I’m a huge fan, and I’m so grateful for your writing. There is one area, however, where I think you may have a blind spot, and that is the absolutely terrible plight of trying to find love on dating apps.
Your general advice about the pursuit of love always resonates: Build a life alone that you love; hold onto your belief that love exists even when it makes you feel vulnerable and uncool; if you meet someone you think you like but they’re tepid or not fully invested, go ahead and tell them to fuck off. I now read this and think, “Yep, got it, great advice, duly noted.” My execution is sometimes imperfect, but I remain fully convinced that you are right about these things. However, that belief doesn’t change the day-to-day, grueling nature of what “being open to love” in 2019 entails.
I am 35 years old, and I have been on and off dating websites or apps for almost a decade. During that time, I’ve met a very small handful of people I ended up caring deeply for, or felt I could deeply care for, but for various reasons it has never worked out. In fact, my longest relationship in that time was just shy of a year. No deep, abiding loves, no planning a life together, absolutely zero domestic bliss. Just lots and lots of mediocre dates with a touch of minor heartbreak.
It’s impossible to estimate how many first dates I’ve gone on, but even given all the weeks and months I’ve sworn off the apps, it’s easily over 50 and likely closer to 100. One hundred men, no true love! That’s so much time wasted on men who had no meaningful role or impact on my life, men I forget as soon as I say goodnight.
On good days, I’m happy for these experiences. Bad-date anecdotes are funny. If nothing else, these encounters bring color to my life. But it is truly — and I can’t emphasize this enough — exhausting. I hate it. I want ZERO MORE DATE ANECDOTES. I am so sick of my happily partnered friends who have nothing but good intentions, asking me, excitedly, to recount every detail of every date. I don’t want to do it anymore. Please, can we just talk about your Sunday of going grocery shopping and folding laundry with your partner? That sounds great.
I know that, as a reasonable, open, attractive woman, if I keep trying, I’ll find someone eventually. Romantic notions aside, statistically, something eventually has to work out. But what if that means, say, another 62 first dates over the course of five years? All that swiping, all those tequila-sodas, all that very precious time. And out of those 62 men, I’ll feel a genuine connection to maybe four who won’t work out, and maybe No. 63 will be IT. (I work with data in my professional life, can you tell?) And by IT I simply mean someone who inspires me to get off the dating apps for a significant amount of time. Okay, great. But will all that time lost on all those men really have been worth it? Despite societal pressure and the excitement of those few close calls, I remain unconvinced.
(And I won’t even go into the very flawed nature of trying to find love on these things at all! It is so hard to look at pictures and a small bio and know if this person might excite you. Why don’t more people talk about that??)
So that’s the crux of it. If I find the process so grueling, why should I do it? My life as a single person is already pretty great, so what if I spent all that date time going on long walks with my dog? Getting really, really fit (the only thing standing between me and a Megan Rapinoe bod is MEN)? Reading books? Making veggie lasagna with my friend, her husband, and their 3-year-old? Isn’t that a better use of time than drinking at a dark bar with a man I’m most likely to find boring and unexciting? Why do I have to keep on spending my time this way? Can’t I just lean into my life of being single and abandon the pursuit of a partnered life?
Dating App Detractor
Falling in love demands a giant, graceful, thrilling leap of faith. But it’s a leap you can’t really train for. As a detail-oriented overachiever, you want to get it right, so you’re doing a series of stretches, running sprints, doing squats with weights — you just want to master this one simple feat and get the love you deserve as a reward.
Sadly, online dating turns that leap of faith into an awkward spectacle that’s at once performative, high stakes, and risky. Instead of spontaneously leaping into the unknown, you’re approached by a reality-TV producer who says, “Put on these big-ass red clown shoes, this clown nose, and this idiotic orange wig, and LEAP ACROSS THAT GIANT CHASM OVER THERE.” But can you take a flying leap under those conditions? Or do you feel like a jackass in your dumb wig? Does the prospect of clearing that enormous ravine in your huge red shoes make you shake and sweat? Do you back up and try to get a running start, or do you sit down in the dirt and cry until your nose falls off?
