On the brink of Valentine’s Day, I’m still single. When I first got divorced seven years ago, I hadn’t pictured this possibility — I’d imagined that I’d meet my next long-term match pretty quickly. So when I signed up for Tinder, after taking some time off to grieve and work on myself, I did so optimistically.
As a newbie, I loved Tinder. It was convenient and easy and gave me the immediate boost of serotonin a single girl living in New York City needed. I met some nice guys and eventually mustered up the courage to meet one in person.
That’s when my fantasies met with the reality of dating as a millennial in the 21st century. I soon learned that dating seemed to involve going from the “What’s your favorite color?” conversations to the “I’m not looking for a relationship” conversations with alarming speed — but not before I had time to fantasize about walking down the aisle with each match.
On my first date, though, I didn’t know any of that. This Tinder match was gorgeous, funny, and very kind. We met up in Brooklyn, and it was magical. Over the course of an evening, we ate our way across the borough, eventually finishing with doughnuts on the steps of the Brooklyn Museum. The night ended with him walking me to my apartment building door and us joking around before saying goodnight, as I tried to hide the huge smile on my face.
Once I got inside, I immediately called my best friend to break down every single detail of the night. We talked for more than an hour about how he brushed up against me and held the door open at every restaurant. I remember her saying, “Oh my gosh, he sounds amazing!” My cheeks hurt from the excitement of agreement. He was “perfect,” and before he texted he was home safely, I’d decided that this would be my boyfriend.
The following day, I woke up to a “good morning” text, which had me all but floating to work. I wouldn’t call it love, but I officially had a crush — a bad one. Moments from our date — funny things he’d said, flirtatious side comments, and sweet things he’d done, like holding open the door for me — replayed over and over in my head, and I fantasized about our second date.
But a couple of days later, the energy started to change. My “good morning” texts now came in the afternoon, and the conversations seemed to drag. Things were different, and I couldn’t understand why. “Was it something I said? Something I did?” I asked myself.
We eventually stopped talking after some tequila-fueled texts ended badly. It was my first time falling out of love with a complete stranger. But it didn’t take me long to recover, and I moved forward on my quest to find Mr. Swipe Right.
But the same cycle happened again, and again. My future husbands were dropping like flies, and I couldn’t grasp why. Our first dates were great, communication was on point — and then it wasn’t. The merry-go-round of excitement, disappointment, blocking, and starting all over again was getting old, fast.
Luckily, there was a definite pattern, and one day, I finally caught on. I was unenthusiastically getting ready for yet another date, thinking back on the twilight zone of my past few matches, when it hit me. The problem wasn’t the guys I was picking or things they were doing. It was that I was romanticizing every first date.
I was consumed with the idea of a potential relationship. In that headspace, I wrote more meaning out of every little detail than was really there. “Girl, he held the door for me.” “He also paid for the meal!” “He complimented my hair.” Embarrassingly, even “He said I looked better in person!” was a “good sign” I would gush about.
My desire to find “my person” was so strong that I was approaching every date looking for positive reinforcement that this was “the one.” I wasn’t asking myself if I even liked the person across the table from me or letting the answers to the hard questions determine if we were actually compatible. I chalked up red flags to first-date jitters. And I mistook the actions of any halfway decent human being as evidence of someone being marriage material. I had a bad case of “this is my husband” syndrome.
So, I set out to squash the butterflies: to detach myself from my first dates and remember that each experience was a neutral meeting with a stranger who was cute enough for me to wear heels and apply a little concealer, but nothing more.
I began to look at every first date as nothing more than that: a first date. I had no skin in the game, except for my highlighted cheekbones. And I was OK with that. I focused on staying present instead of drifting into in la-la land.
I wrote down my nonnegotiables and started reviewing them before my first dates. My list included the important things to me, like marriage and kids, but also hobbies and dreams. Clarifying what was most important to me made it easier to hold firm on what I wanted, no matter how good a particular match smelled or looked in jeans.
Lastly, I listened to my body on every date. My anxiety, my nervousness, all of it. How comfortable was I talking to this person? My body reacted quicker than my brain, so it was easier to trust what it had to say.
Unromanticizing my first dates took effort. And frankly, it took a little magic out of those early meetups. Without the buzz of delusion adding sparkle to normal conversation, a lot of the dates I went on felt pretty mediocre. But ultimately, they were mediocre, and staying firmly connected to reality meant I wasn’t feeling like I was going through a tragic breakup every other week.
Even though I strive to date differently now, when I look back on all my failed “love” affairs, I can see that they brought me closer to myself. Every man I met who I decided was, then wasn’t, my future husband became a reason for me to reestablish my boundaries, a reminder to always pick myself (even when it’s uncomfortable to be alone again), and a reminder of why singlehood is better than forgetting who I was.
My dating life is currently nonexistent, but I’m OK with playing chaperone at every couples-heavy group function. I know the match I’ve written about in my journal is out there, and I’m happy while patiently waiting for him to make his grand entrance into my life. Until then, I’ll romanticize my dreams — but not my dates.