Online dating – how to click

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 Saga Magazine, January 2015

 

More and more of us over-fifties are finding ourselves single nowadays, following divorce, separation or bereavement. It happened to me. When my long-term relationship broke down two years ago I was just shy of my sixtieth birthday and it was a shock to realise that at this stage in life I would be going it alone, children all grown up and gone, a woman without a partner. I had never expected or planned for this, and was enveloped in gloom. What next?

Fast forward to the present. Every day I wake up thankful that my ex and I split up. I had no idea the life of a single sexagenarian could be such an adventure! At once more exciting and more relaxing than my earlier coupledom. Sometimes I am positively light-headed with the freedom and independence. And I put it down in large part to the wonders of today’s daring digital dating scene.

I had never imagined that I would do internet dating. What, me? But after a few months of moping around and feeling sorry for myself, friends persuaded me to give it a go. The first dating site I signed up with was a total flop. The men on it mostly made me cringe or yawn, with their cliché-ridden profile ‘narratives’ and uninspiring photos. What was worse, they didn’t seem to care much for me either. I mean, what was wrong with them?

But then I switched to a much bigger, more mainstream and multi-generational site and miraculously,  the dating floodgates opened. Life has not been the same since.

The first thing I discovered was that in the 21st century, it seems everyone is online dating. From fresh-faced 18-year-olds to grey-bearded granddads in their seventies. There is absolutely no stigma attached to it anymore. It’s like shopping at Tesco’s.  And in more ways than one, but I’ll get back to that later…

I spent a year meeting dozens of men through dating sites – they varied greatly in age and occupation, cultural and ethnic background, and socio-economic status.  And I learned a lot, about both myself and the opposite sex, and about relationships, desire and delusion. So If you too are considering taking the plunge, I’d like to save you some time and trouble by sharing my top pointers for navigating the wild waters of online dating:

  • Be sceptical about everything people say on a dating site.  Most people ‘edit’ the truth to some extent – guilty, m’lud! I took a few years off my age – while others tell outright lies about who they are and what they want. It is so easy to pretend online. Some people post woefully out-of-date pictures of themselves, from before they got fat or bald or dentally challenged. In the worst case scenario, a purportedly single man will turn out to have a hapless other half. So take nothing at face value, reserve judgement until you actually meet your date in person.
  • Be on your guard against scams. It’s astonishing how often both men and women are still taken in by online fraudsters. The male crooks who deceive emotionally vulnerable women by declaring their love before tricking them out of their life savings; the purring lovelies (often prostitutes) who seduce men in order to get into their wallets and perhaps even gain a passport. Just remember, no one ever got ripped off by being suspicious.
  • Get a firm grip on your emotions. I know this isn’t always easy, especially for women, but it’s a bad idea to invest emotion in any ‘match’, until you are sure that it is built on something more solid than the usual shifting sands of online dating connections. Build a protective wall around your emotions or you will be hurt again and again, even by essentially well-meaning people who are just so dazzled by the smorgasbord of dating candidates on offer they are rendered incapable of committing to anyone or even sticking to an arrangement.
  • Practice safe sex. We had the Pill to free us when we were young, HRT keeps us on good form now we are older, and how liberating to know that you can no longer get pregnant! It’s easy to get a little careless and I admit I have been at times. But the current rise in STIs (sexually transmitted infections) is greatest amongst the older generations. Young people of the post-AIDs generation have had caution drummed into them, while we rebellious baby boomers are still ‘letting it all hang out’. But there is no greater dampener on bedroom frolics than a dose of chlamydia or some other equally unappealing STI.

If you follow these essential rules of the game, you can get the most out of internet dating. Those in search of a committed, long-term relationship might perhaps find that online. After all, quite a few of today’s married couples met that way. But in my view you are more likely to succeed if your aim is simply to have a nice time with people whose company you enjoy, and see what develops. Don’t take it too seriously, have fun.

It’s important to find the right dating site for you. There are thousands to choose from and it can be confusing. My advice is to cast a wide net by choosing a broad-based one rather than a site defined by age group, region or specific interest (e.g. dating for bird-watchers or vegans). Sign up on two or three for the minimum period (usually a month) and decide which suits you best.

Be friendly but don’t give away intimate details about yourself online. Write a simple, direct, short narrative about yourself – nothing too cheesy, a bit of humour always goes down well – and upload a few snaps showing you at your best. Then see who comes ‘winking’, messaging and ‘favouriting’ you. Have nothing to do with those who refuse to show photos of themselves. They are either married, hiding from the law, or know that their looks would put you off, and none of those is good.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the smartphone dating apps which have become so popular. Free, virtually effortless to use, a quick way to meet people based nearby, these apps were devised for the fast-living young but their parents’ generation has cottoned on. Their main advantage is that two people must first register a mutual attraction before they ‘match’ and can communicate with each other, so no one need suffer the pain of rejection.

