An on­line dat­ing love story

If you’re ready to meet some­one new, then take some ad­vice from Stella Grey, who fi­nally found Mr Right, on­line...

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/ I had been mar­ried for 20 years when my hus­band – a man I thought of as my clos­est friend – an­nounced he wanted a new life with some­one else. I was 49, but es­sen­tially the story is the same at 29 and 39. For a while, the world looks as if it has ended, but the im­por­tant thing to recog­nise is this is a phase and you will sur­vive it. At the time, it felt as if I wouldn’t. The me­chan­ics of separat­ing made it worse: the di­vi­sion of books and chairs and the pot­tery bought on hol­i­day in France is ac­tual hell. In com­par­i­son with that, the fi­nal doc­u­ment’s ar­rival in the post was strangely anti-cli­mac­tic. It’s the unglu­ing of your two-per­son his­tory that re­ally un­rav­els you.

It got to the point at which some­thing had to be done. I re­alised I could try to bring un­hap­pi­ness to a halt. That’s how I came to sign up to on­line dat­ing, five months af­ter the sep­a­ra­tion. I went for all the ob­vi­ous, well-known on­line dat­ing sites. I had ex­pec­ta­tions of it be­ing friendly, civilised, a great big dig­i­tal meet and greet. I knew noth­ing of what I was get­ting into.

Be­fore I sound as if I’m putting you off, I want to shout through a mega­phone that you shouldn’t be.

There are leg-over mer­chants and time-wasters, and lost souls mak­ing a god-aw­ful mess, but there are also emo­tion­ally healthy men who re­ally want some­thing last­ing.

STAY THE COURSE

I must em­pha­sise that in the end I found him: the man who made me see that my hus­band wasn’t the love of my life. But when Edward and I first met there was no spark, no mo­ment. He was wear­ing a ter­ri­ble red beanie and anorak, tow­er­ing over me at 6ft 5in, his man­ner stiff and deep-set eyes un­cer­tain. Nev­er­the­less, I had this nig­gling feel­ing. It’s dif­fi­cult to ex­plain what it was. It was prob­a­bly more about what it wasn’t. It wasn’t… fin­ished. I wasn’t sure we were wrong for one an­other. I’d learned a lot by then, af­ter two years of try­ing, and I knew peo­ple are rarely their best selves in sit­u­a­tions loaded with so much an­tic­i­pa­tion.

Be­fore we met, my on­line man­hunt could be plot­ted on a graph as a fluc­tu­at­ing line of anx­i­ety. My al­mostquit­ting mo­ments came when I’d writ­ten hun­dreds of emails that had been re­buked or ig­nored, or when I’d been asked in a first phone con­ver­sa­tion whether I was fully shaved. I al­most gave up twice. The first time, I tried chat­ting up men in real life – in book­shops, cof­fee shops – and got nowhere. The sec­ond time, one last trawl pro­duced Edward’s list­ing. When ev­ery­thing in you is say­ing ‘I can’t do this any longer’, that’s the point at which lots of women turn away. I’m in favour of rid­ing through it, of tweak­ing it, of spend­ing quiet pe­ri­ods of not ini­ti­at­ing con­tact but keep­ing the door open. The open door is cru­cial. No­body can walk through a closed door.

SWITCHED ON

Over the 693 days I was listed (yes, ad­ver­tis­ing my­self – you have to get past that!), I learnt a lot. I be­came clearer about who I was but more fluid about what I wanted. I ex­pected less and was less af­fected by fail­ure. So what I will say is: stick with it. Leave the door open and stop ob­ses­sively watch­ing it. Mean­while, turn your at­ten­tion to your life. At home, get on­line, pull up your draw­bridge. But go out, too – be with peo­ple you like and who stim­u­late you, and not al­ways with vodka on the side. It’s im­por­tant not to with­draw. The self-ab­sorp­tion of on­line dat­ing can work its dark magic on you and leave you low in con­fi­dence. Any­thing that leads out from your­self and feeds back into your­self is im­por­tant when un­der con­stant judge­ment.

