Dating has always been an odd experience. There are rules, but nobody knows them. There are special codes, but nobody has a cipher. Yet, somehow, unless you're in your 20s, things are weirder than they have ever been.
I've always felt dating was a weird experience in general, but somehow, coming back to it in the last few years feels different. I was married for several years in my late 20s, so I missed out on the earlier days of online dating sites. It was also a much more carefree time, when if you liked someone, that was enough. But now that I'm in my 30s, the rules and expectations are completely different — making it a lot harder to get back in the game.
It's Hard To Deal With All The Online Dating Options
Right now, you have billions of other human beings at your fingertips through a variety of channels. As always, you can hit up bars, clubs, and shows. You can venture off to parties and barbecues. You can also go online and have access to loads of single people in your area. It's a far cry from even high school, when your dating pool was pretty much your friends and their friends.
Online dating gives you more options than ever. Not just in people, but in sources. Dating sites OkCupid, Tinder, Match, eHarmony, RSVP and Plenty of Fish all give you access to other single people in a matter of seconds (I'm too old for Tinder though). From there, you can sort through humans with enough filters to make Amazon jealous, then randomly spit out a message to them that ends up coming across the exact same as the "do you like me?" notes you passed in high school.
These unlimited options are great at first, but just like any decision, the sheer amount of choice ends up weighing on you. You nit pick. You wonder if their affection for Vampire Weekend would end up getting annoying. You question their odd use of Billy Madison quotes. You're paralysed by both an abundance of choice and a fear that something better is out there because "good enough" isn't good enough. In the past, I met people through a larger community and that was enough. Now that the community is even bigger, it's hard to make choices about who to even talk to, let alone see in person.
Plus, with online dating, everyone's so preoccupied with how good you are "on paper", which means very little. An algorithm can predict whether you'll get along well enough to hold a conversation, but it can't predict whether you'll like each other, so people get frustrated. Those match percentages and pre-date emails create an expectation that's often impossible to live up to. That algorithm ensures you won't want to slit each other's throats (usually), but you can't guarantee that shared political beliefs or a preference about your favourite cereal will create a spark.
I found online dating hard to keep up with in general. I was disappointed when a well-placed pun fell on deaf ears and generally annoyed by the flakiness of people online. I had a handful of great dates and met some nice people, but I wasted too much of my day to get there. It's basically a full-time job, so make sure you're invested in the whole idea, and don't overdo it. Delete the apps from your phone, deactivate your account now and again, and give the whole thing a break if it's not clicking for you. I met plenty of great people and found some cool bars, but it was an empty experience.
The Deal Breakers Have Changed
When you're in your 20s, deal breakers tend to be pretty superficial. It might boil down to what music they like, a dumb haircut, or a subtly annoying nervous tick. If you're smart, you learn to ignore these things and be more open-minded.
Once you hit your 30s, these things change. Some deal breakers are just as superficial, but people have added much heavier ones, too. In my experience, first or second date conversations already started hitting into the hard questions of children, career, home ownership and marriage. The older you get, the less time you have, and the less time you feel like wasting on someone who doesn't have the same goals as you. Still, I was pretty surprised at how quickly these conversations came about. It's not good or bad, but if you haven't come to conclusions about these types of things, do it before you venture out into the dating scene.
Of course, the superficial deal breakers are still there, hiding the deeper ones beneath the surface. I polled random people over the last few weeks, and found pretty low expectations in general. Several people of both genders mentioned deal breakers like, "they can't be a slob", "they need a fulfilling career or at least a hobby they enjoy" or "they can't live in a house with more than one other roommate."
But the most surprising deal breaker? The one that nearly every person I talked with mentioned? "Must have a bed frame." It turns out we're still not asking that much of our potential partners...until the second date, when the conversation almost always turned to kids and marriage.
The "Game" Is Different, And Bluntness Is King
Want to stop seeing someone? Want to ask someone out? Just say it (without being a creep, of course). When you're in your 20s, it's all about the game, but the game changes the second you hit 30. Nobody wants to waste time beating around the bush, so if you want to ask someone out, just do it. If you want to stop seeing someone, tell them right away.
