“What I learnt from 100 dates in a year”
Novelist Claire Mcgowan went on a serial-dating mission. Many awkward chats later, here’s what she wants you to know.
afew years ago, in my early 30s, I plunged back into the world of dating. Limping from a divorce and a nasty rebound split in quick succession, I was terrified I’d be alone forever. But the internet is full of men, and I was determined I’d date until I found one. If I had known it would take me a year and a hundred dates, I might have gone into training first. Because dating a lot is like an extreme sport. You’re going to get tired. You’re going to get hurt. And you’re going to wish you had a spare liver on hand.
At first, I approached it like a project: lists, notes and meticulous records. I was on Match, Happn, Okcupid, Guardian Soulmates and Tinder. The first thing I did on waking up was flick to my messages. Before long, I could tell within 10 seconds of meeting someone whether it was going to end with 4am kissing at the bus stop or going home at 9pm and eating everything in my cupboards. My friends thought I was crazy. “Why don’t you just… slow down?” they asked. But I couldn’t stop – and I’d like to share what I learned, to save you time, energy and, hopefully, heartache.
“This is fine,” I said to myself, as I waited to have afternoon tea with the funny, interesting writer. It was my first date in over six years, and I was excited. “This is going to be easy.” Wrong. I developed a raging toothache as I sipped my Earl Grey and could only eat with one side of my mouth. Apparently, my crazed expression wasn’t a turn-on, because he never contacted me again. The dating world had changed since I’d last visited; modern dating can be as brutal as a dental abscess. I had to toughen up, and fast.
I was on the brink of despair when I got chatting to a cute stand-up comic. That’s the good thing about online dating: there’s always another possibility. On our first date, we talked for hours, and he called when we got home so we could chat more. We had so much fun for two months – I cried laughing with him and stayed up all night – but the time between dates started to stretch and he never SMSED. I wanted more, so I ended it. I was confused. Was I wrong to expect Smsing between dates? Maybe I had to compromise to meet someone? All I knew was, I needed more.
We chatted for ages on Guardian Soulmates before meeting. I was excited. A lawyer, he seemed sweet and clever. But when we met for our date, I knew instantly there was no chemistry. He was just as lovely and funny in person, but then came the kiss: game over. It’s a crushing blow when you realise the guy you’ve been furiously messaging for weeks leaves you colder than a slap with a wet fish. However, he’s now a good mate, and we often go to plays or art galleries – an unexpected perk of intensive dating.
“Instead of dating anyone who showed interest, they needed to share my passions, and have an interesting job.”
Things started to look up. I met an amazing guy: handsome, interesting and funny. Our first date lasted till 3am and involved staring up at the stars. I was tingling all over and couldn’t stop smiling. Yet after our second date he ghosted me. Stunned, I went into a slump, and my friends staged an intervention. I agreed to take a month off. While online dating is dangerously addictive – as fellow sufferers of ‘Tinder thumb’ will know – dating when you’re scared and insecure is not a great idea. I needed to take better care of myself after the knock-backs. ➻
I began to wonder if I’d ever meet anyone I liked as much as Mr 29. And things seemed to go from bad to worse. Date 37 was so awkward I burst into tears in a deli on my way home. Then number 48, in August, seemed soulful online, but after 10 minutes asked if I wanted to go to his place for a “cheeky tumble”. I was dating men who thought it was OK to discuss incest on a first date and greet me with, “God, your hat looks like a tea cosy.” I dated one guy four times, only to learn he’d given me a fake name. My self-esteem faltered. I was exhausted. Why did all these dates come to nothing? Did anyone online actually want a relationship? I did some soul-searching to try to understand my patterns. Was I choosing ‘bad’ boys and rejecting the sweet ones? I decided I’d also wait longer to have sex, as for some guys that seemed to be the end goal, and it was too hurtful when they vanished. Too pushy became a warning flag and a useful way of weeding out people quickly.
All that hard thinking helped, and I soon met a run of lovely guys. I went on several dates with 67, a children’s ’s author who was the most amazing kisser – my knees practically gave way – but he was going through a tough time. We agreed it wasn’t working, though we didn’t understand why. I realised that ‘perfect on paper’ didn’t mean much until you’d got to know someone.
Number 72 was a cool journalist who knew all the best restaurants in town and pursued me single-mindedly. Our first date started rockily: we were stuck at a rained-out outdoor cinema, essentially picnicking in a puddle. But he was so nice and complimentary that I began to enjoy myself, and we went out a few more times. But hard as I tried, I just wasn’t feeling it. I had to be kinder, I told myself, and remember that many of my dates might be as nervous and insecure as I was.
Christmas came and I’d met half the city. Desperate to stop dating, I spent two months with a chronically commitment-phobic guy, who said we could only be together if we saw other people. Something had to change. I made a second list of selection criteria. This time the total no-nos (lives with parents, bad hygiene and so on) and set out again. Dating people with obvious dealbreakers was a waste of time and tears, and I turned down dates that didn’t seem viable. It felt like I was taking control.
“I began to turn down dates that didn’t seem viable. I felt like I was taking control.”
On the anniversary of my first date, I had two planned. As serial daters know, it makes sense to schedule. The first – an awkward coffee with an out- of-work actor who lived with eight other people – sank like a lead balloon. As I headed to my evening date, my heart was equally heavy, but I girded my loins and went to my favourite bar, which has a cool ’40s vibe and great retro cocktails. There, I found a grown-up Harry Potter lookalike with glasses and a striped scarf. ‘ He smells nice,’ I thought, as we hugged hello. And when, many hours later, I’d missed three buses in a row as we kissed goodnight, I was cautiously optimistic. After all, I’d had amazing dates go wrong many times before.
But it’s now been over a year and we’ve just moved in together. It became clear very quickly that this was something different. It was so easy – no awkwardness or suggestions of polyamory. And this was my eureka moment from 100 dates: Lots of people on dating sites and apps don’t really want a relationship ( I know, depressing!), and nothing you can do will change their minds. No matter how many dates you go on, if someone isn’t right for you, it just won’t work. But when I did finally meet the right person, I was glad none of the other dates worked out, because they all led me to where I was supposed to be.