For me, it was read­ing a lot, watch­ing doc­u­men­taries, learn­ing, spend­ing week­ends with woman pals, mak­ing ex­cit­ing plans just for me on my own, cook­ing well for one, and try­ing to treat each day like a trea­sured op­por­tu­nity. It wasn’t easy, but try­ing made me feel bet­ter.

I made mis­takes, too. I sim­pli­fied my pro­file – self-pro­tec­tively – to the point of bland­ness, and found ro­man­tic pen­friends. I emailed and emailed men, post­pon­ing the face-to-face, un­til the as­sump­tions we both brought along to a first date were lu­di­crous. In one case we ‘fell in love’ be­fore­hand, hav­ing writ­ten weeks of nov­els to one an­other. He took against me at first sight.

The con­stant phys­i­cal judge­ment was a shock at first. I’m a fan of a sturdy man, grey­ing, bald­ing, a lit­tle world-weary, his life ex­pe­ri­ence writ­ten on his face and in his eyes. I find mid­dle age sexy in men in a way that few men I en­coun­tered on dat­ing sites found sexy in women. You’re look­ing for the men who grant you the same lee­way. You have to ac­quire a thicker skin and say, ‘Your loss, buddy’, while high-fiv­ing your­self. Sure, I had bad ex­pe­ri­ences, but all were sur­viv­able, and look­ing back, most of them can now make me laugh.

As for Edward, the rea­son we’re to­gether is that I had a mo­ment of self aware­ness. I re­alised af­ter dis­as­trous date two, in which nei­ther of us could sum­mon much con­ver­sa­tion, that I’d said things that had been said to me by men who never wanted to see me again. I’d come out with, ‘It was lovely to meet you’ and ‘I had a nice time.’ My post-date com­mu­ni­ca­tions were the chilly ones of a woman de­ter­mined not to be hurt. Edward in­ter­preted them as good­bye and went quiet. In a flash of in­tu­ition, I saw I had to be brave and say I’d like to see him again, and so I did, and his con­fi­dence was re­stored. It was only on the third date that we be­gan to talk un-self-con­sciously. On the way home he took his glove off to hold my hand and mur­mured, ‘That’s bet­ter.’ He leaned down and kissed me softly at the door. But it was the fourth meet­ing that re­ally brought us to­gether, via a plumb­ing cri­sis. He came over with a tool­bag and fixed a spurt­ing in­let pipe, and my self­mar­ket­ing phase ended.

TAK­ING IT SLOW

Early dates are of­ten sat­u­rated in ar­ti­fi­cial­ity, and you need to get past that, to the laugh­ing, to your ev­ery­day self and ad­mis­sions about your own fail­ings. Of course, some­times it’s ob­vi­ous on date one that the thing will never work. If he turns out to be a Trump sup­porter, for in­stance. But if there’s any doubt at all, per­sist. Some­times the spark is a slow burner. It’s an ac­cu­mu­la­tion of lit­tle things – see­ing kind­ness in some­one, bond­ing over a pri­vate joke, the grad­ual in­ti­macy of pil­low talk – that makes us fall for an­other hu­man. That first-date thun­der­bolt peo­ple hope for – of­ten that’s just chem­istry, and hor­mones aren’t al­ways a pre­dic­tor of last­ing love. Take your time. Give it space to de­velop. Do things to­gether and wait and see.

Be your true self in your list­ing and pho­tos. This isn’t the time to fake your emo­tional CV. If any­one makes you feel you’re be­ing judged, pa­tro­n­ised or used – for­get it. Move on. The sav­ing grace about in­ter­net dat­ing is that it’s a sea full of fish. Edward and I are not alike but have cross­ing points. He’s a science geek who’s got me into stargaz­ing. I’m a his­tory buff who’s got him into ru­ins. But we click and keep on click­ing. Each of us is broad­en­ing the scope of the other. Trust­ing was hard, but once you let go of the safety rope, that’s when love re­ally gets started. We live to­gether now, and we’re talk­ing about our old age and plan­ning new ad­ven­tures, and so on­line dat­ing was worth it, ev­ery ex­as­per­at­ing day of it. Don’t give up.

When Edward and I first met there was no spark.

Nev­er­the­less, I had this nig­gling feel­ing...

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