Things have changed in the dating world since I was last single. Of course, that was 1998, so maybe it’s not a revelation. I got married young in 2000 after a brief, undistinguished career as a serial monogamist, so I never actually “dated” per se.
Fortunately, I found the right relationship early, got married, and never needed to do anything else. That is, until my wife died in 2017 at age 39. We knew the relationship was limited by the whole “til death do us part,” thing, but we had been planning to stay married and alive together for a lot longer. I found myself in the Twilight Zone of involuntary singledom known as widowhood. Widowerhood? I’m a widoweirdo.
My first relationship after Nina died fell into my established pattern: serious, intense monogamy that emerged from a non-dating scenario. The fact that it was my first relationship as a widower, my partner was also widowed, and we both had kids definitely set it apart. this wasn’t a neutral adult relationship setting. My grief was a thing that I carried around with me all the time, even when it wasn’t apparent (in many ways it still is, though the burden eases more often), and the new relationship served to both mask and emphasize my aggrieved state. There was a ton of good stuff happening. But, when things got challenging, and real fissures were revealed, I didn’t have a deep bench of emotional reserves to send into the game. I was the Cleveland Cavaliers of relationship game, if I may so metaphorically flatter my starting lineup (which, to be fair, at least had enough talent to get me there?).
So, now I am forty-two now and learning for the first time what “dating” means and how to do it. My first instinct after the breakup was to crawl into a very deep hole. Deep holes are dark and lonely, yes, but also safe and quiet. There is no chance of anyone dying on you or breaking up with you while alone in a deep, dark, hole. But, no. I have kids. It wouldn’t be fair—or even vaguely pleasant—to live in a relationship fallout shelter with them.
Also a big part of the reason I felt open to having new relationships is that Nina and I discussed it before she died. She’d not only encouraged me to find love again, but articulated reasons why: 1. She wanted me to be as happy as I could during the presumptively long time I had left to live; and 2. She recognized that being in a relationship was part of how I thrived. It wasn’t just because she and I had a long, rewarding relationship that I felt at home in that environment. I was able to function well enough to make things work in our marriage in part because being in a relationship suits me. She was sharp, that Nina. And generous of spirit, even when dying. A multitasker.
Despite the ruination of grief and the uber-ruination of breakup mid-grief, I was determined to get back on the bike. But I also wanted to take a slightly different approach after wiping out spectacularly, ass-over-teakettle, on the first post-widowhood ride. It wasn’t as simple as avoiding another breakup. Breaking up compounded my sense of loss and set me back in ways both obvious (duh, breakups feel bad, breakups after loss feel very bad) and unforeseen (my kids still ask months later why they can’t talk to my ex-GF—”we decided it’s healthier for your psychologically” isn’t a great rejoinder to “we love her and we didn’t break up with her!”). The barriers to emotional functionality are sometimes (read: for me nearly always) only legible as they’re being written on the page, in real time.
So the plan was built on caution: do not immediately meet the Presumptive Next Great Love of Your Life, both because PNGLYF is a horrid acronym, and that method already warped my few remaining joists of emotional stability. My problem is that I want something–connection, social interaction, new relationships–but I don’t want to jump into another Serious Relationship. So I decided to try the current thing single people do to meet other single people: I joined several online dating apps.
First I had to overcome a mental hurdle. When I was last single, Toni Braxton still needed her heart unbroken, Duncan Sheik was barely breathing, and dating online was not yet the mainstream method of meeting people it represents today. Dating online was dodgy, smacked of desperation, and was located in the popular imagination only slightly uphill on the slippery slope from mail-order brides. I am not a 1998 sex tourist. I am a startlingly conventional cis, white, middle class professional man with poor social skills and recent history of emotional trauma. Why should someone with those sterling credentials have to resort to the fringe dating means of the desperately lonely?
Happily, for the most part, the unseemliness of online dating turned out to be a something of a myth. A quick Google search and a quick consult of my stalwart online support group, the Hot Young Widows Club, provided me with ample anecdotal evidence that dating apps today are by far mainstream, not a unsavory backwater. I downloaded several.