A year ago I had a wild week or two on Tinder, meeting younger men, but I realise that such cougar-ish encounters are not for everyone. When I recently gave the app another little whirl, I matched with older fellows, but please don’t think that ‘older’ necessarily means ‘traditional’. One nice-looking man in his fifties said he wasn’t interested in the ‘vanilla’ type of woman and when I asked what he meant he explained that, should we become an item, he would encourage me to have other, ahem, ‘friends’, as he found that a particularly exciting dynamic. And people call me racy!

I don’t think anyone should do internet dating indefinitely. You will either meet ‘the one’ or you won’t. And if you don’t, there will come a point when you feel it has run its course, when you have had enough of its uncertainties and frustrations, and when you suspect that unless you stop it could change you forever. Because, as I learnt from my own experience, the danger of being presented with a seemingly endless parade of potential dates is that you begin to commoditise people, to view them as off-the-shelf products, easily obtainable and just as easily disposable (hence the comparison to supermarket shopping). In short, you become hardened, and while this protects you from hurt it also stops you from being a fully caring human, which is a high price to pay.

In case you are wondering, no, I didn’t find my ‘one’. But then I wasn’t looking for him. The last thing I wanted after the breakdown of my relationship was to dive into anything serious. My aim was merely to stop feeling sad and start enjoying the single life, and by golly I did. A big dating site is a microcosm of society. I met some eccentric characters and some dodgy types who helped sharpen my powers of discrimination, a few lovely people who have become friends, and best of all, a handful of fabulous lovers.

When my membership subscriptions ran out I left the internet dating world behind, richer in experience, greater in self-confidence and generally emboldened in my approach to life. I am open to the idea of another serious relationship but if it doesn’t happen, well, life won’t be too bad. I will always have my wonderful family, some good friends, and a bank of thrilling memories. I still go on dates, of course. Not ready to throw the towel in! But lately, instead of dating sites, I’ve been meeting men through social/professional networking sites and at public events.

I wrote a memoir about my year of internet dating, and when it was published I learned that even in this era of ‘anything goes’ there are still many people who disapprove of a single older woman (a grandmother no less!) who knows how to have a good time. But that, dear reader, is another story.

 

SIDE BAR          

How to produce a winning online dating profile:

  • Choose your pictures carefully. They should show you at your best, looking natural and well turned-out, not overtly sexy, and a smile is always better than a pout. Don’t use even one sub-standard picture because it will cancel out all the others.
  • Avoid clichés in your narrative, or potential dates will be bored and ignore you. Yes, we all love ‘walks in the country’ and ‘evenings in with a DVD and take-away pizza’. Instead write something about yourself which suggests a dash of originality and a sense of humour: ‘I’m a huge Hitchcock fan but can’t watch Psycho on my own. Free popcorn for anyone who helps me make it through the shower scene with my eyes open.’
  • Whatever you do, don’t sound desperate, needy or jaded. These are all big turn-offs. Your words should exude the confidence of someone who, in lieu of a night out, is happy with their own company. And if you make a list of either your prerequisites or the deal-breakers when describing your ideal partner, you will come across as inflexible and overly choosey, instead of  easy-going and fun to be with.
  • Don’t misrepresent yourself. Photos that are way out of date, bigging yourself up unjustifiably, and – horror! – pretending you are unattached when you are not, will all come out in the end and you will pay the price, i.e. rejection.

 

Tips for the men

  • Always be smartly dressed for a date, as it shows respect. Don’t be like my fireman whose online picture showed a hero in fire-fighting uniform but who turned up with his un-ironed shirt hanging out over his baggy jeans and a pair of ropey trainers on his feet. From hero to hobo in one fell swoop. I refused to see him again.
  • No one will expect you to look like George Clooney. But good grooming is a must. Tidy hair, well-cared-for teeth, clean nails…and no matter how fashionable the beard has become, most women dislike facial hair, so a smooth shave goes down a treat.
  • Don’t make it all about you-you-you. Men love to talk about themselves – their prowess on the ski slope, their lovely bolt-hole in Cornwall, their grasping ex-wife – but you will win more brownie points by showing interest in your date, so talk less and listen more.
  • Men are understandably fearful of rejection. But never go on a date hoping for anything more than a nice, easy-going encounter. That way, if it’s a one-off, you have lost nothing. And if it turns into something more, you will be pleasantly surprised. A second date is more likely when you don’t come across as anxious, pushy or needy.
  • Pay the bill, whether it’s for coffee, cocktails, dinner or a movie. Yes, we women are liberated and all that, but show your date that old-fashioned, gentlemanly courtesy is not dead. Don’t be the tightwad who splits the bill….at least not until she suggests it, at a later stage in the relationship.

 

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