One year on: my adventures in online dating

Day 09 : Do It  ✓

Yesterday was one year to the day since the oft-mentioned Lovely Boyfriend and I got together. Since we’re both teachers and yesterday was a school day, we celebrated over the weekend by baking macarons, discovering that baking macarons is darned difficult and stressful, and abandoning our “romantic macaron picnic” idea because it was raining. Oh, and he bought me the most beautiful, tiny typewriter. Our relationship is bliss, I tell you. Bliss.

Little-known fact about us, though: we met via online dating. The fact is little-known partly because we do the exact same job (albeit in different colleges), took very similar undergrad degrees (albeit at different universities), and have a scary amount of stuff in common. Therefore, people find it easy to assume that fate just brought us together.
Here’s what actually happened.

LB discovered match.com sometime in early 2010, gave it a go for six months, met a few folk, but got no real promising results. Match are pretty persistent about trying to keep you paying the monthly membership fee, and make it rather difficult to remove your presence from the site entirely. LB stopped paying the bill, but his profile remained.
So I come along in August 2010, six months out of a 4.5 year relationship which ended when my lovely ex and I (no sarcasm here — he’s genuinely been promoted from ‘boyfriend’ to ‘best friend’) realised that our status had quietly morphed from ‘couple’ to ‘housemates.’ I’d just finished teaching at a great summer school that had totally burned me out; the Edinburgh Festival was winding up; everything had a whiff of this is the end of an era about it. One night I found myself a few red wines past my bedtime and for some reason, registered a profile on Match.
LB’s was the very first profile that came up in my very first search, I kid you not. The rest is history.

It’s weird. I’ve met a few other folk who’ve done the online thing — including one friend who’s now married and the proud mama of a cute 18-month-old thanks to her online dating adventures. But even so, people can be pretty queasy about the whole thing. I often get a kind of “O RLY?” reaction when I tell people how LB and I met — sometimes people are more straight with me and will come out and say “isn’t that very dangerous?” or “aren’t you worried it won’t last?” I felt unable to tell my own parents that I’d been match-ing until after I was sure LB was going to be a long-term fixture in my life, and as expected they expressed dismay at the thought that I’d “taken that risk” without their knowledge. But all of this is silly, I tell you. Online dating is awesome, and here is why: “conventional” dating is really damn hard.

I mean, what are your options outside online dating (or the grandmother of online dating, the personal ad)? You can get dolled up of a weekend and get thee to a bar. You can opt for attempting to find yourself a love-interest from among your immediate social group — work colleagues, friends etc. You can maybe widen your immediate social group by joining a book club or something. Or you can ask your nearest and dearest if they will “set you up” with someone. I really think those are the only oft-adopted methods. Maybe you’re hoping for the possibility of a chance, rom-com style, eyes-meeting-across-a-crowded-room-type encouter with a total stranger, but I’m asking you to be reasonable here.

The bar thing is horrendous. You can specify the kind of person you’re after only so far as choosing the bar, and even this is kind of hit and miss. Not everyone who drinks in a gay bar is gay. Not everyone who drinks in any kind of bar is interested in hitting on you or being hit upon. Not everyone who happens to be in a well-heeled expensive bar happens to be the sort of well-heeled expensive type of person you’re perhaps looking for. Not everyone in your chosen bar who does happen to be open to the whole “chatting up” thing is necessarily interested in the same eventual outcome as you (I mean, how do you say “so, how long do you see our relationship lasting?” to someone you’ve only known for half an hour?). And even if you find someone who happens to share the same choice of bar, overall purpose and hoped-for conclusion to the evening as you do, they might turn out to be a bit of a moron and therefore not someone you’d be that interested in anyway. Then there’s all the rigmarole of whether or not you need a “wing(wo)man” and if so, should they be of the same gender as you or not; what to do to avoid problems as serious as risks to your personal safety or major errors of judgement down to minor but still important glitches like really, really wanting to take off the silly shoes/trousers/underwear/headgear you decided to wear, but being unable to for the next few foreseeable hours and blah blah blah. Seriously, I am in awe of people who “play the field” in this way and actually enjoy it. From the outside, it looks fraught and exhausting.

Trying to get together with someone you already know is also a process strewn with pitfalls. Take it from someone who’s had a very obvious and very unsuitable crush on one of their workmates: when that shit wears off/is brushed off, things are awkward (and you can double the awkward if a mutual acquaintance was in the background, acting matchmaker). Dating within your circle of friends can get very incestuous very quickly — I mean, if everyone in your circle of friends is doing the same thing? Tricky. Joining a book club to meet your dream other half is all very well, but what happens when you show up only to find the room is full of happily married ladies over sixty? It all strikes me as being a bit slapdash, a bit too much like setting yourself up to be disappointed, upset, stressed out or, in more serious cases, frightened or stalked.

Not that bad things don’t happen with online dating, of course. My mother is right: there are surely stalkers and nutcases frequenting every online dating site. However, the argument that “you’re meeting someone you don’t know at all in any way and therefore you’re putting yourself at huge risk of being raped/attacked [for example]” is quite a silly one. How do you know that Alex from Accounting is not a would-be rapist/attacker just because you’ve met him/her in the copy room a few times? How are you obviously safer with someone because they just happen to attend the same book group as you? That sort of thinking –rather than the thinking that says I’d like to try online dating but I will be careful— is very naive.

