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1. The Online Dating Scene I Once Knew
The saddest story that I have read this year was a mostly breezy tale by Anne Lamott in Salon entitled “My year on Match.com,” which since its publication a week ago 31 has not only created a stir but has given her occasion to complain publicly about being asked about her love life. (She’s a professional writer; she should have known what to expect. And my bet is that she did. And inviting this sort of public critique of what she’s expressed publicly is part of the exercise.)
Romance articles aren’t usually part of my beat, but this one — apparently offered primarily to the rest of womankind with a kind of “amiright, girls?“ knowing winking sandwiched around raw but obtuse pain — bothered me enough that I wanted to challenge it before too many readers take it uncritically at face value.
I can certainly tell you, as a man who spent a few years on online personals between separation ended my first marriage at the start of autumn in 1999 and an improbable encounter kicked off my second one at almost the start of spring 2007, that men are pigs and women are pigs (at least some of the time — but pigs do enjoy a good wallow) and the economy of online dating is particularly corrosive, with its advantage of efficiency often more than counteracted by its disadvantage of psychic brutality. But, for God’s sake, one thing that it does real well is to tell you how and where you are, personally, screwed up. And the online dating world does not pull its punches.
Lamott, while she writes words that show that she’s screwed up, doesn’t seem to grasp the significance of the lessons she’s been provided. While I wish self-knowledge, happiness, and romantic success for her personally, what I really hope is that her readers can sift the bullshit out of her writing.
Lamott’s article saddened because, in my single years, I got to know a fair number of women who spent time on such sites. Sometimes we went on dates that went well; sometimes they were dates that went poorly; sometimes dates that went nowhere romantic but led to enduring friendships. Sometimes they were not women I ever encountered in “real life” at all, but enjoyed corresponding with (because I was good at that. People don’t so much care that you “write long” when they’re lonely.) Sometimes I’d talk to my female friends from law school and law practice (mostly ones who it was understood “not in my league,” due to age differences of 15 or so years that were not compensated for income differences reflecting that amount of work experience) who would describe, often hilariously, their problems with men whom they met online, and I’d help them try to maintain or recapture their bearings.
They’d criticize my game at times in terms of both appearance — “work out more and lose weight,” “dress stylish rather than scruffy,” “be willing to spend money to impress and if you don’t have it meet for a hike rather than for dinner” — and attitude — “show some swagger,” “be more aloof and never seem desperate,” “don’t be too nice and solicitous because you seem less valuable” — that were either right for them personally, right for the moment of fin-de-siecle Manhattan, or perhaps right for women generally. Much of the advice, as you may perceive, seemed sort of startlingly sexist — especially coming from mostly successful (or soon-to-be-so) career women — in how much it reinforced traditional gender roles. (They wouldn’t defend such things as what should be, but just as what is.) In return, I’d criticize their game a little — I learned soon enough not to go too far — and try to explain men to them.
At five years older than me, Anne Lamott would have been at the high end of “within my age range” — the segment of the dating pool in which you express your interest in meeting — at the time, so I could have easily read her profile (although I don’t think I did.) I think that the oldest woman I dated was perhaps 50, but in reading Lamott’s complaint I think that the problems for a 58-year-old in such an environment are not so dissimilar from those of a 38-year-old, and passably close to most of those of a 28-year-old. I read enough “profiles” over this seven years to have been able to major in the subject; I was later able to match enough such profiles with real people to get a sense of what parts of them were right, wrong, accurate, misleading, and dangerous.
About those age ranges: I varied at times between (1) limiting the low end to about 10 years below my age to go with 5 years above (and getting mail from avenging strangers calling me on my sexism as a result), or (2) being honest and extending the lower range down even further than that, and (3) just pretending that I didn’t care about the age of my dates at all, writing “18-99” into that field that required a response. (My female friends would tell me that their doing anything of the sort would be an invitation to calamity; I had no reason to doubt them.) They did tend to overreact, though, such as when a 29 year old would specify her age range as “31-33” and then complain that there were no eligible men around. “Really?”, I’d say. “You wouldn’t go out with a 34-year old? Or a 30-year-old?”
The absurdity of this sort of pickiness was demonstrated to me by subsequent events in real life. My wife and I would likely not have met through a dating site because, despite being 47, I had stupidly excluded women who had grandchildren. At at least some points I had also excluded women who didn’t have a Bachelor’s degree, not really thinking through that some smart women my age dropped out of college because, for example, they got pregnant. If you’re dating online, don’t be so picky. You may miss out on someone who’d dazzle you in real life.
