Online dating is no longer a social taboo in fact it is becoming the norm. Here Jonathan Whiley gives us the lowdown on his bid to meet his Tinderella
I had never fully considered just how attractive my ears were. For 26 years I had thought of my lobes as lonesome rather than loveable.
Then one night I was forced to reconsider. Ping! A Tinder message from Jenny, a 26-year-old accountant who lists ‘ultimate frisbee’ and ‘brunch’ among her interests. ”I really like your ears,” was her unusual opening line and as it turns out, her only.
After thanking her for her cochlea-centric compliment, I foolishly asked whether ‘good ears’ were part of her relationship search criteria. Ironically, I never heard from her again.
This, in the online dating jungle that is Tinder, is not unusual. After nearly two years of using the app – deleting and downloading at various intervals when I decide that it is best we ‘mutually uncouple’ – my relationship is very much love-hate.
I’ve endured my fair share of hide-behind-the-sofa-with-a-cushion awkwardness on first dates. One woman told me in no uncertain terms that I was ‘asking inappropriate questions’ when I asked about previous partners.
On another, which was going about as smoothly as an Ed Balls dance routine, our stilted conversation was interrupted by a street magician who proceeded to perform his entire routine using finger puppets made from sponge.
Tinder can be brutal; on more than one occasion I have been ‘ghosted’ (where someone ends the relationship by ignoring all communication) and I’ve lost track of the last-minute cancellations with all manner of ridiculous stage-fright excuses.
There is no hiding from its image as a hook-up service; a Yellow Pages for supposedly sex-mad millennials. It’s an image that is hard to shift – profiles of women are littered with the caveat “if you’re after sex, then swipe left” – and I’ve had to assure several on first dates that I’m not some form of sexual predator.
My first ever Tinder date, from Gloucester, sent me a message two hours before our date “checking it was just a drink”. I told her I couldn’t guarantee there won’t be pork scratchings involved. Then I panicked that she might think that was some form of euphemism.
“Sorry,” she said when we sat down at a pub in Gloucester Docks. “I’m just wary these days. I went on a date with one guy and after barely five minutes of chatting he leaned over and said ‘so… your place or mine?.”
I’ve encountered similar situations. One woman sent me a message offering her services for a one-night stand as she was “bored of her boyfriend”. On another occasion – at the end of a promising first meeting – a date asked if I would like to “relive my university days” back at her place.
Initially confused – I imagined takeaway pizza and countless repeats of Come Dine With Me – I said it was too soon. She broke down in tears and said she “just wanted to feel loved again” following what had been a particularly difficult break-up with her ex.
This is the danger of Tinder and other online dating sites. Unknowingly, it has become an emotional crutch for many, used as a quick-fix plaster to conceal a gaping wound or paper over cracks.
A divorcee’s tale
While the stigma of seeking love through the internet is no longer what it once was – it is widely regarded as socially acceptable – the older generation in particular still view it with a mixture of fascination and suspicion.
“I think I was probably a little late to the party with it all,” one divorced mother-of-three from Cheltenham tells me [asking me to refrain from printing her name].
“I was also put off trying it by the behaviour of friends, if I’m honest. One of them, a teacher, openly used online dating to find a wealthy new partner and the other two slept with practically every bloke that showed any interest in them.
“In the end they were going out every weekend, sleeping with different blokes on different nights. I’m pretty sure they weren’t that promiscuous when they were younger.
“They were acting as if it was a new lease of life, sort of giddy with the excitement of it all.”
The reality, the 47-year-old says, is that they were both out of long-term relationships and vulnerable.
“It helped boost their esteem to realise that they were still attractive as they got closer to middle age I think. They are not proud of what they did; one said she lost her self-respect and regrets being caught up in it all.
“I think online dating is fine if it’s on your terms, otherwise it’s a bit of a ruthless hook-up service. My friends were really after meaningful relationships, not just casual sex.
“It got to the point where one friend slept with a young guy who was two years older than her son. He was in his twenties, but it was enough for her to stop and think about what she was doing.”
She thinks that online dating is a “bit of a minefield” for her generation, but can understand that for twenty-somethings there is a different approach.
“I don’t think it’s a case of right or wrong, it’s just different,” she says. “It’s not one size fits all. I felt left out socially at first when my friends went through their online dating phase, but it didn’t take me long to feel relieved.
“Maybe your one true love could be your first match – it happens, I’m sure. But all I would say to other women is be careful. I think some types of people are better suited to it than others.”
Courting in a digital age
Caution and suspicion among the baby boomers and beyond is natural of course. My grandparents lived in the age of tea dance romance where, quite literally, you would be swept off your feet. It was a time of genteel formality; where words such as ‘courting’ and ‘dashing’ were used readily.
My 89-year-old grandma is still convinced that I will meet a “lovely young lady” at a party. “Have you ever considered joining an amateur dramatics society?” she asked me recently, ever hopeful that I will star in my own HMS Pinafore narrative.
I haven’t got the heart to tell her otherwise; let alone explain that my search for love is through charmless, clinical online arrangements.
The reality is not quite like that of course. Once you’re past the tick-box exercise of small talk and meet face-to-face, it all feels entirely natural.
In the midst of the occasional dating disaster, I’ve met some very cool like-minded women. I dated three for two month spells, before the excitement fizzled out like a Conservative election campaign.
On each occasion we called it a day on good terms; we didn’t feel the spark we ought to. It’s a cliché which rings particularly true when Tinder ensures an endless choice and the nagging thought that the grass could always be that little bit greener.
So here I am in the summer of 2017, still waiting to meet my Tinderella. I remain hopeful; with ears as attractive as mine, surely it’s only a matter of time.