I think crying in the dirt is the most rational choice. Because it’s impossible to jump over a giant chasm when all you can think is, “I hate this!”
Let’s say a miracle happens and you make the leap in spite of hating it the whole time. But when you land on the other side of the chasm, all that’s waiting for you is another clown, shaking and crying. “Who’s this tool?” you’d probably ask. “Why doesn’t he put on his big-boy clown pants and jump like a real man?”
The bottom line is, if you hate dating apps, you’re unlikely to find love through a dating app. “But lots of people hate dating apps!” you say. “This is just what people do now!” And it’s true that there are millions of people out there texting each other, sending each other snapshots of their crotches, making small talk in dark bars, making out in each other’s apartments, and in some cases, falling in love and living happily ever after. There are lots of people who think dating apps are hilarious and fun. They’re impervious to that flood of loneliness that hits after another date goes wrong. They’re basically in it for the hot rando sex and hey, if somebody happens to look and feel and sound just right along the way, all the better!
God bless those people. But to me, being able to maintain a good attitude and not get freaked out and angry and lonely and discouraged while showing up for one mediocre date after another sounds about as easy as putting on big-ass red shoes and jumping over a canyon. And personally, I am not an emotional daredevil, an Evel Knievel of love. I could never do it. Moreover, a person who loves dating apps could never be self-defeating or neurotic or sensitive or fearful enough to understand a single thing about me. Just thinking about it reminds me of watching Hannah on The Bachelorette bungee jumping naked, tied to one of the contestant-bros. Not only am I not on the bridge, not naked, not bungee jumping, I’m also not crying back at the hotel, I’m not on the show, I’m not at the casting meeting, I’m not shooting an audition video. I’m reading a book in a cave with my support animal.
So not only would I have a hard time just showing up for a date made through a dating app, not only would I be shaking and crying and doubting myself every second, but I’d also have trouble understanding anyone who showed up and didn’t act like we were both about to be lowered into a vat of acid. If the guy stayed calm and happy, I’d question his sanity. And if the guy were as neurotic and weird as me, I’d probably dislike him for mirroring my weaknesses.
That’s one reason it can be hard to find someone who matches you, whether you’re using a dating app or not. Because unless you’ve navigated hundreds of hours of therapy or kneeling in a cave in Nepal or meditating in your room or having long talks with your closest friends about your hang-ups and weaknesses and defense mechanisms, you’re likely to project your shame and your issues onto someone else. (I did this with my husband straight out of the gate, because his insecurities made me intensely ashamed of my own insecurities, among other things.)
The point is, it’s already hard to make the giant leap of faith that’s required to fall in love. It’s already difficult to show up and be present and see someone with clear eyes. It’s a challenge even before you put on the goddamn clown shoes. And obviously, there are people who looooove to jump over canyons in clown shoes. Sometimes that’s the hardest part, with dating and with life in general: There’s always some chirpily optimistic hero out there, getting ’er done with gusto while you shake and weep.
One of the most radical acts of growth you can achieve is noticing what makes you different without blaming yourself for it. Even when you embrace who you are and cultivate compassion for others, you will still feel stubbornly resistant to certain activities, experiences, people, places, and things. You can have a great attitude, and it still happens. Something in your cells, something buried inside your belief system, tells you: This is wrong. I don’t like this. I don’t understand why anyone puts up with this, because I hate it. I think it’s bad for you. I think it’s bad for me. I won’t find love this way. I will lose myself this way.
