“Quarantine dating is like a grotesque contact sport with too many players, and no one wins”
There was a time in your late 20s and early 30s when almost every weekend was spent having a wedding. And there’s a time, a decade or so later, when every weekend is filled with desperate, angry, confused friends sobbing on the phone about their relationship breaking up.
I have a growing number of middle-aged single friends. We live extreme lives, all or nothing. Single parenthood means that a good portion of our time is solely spent on family life and a social life revolves around children or expensive babysitters. But there are sometimes weekends without children at all, when they visit their dad, something that friends who are still in a relationship do not experience. The house is completely empty, lazy mornings are possible, and friendships change in this space, mirroring a childless period of our lives.
Diving into online dating
Like many of my single-parent friends, Orla and I are double agents. After long stretches of single-dependent parenthood, any rare, childless weekend feels like it’s been pulled out of a cage, a wonderful regression to aliases. We drink and dance until 4am, like we’re 20s and on a girls holiday in Ayia Napa, instead of being in our 40s and 50s, in a quiet Dulwich pub. The difference is the hangover. Articular pain. Dry eyes. These days, my body yells at me if I drink more than two glasses of wine or stay up too long, let alone dance the night away.
“Remember when we went out all night and then went straight to work,” Orla moaned. We’re lying in our dressing gowns, gliding through Orla’s dating app. On the coffee table in front of us a giant bowl of Doritos chili, two glasses of Berocca, a packet of paracetamol, another of ibuprofen, two Yakults, a coffee pot.
Orla has recently returned to dating apps, following the usual on-off pattern that most of my single friends and I adopt. We’ll join an app, scroll relentlessly, go on a few horrible dates, and then, emotionally scarred, leave the app and swear never to come back again. A few months later, we are back. It seems to be the drug of choice in modern times. Ultimate procrastination.
“Middle-aged dating is like a freakish contact sport, with too many players, where no one wins,” I say. “A world where the emphasis is on beginnings rather than endings.”
‘Uh huh,’ Orla doesn’t look up.
As I continue to procrastinate, she scrolls through the app, then occasionally holds it up, asking, “Does this approach really work for him?” then shows profiles, reflections of the world of heterosexual online dating: a man with a bandage around his head, lying in a hospital bed: “Dean. 56. I’ve had some tough times lately. Looking for someone caring’; an extraordinary number of men holding large fish or beside living tigers; standing next to sports cars; giving Ted Talks; or photographed with their children, and sometimes, their wives; open-relationship polyamorous types, who are often bearded and always seem to be baking bread; men bungee jumping from cliffs or parachuting from planes; So. Many. Rock. climbers; newly divorced sad-eyed men who are clearly 10 years older than their age suggests and are looking for someone 20 years younger; or, oddly for me, extremely young men in their late twenties or even teenagers looking for women 20 or 30 years older.
Despite my skepticism, this is how people date now. I have friends who found the love of their life on dating apps, and I know a number of happily married couples who originally met online. It may be, according to Orla, a jungle out there, but that’s how many people fall in love. So I soon feel ready to dip my toe in the dating pool too. But not without apprehension.
My first attempt at dating took place at 14 and went very badly. The boy, Arron, was maybe a year or two older – I met him in the cafe in Stevenage where I worked. Green eyes, black hair. He wore a very thin shirt and tie, which I found wildly exciting, and he invited me to McDonald’s that Saturday, writing his name on my arm in ballpoint pen. On Saturday I applied six coats of mascara and achieved 3.55. I waited and waited. 4:40 – no sign of him.
On Monday morning, I was still crying. As I waited outside the school for my friend to arrive, “Bible Ben”, an aloof, mature, well-behaved boy in my class, spotted me first and I told him everything. “I don’t know where Arron lives,” I cried. ‘It’s the love of my life. I know that.’ I expected Ben to tell me that I was too young to meet the love of my life. Or that we were going to be really late. But he looked me straight in the eye and whispered, “He doesn’t deserve you.
This time I turn to my friend Orla for help. ‘What should I say in my dating profile?’ I hand him my phone. I have no idea who I am, what I want, or definitely what I need. I like books, movies, jazz, walking and yoga. I am looking for someone nice, who is interested and interesting. Orla looks up. “Better to be brutally honest.”
