Appointment with disappointment (2014)

Charlie Brown Lucy kick ball
Will you never learn, Charlie Brown? © Charles Schultz

“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.”
Emily Dickinson

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.

Tantalus river fruit
Tantalus tantalised.

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.

Graph confidence versus time
It’s a graph. So it must be right. (Click for larger image.)

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.

 

Solely Mates (2008–)

Illustration bad date
© Rebecca Hendin 2014. www.rebeccahendin.com

Online dating sites (and London Underground) are awash with gushing testimonials from people who claim to have found the love of their life at the click of a mouse. In the interests of balance, I thought I’d offer some testimonials of my own.

A new chapter
I’d been on Solely Mates for about three months when Moira’s profile caught my eye. She was 35, down to earth, trim, unfussily attractive, and was pursuing what she described as an enjoyable and successful career in journalism. So I fired off a message, crossed my fingers … and to my astonishment, received an encouraging reply.

We arranged to meet at a central London cafe on a Sunday afternoon. Having never tried internet dating before, I was a mess of nerves – but excited too. This woman really seemed as if she might be my type. And sure enough, the fireworks began the moment we met!

We’d barely said our hellos when Moira noticed the book I’d taken with me – Simon Baron Cohen’s The Essential Difference: Male and Female Brains and the Truth About Autism – and launched into a diatribe against anyone who dared suggest that men and women were not identical in every respect. For all my protests that I was reading it with an open mind, Moira would not abandon the notion that I was Sid James, Benny Hill and Jim Davidson all rolled into one simply for having opened it.

We’ve now been apart for six years!
- Andy, 2008

Fairyfail
It’s usually guys who make the first approach, so I was pleasantly surprised to receive a friendly note from Just_Jo. There was only one blurry picture on her profile, but her vital statistics – age, height, build, location – were all within acceptable tolerances, and more promisingly, her profile was completely free of cliches! (Most female members of dating sites will use some variation on at least one of the following: “comfortable in his own skin”, “someone who can laugh at himself and me”, “confident without being arrogant”, “bonus points if you know how to cook/play the guitar”, “I like a man to be a man”, “a best friend who I fancy”, “ultimately it’s all about chemistry” and “is that too much to ask?”) Jo, though, was an original.

And she sustained that originality throughout the correspondence that we kept for the next two weeks. She was playful, cheeky, flirty, and full of obscure but fascinating titbits. Every time I replied, I found myself obsessively checking my inbox for her next message!

So by the time we met up at Borough Market, my expectations were sky-high. And Jo exceeded them! She was as energetic in person as she was in prose; street, petite, and endlessly upbeat, and the light danced in her eyes when she laughed.

I knew from that moment that I’d found the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with! Unfortunately, she only wanted to be friends.
- Andy, 2008

Too much information
The first few dates I arranged through Solely Mates were interesting, but never quite progressed to the next level. Then I met Ines!

We met at a trendy pub in central London. Ines was a 41-year-old architect from Spain, and in way better shape than I was! She kicked the evening off by asking me how it was that a reasonably good-looking man was still single at the age of 38. So over the course of about 10 minutes, with another three for questions, I gave her a potted history of my romantic misadventures.

Then I asked her what her story was. At which point Ines proceeded to regale me with every tiny detail of every relationship she’d ever had – and a couple that she hadn’t – including what she was wearing, what he was wearing, every nuance of what she was thinking, what her friends said, what her family said, and what the various ex-partners were up to now. I barely got a word in edgeways, and when I did, she ignored it. By the time she’d finished, the bar staff were standing menacingly over our table.

The remarkable thing was, judging by the texts I received from Ines the next day – and continued to receive for six months after I’d told her I didn’t think we should see each other again – she seemed to be of the opinion that our date had been the most fantastic date in the history of dates!
- Andy, 2008

Sense of humour failure
Scouring through my thousands of online matches, I was drawn to LizzyBennet74′s profile immediately – and not just because of the alluring portrait picture. Her profile was positively pulsating with zingy one-liners!

Alas, on our first date, she revealed that the zingy one-liners had all been written by a friend, and for sheer, spleen-rotting dullness, the evening was surpassed only by the time I missed the ferry at Dover and had to spend the night alone in the terminal with only the instructions to my CD Walkman to read!
- Andy, 2009

When Andy met Sammy
I had low expectations when I started online dating, but they rose a little when I stumbled across Shyster’s profile! Her bio was brief and to the point, and she looked like my ideal woman: a dirty Meg Ryan.