Overachievers often have trouble reading and trusting their own feelings when it comes to big challenges. They want to power through it, forge ahead, keep trying very hard even when they’re miserable. But that can amount to self-punishment. So ask yourself, does saying “I can’t do this anymore!” mean that you’re weak? Are you negative for noticing that your cells cry out against this practice of meeting strangers in dark bars who say they want love but mostly just want to get some ass? Or is this widely accepted practice of meeting people through apps deeply twisted and fucked up and inherently soul-sucking? Is the idea of love broken, or is the idea that you can find love over two tequila-sodas in a musty, dark place with a human you met through your phone just incredibly demented and ill-considered and dead wrong? Are you hopelessly allergic to everything, or is our culture itself a known allergen?
Personally, I think our culture is fucked to the moon and back. That’s what my book of essays is about, which is why you should buy it and read it immediately. Am I trying to sell my book right now, or am I giving you advice that I think will help you? Is this date trying to fuck you or trying to fall in love with you? Do they let me write these words because I’m good at it, or do they let me do it because I’m an entertainingly crazy person who is slowly but surely unraveling before 50,000-to-100,000 sets of eyeballs each week? What is objective reality? Who will be the judge? What is the moral to this story?
There is no moral. But that doesn’t mean that someone won’t pretend that there’s a moral and write one for us. That doesn’t mean that an angry mob won’t decide on a moral together. That’s part of what makes dating and dating apps and looking for love in general so undeniably scary and lonely. Because if you simply sally forth and keep putting on the clown shoes and keep trying to take a flying leap and you fail? It’s easy to imagine that the moral will be that there’s something wrong with you. As you crawl out of the canyon with two broken ankles, people will say, “She just isn’t that good at being vulnerable.” “She had trouble not being a know-it-all around men.” “Her expectations were way too high.” “She drank too many tequila-sodas and she always slurs when she does that.”
This is your overachiever imagination projecting your shame onto everything. But it’s also our cultural reality! Because everything a woman does has a moral. Every. Thing. And everything that happens to a woman IS ALL HER FAULT.
If you doubt me, go read an article about a woman and a man who are in the same bad situation. Nine times out of ten, the man did nothing wrong. Nine times out of ten, the woman made a series of very bad choices that everyone can agree were ill-considered. There can even be a bad man to blame for what happens to the woman, but somehow he still didn’t make bad choices. All bad choices start and end with the woman.
Eventually these faulty morals accumulate in your cells until you start to feel sick. The way you describe bad dates to your coupled-up friends these days, the way your “fun” anecdotes seem to unravel and explode into a lament about the unbelievable stupidity of dating apps and douche bros and the absurdly destructive, impossible Roach Motel of romantic love itself, is an echo of a growing dissatisfaction with the wider culture, how it gaslights us all into believing that we can get what we want inside of a consumerist maze. Saying this stuff out loud, though, always reflects badly on you. You’re the naïve freak, you’re the nutty one, you’re the failure. Stop swearing and buy a Wonderbra, weirdo!
Our culture is confused and confusing. So many people on this planet are having tiny panic attacks and emotional breakdowns every single day, because they’re allergic to the stories that our culture tells us about how to win. LEAP THIS CHASM, the culture says. JOIN OUR CIRCUS. And we don’t want to.
We can build a new belief system together and build a new culture together. But before we do that, we can understand what’s wrong on an individual level. We can identify the problem calmly. We can look at the phone in our pockets and say, “This device is good at many things, but I cannot find love here anymore, because it will break me.” We can reject the dominant paradigm and build a better one. We can say “This is broken. I don’t like this.” Or we can just say, “This doesn’t work for me personally. God bless you. You put those shoes on and jump. I admire your grace. I just can’t do it anymore.”