So I started to read Anne Lamott’s column with interest — and soon found myself cringing. Because other women may read her writing and celebrate her descriptions of how bad and clueless men are, I want to provide somewhat of a “corrective” — and yeah, I know that that makes me sound like a sexist “mansplainer,” but please hear me out — so that women can see the signs in Lamott’s column that would have struck me, during my years primarily on Salon/Nerve Personals (plus a little J-Date, plus some Match once I moved out here) as signs of a deep unhappiness that would make interaction with her … I’ll just say “foregoable.” It may not help her, but perhaps it may help others.
While I address aspects of this essay as if to Lamott, she’s not my intended audience. Instead, my audience is other women of her age (and younger, and older) who may be impressed with her story and think that it shows her as acting just fine in a hostile and disappointing world. Well, I don’t think that she did — and I’ll tell you why. What she did for and to herself is her business, but in making her experience widely accessible to others, she prospectively drags them down a path that doesn’t seem a particularly happy one — with the victories Pyrrhic and the aftertaste bitter.
2. Lamott’s Take on Dating, By Which She Means Sex
Lamott’s introduction to immersing herself in the online dating world:
I recoil even from the word “date,” let alone the concept of possibly beginning a romantic relationship. Those woods are so spooky. I have an almost perfect life, even though I’ve been single since my last long-term boyfriend and I broke up four years ago. I really do, insofar as that is possible in this vale of tears — a cherished family, a grandchild, church, career, sobriety, two dogs, daily hikes, naps, perfect friends. But sometimes I am lonely for a partner, a soul mate, a husband.
I had loved the sleeping alone part. I rarely missed sex: I had tiny boundary issues in all those years of drinking, and by my early 20s I had used up my lifelong allotment. I over-served myself. I do love what Wodehouse called the old oompus-boompus when it happens to be in progress, but wouldn’t go out of my way. Additionally, I have spent approximately 1,736 hours of this one precious life waiting for the man to finish, and pretending that felt good. And I want a refund.
What I missed was checking in all day with my person, daydreaming about him, and watching TV together at night. There, I’ve said it: I wanted someone to text all day, and watch TV with.
I realize that what she wrote up there is likely not exactly what she probably had in her profile, but it still says a lot.
Deep breath. And begin.
- Don’t tell people that you have an “almost perfect life.” Few people do. If the lack of a mate (or of opportunities to mate) doesn’t make your life substantially less than “almost perfect,” you don’t want a dating site. You also should not distinguish much or at all by gender, sexual orientation, age, education, or for some purposes (such as having a living thing to stroke and hug while watching TV) even species. Worse, it makes it seem like you’re lying.
- “I rarely missed sex.” Fine. I won’t criticize this. But if so, then say so. Many men (and women) are on dating sites largely to fill that particular gap in their life, either for its own lovely sake or because it sometimes does transmogrify into true romance (and perhaps marriage.) If you’re sure that it’s not what you want, you can do everyone a favor by saying, either definitively or as a high likelihood, that you’re not interested in a physical relationship. However: if you do “rarely miss sex,” I’d be remiss not to point out that there’s a good chance that your history of it has not been optimal. (No insult intended there; it can be a function of limited opportunities, your partners’ preferences and temperaments, etc.) It’s perhaps worth trying to explore why you have so little interest — when others do. Maybe, if you’d like, your sex life can be improved to where you would miss it.
- “I had tiny boundary issues in all those years of drinking, and by my early 20s I had used up my lifelong allotment. I over-served myself.” OK. I believe that what this means is that she used to get drunk and have sex more sooner than her own desires would have indicated, with too many guys, and that this was (unsurprisingly) unsatisfying. It might well be something to have better avoided — but it was what it was. It’s not necessarily permanently disfiguring and, within some pretty broad bounds, no one worth a damn ought to care. The difficult part occurs if that sort of history leaves someone wounded and oversensitive. No prospective partner wants to have to pay for the sins of previous romantic (or “romantic” partners), though many may be willing to help with a cure. (Whether they can offer one, of course, is not assured — but at least as women get older they become better at speaking up about what they do and don’t like and want.)
- “I do love [sex] when it happens to be in progress, but wouldn’t go out of my way.” I hate to be a churl (using a Wodehousean term), but: I doubt that. If you “wouldn’t go out of your way,” what you feel about sex is probably something less than love for it. (The same might be said of going out of your way for opera or Mongolian barbecue.) As a reader, what this seems like to me is that the writer likes some aspects of sex a lot — maybe it’s the not-yet-sexual stroking and physical closeness, or the giving pleasure to a partner without much concern over one’s own physical enjoyment, or maybe that it provides a pleasant situation like when you might feel when inserting your index finger into your ear and scraping out some wax — but if you only love sex when it “happens to be in progress” than either you or your partner(s) may be doing something sub-optimal. Is it worth trying to find out? If your answer is “no,” then you probably don’t actually “love” sex. There can be good reasons for this and they don’t necessarily say anything terrible about you. But if you’d like to “love” sex, it may not happen without some, and I’m sorry that I don’t have a better word than this, “prodding.”
