In my last column, I compared signing up with Match.com to stepping alone into a big, loud, ongoing party. There you are, feeling a little intimidated, a little vulnerable, a little foolish, waiting for someone to come over and chat you up, scared that they will and scared that they won’t.
Since I’m an introvert, this was a deeply uncomfortable scenario for me. It didn’t help that my self-esteem had taken a big hit when my marriage fell apart. So, as I tend to do at parties, I held back and checked things out for quite a while, building up my courage and keeping an eye on the exit.
Fortunately, not everyone at this party was as tentative as I was. After an initial flurry of slightly offensive emails, I started getting friendlier messages that actually made reference to my profile. “I see you like the water,” one of them might have said. “I just came back from fishing at Sysladobsis Lake, had a blast with my buddies.” Or, “Cooking is not my strong point, but I sure like a good home-cooked meal!” For the most part, these messages, which came sporadically, maybe one or two a day, felt like polite, encouraging introductions from men who were overcoming their own shyness and hesitancy.
There was no pressure to respond; I could simply ignore them. But that seemed rude, so even when I was pretty sure I wasn’t interested in the sender, I would write back a short, friendly reply. And, to be honest, I wasn’t interested in many of the men who initially reached out to me. My stated fondness for the outdoors had called in the hook-and-bullet crowd, when I mostly enjoy recreational activities like tenting, kayaking and hiking. I revised my profile to be more precise about those interests — and with a stronger focus on art, travel and politics — and got better responses.
But I also realized that I would need to broaden my interests — to make space for someone who was different from me. My future partner, if he existed, was not going to be just like me, or my ex-husband, or some idealized notion I developed in a daydream. He would be be a unique, imperfect, mature guy with his own interests and commitments, looking for a compatible woman to bring intimacy, companionship and security to his life. He was probably as weirded out by the online dating world as I was, as full of trepidation and self-doubt.
So I tried to be more open, and I started initiating contacts myself. I relaxed and reminded myself this process was about dating, not mating for life — an opportunity to meet a variety of men, enjoy some social interaction and learn more about myself in the process. Maybe I would make some new friends, and maybe I would find someone really special. But nothing would happen if I didn’t put myself out there.
Through Match.com, I met and chatted casually via email with a wide range of men over the course of a couple of years. I spoke with some on the phone. I met a few face-to-face for coffee, a walk or a quick meal, always someplace public and safe. Three I saw more than once, though none of these developed into more than warm friendships that I still value today.
I learned to break off an unpromising relationship without delay, and I learned to shake it off and move on when someone I was interested in didn’t return the sentiment.
Importantly, Match.com was not my only foray into romance. When a longtime casual friendship in my “real” life unexpectedly blossomed into something very different, I took an extended break from Match.com to explore it. Ultimately, that relationship ran its course, but I am grateful for the sweetness, support and perspective it brought to my life.
The benefit in all of this activity was twofold. First, at a time when I really needed to get out of my own head, I enjoyed a very engaging social life I would not otherwise have had. And, through all these positive, affirming interactions, I recovered my self-confidence, clarified my priorities, moved forward in my life and, paradoxically, became more comfortable with the idea that a future without a romantic partner could still be rich, important and happy.
These lessons alone were worth the price of admission to the Match.com party. But after two years of exploring the online scene, on and off, I was ready to end my time there. And then, just as I was headed for the door, I met Douglas.
Meg Haskell writes for and about the baby boom generation for the Bangor Daily News. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.