Until recently, internet dating was not a world that I had ever considered entering. At the risk of sounding smug, this is because I had never felt the need to do so. Throughout my adult life I have rarely been short of male company or attention but following the break-up of my marriage and the sudden loss of my parents, I have found myself in an unexpectedly solitary place. Although this experience has been devastating on many levels, these painful losses have also brought some unexpected gains. For one thing, adversity has forced me to develop greater self-reliance, determination and resilience - qualities I never knew I possessed until they were put to the test. As a result, I no longer worry so much about the future because I know I am strong enough to deal with whatever life brings my way. Furthermore, being alone during a period of such intense emotional upheaval has also had its benefits because it has meant that I have only had myself to consider. This has allowed me to take my time to heal, unencumbered by the need to worry about the potential impact of my grief on a husband or partner. In fact with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that this period of mourning has almost required me to take extensive ‘alone’ time. For the past year I have had very little appetite for company, much less for any regular form of socialising, so the fact that my only bed fellows have been an elephant and two bears has actually been something of a blessing! They may have looked on impartially as I have drenched my pillow in tears night after night, but equally they have made no demands on me whatsoever. And as it turns out, the freedom to grieve unencumbered by the expectations of others has been vital in helping me navigate through my dark night of the soul.
Nonetheless, as I have gradually begun to emerge from my hermit's cave, I have discovered that the once familiar contours of my personal landscape appear to have contracted and distorted, to reveal a bleak and barren panorama. This uncomfortable confrontation with reality has made me realise that I have been living in a bubble for many months, insulated from the world by the force of my grief; and while my attention has been diverted elsewhere, Solitude has crept unnoticed into the vacuum left by so many losses - stealthily insinuating herself as a permanent resident in my life. Although this uninvited guest has served me well during some very turbulent times, in recent weeks she has started to outstay her welcome. In fact, I have begun to resent her pervasive presence, stalking me like a shadow from dawn to dusk.
This has recently led me to conclude that the time has come to infuse some colour into the grey landscape of my life - a little laughter to lighten the mood, with a touch of playfulness for good measure. My time of grieving is over and like a modern-day Persephone, I must reemerge from the shadows of the underworld and step into the light, so that winter can end and a new season begin.
With this in mind, a few weeks ago I decided to stop waiting for someone to come and rescue me from my (mostly self-imposed) loneliness and take matters into my own hands. So I began to look around for a playmate: a like-minded soul with a reflective nature and a spirit for adventure – the sort of male equivalent of me. I soon realised that this was an ambitious expectation for a woman living in a small Dorset town where there are few single men and even fewer who might be considered ‘dateable'. In fact, the only person who could have become a serious contender for my heart during this period turned out to need more personal space than a herd of wild bison and a social schedule that the Queen herself would envy! Unfortunately, it took me a while to realise that settling for the odd scrap of attention in the hope of something more – the crumbs from the table instead of the whole cake – was the worst form of self-deception. A painful lesson after a year of hard knocks but apparently one that had to be learned.
I soon realised that the only way forwards was to free myself from the constraints of unrealistic expectations and unsatisfactory attachments and take a more practical approach. Given the lack of potential in my immediate environment, this meant that I would have to broaden my horizons: cue my first foray into online dating! This is an option I had never considered as I have always believed it to be the least appealing way of meeting someone - not least because it offers a convenient forum for the deceitful and the desperate! But given the lack of alternatives, I realised I would have to put my prejudices to one side.
And so it happened that a few weeks later, in a moment of frustration at the thought of another weekend alone whilst my happily coupled friends were otherwise engaged, I decided to join Match.com. In retrospect, this may have been my first mistake but a girl’s got to start somewhere and let’s not forget that I was new to this whole online dating thing! Anyway, having created a reasonable profile summary – which in just 200 words, fell short of adequately describing the complex, multi-faceted creature that is me but still managed to convey something of my personality – I uploaded a recent photograph. That done, I got on with my day and thought little more about it. Until later that evening, when I picked up my mobile and saw that I had nearly 100 new messages in my gmail account! This was simultaneously both flattering and intensely annoying, as the last thing I wanted was to have my email account swamped with messages from a dating site. But after briefly reviewing their content, I realised that the majority could be deleted in one swift cull. For the simple reason that most of the men who had written to me were overweight and thinning on top, and some of them had chosen to upload a profile picture which displayed more of them than I wished to see. After all, most of us prefer to wait until we have at least dated for a while before seeing the object of our desire semi-naked. Or am I just being old fashioned?! Then there were the comments. Two in particular are forever emblazoned on my memory. The first read as follows:
‘Hi there. My name’s Matt. You are a real stunner – love the photo! You don’t give much away in your profile though. About me, I have been told I look a bit like Leonardo DiCaprio. I’m an easy going, straightforward kind of bloke. The kind you can trust: guaranteed to break your bed frame not your heart.’
Once I had properly processed this, my response was pretty much: ‘umm, …next!’