- “I have spent approximately 1,736 hours of this one precious life waiting for the man to finish, and pretending that felt good. And I want a refund.” And sure enough, here comes a reason. OK, this desire to get back to doing sudoku (or whatever) can represent a variety of things. One is “I already had an orgasm and now I am bored.” That is not my bet in this case; I think that she would have mentioned it. Or it could be “I know that I’m not going to have an orgasm and the fleeting period that “I love” about this experience has now passed.” More likely. But beyond that — and here I’m giving out a trade secret — most men, so far as I can tell from secondhand stories, really do want their partners to enjoy sex. (That’s why prostitutes and porn actress make a point of squealing and moaning and grimacing in delight, rather than scowling or acting bored. That’s what the market wants.) So, if you’re “pretending that felt good,” (1) the man probably is not as bamboozled as you think, and (2) you aren’t doing yourself any favors either, especially if it’s leading to what I think we can fairly call “resentment.” Barring some physical pathology, which may itself be correctable, it’s supposed to feel good. If it doesn’t — especially if you’re in a long-term relationship — speak up! Could it be a problem with insufficient lubrication? (That’s no source of joy from the man’s perspective either, by the way, but we do have technology that can address it, as well as other techniques.) Is the “man not finishing” as quickly as desired a matter of insufficient friction? (Too little, as well as too much, can be a problem.) Well, there are fixes to that, largely positional, as well. Lying flat on your stomach, for example — which should not become anal sex unless that is what both partners want; in other words your vagina is still there even when you’re face down — is a way to increase friction. Is it simply that the man is successfully delaying orgasm because he thinks that that’s what you (or perhaps all women, ever) want? If so, a little feedback might do wonders. Could it be lack of arousal? Look, men aren’t born understanding foreplay; we get instructed. (And not everyone is the same.) There are other fixes as well, some of which involve learning to deploy some innovative hip movements that are more usually taught in some other cultures — or in some cases any movements at all.
- “Most of the marriages I’ve seen up close have been ruinous for one or both parties.” OK, I’m beginning to sense a bad attitude here. (I’d prefer to think that it is sour grapes, which might more easily be cured. I actually had a woman I met online say something like this to me on a first — only –date. She may have even used the word “ruinous.” That’s less appealing than you may think.) For any women who share this view: is this an attitude that you’ve expressed when meeting men from online, or something that you think that you’ve successfully kept hidden? (My guess is that you’re hiding it less well than you think.) “In four-fifths of them, the men want to have sex way more often than the women do. I would say almost none of the women would care if they ever got laid again, even when they are in good marriages. They do it because the man wants to.” Oh. My. God. I can barely begin to express how unattractive this is in a romantic partner. Look, if this is your view, just find a gay man to be with, a large spayed dog, or someone impotent and willing to forego Viagra. Problem solved! Or, if you must date a straight guy, maybe come to the date accompanied by a prostitute of your choosing and explain that she’s part of the deal. “They do it because it makes the men like them more, and feel close for a while, but mostly women love it because they get to check it off their to-do lists. It means they get a pass for a week or two, or a month.” Arrrrrrgggggghhhhhh!!! This is a bad attitude. Are there still copies of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” in the used book stores? Get a copy. Get two. Study up. Learn about what makes you tick — and what makes you chime. Alternatively, there are asexuals out there. Find one. Find two!
We’re then told that men snore — but that CPAP machines are good. We’re told than women don’t like men’s interest in internet porn. Well, every hour of internet porn kept that total of “waiting time” from going to 1737 or higher! Look, if you dislike sex as much as Anne Lamott seems to, internet porn is among the least damaging things that your partner could be doing to gratify himself.
Lamott then says that “union with a partner — someone with whom to wake, whom you love, and talk with on and off all day, and sit with at dinner, and watch TV and movies, read together in bed, do hard tasks together, and to be loved by … sounds really lovely.” Why is that? And why, in that case, must it be with a heterosexual man?
I think that, somewhere, she’s lying either to us or to herself. And the next part of her column bears that out.