On our first date, at a restaurant in west London, Sammy confessed that she was an old-fashioned sort of girl, and believed that the man should pay for everything on the first date. Since I’ve always been taught to respect other people’s beliefs, I duly coughed up!

On our second date, at a bar in Soho, she revealed that her old-fashionedness extended to believing that the man should pay for everything on the second date. I briefly wondered whether this was in fact a legitimate belief system, then coughed up. Anyhow, all was forgiven when it turned out, at the end of the date, that she was a dirty Meg Ryan!

Sammy was less old-fashioned in one respect, however. The following morning, she told me she was still meeting other people from the site, and one of them had his own jet.

They’re now celebrating six years together and are expecting their first child!
- Andy, 2009

Everything Everything but the girl
I was exhausted after a marathon shift at the office when I got home and logged on to Solely Mates to check my inbox. None of the women I’d contacted had replied, but there was a new message from a name I didn’t recognise – ManicPixieDreamGirl. There was no picture, but she was roughly the right age and her bio was largely free of spelling mistakes.

“What music do you like? I can’t get enough of Everything Everything! I just want to stay at home all day and listen to them. Do you think I should tell my boss? How are you?”

It was slightly odd, as first approaches go, but I sent a friendly reply, and went to bed.

But when I slept on it, realisation dawned. The breathless, hyperbolic style; the complete lack of any information about her beyond her musical preference, or of any questions for me … it stank of press release. Now that I thought of it, I’d heard about PR agencies setting up false internet dating accounts as a marketing wheeze. I threw back my covers and furiously typed out the following reply:

“Please disregard my previous message – I was too tired to think straight. Here’s a new one.

“So, the vile PR scum have invaded internet dating sites now, have they? How low will you stoop to peddle your wares, exactly? Killing babies and tattooing your brand on their faces?”

I was more than a little surprised to receive a reply within the hour:

“I was only telling you who my favourite band was.”

I was blocked the very next minute!
- Andy, 2009

Change of heart
I’d almost given up hope of finding true love when I rejoined Solely Mates in late 2013. The real world hadn’t delivered anyone I fancied who fancied me back, and my previous foray into the virtual world had, with one notable exception, come up empty.

And to begin with, it looked as though this stint on a dating site was going to whiff too. I favourited some people, and put out feelers to the dozen or so most promising candidates, but not one replied. Even the one or two brave souls who favourited me failed to respond to my missives. When my membership expired after three months, I hadn’t had a single message or been on a single date.

Then, the very next morning, an email arrived. “You have a message on Solely Mates!”

I logged on and read it. It was from NotBridgetJones. “Hey, AndyB! Your profile made me laugh. Do you fancy meeting up some time?”

Now, when your membership on this site runs out, your profile remains live, and you can still receive messages. You cannot, however, send any. But NotBridgetJones seemed friendly and cute, so with a mixture of reluctance and excitement, I shelled out £70 for another three-month membership, and fired off a reply.

Two hours later, she got back to me. “Sorry, I changed my mind.”

Now I’ve completely given up hope of finding true love!
- Andy, 2014

There’s an unfathomably large set of data out there pertaining to online dating. The vast majority of it, though, comes from dating websites themselves, and should thus be taken with a Dead Sea-sized pinch of salt. Here, anyway, are a few choice nuggets.

• A 2010 survey by MSNBC found that around one-third of the users of internet dating sites were married.

• In 2011, US users of dating sites lost $50m to romance scammers.

• According to research by a company called SNAP Interactive in 2013, the average straight man on a dating website will have to send 25 messages to women his own age in order to procure a single response. The average straight woman, meanwhile, will only have to send five.

• In 2012, a study led by Harry Reis, a professor of psychology at Rochester University, concluded that more couples were getting together online than by any other method, save meeting through friends. (He also warned, however, that the medium has its dangers; that skimming over hundreds of potential mates can promote a ‘shopping’ mentality, resulting in single people becoming excessively picky. Told you so!)

• A study in 2013 found that people who met online were (marginally) more likely to be happy and to stay together than those who met through more traditional channels. The research was funded by eHarmony.

• Oh, and then there’s this 2005 press release by match.com, containing two facts that sound quite impressive separately, but together, don’t quite have the same effect:

“Last year alone, more than 500,000 singles found meaningful relationships through Match.com’s online personals and singles ads. Match.com … today serves more than 15 million singles in 240 countries!”

