Oh, what promises abound in the world of online dating!
Behind every miniature digital face is an opportunity, the potential for thrilling heart connection, laughter-filled friendships, amazing sex, or D&Ms while strolling along a riverbank.
It can feel overwhelming, like being stuck in a supermarket with endless aisles and too much choice. But don’t be misled by this illusion of variety. Most of what’s on offer is not worth a cent. It’s facile, duplicitous, fake in every sense. To get to the genuine gold it requires a lot of digging. This can be very time consuming and before long, you can find your daily life subsumed by messaging, checking for messages or scrolling through a multitude of faces or profiles. This all takes its toll.
And yet the allure of potential is what often keeps us coming back for more.
Addictive and ‘hyper-real’
Chatting to people on dating apps can easily become addictive and ‘hyper-real’. This ‘blog is in some ways a chronicle of that addiction, and my very first online liaison was the perfect example. I’m almost embarrassed to recount this story because I was such a newbie and so totally clueless.
I’d just uploaded one profile picture on Skout, together with a very brief personal description. I don’t even remember what I wrote, but I know it was brief. As a professional copywriter it was probably meant to be intriguing and succinct, but I was new to the self-marketing business and so it probably didn’t tick any of the key boxes.
However, my phone had been pinging all afternoon at work, so that evening I sat down to go through the prospects.
There was a clear standout that weekend, and I was caught unawares by the arresting power of someone else’s desire.
He spent the entire Saturday and most of Sunday messaging me and of course I was eager to respond. He was almost 20 years my junior and wearing my rose-tinted glasses, I thought he was gorgeous. A little rough round the edges, but sexy, passionate, tall and manly, but shy and more than a little awkward. This was all fine, because he was the first!
There was no one to compare him with, no benchmark of normality and no holding back either!
The banter and the sexual tension built steadily over the 48 hours and by the Sunday evening, I was firmly ‘besotted’ by this 32-year-old mechanic. By now, we were messaging constantly between 7.00 in the morning and 9.00 at night (his bedtime). He was well behaved as he learnt early that I didn’t tolerate boundary crossing. I compared myself to a nervous wild pony, whinnying with excitement but flighty and skittish. (He loved this analogy). So there were no dickpics or semi-naked sexting, just bonding, innuendo and by the Monday, blatant desire barely concealing our yearning.
I say ‘yearning’ because, back then, I was fresh meat, and also pretty fresh out of a long marriage, so it was all new and sexy as hell. As for him, I think he was desperate to forget being jilted and sexually betrayed by his ex, as well as keen for a good old-fashioned root (to use his lingo). There seemed to be a heavy emotional component too, but who knows how genuine that was?
By the end of Day 5, the UST (unresolved sexual tension) was almost at fever pitch. We decided to meet on Sunday. That day, it felt like the most important event on my annual calendar, and after some last-minute child-minding problems, I arrived at our destination: a quiet part of the botanic gardens in my city.
I’ll be blunt – it was a shock. He didn’t exactly look like his photos, but only because he’d taken no care whatsoever in his appearance. Sure, he was the same size and age, but in the cold hard light of day, he didn’t look as attractive.
His photos hadn’t revealed his food-infested teeth, bad breath, two-week old stubble nor his unwashed body odour and daggy tracky dacks. Then there was his body language and manner – this was the man who’d been lusting and groaning about me, as well as painting optimistic pictures of the relationship we’d have. He could barely meet my eye, and seemed aloof and embarrassed. Lesson number one – to use his phrase – it’s easy to be a keyboard warrior. It’s a lot harder face to face to manifest the false persona you’ve created.
Being the people person I am and especially as a communications professional, I managed to slowly squeeze a stilted sort of conversation out of him over the three hours we spent together. It was abundantly clear that his reclusive, real-life personality was nothing like the confident, sexy man I’d expected. To his credit (um, I guess?), he did grope me and tried to stick his hands down my pants.
So, it was also blindingly obvious that we were totally unsuited. You might not be surprised when I tell you that I didn’t run a mile or ‘ghost’ him, newbie that I was. Instead, in the hours following this first meeting, I examined my feelings of being duped, being sold a bum deal – that I’d fallen (however lamely and superficially) for someone who didn’t exist.
The fantasy I’d developed over just that one week (or approximately 98 hours) had such a strong hold on me that even when he turned brutish and nasty a few days later, I still held onto a half-baked notion that we could somehow make it work.
It should have been a salutary lesson but it was not one I learned quickly.
This build-up of intimacy online can happen quite suddenly and if we’re honest, unrealistically. We all know deep in our sensible selves that you can’t start chatting with someone and understand them deeply, trust them with your life or want to shack up with them forever after.
In my first year on the dating apps, I kept being sucked into this dynamic over and over again, but I couldn’t see it. Even after I recognised the dangers, it was difficult to stop repeating the pattern. I gave men a chance when I should have politely declined. I was blind to their glaringly obvious faults and fixated on the idea that playing the field meant exploring EVERY opportunity I could get. Well, that might be a slight exaggeration but you get my point? I’m a lot wiser to my weaknesses now.
After only a couple of days messaging intensely, it’s possible or even likely that a ‘false intimacy’ develops.
When combined with physical attraction, it can be a potent mix of ‘fantasy pheromones’ and a tender hopefulness that so many of us carry within. This is risky territory.
Intimacy is built and maintained in the ‘hyper-reality’ of initial online liaisons in a number of ways: the showering or steady drip-feeding of compliments, attention, and the sheer amount of time spent ‘chatting’ with someone. It’s good advice to be wary of these tactics, as narcissists and psychopaths use them to do real damage. Love bombing is now a thing.
“Romance, real romance – being courted and wooed on screen and in messages and letters – is a thing difficult to say no to,” writes Stella Grey of The Guardian in her column about looking for love at age 50.
“It’s especially difficult when you are sad. It’s easy to fall for someone over email. Things can accelerate way too fast, especially if you’re both accelerators. What is difficult is following through into life. The closer email conversation brought us, the more risk there was that a real encounter would be the beginning of a big letdown.”
I’m still a bit obsessed about what this social media-enhanced experience of ‘relationships’ in the 21st Century means. I read everything I come across, I lap up other people’s stories or roll my eyes in knowing agreement. I share the highs and lows and I feel their pain. After all, I’ve been there. I think we can all benefit from sharing and getting the word out about what the traps are here in the online dating world.
I’m reminded time and time again that finding like-minded people is not easy.
Authentic, mentally healthy men and women who are prepared to open their hearts are rare and precious. Finding people with common interests, compatible free time and a relationship status that works with mine is also a challenge.
And that’s another whole new topic!
PS – This story is one I’ve revisited and revised from the early archives of this blog, back when I had just a few scattered visitors. If you’re a new reader, I hope you’ve enjoyed it.