The thing about claiming to have gotten into online dating “before it was cool” is that there is no such time: Online dating never actually got cool. It just became normal, as more and more people realized that the internet is, indeed, a legitimate communication pathway and that “real life” people use it to connect to each other. But if it had ever gotten cool, I certainly got there before that time—I was online dating in the year of our Lord 2007, before most people currently alive were even born. I jumped on and off the online- and app-based dating wagon for years, putting in my time on OKCupid, Tinder, Hinge, and Bumble. And I would have added eHarmony to that list, too, had eHarmony’s dating algorithm not told me that I was incompatible with every possible man in the world.
I’ve always been a firm believer that you get out of these apps what you put into them, so I had a good time on them in my 20s but thought I’d no longer need them by my 30s. When I became unexpectedly single again this fall, I feared that I’d find their endless scrolls a barren wasteland, the bitter harvest of dude-crops picked over with all the eligible bachelors snatched up by effervescent college girls who love to laugh and have serious wanderlust but exclusively for Cabo San Lucas in March and April of any given year. What I found instead was a veritable feast of f*ckable dudes who were not only picking up what I was throwing down, but also apparently had learned that the correct way to react to a text message from a woman you’re seeing is to actually answer it in full sentences within a few hours of receiving it. All that and so much more!
This realization is just one of many genuinely surprising-in-a-good-way discoveries I’ve made since trying the whole dating thing again, this time as an older and wiser woman in her 30s. In no real order, here are some more:
1. Men still want to meet me even if they haven’t seen me half-naked.
Better yet, the pervasive myth that women become shriveled harridans after 30 couldn’t be further from the truth.
I was 21 years old when I started online dating, but I felt more like 20-FUN years old, if you get my meaning. (My meaning is that I was probably drinking too much and I didn’t know that about half the men in New York who claimed to be “fashion photographers” just, like, owned a reasonable camera and once had a tall girlfriend, but I thought I was so lucky to date them.)
My dating profile photo collections back then were all lecherous, suggestive open-mouthed smiles and shrink-wrapped American Apparel ensembles worn to what may have been actual honest-to-God raves. In turn, I was greeted with plenty of lecherous, suggestive messages from the sea of potential dates that made explicit reference to these photos and then proceeded quickly to proposition me for what would be dubbed “Netflix and chill” in later generations.
This time around, as much as I wanted to set thirst traps for all men within a 30-mile radius to prove I’m keeping it tight, I opted for form-fitting but less overtly sexy outfits for my photos. The most interesting and abundant comments I get are about two photos in particular—one where I’m wearing an (admittedly extremely cool) A$AP Rocky sweatshirt, and another in which I’m wholesomely raking my yard in grey leggings, a black coat, and a clearly enthusiastic attitude for fall foliage.
2. No one is pretending to be chill, which is very hot.
On the topic of raking lawns, it reminds me, naturally, that we are all on a slow and unstoppable march toward death, a fact that we think about more often as we get older. So as my age range preference has expanded to accommodate more dudes in their mid-to-late 30s, I find that they realize more keenly that they don’t have all the time to “see what happens” and “play the field,” and not just because their vision isn’t what it used to be and sports really agitate their increasingly fragile back muscles!
I spent much of my 20s saying things like, “I mean, I feel like it’s super normal to not have defined the relationship by date 471 even though we both know what each other’s butts taste like,” to a sea of nodding girlfriends over brunch. “Oh, totally,” they’d reply. So this is new to me.
And on that note, the imaginary children I’ve been thinking about for decades are finally something that it is fine to talk about.
I go on first dates now in my 30s and scarcely have time to fake my first “work email I have to respond to” (when I’m really checking Twitter) of the night when dates are asking me about what I’m looking to find relationship-wise and conspicuously eyeing my hip width to assess the ease with which I might bring forth their many strong sons. Five years ago, I would have preferred to chew on the raw organs of a rabid possum over having to say, “I’m looking for a boyfriend who would ideally end up being my husband,” but now it feels totally normal. Being sized up as breeding stock is still not totally normal but, hey, I’m semi-flattered that they’d consider mixing genes with me.