In other words, if you use an online dating service, the time it will take you, on average, to find the person of your dreams is just … 30 years. (A separate anaylsis of match.com’s figures by the people at PlentyOfFish concluded that one in every 1,369 dates with the company led to marriage. Assuming one date per week, that’s 26.3 years.)

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We need to shut up about Elliot (2014)

Rodger victim flowers
This is who we should be talking about.

Some people might have expected me to weigh in on the debate about Elliot Rodger’s killing spree in Santa Barbara, California, on May 23. After all, this is one subject I might seem vaguely qualified to talk about.

I too was serially rejected as a teenager, and was terrified that I would never lose my virginity, to the point where I tried to kill myself three times (although in my case, the desperation stemmed more from the fear that I would never experience love than the fear that I would never get my end away). I too have spent a lot of time reading about and engaging with the Men’s Rights Movement – albeit as an observer rather than a member. Until about a month ago I was following and followed by PUAHate, one of the forums Rodger visited, on Twitter. And since starting the blog, I’ve had quite a few messages from young men with similar experiences: 21-year-old virgins asking for advice, sexually frustrated young men wanting to know if it was all right to pay for sex.

But I’m not going to talk about Elliot Rodger. And nor should anyone else. Not yet.

I’m not going to start pointing fingers when there are still six families grieving. I’m not going to call for stricter gun control laws (although I do like living in a country where those laws are already strict). I’m not going to call for reforms to the United States’ mental healthcare system. I’m not going to propose the banning of all violent films or computer games. I’m not going to pin the blame on society’s culture of misogyny. (I’m no advocate of woman-hating. But if institutionalised misogyny was really the sole cause of this incident, why weren’t there more mass shootings like this when society was even more misogynistic than it is today?) I’m not going to try to hang it all on Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow, however tempting that might be. And I’m certainly not going to write a horribly misguided “open letter to Elliot Rodger” practically empathising with the guy for being a virgin at 22.

I might just as well demand the sterilisation of all Hollywood executives – that would certainly have prevented this tragedy – or the banning of all BMWs.

You get the impression that some of these people had template articles pushing their own agenda ready to go, and as soon as news of the attack broke, they simply filled in all the blanks with the name “Elliot Rodger” and fired them off.

There’s a simple reason why I’m not doing any of these things; why I’m not hitching this gruesome wagon to my own political train. Because we know practically nothing.

The vast majority of the information we currently have about Elliot Rodger comes from Elliot Rodger himself: his videos and his 141-page “manifesto”. This is a man who couldn’t be trusted to observe the most fundamental tenet of human society: don’t kill people. How the hell can we trust him to tell the truth? Judging by the videos, it seems quite likely that Rodger was a psychopath (although again, we mustn’t presume), and one of the defining characteristics of psychopaths is their tendency to manipulate and deceive.

For starters, I see no compelling reason why we should accept Elliot Rodger’s word that we was a virgin. Sure, he might not have had sex with the women he wanted to have sex with; but does anyone really believe that a 22-year-old man, with his own BMW, his own gun, a high sex drive and a colossal sense of entitlement, had never paid for sex at least once?

Even if the likes of Rodger, and Anders Breivik, and Seung-Hui Cho, are saying what they believe to be the truth, why should we accept their version? How can you trust someone who is out of his mind to know his own mind?

After events such as these, newspaper editors, legislators and the public clamour for facts, opinions, and action. But the responses should come in that order. Opinions and legislation should never be formulated without facts. Hysterical knee-jerk responses turn the debate into a series of petty rows and risk sidelining the critical issues. Look at what happened with MMR: when Andrew Wakefield published his 1998 paper suggesting a link between the vaccine and autism, newspapers disseminated it uncritically and people stopped vaccinating their children in droves. Wakefield’s methodology and results have since been systematically discredited time and time again, but no matter how often or how comprehensively the link is disproven, many people still doggedly refuse to vaccinate their children. As a result, the United States is on the cusp of its worst measles outbreak in 20 years.

And if I was to ask you what the motives of the Columbine killers were, how would you reply? Probably something about video games, or bullying, or the “Trenchcoat Mafia”, because those were the memes circulating in the immediate aftermath of the massacre. The truth, in the end, was rather different.

Any or all of the issues raised by the commentators above may have been a factor in this tragedy. It might be something else entirely. We don’t know. We may never know.

But until all the evidence is in, and all expert testimonies have been heard, I’m going to resist the urge to speculate, and to campaign for changes to laws that may have had nothing to do with the deaths.

I’m going to show some fucking respect, and I’m going to show some fucking patience.

 

The science of dating