The nearest thing my generation had to internet dating in our youth was the ‘lonely hearts’ column in the paper, where middle-aged piano tuners and sprightly pensioners searched for a ‘second chance at love’.
It was the 1990s, so instead you simply got drunk, jumped on someone, who, in the dark of a club, looked like Johnny Depp, then you woke up in a studio flat to find that Johnny Depp had morphed into Danny Devito and worse, he was looking at you like he’d gone to bed with Cindy Crawford but had just woken up with Captain Caveman.
Now though, the humble lonely hearts column has grown into the giant internet dating industry and it’s totally normal to take part in it.
The first site I joined a decade ago, in my late 30s, was Guardian Soulmates. It was full of leftie teachers looking for love and the odd (very odd) stand-up comedian. I managed to meet an ageing rockstar. He was a couple of years older than me, had kept his pretty hair and face and could still rock skinny jeans. I was a 38-year-old newly single mum going through a gruesome divorce and my self-esteem was struggling.
Shappi Khorsandi (pictured) reflected on the online dating experiences she had, before reconnecting with an ex during summer
Back then, in the 2010s, terms like ‘negging’ and ‘gaslightling’ weren’t on my radar. As I learned quickly, ‘negging (from ‘negative feedback’) is giving someone a compliment and immediately following it up with something negative. An example of the rockstar’s ‘negging’ was: ‘You’ve got beautiful eyes, even though one is noticeably bigger than the other.’ Enough of these ‘negs’ and you can start to think ‘I’m hideous and only he will ever love me. I am so lucky to have him.’ It’s a slow erosion of a person’s self-esteem . . . and it works.
Gaslighting, on the other hand, is when a partner refuses to see or talk about your point of view, to the point that you start to doubt yourself, accept that you did indeed imagine whatever it is you are aggrieved by, and often end up apologising when you haven’t put a foot wrong.
Off I tumbled into a vortex of being negged and gaslit by this man. He gave me endless backhanded compliments. He liked me ‘despite’ my 38 years and my weight (I was a size 8). He told me I was ‘vanilla’ because I didn’t want to take part in an orgy.
Meanwhile, he guarded his phone like a child with six siblings guards their chips. But, one day, eight months on, in a rare lapse of security he left it unattended. A text arrived from another woman, who, it turned out — when I stole her number from his phone and called her later — was his real girlfriend.
The spell was broken and I headed for the hills. I wrote an Edinburgh Festival show about him, took it on a successful tour and spent all the money I made on self-esteem-building therapy.
The problem when you meet someone online, as I’d discovered, is that there is little chance your worlds overlap. There are no mutual friends, no shared colleagues — there’s no back story. They can invent the person they want you to think they are.
Shappi (pictured) joined Hinge because it was hard having no one there for her after her children went to bed
Nonetheless, meeting someone online, or more specifically on an app, has become the norm. Tinder, Bumble, Match, Hinge and a myriad other platforms have become the new going out ‘on the pull’.
For my younger friends, scouting around for a romance or a one-night stand is something they do at home in their pyjamas.
It was much more of a faff for us Generation Xers. Going out specifically to meet someone was an event. There was an art to pulling, a dance of glances, a witty remark. And if that didn’t work, you got drunk and fell on someone, as I said.
But times change. Still, pre-pandemic, I was taking a break from attempting to meet someone. Instead, for about a year before the first lockdown in March, I had been smugly single. I found the joy, peace and freedom of ‘coupling’ with myself. I make no apologies for the term It’s different to being merely ‘single’. It means you are not looking, you are luxuriating in your own wants and desires, unencumbered by someone else’s.
per cent of relationships now start online
Lockdown, though, brought loneliness crashing down. It’s one thing being single when your house can be full of family and friends, but having no one there for me after the children were in bed, was hard. So I went back on the dating sites and apps. I joined Hinge, which makes you answer questions like ‘Let’s debate the topic . . .’ At first I got ‘likes’ from 18-year-olds right up to the Captain Tom bracket. The 18- and early 20-year-olds cast the net wide and conversation starters are along the lines of: ‘Let’s debate the topic . . . pineapples on pizza!’ I quickly moved the age bracket up to 30-plus. But pretty much all the 30-somethings were looking for was someone to take selfies with on the back of an elephant in Myanmar. Being their ‘someone to explore the world with’ wasn’t practical with two young children unless their world was Minecraft or the Co-op. Surprisingly few 40-somethings showed up as I scrolled. When I was on the sites a few years ago, my ‘likes’ were awash with them. Aha! I realised. My age had gone up. Fewer 40-something men were setting the age range high enough to reach me, at 47.
Fair enough. Perhaps they wanted children, or perhaps they had children and fancied bonking 20-somethings again or discussing the pros and cons of fruit on pizzas. Who was I to judge?
Curiously, a great deal of 50-somethings posted pictures of themselves holding up a carp. This, it turns out, is a common thing in this age bracket on dating sites. ‘Pick me, I can hunt!’
Shappi said she got a rush of warm adrenaline, when her ex unexpectedly texted her this summer. Pictured: Shappi with her daughter
As for the 60-plus guys, they posted pictures of themselves climbing rocks and holding bicycles up in the air on top of mountains, giving out the enthusiastic message: ‘Pick me, my heart still works!’
Using dating sites in the pre-pandemic world was a fun sideshow to my exciting and fast-paced life. During lockdown though, none of the fishermen, travel obsessives, banter-loving profiles seemed like they would lead to me being loved again, held again, brought a cup of tea in bed again — the things I missed now the world was locked out. I began to think about my exes.
One chap from about four years ago had been particularly wonderful. Had I been too hasty giving him up? I’d loved him, but back then, both our lives were chaotic. I broke it off after a few months.
The only reason I could give my friends for breaking up with him was, ‘he put cashews in all his food’. Then, out of the blue this summer, he sent me a text to say ‘hello’. It gave me a rush of warm adrenaline no carp or elephant ride could ever do. I replied and when lockdown lifted, we went for lunch.
He was every bit as wonderful, but this time the chaos was gone and we were just two people who adored each other meeting up.
Since then, I’ve talked to him regularly. Our conversations are more honest. Perhaps, after all those apps, revisiting my ex and ‘upcycling’ our relationship will prove a better option than swiping right on a stranger.
For if there is one thing that lockdown has taught me, it’s that you can pick the cashews out.