3. Lamott’s Take on Dating, By Which She Means Disappointment
I do like this paragraph of Lamott’s:
After our breakup, I had just assumed there would be a bunch of kind, brilliant, liberal, funny guys my age to choose from. There always had been before. Surely my friends would set me up with their single friends, and besides, I am out in the public a lot doing events at bookstores and political gatherings, the ideal breeding ground for my type of guy. But I hadn’t met anyone.
Yeah, been there (with genders reversed.) It’s tougher to date than it seems, tough whether one wants only sex and basic companionship out of it and tougher if one wants even more) What Lamott lists out now is a series of forlorn complaints with which I do sympathize in general. However, if a woman is harboring (and supposedly suppressing, while more likely expressing) opinions such as Lamott expresses above about how much sex (which she “loves”) is awful, I don’t think that these are the basic problem!
- “A 60-year-old man does not fantasize about a 60-year-old woman.” And yet, people above 29 do indeed still meet people within roughly the same age range and they do meet, mate, and marry. A middle-aged or older woman may not be the target of sexual fantasy, but “target of fantasy” is an unusual requirement for a relationship.
- “Almost everyone wonderful that my friends know is in a relationship, or gay, or cuckoo.” Well, that’s nice. Maybe just meet, talk, and find out if some of the “non-wonderful” people have their good points.
We learn that “people are damaged and needy and narcissistic.” Yes — and yet! We learn that men lie about being separated or divorced — yes, be careful! — or are perhaps just desperate. (Hey, if they’re desperate, maybe you can get them to treat you the way you want to be treated!)
Lamott explains that her first date was with a man whose last girlfriend had driven him crazy with her religious devotion. “I said I was probably worse. We parted with a hug.” Nice! So — does he count as “cuckoo,” then? If not, then am I missing something, or is he not actually part of the problem? (That may be too early, and is certainly too little information, to know if he’s “wonderful.” Maybe his last girlfriend would drive you crazy too!)
Her second date “was 10 minutes late, and shaken, because he had just seen a fatal motorcycle accident. … He had stopped to inspect the body, because he was worried that it was his son, although his son rode a dramatically different brand of motorcycle. He had gotten out, talked to the police, and gotten a peek at the corpse. This sort of put the kibosh on things for me.”
They went out again, after an enjoyable extended e-mail exchange, and — “he accidentally forgot to ask me anything about my life during the first 45 minutes of the conversation. It was fascinating, that we did not get around to me until that one question. Then I got cut off. My pointing this out politely in an email the next day did not sit well.”
You know, that’s a valid criticism! From the sound of things, unless some of the views she harbored in the previous section had started to come out, he did not have game!
Now, presuming that she was actually looking for a companion among us imperfect males, what could Anne Lamott have done in that situation to suit her own interests? She could have gently schooled him at the time. Call it deference to fragile male ego (although the same deference is due to female egos) or call it (as I would) basic human gentility: if he was either not as aware as he should have been of feminist critiques or was not as deft as he should have been in putting them into practice, but otherwise had potential, this was what we’d call a “teachable moment.”
Now, of course, I haven’t seen her e-mail. Did she gently correct him in a way that didn’t make him feel defensive, or did she swat at him with a tome by Deborah Tannen (whose work on intergender communication I love, by the way)? My guess is that if she had done the former and he nevertheless had responded with a crescendo of increasing defensiveness, she’d have laid claim here to more than simply having been polite. If, on the other hand, found some gratification in feeling superior over someone she had had some connection with and let him have it! — well, then she got her money’s worth out of that encounter! (She also may have blown a good chance with an educable partner.)
When you’re dating as an adult, you’d better get used to the idea that whoever your with is going to have serious flaws, aka (as she acknowledges) “baggage” — and that with age we become so encrusted with the barnacles of experience that we no longer fit so neatly and smoothly into each others lives. The men who say that they want women without baggage are either idiots or they are actually trying to convey that they don’t want a woman with too much baggage — who is, for example, still nursing grudges of a former mate. (The same, I expect, is true of women.)
Now, I’m not arguing that Lamott had any responsibility to be so gracious; she didn’t. I’m just saying that unless she felt that this lapse — perhaps characteristic of one of this man’s generation, although he should know better, and perhaps largely evidence of too little recent experience on his part with dating — was an absolute deal-killer, such as evidence of a terrible personality flaw (when it seems possible to me that he was … embarrassed!) — she tossed away someone who, with some attitude adjustment, may have been fine for her. Her informing him of his error, as she says, “politely” is not, to my mind, convincing evidence that she did it warmly. But let’s say, as seems quite plausible, that he did overreact: well, people do dumb things. Refer to the third reels of countless romantic comedies. Often, one can get past them. (Refer to the fourth reels.) Learning how not to make a prospective partner’s errors fatal to a possible relationship, if they have their good points as well, is a great dating a relationship skill to learn!
