(Health.com) -- Vikki Smith's first foray into the dating world after 30-plus years of marriage involved a bit of chicanery on her part.
The 57-year-old Austin, Texas-based marketing consultant "tricked" a colleague into meeting her for lunch after sensing some chemistry as they worked on a project.
The sparks didn't fly, but it did get her back in the dating game, which sure has changed a lot since last she played.
When she first got married, dating was more formal. "It's just so casual now," she says. "You can say, 'Let's grab a cup of coffee,' and it's a date."
That's not the only difference. Most gray divorcees -- the nickname given to those who divorce after age 50 -- met their spouses the old-fashioned way: on a blind date, at school, on the job, or even at a singles' party. Now websites such as Match.com and eHarmony offer singles the opportunity to meet online instead of in person.
And there is a learning curve.
"I can scoot all over the Internet for work, but online dating was a brand new experience," Smith recalls. "I had friends who had done it, but when it first became a phenomenon, I thought it was a wonderful opportunity for every creepy person to start trolling through the masses," she says.
Turns out she was wrong. Single no more, Smith has been in a relationship for about a year with a man she met online. While there are no immediate wedding bells in her future, she is not ruling anything out.
"I used to dread the idea of dating again after being married so long, because it seems that every single person you meet who's over 40 has one horror story after another," she says. "Imagine my surprise to spend so little time online before meeting someone so decent, down-to-earth, and genuinely delightful. I didn't have to kiss a single frog and feel lucky to have had this experience."
While it can be scary, online dating is worth it, according to Smith. "I am happier than I have been in years," she says.
Want to follow in Smith's footsteps? From the first text or email to the first date and how to tell your children, these expert-approved, tried-and-true tips for seamless gray dating will get you back in the game.
Take your time; do it right
"There is no hurry, so it's important to take your time before you enter the dating world again," says Terri L. Orbuch, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at Oakland University, in Rochester, Mich., and the author of "5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage From Good to Great." "Contrary to what your friends may tell you or you may think, studies show that there is no predetermined time period that you need to wait after a divorce or breakup before you can begin dating again."
Understand what went wrong in your marriage "If you know what went wrong or what was missing in your marriage, you can put it out there," says Fran Cohen Praver, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Locust Valley, New York, and the author of "Daring Wives: Insight Into Women's Desires for Extramarital Affairs." "Were you too involved in your career?"she asks. "If that is the case and you love your career, put it out there in the next go-around."
Learn from the past
"If your marriage was sexless, but you are now looking for someone who is sexually attuned, put it out there," says Praver, who practices what she preaches. Praver, 67, is also recently divorced and back in the dating game.
Start spreading the news
"Let everyone know that you are looking, if you are, so that they are on the lookout for you," says Dennis Lin, M.D., an attending psychiatrist and physician-in-charge of the Psychosexual Medicine Program at Beth Israel Medical Center, in New York City, and an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral Sciences at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Bonnie Eaker Weil, Ph.D., a therapist in New York City and the author of several books, including "Make Up, Don't Break Up: Finding and Keeping Love for Singles and Couples," agrees. "Don't be ashamed that you want to meet someone," she says. "Ask people to fix you up. Look at ads in newspapers, magazines, and online."
"Think positively, and instead of dwelling on the past, try out new things," Lin says. "Redecorate your living space if your spouse moved out, and extend your social circle by taking up hobbies or taking some university classes," he says. "Maybe you always wanted to learn ballroom dancing. Now is the time."
If you take the online dating route, make sure the picture you post on your profile is a recent one, Praver says. "Be candid and honest."
Don't sell yourself -- or your dating pool -- short "I was pleasantly surprised to find the vast number of men in the age group I would consider dating were also interested in my age group," says Smith.
"I had expected that most 50-plus gentlemen would imagine themselves with a much younger woman with much lower mileage than myself, but I was pleased to find a lot of mature thinking in what this age group was seeking in a companion."
It used to be that women waited for the man to make the first move<not anymore. If somebody looks interesting online, don't just "wink" or "flirt" -- a quick but somewhat unromantic way to let him or her know you're interested. Instead, says Praver, "Send them a few lines so that they know you are interested. You can't wait for someone to contact you."
That's what Smith did when she met her current beau. "I finally made a bold move and contacted someone whose profile I'd seen online. Perhaps all service's formats are not the same, but with Match.com you can either sit back -- like a princess being pursued -- and wait to be contacted, you can peruse the daily potential matches they send to you, or you can get totally proactive and go fishing in the man gallery," she says.
Just do it
If you sense chemistry, don't wait to make a date. "Don't text someone for two months before meeting them," Eaker Weil says. Praver advises: "Speak on the phone several times before you meet, too, to make sure you connect while speaking and not just via email."
A lot about dating has changed, but some things stay the same, Lin adds. "Common sense still counts. You don't want to meet them in a secluded private space for the first time."
Keep it light
The first date should not be an interview, according to Eaker Weil. "The idea that you can find out everything about a person in 20 minutes is terrible advice," she says. "You can't measure someone in one date. We often idealize their positive [attributes] or exaggerate his or her negative [attributes] on the first date, but in my opinion, it takes at least three dates to gain real perspective on who he or she is and where they are coming from. Keep it light and try to have fun."
Avoid the TMI -- too much information -- trap. We all have baggage, but "be discriminating about when and how you reveal things; too much exposure or information is risky," says Eaker Weil. "Enjoy yourself or get to know the person before you talk about exes or widows."
Talk about sex
Many women find that they rediscover sex after menopause, but everyone should move at her own pace.
"Sex can be scary, especially if you haven't dated in 30 years, so don't let yourself get rushed into something you are not comfortable with," Eaker Weil says. "Say, 'I like you and think you are attractive, but I need more time to get to know you,'" she suggests. Put another way: "Let's have the appetizer now, and we will have plenty of time for dinner and dessert later."
Orbuch adds: "You need to plan ahead and talk about sex before it occurs in a relationship. You may no longer need to worry about pregnancy, but you need to be aware and informed about sexually transmitted diseases and how to prevent them."
Chivalry is not dead, but the economy is only starting to show signs of life (and divorce can be expensive). "Many older men may be retired or may have lost income in the stock market or divorce settlement. They may want to go out, but don't have as much money as they used to," Eaker Weil says. "This doesn't mean they are cheap."
Going dutch is OK, she says. "Talk about finances."
It may seem like a ratings ploy on shows like ABC's "Desperate Housewives," but it does happen.
"A lot of older women are looking for love and support and don't want to do all the work anymore, and what we are seeing is a shift where women are going after women instead of men," Eaker Weil says. "This means trying something different because the other thing didn't work. They may find women understand them better and are happier. Experimenting is OK."
Have a family plan
Many gray divorcees have older children who can't -- or don't want to -- picture their parents on dates. When and how to break the news depends on the age and maturity level of the children. "Don't tell the children until it becomes significant," Praver advises.
That's what Smith did. "When I realized it was a regular thing, I introduced them," she explains.
That's when the whole semantics issue came up. "What do you call a man you are seeing when you're 57? My boyfriend?" asks Smith. "This sounds like I should be writing his name on my loose-leaf binder in curly letters."
She also rejected "partner" as too unspecific, and "friend" seemed to diminish how they felt about one another. "So I've decided to call him my love slave," she says. "But I'm not sharing that term with my sons!"
Copyright Health Magazine 2011