“Except the heaven had come so near,
So seemed to choose my door,
The distance would not haunt me so;
I had not hoped before.”
It’s happened to all of us. You make a plan with a friend, and then at the last minute, circumstances beyond the friend’s control force them to cancel. It’s a pain in the ass, but all is soon forgiven. (Unless of course he or she lets you down repeatedly, and repeatedly fails to reschedule, in which case it might be time to reassess the friendship.)
It shouldn’t really be a massive deal when a date cancels on you, either. After all, it’s pretty much the same deal, right?
Wrong. Meeting friends is cool and all, but dates are exciting. You might make a new friend (who, with all due respect to my old pals, are always more interesting). You might make a girlfriend. There might be mind-blowing sex. At the very least, you’ll have a fun night out.
When you’re anticipating a date, there’s a spring in your step and a glint in your eye. Your self-worth grows; you’re more optimistic about your chances of future happiness. And when that’s suddenly snatched away from you, you don’t just return to your original state; you feel worse than you did before. Self-doubt begins to gnaw at you. Did you do something wrong?
What’s more, the closer the cancellation comes to the appointed time, the more gutted you feel. And for some reason, in my experience at least, when dates cancel on you, they invariably do so at the last possible moment. (That’s if they bother to do so at all; on more than a handful of occasions, even since the advent of mobile phones, my dates have simply failed to turn up.)
There’s a simple solution to that, you say. Limit your expectations. Keep those runaway hopes in check and you’ll minimise the pain. The problem with this technique is that, as I showed with my tenuous football analogy, you can’t inure yourself to pain alone. Like any soft tissue subjected to trauma, the heart heals, but it does so with scar tissue; while this makes it less susceptible to future pain, its also becomes less sensitive to joy. Besides, managed disappointment is still disappointment, and it still adds up. And the cumulative effect of 336 disappointments is pretty crushing.
That number may not be bang on – I haven’t kept precise count – but I haven’t pulled it out of my hairy, hyperbolic arse either. Because, since Cassie and I split up in March 2012, I have kept precise count, and I’ve had potential dates cancel on me 42 times in 30 months: a rate of 1.4 per month. (It’s happened six times in the last month alone.) Since I’ve spent a total of about 20 years on the dating scene, and the pattern has been broadly the same, that works out at 336 cancellations.
Some of them, it’s true, were quite informal arrangements (although I haven’t included anything as flimsy as “clicked yes on the Facebook event and then didn’t show up”). But in each instance, I at the very least asked a woman, in plain, unequivocal language, whether she wanted to meet me, alone, for some sort of social engagement. And in each instance, she said yes, agreed a time and place, and then pulled out.
I haven’t mentioned any of these incidents on the blog, because most of them were just that: incidents. Minor annoyances. (A couple of them, though, are anecdote-worthy: for example, the time in 1996 I spent the whole night at a party talking to a girl with an unusual name. When the time came to leave, I asked her for her number, and she gave me one; unfortunately, it wasn’t hers. It turned out, awkwardly, to be the number of another girl with the same unusual name. Then there was Alison Cook in 1999, who agreed to meet up, postponed a couple of times, finally rescheduled, then, the day before we were due to meet, cancelled with a shoddy excuse. On the appointed day, 10 minutes before we had been due to meet, she called my mobile. “Hey! Where are you?” “I’m at home, because you weren’t feeling well.” “Oops,” she replied. “Wrong number!”) But taken together, these 336 disappointments have probably had a greater effect on me than any of the stories on this site.
Now, I don’t wish to sound like a whiny little bitch, but … actually, fuck it, yes I do. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of booking two tickets for the cinema and going on my own. I’m sick of going out and buying expensive new clothes and then having no reason to wear them. I’m sick of suddenly finding myself with no plans for the night because it’s too late to organise anything else. I’m sick of picturing her naked and having no opportunity to find out whether I was right. I’m sick of casually telling friends that I’ve got a hot date, only to have to report when we next meet that all I got was a cold shoulder. I’m sick of wondering what we’ll call our children – all right, maybe not, but you get my drift.
Sheer quantity aside, why am I making such a big deal out of this? Well, consider the following scenarios.
1) You’re in Tesco. You notice there’s a 2-for-1 offer on your favourite brand of toothpaste, so you buy two tubes. But when you get home and check the receipt, you find you were charged full price for both.
2) You’re on Death Row for a crime you didn’t commit. With your execution just days away, your lawyer brings you a letter granting you a pardon. Then the following day, when you’re about to taste freedom, he slides a note under your cell door: “Just kidding!”
In both scenarios, you’re technically no worse off at the end than you were at the beginning – you would have bought that second tube of toothpaste eventually anyway – but you are fully entitled to feel aggrieved, even a bit angry. Why? Because your hopes were raised, and then dashed. It’s the element of hope that’s the killer.
The Greek gods devised some pretty cruel ordeals for the mortals who displeased them. Prometheus was chained to a rock, on to which descended an eagle, which slowly tore out his liver every day (it regenerated overnight); Sisyphus was compelled to roll a huge boulder up to the top of a hill until the end of time. But they saved their most fiendish punishment for Tantalus (who, as an infanticidal cannibal, was admittedly no angel): they bound him, immersed him in water up to his neck, and placed low-hanging fruits just above his head. Aching with hunger, he would strain to reach them, and every time he did so, they would retract just out of his reach. (That’s where the word “tantalise” comes from.) If it weren’t for the fruit, he’d just be wet and hungry. The torture comes from the false hope.