Lamott also nicely describes the “economy” of online dating:
The next guy was also highly cultured, a creative venture capitalist, who was familiar with my work, and turned out to be a truly excellent conversationalist. We had a coffee date, a long walk on the beach, a candlelit dinner, texts and emails in between, definite chemistry, and then I didn’t hear from him for five days. If I wanted to go for five days without hearing from a man with whom I had chemistry and three almost perfect dates, I would repeat junior high.
Oh yes — that happens. It happened repeatedly with the same guy, in fact, who from the sound of it (unlike the guy who didn’t ask her about herself) was probably highly valued on the commodities market of Match.com and was thus able to have many irons in the fire.
That sort of thing works both ways — and it’s one of the most frustrating things about online dating. People are always looking over their current conversation partner’s shoulders to see if someone better might be coming along. This heightens any ambivalence one might have about any given person one is seeing: what if, having stepped away from the fray for a while, someone perfect passed by unknown to you? This is not so much something that (in my experience, at least) is so likely to happen — and surely not so quickly — in real life, where the corporeal reality of the other person is less readily overlooked. Anyone going to the online dating rodeo had better be ready for it.
(This reminds me of a woman who started dating about the same time I did, during the year I lived in Seattle. She was an attractive woman who had started out starry-eyed and enthusiastic; we wrote a bit but something about me didn’t appeal to her and I don’t think we ever met. We still, as fellow sufferers, corresponded sometimes and kept track of each other. After about six months, she had a routine where she would just change her “slogan” next to her profile simply to say: “NEXT!” On a good day, she’d admit that this was funny.)
Lamott then slags a guy who looked like Scalia and who wasn’t interested in her until he figured out that she was a somewhat renowned writer. Then he liked her. Fine — fair enough — but would she do this same thing with someone she met offline, if she didn’t have the cornucopia of Match.com awaiting her? If she might have tried to look past it without Match.com, why did she do it with it? Then came a handsome religious man who read her profile and hated her politics. Well, that’s OK, right? “No sale.” (Online dating is in this respect, so long as people are honest, efficient.) She rejected another because of an irritating laugh. Another was interested in her as a friend, but — despite working to be otherwise — not romantically. (Yeah, we men get that too.) She concludes: “Now he is my mortal enemy.”
Towards the end of the article, there are glimmers that Lamott seems to “get” online dating as something other than a place to hone one’s resentments, umbrage, and put-downs. She meets the first online date again and they compare notes. Oh, look — she has made a friend! From opposite-sex friends friends come — well, any number of things, such as “friends of friends,” but among them is a better level of commiseration than one gets from those of one’s own gender who are quick to condemn. She notes that the two of them don’t have “huge chemistry,” apparently oblivious to the fact that he’s not “married, gay, or cuckoo,” but just somehow not to her taste. And that’s OK. But if it’s OK for women meeting men to have that reaction, it also has to be OK for the reverse — including, to Lamott. For whatever reason.
Online dating, at least for older (and generally by then somewhat romantically wounded) people is largely about staying in the game, not surrendering to the loss of hope It’s about sharpening one’s skills and seeing oneself as potentially in love — or potentially having sex, if that’s one’s goal. As a reader who generally admires her writing and almost always admires her social conscience, I wish Lamott well. But I hope that she’ll understand one other thing about online dating: it’s an acid bath for one’s emotions, ego, and psychological idiosyncrasies regarding love and sex. Spend a little time there and the hardest residue of one’s psychological makeup is revealed.
Perhaps Lamott would have let burst the rant she did in the earlier part of the essay about how women don’t really like sex so much even without being spurred by to do so by the online dating experience. If it was always just there waiting to detonate, then I suppose that online dating brought her no insight in that area. But if not — and to me it sounds like it probably wasn’t, given that she’s an essayist pressed for topics to discuss — then going through this hell-path has done her a kind of favor. It’s brought forth some internal demons.
It’s a favor, though, that she (or more to my point, others reading her who might do the same) would best take advantage of through introspection and/or assisted counseling, if she does want to have a fulfilling romantic (and sexual) relationship with one of the men that captures her attention and fluffs her heart. If she still considers herself above it all — or beyond it all, or justifiably unforgiving of the two-legged long pigs that we human men and women are — then she’ll get as much out of it as she’s able. I just hope that women (and men) reading her column don’t take it as simply portraying her just the victim of stupid and fickle men. The online dating experience had laid something bare about her to herself. An autobiographical essay makes the writer into one of his or her own characters. A good writer would seemingly want to pay attention — and ponder the character’s motivations in light of her unhappiness.