So why is online dating better than the hit-and-miss alternatives? Firstly, because everyone is united under a common banner. I went out and met several blokes, some of them more than once, and loved the fact that neither of us ever had to do the “are you single? What do you want out of this? Do you just want to be friends?” dance. Most mainstream dating sites encourage or require you to specify a) your status (some folk are interested in polyamorous relationships, some folk are divorcees, and so on), and b) what you’re after (many sites have choices like “just friends”, or “nothing serious”, which although vague are at least helpful indicators). Also, because it was obvious that we were “on a date”, and therefore definitely checking one another out, I found it blissfully easy to talk to the guys I met about their hopes for and experiences from their online dating journeys. “So, have you met many other people?”, or “how have you found this stuff so far?” proved to be good ice breakers. I’d always been a bit frightened of wearing the Single-And-Looking hat before I tried online dating, so I was shocked to find this side of things blissfully easy. At the end of every date I went on, it was relatively clear to see, or indeed ask, what the other party wanted to happen next. And there was a general acceptance among the guys I met up with that I’d probably be meeting up with other folk, and I assumed and accepted that they must be doing the same. I didn’t feel threatened or stressed by that — it didn’t feel deceptive, because it’s kind of part and parcel of signing up. Everything just felt very straightforward.

In terms of actually networking on the site, I liked the fact that I had so much control, and was able to “vet” people. That sounds clinical, and it felt clinical (and unfair) at first — until I realised that everyone else was doing the same and actually, it’s a big part of online dating’s charm. A lot of the guys who contacted me had profiles that listed things like “getting lashed on the weekend” as their favourite activity, which did lead me to wonder why the hell they were messaging a girl whose profile was all about books and tea. Others were very much of the “I go to the gym six times a week and go Munro-bagging every weekend” camp, which is nice and all, but my first thought was I know I’m not going to have much in common with that person. So after a while, such folk were either ignored (trust me, everyone does this) or sent a nice “thanks, but no thanks” type message. This meant I could concentrate on the handful of cool, interesting types who turned up in my inbox.
Most of the online dating sites also give you a variety of search options to choose from. You can search by things like age, status (Are they divorced? Do they have kids?), proximity to your address, and depressingly, body shape (you can also specify on your profile what “body shapes” you’re looking for. True story: I ignored any guy who contacted me and whose profile specified a body shape). After a few depressing search returns, I tried searching by profession. This may sound mercenary, but it turned out to be the best way of finding blokes with the same interests (reading, writing, academia) and to an extent, personality traits (ambitious, passionate, hardworking, a bit obsessive) as me. I realised after a while that a guy who’d be willing to commit to a PhD or a grown-up full time occupation was what I was after. I genuinely wasn’t fussed about salary (though you can also use salary as a search term), but the ‘profession’ search definitely turned up the most promising results. (Lovely Boyfriend popped up at the top of my search return pretty much regardless of what I put in, so many things in common had our profiles. I even came to find his constant presence mildly annoying — particularly since it took him two weeks to answer my first message…)
Anyway, as a result of this “vetting” — and the fact that it seems customary to exchange a good string of in-depth emails before even starting to talk about meeting up — I felt very safe when it finally came time to go out and meet people. Of course, any old idiot can build up a plausible ruse, but I was careful to only ever meet folk in very public places, and tell two trusted folk (my sister and the aforementioned lovely ex) where I was going, when I’d be home and how I could be contacted. I met a very nice web programmer, a banker, a Maths PhD and a barman before finally arranging to go for a pint with a very sweet FE lecturer called Stephen. In every case, by the time I actually met these blokes, I felt like I knew them a bit. Vetting also means no boring small talk, as it turns out, and I was shocked to find that all my guys had been pretty straight-up on their profiles.

Lastly, online dating was a huge confidence boost for me. I came to it with some of the baggage other people still project onto me when I talk about it with them: that only “desperate” people do online dating, or that it’s for social inadequates (well, I am a social inadequate, so hooray! is usually my answer to that one). But in fact, I was overwhelmed by the number of smart, lovely guys who wanted to get in touch and just have a chat. A lot of the time, after a few emails either they or I decided that — although discussing women’s rights or whether or not Sebastian Vettel deserved all the hype was fun and all — there wasn’t much point in us actually meeting. But it was fun. It felt like a community. And the blokes I did meet all wanted to meet up again — one of them (poor guy) even told me he was sure I was “the one,” which made letting him down gently a bit tricky! I spent two months having great conversations, and some of my crusty old spinsterly views of the Most-Men-Are-Self-Centred-Gits variety were thankfully swept out the door. Best of all, I got to meet the sweetest, wisest and most generous man I have ever known (except, perhaps, for my grandfather), and he’s put up with me hanging around and bothering him for a whole entire year. Which happens to have been the most fun year of my life so far. Who knew?

So thank you very much, folk who encouraged me to stop worrying and get match-ing. Thank you very much, blokes I met who bought me drinks and dinner and gave great chat and restored my faith in man-kind somewhat. And thank you very much, Lovely Boyfriend. You’re my hero.

(Photo by Zero)

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