literally was going insane with the dating world."
She considered recruiting professional help. But when she asked her friends whether they thought it was worth paying thousands of dollars for a dating coach, all of them said no. Plus, she knew that "on the internet, you can find anything." If you want to know how to, say, attract more men on a dating site, you can simply Google it.
By the end of January 2018, Judith had made a decision: She'd hired Damona Hoffman, a certified dating coach and host of the Dates and Mates podcast in Los Angeles. They worked together for three months, checking in biweekly over the phone (Judith could also email or call whenever she needed immediate advice), for which Judith paid just under $3,000.
'Oh my gosh, you're 40. You need to settle down and have a baby': Coaching clients are often feeling pressured to find love
In cities across the US, a growing number of successful women are hiring dating coaches to help them find long-term relationships. Typically, these women are in their 30s and older; they've established themselves professionally and are comfortable financially, but for whatever reason, finding love has proved more challenging.
This phenomenon fits with the broader trend of Americans marrying later, and viewing marriage as what one sociologist calls a "capstone" rather than a "cornerstone" of their adult life. That is to say, many people are tying the knot only after they've achieved professional and financial success; in the past, people generally tended to their love life before hitting these milestones.
To be sure, men seek dating coaching as well. As for Hoffman, about 70% of her clients are women; she said they're typically high earners, accomplished and career-focused, and "feeling the pressure of society telling them that, 'Oh my gosh, you're 40 or almost 40. You need to settle down and have a baby.'" By contrast, she said, the men she sees tend to be less career-focused and haven't developed the skills to approach or flirt with women. They may also feel less urgency around settling down and starting a family.
Hoffman also mentioned that her business tends to grow through word of mouth — and because men are less inclined to talk to their friends about working with a dating coach, she naturally wound up with more women clients.
"We all think by the time we're 30, we're going to have certain things figured out," said Samantha, a 30-year-old project coordinator in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who started working with a dating coach about four months ago. She preferred not to share her last name to protect her privacy. "For me, I thought definitely I'd be married and have kids, probably, by the time I was 30. And so for it to not be like that, and for me to be coming up on my 30th, I was just a little freaked out."
Some coaching clients perceive their commitment to their career as having been in direct conflict with their love life. Nadine, 64, sought out dating coaching recently, after she'd semi-retired from running a law firm in New Jersey. "I've been very successful in my career," she told me, "and I'm not worried about a guy getting in the way," as she might have been when she was younger. Nadine, who preferred not to share her last name for privacy reasons, has never been married, but she's open to the possibility now.
Nadine paid $14,000 to work with Evan Marc Katz, one of the first dating coaches to market himself as such (he started coaching in 2004). Katz, who works exclusively with women, said those who reach out to him are typically at a breaking point. They write him saying they don't know what's wrong with them and they're afraid of being alone forever, Katz told me.
Samantha Burns, a dating coach and relationship counselor in Boston, has heard the same: "People call me; they're crying on the phone; they're so unhappy," she said. "They desperately want love and acceptance and commitment from a partner. They're in pain."
'Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime': Dating coaches say they teach clients the skills to find a healthy relationship
While matchmakers have existed for millennia, dating coaches are a more modern phenomenon. Though their work is similar, dating coaches will tell you that, unlike matchmakers, their job isn't to find you the perfect person. Instead, they're more about instilling in you the skills to find that match yourself — and to maintain a healthy relationship with them. Multiple dating coaches shared with me the same proverb: "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."
The term "dating coach" is somewhat nebulous. Hoffman said she was certified by the International Dating Coach Association in 2013, but the organization appears to no longer be active. When she first started working as a dating coach, about 13 years ago, Hoffman said, an official organization didn't exist, and so she became certified as a life coach instead. She'd go to conferences on online dating and matchmaking, "and people were like, 'You do what?'"
Other dating coaches, like Burns, have backgrounds in marriage and family counseling. When Burns starts working with clients, she immediately assesses their "attachment style," a psychological term for the way we form bonds with other people.
The dating coaches I spoke to charge between $1,800 and $18,000 for different private-coaching packages. (One former dating coach, Andrea Syrtash, was an exception; she said she charged between $50 and $150 per session because she wanted to make coaching accessible.)
To some women, the price tag on private dating coaching can be jarring. Samantha worked with Burns, who typically charges $3,300 for three months, to come up with a payment plan that she could afford.