Some field notes on the general status of online dating: 1. There really are a LOT of white women (and virtually no black women) named Becky, with varying degrees of hair quality; 2. Everyone single except me has been to Machu Pichu and taken their photo in front of a pyramid; 3. The most popular activities among the currently single age 30-45 crowd are sarcasm, craft beer, and tacos, so we are a generation apparently raised in a cantina by parents with an unsophisticated sense of irony?
Next I needed to figure which app best suited my online dating needs. It turns out that, while there are many similarities, the apps each had a different feel. It’s a little like choosing your favorite bar—they all pour more or less the same booze, but you go into some expecting atmosphere and cozy conversation, while others promise black-light friendly body paint and test tubes filled with brightly colored liquids. Different venues, differing expectations.
For example, Tinder is sort of the Coke of online dating apps. A name brand, it is expansive, widely used and recognized, and maybe not that good for you? It has a bit of a reputation as a hookup app, though that is not exclusively true (I can assure that I deftly avoided hooking up completely!). Tinder’s interface is conceptually intuitive—the origin of the whole swipe right (rejection!) and left (interested!) trope. If you both swipe left on each other, you have a “match” and you can chat with the person. I found it easy to use and as a general matter not flooded with profiles that make me grimace (though it certainly has those, thank you very much Lady Posing in Bikini with Actual Tiger and self-described “Discreet Bottom Dude” who charges $75 for some services, $100 for others).
I recommend using Tinder if you’re just starting out. If nothing else it will help you understand the baseline for how well-designed apps function. I will also say that I have not advanced beyond the chatting phase on Tinder. No actual dates. But that may have more to do with user error, so I won’t judge Tinder on this factor. And I did engage in a fair amount of online chatting with people who seemed to be real people and very nice.
The second app I tried was Bumble, which markets itself as being more woman-friendly. The key difference between Bumble and Tinder (and perhaps the only meaningful difference in terms of function) is that on Bumble, once you have a match, the woman has to reach out first, there is no way for men to initiate contact. I find this to be a puzzlingly “feminist” aspect to the app at best: true, it gives women control over initiation of direct communication, which could screen out, say, someone you accidentally swiped right on (I’ve done this a few times already, sorry!). But otherwise, you don’t really know if you want to chat until you…chat? And it also puts more of the onus on women, which seems arbitrary and unfair (we’re making up for centuries of misogyny in dating by making women do all the work?!). So I’m not sure how it helps.
Having said that, whether it’s the design & function of the app or just its reputation, Bumble does appear to create a MUCH more tasteful dating ecology than Tinder. Maybe the men who muck up Tinder don’t bother with Bumble because they’re only on the app to send first message dick pics or aggressive requests for golden showers (these are actual things that happen, sadly, as I’ve heard from multiple women, not just me looking for excuses to blog nasty)? This is where the bar metaphor comes in handy. Both places might be filled with singles, but one is a bit of meat market with loud bass-heavy music and the other has darts, a nice jukebox, places to sit comfortably, and enough lighting that you can’t be sexually assaulted without the rest of the room knowing it. I never progressed beyond the chatting phase with Bumble either. But the chats were nice?
Both Bumble and Tinder have paid portions of the app where you can “boost” your signal in various ways or see more information about people who have liked you even though you haven’t “matched” yet. I’m not sure about the value you’d get from any of the enhanced subscription services. But even without the paid tools, you get a pretty complete dating app interface.
The next app I tried is Coffee Meets Bagel. This one varies from the Tinder swiping model. CMB presents the user with a slate of “bagels” every day at noon. It’s just a few, 4-6 maybe, and those are the only profiles you can connect with for free (by liking them). And you have to like or reject each bagel in series, no comparison shopping. If you don’t like your bagels that day, you can go to the “discovery” section, but you have to spend “beans” (coffee beans, get it?) to like these folks (letting them know of your interest). You get some beans just for showing up, but if you wanted to “like” more than one or two people in the discovery zone, you’d have to purchase additional beans for real money. I don’t like the design of the app very much, it’s clunky and doesn’t give you a lot of options without paying for added services.
However, CMB also led to my only actual real life interaction: a date! And it was a nice date, with a real human person who was fun, smart, talented, attractive, and exactly as she appeared on the app (i.e. not a serial killer, scammer, or unsolicited discreet bottom dude). So I have to give credit where it’s due. Coffee met bagel. I still haven’t figured out which of us was which, though.