3. Dudes in their 20s aren’t nearly as terrible as I’d remembered them.
One of the great mistakes I think many of my 30-something peers make is assuming that letting their preferred age range dip well into the early-to-mid-20s would be a waste of time. I am guilty too of once thinking that this demographic was a bunch of boneheads who just want to talk about installation art, listen to the Weeknd, and willfully ignore their text messages, but I was so very wrong. Plenty of these whippersnappers have taken to heart that time is a construct that does not actually exist—which is to say that age differentials don’t matter so long as he’s hot for you.
I started out swiping right on dashing 24-year-old guys who do that rowing-boats-as-a-sportthing—because arms and stamina don’t stop being hot just because I remember the first Bush administration—but I didn’t expect anything to come from it. To my surprise, after entirely charming nights of drinks and conversation with dudes whose profile pics from the Homecoming dance were still totally accurate, we’d go back to my house (“You have a whole house?”) and we’d both come from it.
I’ve come to realize that the problem was never just the immaturity of the men I dated in my 20s, it was the fact that I was dating them while still very immature myself.
Sure, these age-is-just-a-number guys are not as abundant as the ones that assume I’m a crone eating bat wings all alone in the woods at my advanced age, but there are enough of them to give me hope that youngsters are not entirely a cohort of pathologically unempathetic weasels who treat women as disposable punctuation marks in their hero’s journeys toward becoming internationally renowned DJs. It’s just that in my 20s, I was focused on beards and plaids when I should have been focused on arms, conversational generosity, arms, a good attitude, and arms.
4. Generation X runs a tight emoji game.
They may still be congratulating themselves a little too much about giving us grunge and the internet, but the facts are the facts. Their emoji use is versatile and often uses narrative to convey emotions and interests. It beats the hell out of the four-in-a-row of that guy who’s laughing so hard he’s crying that I used to get. Like, is this the movie Multiplicity with Michael Keaton where he cloned himself to do all his chores and raise his children so there are actually four of you laughing about the thing I said? It wasn’t even that funny, much less funny enough to clone yourself and cry about it! But yeah, older dudes and the emojis mix well, probably because they can afford to fix their cracked screens and therefore see the whole collection at any given texting time.
5. The reality checks are starker, but ultimately helpful.
I feel like I’ve been reading headline after headline my whole adult life that are like, “The 20-somethings, why hath they not yet wed in holy matrimony?” These stories read like panicked end-of-world relationship shifts when really, young people are actually just kind of chaotic and messy and that’s fine! It was these realizations that happened over and over again in my 20s: Oh, this isn’t going to work because we are both, in our own special ways, total disasters.
In contrast, the realizations in my 30s have felt more varied and have forced me to consider what I will and won’t compromise on. If a date of any age didn’t have a steady career in my 20s, I didn’t think much of it unless they were, like, getting summonses from debtors’ prison. Today, I can’t find myself especially attracted to someone who can’t pull it together at least enough to have a bed frame and a legitimate lease. Like, I still hate that capitalism makes all this drudgery necessary, but you don’t see me eating Top Ramen about it.
On the other hand, going out with a cool dude who four hours into our date casually told me that he had five sons made me accept the reality that I’m going to be going on a lot more dates that double as stepmom auditions than I used to. I still don’t know what my boundaries are in terms of how many kids a guy has, what ages they are, and the status with their mother, but I know that FIVE SONS is entirely too many sons for me to consider this a prospect. In less extreme cases, encountering men at such substantially different life stages than me has cast into sharp relief where I’d like to be and what I’d like to have.
I may be getting hotter, but I’m not getting any younger. The more actively I take inventory of what life could look like by encountering a more varied group of prospects on wildly divergent life paths, the closer I get to knowing what a happy love might look like for me and seeking it out. The biggest difference of all is today I know that it is OK to admit what I want, and to admit that I want things at all. My 20-something self would have gagged on a spoonful of glass shards before admitting she just wanted to find a love that made her happy, but she was never as cool as she thought she was.