So what has befallen me exactly? Some of the excuses given, I’ve no doubt, were genuine. The women concerned did want to meet up, but were prevented from doing so by circumstances beyond their control.
The thing is, there’s a cavernous discrepancy between the rate at which friends cancel on me and the rate at which prospective dates cancel on me: I’d hazard that friends let me down maybe one time in every 10, while for dates it’s more like one time in every two or three. So unless I’m disproportionately drawn to sickly women, or the victim of some cosmic statistical blip, at least some of them are telling porkies. Moreover, a lot of the reasons given were of “The dog ate my homework” calibre – “I’m tired”, “I’m just really busy at the moment”, even “Something’s come up”. Anyway, if someone cancels on you for a genuine reason, they should offer to reschedule, and my prospective dates rarely do.
There are other possibilities. They might have been genuinely interested in me at the time we met, but changed their minds in the meantime. They might have met someone else in the intervening period. Or they might have stumbled across some appalling fact – real or imagined – that frightened them off. But the first two situations can’t crop up all that often, and my skeletons were all tightly locked in my closet until I started this blog.
I don’t think I’ve been guilty of any of the more glaring courtship faux pas – not since my mid-20s, anyway. I haven’t been too eager, or too flirty, or suggested inappropriate dates, or called scarily soon, or disrespectfully late. I’m not, as far as I am aware, given to sending messages that are offensive, insensitive, or creepy. Perhaps some accidental ambiguity of phrasing has given one or two the heebie-jeebies, but I’m not, as a rule, a verbal halfwit.
Is it possible that this yes/no dance is, for some women, a sort of test? Are you supposed to keep trying to prove that you are genuinely interested? If so, how many times exactly? Because I’ve generally given most people the benefit of the doubt and suggested two more dates after the first cancellation, and that was never enough. In 2012 I foolishly offered Paula, the Polish waitress in the cafe near my office, no fewer than seven opportunities to let me down, and she gleefully seized every one.
Another, less charitable theory has occurred to me: that some people agree to dates because they’re flattered by the attention, and even though they’re not especially attracted to their admirer, they’re loth to give up the ego boost. I’ve almost certainly come across a few such folk, but I refuse to believe that there are that many selfish pricks out there.
One explanation stands out head and shoulders above the rest: these women never had any intention of meeting me, and agreed to a date knowing full well that they were going to cancel. A cynic might say that they adopted this tactic to get rid of me; under a more generous interpretation, they were trying to avoid hurting my feelings.
But we’ve already established that sparing someone’s feelings only makes them feel worse later on. Surely no one can seriously believe that giving someone hope and then snatching it away is better than being straight with them in the first place? It’s the easy way out. The coward’s way out. By avoiding saying something trivially upsetting in the short term – “Not interested? Bummer. Nice knowing you” – they’re just creating more heartache for the asker (and more guilt for themselves) in the long run.
While no individual disappointment has been that big a deal, cumulatively, the 336 have taken quite a toll. For one thing, I don’t know what to believe any more. The message was, quite rightly, drilled home some time ago that no means no; but now, apparently, yes means no as well. What, then, if anything, means yes? The existence of books like The Rules only add to the confusion: when some women are following the mantra “Treat the men you like like the men you don’t like” – ie, play hard to get – how the hell are the guys they don’t like supposed to work out that they’re not liked?
In short, I’ve had my hopes raised and dashed so many times that they’ve been reduced to a fine sand. If things continue in this vein, at some point, in the not too distant future, they’ll just vanish in the wind. My female friends often ask me why it is that I’m so lacking in confidence when it comes to dating. Well, this, basically.
What’s my agenda in writing this post? What am I after (other than your pity, obviously)?
Well, I’d just like to make a quiet, whiny plea, not on my behalf – simply by publishing this, I’ve probably destroyed any vestigial chance I had of finding someone – but on behalf of others out there who might be wondering the same thing.
Please don’t say yes when you mean no.
Here, in decreasing order of acceptability, are some alternative, fairer and less damaging ways of handling unwanted attention:
- Firmly and politely say no. You don’t have to be as brutal as to say, “I don’t fancy you”; you don’t have to give a reason at all. If he or she demands to know why, just say, “I’m afraid I’m not interested in you that way.” Most sane, normal people won’t be offended; they’re more likely to be impressed by your honesty and courage. They’ll judge you far less harshly for this than for a broken promise. (Or, if you really think there’s a chance you might be friends, say yes, but make it quite clear that romance is not on the cards.)
- Try to keep an open mind and go on the date. He or she might surprise you. You might form a valuable friendship; you might have a lovely evening. But if your instincts were correct and you’re just not feeling it, tell them as much.
- Give a plausible excuse that involves your general state, rather than your specific arrangements on a particular night. Something like “I’m still getting over my ex” or “I’m just not in the right place to date at the moment” will keep the resentment to a minimum.
- Make up an implausible excuse, or a downright crap one. They’ll take the hint. If you give a plausible excuse, they’ll just ask you out again.
- If the asking-out took place by email, or text, or social media, or messaging app, simply don’t reply. This is rude and gutless, but they will get the message, and it’s still better than raising their hopes and then dashing them.
- Behave like a dick until they lose interest. Again, not exactly the sort of conduct that will propel you up the Queen’s birthday honours list, but it’s still better than raising their hopes and then dashing them.
In sum, don’t tee up the ball if you’re just going to snatch it away. Cruelty is kindness and kindness is cruelty. They had the courage to ask you out; no matter how unattractive you find them, the least they deserve for that is your honesty and respect.
♥ According to the vast majority of surveys, the quality that women find most attractive in a man is confidence.