This is why it’s so important to have a belief system. Because it’s almost impossible to do anything without one when you’re neurotic and intense and allergic to our culture. So when I say, “Get a therapist or kneel in a cave or meditate so you can examine your hang-ups and weaknesses and pockets of defensiveness,” it will be easy for you to think I’m echoing our culture’s moral to this story: You are a broken woman. You are to blame for everything that’s going wrong in your life. Your shame, which has been accumulating for years, which springs not just from your childhood experiences, but also from the messages our broken culture has sent you from the first moment you were alive, will reinforce this scary “moral.” And you’ll project this moral onto other people, and SHAME THEM WITH IT. Because that’s what we do in our culture. We hurt ourselves and others with our broken, stupid, inherited, shame-based beliefs.
Building your own belief system is the exit route. So do that now. Build your own religion. Forbid dating apps in your personal Ten Commandments. Include copious amounts of strenuous exercise. Include the making of veggie lasagnas with your friends’ 3-year-olds. Forbid meeting in dark bars, even when you’re on a date you set up without an app. Include sunny restaurant lunches and early-summer-evening dinners, where a prospective mate can state his intentions in the light of day, with clarity, without letting the promise of getting some ass cloud his judgment.
Put all of the time and energy you used to devote to dating and dating apps into building a church of like-minded people who also dislike dating apps. Pledge to throw parties for single people. Enlist your coupled-up friends to scour their brains for single friends to invite to your single-people parties. And beyond that, recruit them into your community of like-minded humans who want a better way of connecting honestly and being real and supporting other neurotic, funny, smart, interesting human beings in their midst. Reject the notion that we should all be out in the world all by ourselves, fishing around for new strangers to save us from loneliness, to save us from the crushing sadness of this alienated world.
Reject the high-capitalist notion of shopping for new friends and upgraded mates. Reject the notion that we should all get fresh ass from new people constantly (okay, that part is sometimes harder to reject! Fresh ass, yum!). Reject the idea that shopping for new mates constantly is natural, this is how animals are built, this is what keeps animals happy. I don’t buy it. I have some animals in my house, and sure, they know how to have fun, but they’re also loyal to each other. They protect each other. They like security. And … sure, they also like to smell things that are stuck to the pavement and sometimes they decide to eat them, even when they’re not sure what they’re eating.
The bottom line is, know yourself. You don’t like eating mysterious shit off the pavement. So don’t do it. You want a way to meet new people that doesn’t erode your sanity and waste your time. You want a Megan Rapinoe bod. You want kids and boring days of folding laundry and shopping for groceries. When you want these things, you probably won’t find love by dressing like a clown and joining somebody else’s circus. You’re more likely to find love by doing what you love.
Will it be harder and slower to find love this way? Maybe, but you’ll never feel like you’re wasting your time. That’s part of my personal belief system: Never do anything that feels like a waste of time. Even if it makes you poor, even if it makes you feel lonely sometimes, even if it makes you feel like a freak. Do what you love.
I adopted that belief after my dad died at the age of 56. I could see that life was short and nothing was guaranteed. I didn’t want to waste my life. And in my experience, when you know you’re not wasting your life, when you know what you love, when you work very hard at the things you enjoy, your world expands in every direction. Good things come to you.
There are still hard times and bad days, of course. But it all comes back to belief. It all comes back to understanding who you are and why you do what you do. When you have a belief system and you’re firm about what you believe, you align your life with your beliefs. You write your own moral to your story, and you don’t care what other people have to say about it.
People who build their own belief systems and live by them are often incredibly magnetic. They might be poor sometimes, or lonely sometimes, or discouraged sometimes. Who isn’t? But they emit a certain glow.
Whether you’re alone forever or not, that glow is what you want the most. That’s the glow that says, “God bless your strange circus, and good luck with it. But I know who I am, and I don’t belong here. I am building my own circus. Our music is much better than yours, too. Our shoes are sleek and small. Our clowns are also ballerinas, sexy and absurd and glorious. Their leaps will bring tears to your eyes. As red roses float down from the rafters and land at their feet, you’ll feel it in your cells: You are so lucky to witness this. You are so lucky to be here. You are so lucky to be alive.”
Polly’s evil twin Molly has a newsletter; sign up here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?, here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.
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