Another, 50-something coaching client who declined to share her name because she'd told very few people about dating coaching, paid $9,000 to work with Katz. She said she had "a ton of reservations" and didn't even share the total figure with her best friends. She made the decision, she said in an email, by asking herself, "What if someone told me that after this six-month process of changing the way I see dating (and interacting with men) that I meet 'the one' ... would the money be worth it?" She sold some stocks and placed a call to Katz. "Best decision ever," she wrote.
Other women say signing up for coaching was a no-brainer. "It's a matter of priorities," Nadine wrote in an email. "I could pay that for a car or an upgrade on a house, a coat, or a variety of possessions, but at this point in my life, I value [Katz's] deep knowledge of the dating process and his world of experience, which will save me years of unnecessary mistakes and learning the hard way."
'There's a really pragmatic aspect to love': Coaching is a combination of concrete exercises and therapy
Each dating coach has their own roster of probing questions to ask and introspective exercises to have clients complete. Hoffman said she tells her clients to consider the skills that have made them successful in other areas of their life — like their career — and then apply those skills to dating. Syrtash, who has since moved on from coaching to writing books and leading workshops, guides clients in writing lists of dealmakers and deal breakers. There are five items on each side, and Syrtash reminds them, "Someone can be great on paper and a terrible partner!"
Katz teaches every client the "2-2-2" rule: Exchange two messages on the dating site, exchange two emails, and then have two phone calls before a first date. "It specifically teaches people to avoid becoming part of some guy's texting harem," he said.
Still, dating coaching is in some ways similar to traditional psychotherapy, in that the coach is there simply to listen to the client and validate their experiences. Of the coaching clients I spoke to, several mentioned that they were learning how to love themselves before they could find someone to love, acknowledging as they said so that these ideas could sound cliche. Samantha said Burns helped her learn to recognize her own role in the unfulfilling relationships she kept winding up in.
"I realized I was dating the same guy almost over and over again," Samantha said. "They'd start out great and then, all of a sudden, it blows up in your face and you're like, 'Well, I don't get it. What's going on? Going to Samantha [Burns] made me realize I keep choosing the same type of person because what I'm putting out is what I'm getting back." The most rewarding part of coaching, Samantha said, is that "it's not just about looking for that right person. It's also fixing yourself and making yourself better."
Dana, 48, who declined to share her last name for privacy reasons, worked with Syrtash about eight years ago (she's since become a life coach herself), and said she became more realistic about love and dating. Instead of sticking to a "script" — i.e. a fantasy of what a boyfriend and a relationship should be like — Dana looked at the person in front of her, how their relationship was unfolding, and how she really felt about it.
'I had to be sure that I was 100% committed to not only giving my all to work but also to my personal life': Commitment is a key part of dating coaching
The most obvious sacrifice that coaching clients make is money. But both the coaches and clients I spoke with say it also requires a considerable investment of time and energy, as well as a reshuffling of priorities.
"What I have to do is to really carve out the time and the commitment in their schedule to invest in dating and to make that the primary focus of their life," Hoffman said of her clients. "I don't ask for them to focus on it forever." For the three to six months that they work with her, Hoffman said, she asks that dating "be the No. 1 focus in their life."
For clients who have high-octane careers, that can be difficult — even if they elected to sign up for coaching in the first place. "I had a job that was very stressful and very demanding," Judith said, "and I had to be sure that I was 100% committed to not only giving my all to work but also to my personal life."
Just two of the coaching clients I spoke to were in a relationship — but all said they'd seen significant improvements in their dating lives and in their overall approach to finding love. The coaches insisted that starting a relationship was neither the goal of coaching nor the ultimate sign of success. "Success didn't just look like landing X number of dates," Syrtash wrote in an email. "Success occurred when people gained confidence."
Katz said he had a client who dated a man for two months before realizing, "This guy isn't as great as I thought he was." So she dumped him, took a weeklong hiatus from online dating, and then got back to it. "Is she a failure or is she a success?" Katz said. "I say she's a success. She found a boyfriend; she attracted a guy; discovered it wasn't the right guy; had the courage to get rid of him and start all over. That is a huge success in my book."
To be sure, that's a convenient thing for a coach to say, since it leaves them wholly unaccountable for whether their process "works." But coaching clients seemed to echo the same sentiment.
Judith recently went on a date with a man and realized she felt "a little uncomfortable around him." At first, she brushed her feelings aside, thinking she'd give him a chance at a second date. "I was so happy I had Damona [Hoffman] in my ear saying, 'Well, let's think about that. Yes, you want to be in a relationship, but you have to be comfortable with the person.'" Judith told the dating coach in her head, "You're absolutely right. Let's not waste my time with this guy."