It’s always interesting to see people’s responses when Mike and I tell them we met online. For the most part, I think any stigma attached to online dating seems to have dissipated; even my mom (who might be expected to be the most cautious, at least proverbially) didn’t bat an eyelash because she’s seen plenty of her friends’ children find their spouses that way.
People sometimes ask me what it was like, or whether I’d recommend online dating as a good way of meeting people. Although I love discussing it, I’m always hesitant to make a blanket recommendation because it’s hard to know from person to person what will really be enjoyable or useful. I’ve also observed that where people fall on the love-hate spectrum about online dating is mostly determined by whether they met their spouse that way, or whether it was just one more potential meeting-place that used up energy and didn’t produce the result they wanted. That being the case, I assume that my generally positive assessment of online dating is probably heavily influenced by having met my husband that way!
However, for a slightly more nuanced response, here are my thoughts on my experience with online dating.
The main reason I tried online dating boiled down to simply wanting to do something about meeting men. At a point, it seemed like I wasn’t meeting single men my age during my normal round of activities. Additionally, I began to notice that I seemed to have spent years of my life complaining about being single, and I wondered what would happen if I put that time and energy into taking action instead of re-analysing everything again and again. I might have tried the usual means of joining a club, trying to go to more social events, etc., but I had very limited time and money.
For my needs, online dating was the obvious choice. It was a way of taking action that didn’t require a huge commitment of time or money, or even energy if I changed my mind. The ‘targeted’ format of online dating also appealed to my pragmatic side. I could have done plenty of things that would have obliquely introduced me to men while expanding my life, my social circles, my experience, etc., but I didn’t feel I needed that; I didn’t need more friends, more activities, more stimulation. I just wanted to get married, and wanted a forum where that desire could be made clear and pursued without any frills or pretence.
There are a few weird aspects to online dating, and I don’t know if it’s necessarily possible to avoid them except by living with them long enough you become immune.
First of all, I think managing the whole online dating experience requires an odd mix of purposefulness and take-what-comes shoulder-shrugging. On the one hand, you can’t just sit around waiting for the world to come to you; starting and continuing conversations with people online does take effort and initiative. Unlike chatting to people at a party, chatting to people online wouldn’t be worth it for its own sake, in my opinion, if there weren’t some more interesting end goal. On the other hand, though, being overly determined to find someone or else is equally self-sabotaging; it defines success very narrowly and makes it quite likely you’ll be disappointed. I needed to be constantly reminding myself both that there was a goal that made the browsing and banal chat worthwhile, as well as that it was okay to relax and not try to force things into a certain mould.
The second weird thing I noticed was the combination of purposefulness with a bizarre lack of any feeling of emotional involvement in early communication. In real life, if a guy says ‘Will you go out with me?’ or ‘I really like you’, most likely you know him a bit, or have at least had some face-to-face interaction and some kind of ‘feel’ for him. But online, a very surface-level conversation goes on in the context of ‘maybe we’ll go on a date if this works out’, without any sense of who the person is. A few times, guys I was messaging online just stopped replying. While there was a bit of rational disappointment, ‘Oh, that’s too bad’, I never felt much emotional disappointment. It didn’t even feel like rejection, because these guys barely even knew me. I didn’t miss them or wonder what would have happened if only. Although we’d been trialling a sort of question-mark courtship, when it came to it, I had so little human connection with the guys that it didn’t hurt when it ended. It was a weird feeling.
The other thing to be aware of with online dating is that it doesn’t solve the big problems of forming relationships; it isn’t a magic solution to life’s frustrations.
For one thing, though online services facilitate introductions, when it comes to conducting the relationship itself and making judgments about compatibility, you still have to do all the work yourself. Really, how could it be any other way?
For another thing, the negative experiences of normal life in the dating world still happen online. I received plenty of unsolicited communication that I just ignored or politely declined, the way I’ve had to decline unwanted requests for my number at restaurants or refuse weird and flirtatious eye contact with strange men on planes (yes, it was weird!). As my friend once said, ‘There will always be those creepy people.’ She meant that I shouldn’t take it too seriously or personally if I got attention from a guy without wanting it. That’s true online, too. It’s also true online, as in real life, that people will promise communication and fail to deliver, seem really interested and then back off, or present you with the awkward situation of not knowing how to say ‘no’ without being offensive. In other words, online interactions can be uncomfortable or disappointing just as real life ones can.
At the end of the day, other pros and cons aside, what for me was the overriding benefit of online dating was something I alluded to earlier: it was a forum for being honest about wanting to get married and doing something about it. The space which online dating makes for authenticity is, to me, its greatest advantage.
I don’t know about other people, but I’ve often found in real life that we exist in a kind of pool of squeamishness when it comes to wanting a relationship and wanting marriage. It feels hard to discuss it without seeming like you’re too needy, unable to be satisfied with your life, too demanding, too creepy, or whatever. The squeamishness means that people are reluctant to introduce singles to one another, even though that’s theoretically a great way of meeting people. The squeamishness also means that isn’t acceptable to make overt efforts to meet people for the purpose of a relationship, at least in any respectable way. (The only place overt effort seems expected by our culture generally is for hookups and flings, probably just contributing to our general squeamishness about overtness.)
I often felt, during my single years, that I had to be constantly pretending that I wasn’t looking for anyone, that my real purpose in taking up a hobby was ‘to have a new experience’, etc. That pressure to be inauthentic was one of the most frustrating aspects of single life. What online dating allows for is a greater degree of honesty about what we want from relationships and what we’re willing to do to get there. We don’t have to try to squeeze our eyes shut while the perfect relationship ‘just happens’; we can be frank about looking and trying.
So, that’s my thinking about online dating. As I said, I realise that my responses are heavily coloured by having met with ‘success’, and fairly quickly. But I would say that, even apart from meeting my husband, I enjoyed my short time online dating. Yes, it had its confusion and anxiety, but that’s no different from real-life relationships. Frankly, I kind of enjoyed the short burst of drama it brought to my life!