Sometime later I was contacted by a man named Gideon, whose message made me want to pack my bags and leave the country! It went something along the following lines:
‘Hello gorgeous. I saw your photo on here and think you’re beautiful. I don’t have a profile picture on display because one of my teenaged daughters is doing her GCSEs and I don’t want her to find me on a dating site. Her mother and I have separated but we’re still involved in a legal dispute over our property and land. Long story short, she has moved out but is trying to get custody of our younger daughters. Anyway, perhaps I could inbox you with my photo and if you like me we could arrange to meet?’
I was tempted to reply with something like: ‘Hello Gideon. Thanks for your message. Do you mean you are worried about your daughter finding you on a dating website or your wife? As for meeting up, thanks but no thanks. I have enough complications of my own!’
These were probably the two strangest and most memorable messages in about 100, but combined with little evidence that there was anyone I would consider dating amongst the remaining 98, the decision to cancel my membership forthwith was a no-brainer! Amusingly enough, I met up with a friend of a friend the following week whose reaction on learning that I had signed up to Match.com was something like:
‘Match.com?! Reeeally?! Don’t you know that most of the men on there are builders or window cleaners?! You need to try a more upmarket site. A friend of mine met her husband a few years ago on Guardian Soulmates.’
Apart from the obvious intellectual snobbery of this comment, what made me laugh most about her remark was that I had been frantically seeking a window cleaner to tackle the numerous windows of my parents’ large Georgian house in the hope of attracting a buyer. Had I known that Match.com had a lot of subscriptions from window cleaners I might have stayed, if only to get myself a discount on my window cleaning bill!
After this brief trial period of internet dating, I really thought that would be the end of my adventures in this arena until about a month later when I found myself at a loose end once again. What to do? The options weren’t exactly numerous and going to see a film unaccompanied in London is one thing, but in a small provincial town where you can’t easily slip unobserved into a seat – you tend to stand out at the Regent Centre if you are tall and striking and under 60 years of age! – the appeal of this idea was minimal. As I was considering whether to accept a last minute invitation from someone I had long since decided was not only bad for my liver but also my peace of mind, I recalled that a friend of mine had met her partner on a website called ‘Plenty more fish’. So I ditched the idea of going out with Mr Right Now (but you’ll regret it later) and settled in for the evening with a glass of red in one hand and my iPad in the other to undertake the tedious process of writing another profile summary. This time I was a little more hopeful, but mainly due to the triumph of optimism over experience than for any logical reason. Fast forward one week and my experiences on this new dating site were already beginning to closely resemble those of the first. Furthermore, some of the profiles of the men who had shown an interest in me were far from appealing to my feminine sensibilities. Many of them appeared to understand very little about marketing themselves to a female audience and some of their comments suggested that any sane woman would be well advised to give them a wide berth! By way of example, I give you Steve from Southbourne, who wrote something along these lines:
‘Although I’m not exactly Brad Pitt, I’ve been told I’m quite handsome. I have been around the block a few times and done some things I’m not proud of but I’m happy with my life right now. I am no saint but I do know how to give a woman a good time. Just one thing, if you decide to date me, don’t do what my last date did when she sent me a message saying ‘nobody home’ just before we were due to meet and when I got to her house, sure enough there was nobody home!’
If this was his profile on a dating site, I would be fascinated to read his CV! Steve clearly had no idea how to endear himself to a woman, which was made all the more apparent when he sent me a message (by way of introduction) which just said – Yes or No? This did not require too much thought on my part. My immediate reaction was to respond with: ‘Well lover boy, I hate to break it to you but it has to be No!’. I don’t recall the exact response I gave at the time, but I must have said something uncomfortably close to the truth because he immediately blocked me from contacting him, which was more than fine by me!
Perhaps I am a little harsh and also a touch impatient – after all, few people encounter their Mr Darcy on the internet or anywhere else that quickly. However, I am at a stage in my life where I have neither the time nor the inclination to kiss any more frogs and if my Prince Charming is still out there somewhere, he is clearly riding a lame horse in the wrong direction. If you happen to come across him, do please let him know that the lady of his dreams is getting a little weary of waiting and point him in the right direction!
Luckily none of this has been wasted experience and I have learned a little more about myself in the process. It seems that when it comes to dating, I tend to veer between the extremes of settling for way too little (which always happens when I default to my habitual pattern of falling for an unavailable man) or being so fussy that I refuse to consider someone unless there is an instant attraction. So clearly I still have some work to do on myself in this area. But one thing I have learned is that whenever I settle for less than I want in any area of my life, the universe tends to respond with ever diminishing returns. This is how the law of attraction operates: if you hold a deep-rooted feeling or belief that you don’t deserve to have your needs met, that will be the reality that you experience. Outer experience mirrors inner thought and from what I have observed, this is a universal truth as unquestionable as the law of gravity!
As for internet dating, although it clearly works for some, I think I can conclude that it is not for me. I don’t believe in the idea that we only have one ‘soulmate’ and I stubbornly refuse to share the widespread view among my single female friends that all the good men are taken. Yet, whilst I recognise that there is some truth to the old adage that there are always ‘plenty more fish in the sea’, I also know that I’m not casting my bait for your average fish. I am hoping to meet someone unusual… someone a bit like myself, and that person is likely to be as adverse to sifting through profiles on cyberspace in search of love as I am!