What does it mean to be the one not chosen?

Last week I devoured all three of Lea Thau’s “Love Hurts” episodes in a single afternoon. Thau hosts the Strangers podcast, which I’d never heard of until a couple friends recommended it. Read this description and tell me you’re not curious:

Producer Lea Thau investigates why she’s single. She goes back to guys who didn’t want to date her in recent years and asks them why. From ages 15 to 38 Lea was never single, but since her fiancé left her while she was pregnant, finding love again has been hard these last few years. Is she too old? Is she too broken from that last big heartbreak? Is she too much this or not enough that? While looking for answers, the man she is dating disappears. This is the first installment in a series.

A fourth episode is due out tomorrow and I can’t wait. The series is, hands down, the most honest and straight-forward thing I’ve heard or read about online dating in particular and modern love in general. (Better, I’d add, than the Modern Love column, which I sometimes like but often find suffers from its 1500-1700 word limitation.)

I want to call Thau ballsy, but my feminist inclinations suggest I ought to find a better adjective. But that’s how these episodes feel: vulnerable and exposed—and that’s the biological reality of balls, isn’t it? Thau confronts romantic love—and, more specifically, romantic rejection—without worrying too much about justifying her own dating experience as a legitimate subject for discussion: I know that going back to guys who’ve turned me down, asking them, ‘Why not me?’ can seem so arrogant and whiny and self-involved and potentially aggressive, like, ‘How dare you not want to date me?’ but I hope it doesn’t come off that way.

I think of all the people I might ask that question, and all the people who might ask that question of me, and I can feel the sweat from my palms dampening my keyboard as I type.

The one thing Thau does that I’ve always avoided (on this platform at least) is talk about her experiences with dating as they’re happening. You could argue that it’s difficult to get much perspective that way, and the classically-trained essayist in me values perspective above all, but maybe there’s something to be said for reflecting on the dating process in real time. She perfectly captures the neurotic swing from sanity to anxiety that seems a requisite part of dating:

You feel joy…. You remember that before you met this guy, you’d finally come to a place where life felt really good, where you could let go of this idea that you had to meet someone now, and actually felt that your life was pretty awesome. Not just as a cover up like before but in a more genuine way. Finally. And you think, maybe there’s a way back there before too long, even if the first guy you kind of opened up to disappeared. Then two days go by and you think, “He still hasn’t fucking been in touch? Even just to wrap things up? He doesn’t even feel like he owes me that?”

I’ve made several good friends through online dating, but Thau’s experience is closer to what has been, for me, the reality of dating. You feel a strong connection with someone and then he disappears. Or you disappear. I have backed out of dates under the flimsiest of excuses. And I have learned the hard way that you must assume—no matter how explicitly someone declares their interest in you—that that person is actively dating other people, unless they’ve clearly said otherwise. It takes practice to learn to be kind and accountable in this process. But learning how to date with integrity has little to do with actually finding someone to love. (And more to do, perhaps, with finding your niche of furries or Pastafarians or Stevie Wonder Truthers.)

So then what about my dating life right now?  Continue reading

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irony and the problem with online dating

I am in love with my friends. I mean this not in the if-you-love-them-why-don’t-you-marry-them sense, but as much as one can be enamored with the person who roasts Friday chicken just because you like it, or books the Stanley Park Christmas Train for the night you’re free to join, or checks in to see how you’re feeling since you sustained a minor yoga injury over the weekend, or picks up the tab for beer and charcuterie, or any other number of small but persistent kindnesses. I just adore them. And–whew–it’s a relief to get that all down, because I know it is uninteresting to praise one’s own friends, but I don’t care.

I just read this article in the New York Times: a challenge to live without the hipster irony that sometimes seems to define our era. My friend Erin says, “Who would want to live without irony?”and I think she’s right. Irony is fun. It’s funny. People who are wholly sincere (I’m referring to you, family in matching hand-sewn organic bamboo pants) tend to seem dull and out of touch. But, because I tend to drift from irony to sincerity, I’m excited about a potential shift toward earnestness. For example, there’s the time I interned for National Geographic Kids and started (ironically) e-mailing my friends links to stories of unlikely baby animal friendships (this stuff is NG Kids’ bread and butter), only to discover a few months later that I’d developed full-blown and mildly embarrassing baby animal infatuation. That and I think the joke “What did the zero say to the eight?” is genuinely funny*. And, yes, I really liked the new Footloose.

figure one: 18 day old hedgehog (note adorable absence of teeth)

When I was sitting in a cafe last week, the guy sitting next to me–having spied this article on my computer screen–struck up a conversation about relationships. Was it something I was studying, he wanted to know, and what was the most interesting thing I had learned? (The latter question I tried and utterly failed to answer–something I should work on.) We talked about marriage and love and dating and, eventually, online dating and he said, “It always unnerved me how much it feels like shopping.” I thought of my own experiences with online dating. “That’s kind of what I like about it,” I said. “It seems so efficient.” There was something about clicking from profile to profile that always gave me this sense of control over my own destiny. But I’m beginning to think he’s right, that the problem of online dating–which sometimes seems like the only way to meet people in notoriously-unfriendly Vancouver–is its similarity to selecting a new pair of earbuds on Amazon. And what got me thinking about all this are those generous, smart, interesting friends of mine, but bear with me–I’m getting there.

When I started online dating I got exactly what I needed, which was to discover–after a decade committed to one person–that there were funny or interesting or attractive people who thought I was also funny or interesting or attractive. But I wonder if the reason online dating feels like shopping is that it is shopping, not for a product but for an idea, for someone who fits the narrative of who you imagine yourself to be. And the very format of online dating rewards irony over sincerity. Because the guy who opens with an intentionally-corny joke or the girl with the self-consciously-goofy photo will always scan better than the person who admits he’d like to get married soon and preferably to a woman who makes good lasagna.

Continue reading