Likewise, the old "three day" or "five day" or whatever-day rule of asking someone out again is out the window at this age. If you enjoy someone's company, ask them out again whenever you want. Chances are, the two of you will split hairs over scheduling conflicts for a while before you settle on a date anyway.
For that same reason, things seem to move a lot faster after your 20s. Gone are the days of months and months before that dreaded exclusivity conversation pops up. In my experience, it happens a lot sooner if you're seeing someone frequently, so if you're not prepared for it, back away early.
So What Do You Do?
Dating is weird no matter how (or when) you approach it. But if you're coming back to it in after some time off, I have a few suggestions based on my experiences:
- Figure out what you want if you don't already know. Don't want kids? Make that known. Don't want to stay in the city you're in and buy a house? Put those cards on the table early.
- Online dating can be awesome, but if you're going to take that approach, keep with the same standards you'd use in real life. Match took the time to come up with a set of suggestions for dealing with the abundance of choice. They suggest being a little pickier during the screening process, following your intuition, and making a list of the attributes that matter to you. With a site like OkCupid that uses quizzes to create matches, only answer the questions that matter to you and skip the junk that doesn't. Just don't be too picky, or you'll have the opposite problem of ignoring someone because of some superficial deal breaker you saw on their profile.
- If you're dating online, get your profile up to snuff. Search Google right now, and you'll see thousands of articles about creating the perfect online dating profile. Everyone has an opinion. Wired has even crunched the numbers. The results? Show, don't tell. Be succinct. Don't mention exes. Be a funny. But not too funny. Mention the right activities. You can use statistics to enhance your prospects, maths to pick the best profile picture, and more maths to choose your other photos. Reddit's /r/okcupid (or whatever site you're using) offers up profile critiques to cut through the crap. But it's still a delicate balance of presenting yourself honestly, modestly, and still proudly.
- You can craft the perfect profile, but that's only going to get your foot in the door. Assuming my experience is the norm, whether you meet first in person or online, people will Google you, and they will find everything that's online. Make sure your online presence is in order. If the last time you dated was before the social media revolution, this is going to be a new concept.
- If online dating isn't for you, the same old tricks work. Head to places with like-minded people, hang out with friends, and talk to everyone you meet. For whatever reason, as I've settled into the comfortable headspace of my 30s, I'm much more keen to talk to whoever's sitting next to me at a bar, someone on the bike path, or wherever else. Meeting friends after university is tough. You never know when you'll meet a new friend, so it's always worth keeping your eyes open. Sure, you're probably not hitting the club every night, but I'm sure you have some niche activity where you're seeing like-minded people all the time. If not, find one. The nice thing about meeting people in real life is that you're typically friends first, so you've already got plenty to talk about. One piece of advice though: go fishing for that date of birth when you can. There's something about that 22-35 age range that's hard to pin down someone's age sometimes. If age doesn't matter, then don't worry about it, but I've had more than a few face-palming moments when I figured out someone was 10 years my junior.
- Once you do get those drinks, make sure you remember how to small talk and don't waste time on boring questions about their job unless they have an interesting one. Similarly, it seemed like in my 20s, 95% of conversations revolved around pop culture, nowadays, that still hovers around 50%, but there's so much more to talk about. Sure, what you like matters, but there's an added layer of complexity to that in your 30s (hopefully). Honestly, it doesn't totally even matter at first, that first drink is really just about testing for any connection — just talk — please, please, please, talk. There's nothing worse two people staring at a clock in a bar.
- Don't be afraid to walk away. If something's not working even though it seems like it should be, don't keep trying. You're not in your 20s anymore, and you're both probably busy — so this just ends up wasting everyone's time. Likewise, if things are working, let them keep working and don't overthink things too much.
None of this stuff is good or bad, but it is awfully different from what I remember the last time I went through the whole dating thing. Whether you're returning to the dating game after being sidelined for a while or you're just rolling along solo into middle age, prepare yourself for some confusing times. There's certainly an adjustment period, so don't be surprised if you fall flat on your face a few times before you get the hang of things.