I type in a few words: I’m hungover, in a dark room, watching back-to-back episodes of First Dates, eating pizza and Doritos for breakfast. Shortly I have to pick up the car at the MOT center in the industrial area of Orpington. Send help. And whole Coke.
“Yeah,” Orla said. ‘Brutal honesty.’
We laugh, but we’re not brutally honest. At all.
My profile picture is of me clean, wearing real clothes, without a huge pizza belly, smiling and glowing. The reality and the way I present myself online do not correspond in any way. I can’t remember the last time I washed my hair. I broke a hairbrush yesterday trying to brush it.
Butterflies, red flags and first dates
The first conversation, however, looks promising. I’m not very good at small talk, I’m way too intense. I ignore Orla’s advice to keep it light and friendly, discuss movies and books, or favorite foods, and instead ask probing questions, like I’m interviewing someone for a job. ‘How is your relationship with your family?’ ‘How was the early childhood?’ ‘What do you think is your most annoying habit?’
Alex laughs at my probing questions. He has a normal-looking face and a normal-looking profile. No red flags. We text a bit, and he has jokes and good conversation, and makes me laugh. And we talk to each other on the phone several times. I’m a little nervous but after a few weeks of discussion, arrange to meet him anyway.
We meet at Victoria Station, after long discussions about where we should go. Alex suggested a few restaurants and I steered him towards the idea of a coffee or a drink, thinking that if we don’t like each other it will be easier to leave. He arrives late but apologizes, and although he is a good three inches shorter than he claimed on his profile, he is handsome with a friendly smile and seems easy to talk to. Funny, even. We have a drink and chat. How nice; I’m having fun and we’re going to dinner, after all.
The restaurant he suggests is quite quiet and we order and laugh and drink wine. I like this man, I think, his open honesty and his intelligence. He talks a lot about himself, but that doesn’t bother me. I like to find out. He orders more wine, leans back in his chair and talks as if we’ve known each other forever. Then Alex digs into his backpack and pulls out a glass jar, the kind you could put cotton balls in. Inside is a giant spider – a tarantula, alive, mobile and very real. I scream. He’s laughing. “Oh, it’s Roger,” he said, placing the spider next to his plate. “He accompanies me everywhere.
Alex was weird but harmless, and I have a few good dates. However, after a few more months of online dating, I register a series of horror stories. Everyone I meet seems to be a cheater, a liar, a gaslighter, emotionally unavailable or avoidant, irresponsible, even criminal. My friends act as guardians and encourage me. “It’s a numbers game,” Orla reminds me. “Eventually, after thousands, you might find someone who is fine.”
“Call me romantic,” I tell him, “but I’m looking for more than OK.”
A chance connection
Helen Fisher, an anthropologist, suggests in Why We Love that dating is a game designed to “impress and capture”, which is not necessarily about honesty but about novelty, excitement and even danger, which can increase dopamine levels in the brain. But that’s not what I’m looking for either. Now that I have thrown myself into this world, I am consumed by the desire for a stable relationship. I crave privacy. And he feels further and further from the possibility.
Then, in the middle of it all, something else happens that changes everything: the pandemic. The trauma of experiencing internal as well as external change brings all my anxieties and vulnerabilities to the surface. The random nature of patternless life is a pattern in itself. There is no control. I had always felt a bit out of control and chaotic, in a way that I imagined others weren’t. Other women seemed to project a calm, organized unity. Now we are all chaotic. And I realize that we probably always have been. The loss of this realization is frightening, but it is also liberating.
My quest for romantic love, obsessed with my body, obvious fear of aging, have been a waste of time from this precious and precarious life.
Then in February 2021, a man named Ben contacted me on social media: he was doing a lecture series on compassion and came across my nursing memoir, The Language of Kindness. It sends a beautiful, if very long message, about how we knew each other at school, and my mother taught us both in kindergarten, where we went together when we were three years – do I remember him? At first, I have no idea. But then I remember. Ben. Bible Ben, who was wise even when we were teenagers.
Ben has dedicated his life to helping others. He tells me about the food bank he has been running for six years, the difficulties during the Covid to maintain it, despite a sharp increase in demand. “We could have a coffee and take a walk,” he told me. “Be lovely to make it up to you properly.”