Struggling to find your perfect partner? A new relationship therapy could be the answer
On paper, Jack Cook has everything going for him: boyish good looks, an easy manner and a great job in the music industry.
But, until recently, Jack's love life was a disaster. "I've only had two long-term girlfriends, one at university and one of about three years which fizzled out last summer," says Jack (28).
"The break-up affected my confidence. I wouldn't approach someone I liked the look of - I'd put my head down and pretend I wasn't there.
"I couldn't go up to a woman because I was scared they wouldn't want to talk to me or that they'd tell me to go away. I lacked confidence. I'd convince myself they wanted someone better looking, or with a better physique. I'm my own worst enemy at times.
"Everyone else my age seemed to be settling down, buying houses, getting married and having babies, but I was doing the opposite."
And Jack's far from alone. There are an estimated 338,000 single people in Northern Ireland, most of them looking for a partner. But it's not easy.
Usually it takes seven first dates before they even meet someone they like. The miserable statistics don't end there - even when a first date is a success, two thirds of relationships will end within three months.
Jack joined a few dating sites but it took him nine months to pluck up the courage to go on his first date. "I went on two dates with one girl and one with another but there wasn't a spark," he says. "I found it very awkward initiating the approach and I was pretty nervous when I was meeting then for the first time."
Luckily for Jack, help was at hand in the form of the Lukats sisters - Dr Victoria Lukats, a psychiatrist and relationship expert, and her sister Penny, a dating specialist. The sisters are both consultants for PARSHIP, Europe's largest online dating service specifically for people looking for a serious relationship and the company that powers the Belfast Telegraph's dating service. PARSHIP, with four million members, matches people using a psychometric test that is able to successfully predict compatibility between two people, but has now taken things one step further.
With Penny and Victoria's help, the company has devised a new way of helping singles boost their chances of finding love. Working with the sisters, they can begin to understand what's preventing them from forming a successful relationship - and how they can overcome their problems with the opposite sex.
Jack was one of the Lukats' first guinea pigs - and a very willing one at that. The first step was an interview with Penny and Victoria and a series of psychometric tests aimed at finding out exactly what was holding Jack back.
"The tests showed that Jack's problem was shyness and being inhibited about how he approached women," says Dr Lukats. " Despite what he thought, his self-esteem wasn't particularly low. He also had a problem reading the signals and was a bit unsure of dating etiquette.
"Jack's quite typical - many men are too shy to ask women out. Women, on the other hand, tend to say they're single because they can't find a decent man.
"Many women also suffer a lack of confidence and self-esteem and sometimes they give off signals that they're desperate, which can frighten men away."
The first thing the sisters did was to encourage Jack to shake off the negative thought patterns that were stopping him even chatting to a woman.
"If there was a good looking woman walking down the street, I'd look away and think she's not going to be interested in me," says Jack.
"But Penny and Victoria told me to put my head up and think, is she looking at me and if not, why not?"
Then the pair drew up a list of practical exercises to reduce his shyness levels - and that's where the fun really began.
"What we did was similar to the way you'd treat someone with a phobia," explains Dr Lukats. "It's called exposure and response prevention. You make them put themselves in the feared situation and instead of doing what they'd normally do - in Jack's case looking at the floor and going home - you make them do things differently.
"Rather than put people in at the deep end you start with less scary things, like simply asking for directions from women, and then walking around smiling at women and making eye contact with them. Jack had to do the exercises for about 45 minutes, so at the end of it his level of anxiety had gone down and that was what he'd remember. It was also important for him to do it regularly, so we made him practice when we weren't there."
But then things got decidedly more terrifying. "I had to walk around a train station giving roses to women and paying them a compliment," says Jack. "I was told the aim was to reassure me that women wouldn't run off screaming or call the police - and in fact no one did. Then I had to sit on a stool and play a song on my guitar. While that was going on, Penny and Victoria were going up to women asking what they thought of me, and what they'd give me out of 10. I averaged 7.5 to 8, which I was pretty pleased about.
"At the end of that day I was happy. I felt I'd really achieved something. It did become a lot easier as it went on and many people told me I was really brave."
After that, Jack felt confident enough to go on a blind date with a girl called Hannah.
"Because of what I'd learnt, I behaved differently on that date.
"Victoria had also talked to me about body language and I was more aware of that - not just Hannah's body language, but my own too. I was trying to give off positive signals. I made sure I wasn't slouching - being upright makes you look more keen.
"They also gave me a tip about how you can work out if someone's interested in you. For instance, if you're both drinking wine, then towards the end of the evening you should take a sip from your glass and when you put it back on the table, you move your glass slightly towards hers. When she next takes a sip, watch where she puts her glass - if she moves it slightly closer to yours it's a good sign that she's interested." And although there wasn't enough attraction between Jack and Hannah for the date to go anywhere, the dating exercise did have a happy ending.
"I have met someone now - she's called Katie," says Jack. "We've been together a couple of months and it's going really well. I used all the things I learnt - on our first date I made sure I took the lead, ordering the wine quickly, so I looked confident. I also made sure I did a bit more talking - before, I'd just ask them about themselves so at the end of the date the girl wouldn't know anything more about me than at the start."
Dr Lukats believes nearly everyone can be helped by their methods.
"The key thing is you need to be motivated," she says. "Even if the exercises make you feel a bit uncomfortable, you've got to be prepared to do it."
Jack says he wouldn't be going out with Katie now if it wasn't for the dating treatment. "I feel more confident and the whole process has given me a boost," he says.
"I feel like I've got more self worth. I'm happy and in a better place."