The final two apps are not for the faint of heart, IMO. First is OKCupid, which is one of the more venerable and widely recognized names in the game. I won’t belabor this, just say that, internally every time I opened the app after the first few I said to myself “OK, stupid…” as a kind of mantra of self-mockery. It’s not a great app, either functionally or in terms of design. The various sections aren’t intuitive and it never presents that many profiles as options—all these apps are geolocation dependent, so the dating pool is limited by your location, but even given my relatively shallow dating pool of Greensboro, NC and environs, OKC lacks depth. I wouldn’t caution against OKCupid, but I wouldn’t rate it very highly either.
Plenty of Fish (PoF, or Puddle of Flesh in my internal parlance) is the last app I downloaded and I only kept it for sheer entertainment value. It has by far the highest per capita use of stupid SnapChat filters (maybe I’m just old and out of touch, but why anyone would want the first thing a potential date to see about them to be their picture with a dog or giraffe face I do not know), inappropriate thong and breast appearances, and outright raunchiness of any of the apps. I will admit I don’t understand porn bots, but there seem to be a lot of them on PoF. Five Points & Fayetteville, NC for some reason are just a total den of iniquity if you believe PoF’s geo-location.
The main selling point of PoF is an attempt to address the depth issue of OKC: there are indeed PLENTY of fish. But the PoF Ocean is overpopulated with varieties of fish that ought to swim in parts of the dating sea were photography, reading, or even oxygenation is rarely possible.
They say that no matter where you go, there you are. This truism is perhaps even truer in the virtual world, where you “go” places without ever leaving your couch. My goal in testing out the dating apps was to vary from my previous experience: connect with and learn about other people, maybe date casually, and hopefully find out something about myself in the process, in order to find out what I wanted from this new, excruciatingly involuntary phase of my life. “Unfortunately,” the first person I actually met turned out to be an appealing woman who, like the vast majority of the interesting people on dating apps, was looking more for a stable, long-term relationship than a half-assed connection with an emotionally damaged dude who was just putting himself out there to avoid staring into the abyss.
If I learned anything from the breakup of my first post-loss relationship, it’s that I’m not ready for a new LTR (online dating parlance!). The breakup set me back on the LTR-readiness timeline not just due to once bitten twice shyness, but to something that surprised me, but is maybe endemic to this brave new world of “dating”: distrusting my relationship instincts. For nearly 18 years I’d honed my relationship skills and ability to problem solve relationship issues, and I figured the one thing I could be ready to do was relationship work. But I’d only learned to function within a single adult relationship. And my first relationship after Nina died had a high degree of difficulty (long-distance, immediate post-grief timing). So it turned out that I wasn’t as prepared as I reckoned and I made a pretty thorough hash of what ought to have been something very good.
I came out of that relationship without my normal fixed emotional navigation points. Also with less zest for maybe the most important part of a LTR: the desire to comingle two complex, adult lives into a functional whole. Introducing someone to friends and family, sharing emotional and physical space, placing a new layer of shared intimacies on top of the ones I am still grieving. Although it was a promising connection, I immediately undermined the CMB relationship—the one real conventional online dating success I’d produced—with the cognitive dissonance of my situation: I overtly wasn’t looking for anything serious, but still behaved very much as I had grown accustomed — like someone in a serious, monogamous relationship. Thus proving in a new and tech-forward way that after 42 years, I am still by far my own worst enemy. Here I am, no matter where I go.
I’ve decided to step away from the online dating world for a while. Despite the foregoing, I consider my online dating experience a success. I met people, both virtually and in real life (that’s IRL, FWIW), some of whom are really great. And I proactively put myself out in the world as an available, single person, which sure beats rocking back and forth in the fetal position or eating too many frozen yogurt pops (OMG those things are good and so expensive!) to fill the void. But dating online to fill the empty spots in my emotional life—with no intention of following through on any meaningful connection I might make—just doesn’t feel right. I need connection, but I’m just going to have to find it other ways (my friends and family are officially on notice. Also: blogging!).
All in all, the online dating world is both everything negative I’d heard—slightly scary, definitely weird, filled with strangers making kissy faces—and a helpful way to meet new people. It amplifies both the power to interact with potentially interesting people (there’s no way to meet that many people IRL) and the potential to be offensive or weird online. It’s a perfect proxy for the state of the single world, which is of course radically imperfect.