The Data-ing Game

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It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of a certain age and a computer, must be in want of an online dating service. Or so I have been told seemingly every day of my life since man first invented the emoticon-driven booty call. And every time, I have adamantly rejected my friend or parent’s well-meant suggestion with the same proud prejudice Lizzie threw at Mr. Darcy’s initial advances. But why? I have always known in my gut that I have no interest in online dating, but when pressed for an explanation I have been unable to provide.

Could it be stubborn prejudice, driven by long-held resentment toward the two computer-science majors who lived next door to me senior year of college? They invented a matchmaking site that eventually became one of the more popular dating services, but they also refused to curb their rampant partying the night before I took my LSAT. No one knocks my score down a few percentiles and lives to be forgiven. Jeopardizing my future just to spite two people who likely have no recollection I exist is not at all beneath me, but somehow I think my reluctance is more complicated than that.

Maybe I am just old fashioned. My Luddite tendencies do run deep, so perhaps internet romance is my version of the test-tube baby or car phone. It is true that I think “we met online” falls a bit flat in terms of a romantic origin story, but I have married friends who connected on Match and JDate, and their relationships don’t seem any less special to me.

Of course, it could purely be the fear talking – the curse of a too-proud soul. But since I can’t afford the therapy for that to be true, we’re just going to have to say that it isn’t. No, my aversion to entering the internet dating pool is so strong I know there has to be a solid reason behind it. After a great deal of contemplation, I think I have finally found the answer in physics: mechanical resonance. To put it bluntly, moving the dating ritual into cyberspace results in a pairing that amplifies all of the bad aspects of dating, making them even worse.

It took me more than 25 years to figure out that dating required active involvement on my part. Which is not to say I didn’t date – I had boyfriends in high school and college, including serious relationships. But like many awkward and socially timid people, my sole criterion for a mate was, “Does he like me?” The boys I liked remained silently adored from afar unless they liked me back. (Okay, once I sent a secret admirer card to a crush, but he never guessed it was me and I didn’t reveal myself until six years later, a few weeks before high school graduation, when it was safely too late.) Until college, it was pretty much the case that if a boy liked me, had the nerve to say it, and wasn’t gross, I was his. (This trifecta was only hit a few times.)

In college I asked a guy out for the first time, but it was completely accidental. He was one of a half-dozen fellow bandies I offered a spare ticket for a play that night (a friend had bailed), but he didn’t hear me ask the other five. A few weeks later, when he asked me on our first date, he told me he hadn’t been able to stop thinking about me – in part because he had never been asked out by a girl before. He thought I was ballsy and he liked it. I pretended to know what he was talking about, and that is how I got together with my first love.

That relationship was doomed, but the experience emboldened me ask out two whole other boys over the course of college. Both times they ran screaming, but years in the theatre had already prepared me well for the rejection. Still, even with my new-found ability to say, “I like you,” my relationships remained pretty solidly one-way streets. “You like me? Well, you’re a good person who deserves to be happy; sure, I’ll be your girlfriend.”

Not until my late twenties, after two very long-term relationships with great guys I loved without being in love, did it occur to me that my wants might matter too. The first time I uttered the phrase, “I’m just not sure he’s enough for me,” it was so shocking to my friends in the room that they both hugged me. I had finally figured it out: successful coupling requires the question, “What do I want?”

Immediately after reaching this new level of enlightenment, I became painfully aware of another revelation: I am terrible at knowing what is good for me. The ancient Chinese curse “may you find what you are looking for” is no joke – my empowerment led me to choose an impressive string of narcissists, assholes, and asshole narcissists. (With a “nice guy” sprinkled in here and there – old habits die hard.) I’ll save analysis of why selfish partners are so appealing for another time, but suffice it to say, I have a type.

While my lifetime of mistakes has given me a solid understanding of what I do not want in a potential mate, I am clearly still far from able to identify what I should want. Much like the Supreme Court regarding obscenity, I am pretty sure I will never be able to define it, but will know it when I see it. The Stones remind us that you can’t always get what you want, but the problem with online dating is that a lot of the time you can. And so far, the only thing I know about what I want, is that I don’t want what it is I tend to want, but rather want what it is I need. Whatever that is.

In the real world, I only have to fight against wanting the narcissists once or twice a day. Online, there are millions of them.

Once you welcome your own desires to the party, dating goes from being a lottery to a hunt – and therein lies problem number two. When hunting in the wild, the lioness tends to catch the weakest in the herd. (Especially if she is not a very good hunter, which I think at this point has been pretty well established.) In life, my poor hunting is mitigated by the physical size of the herd and the relatively small number of available runts. Online, the runts shall inherit the cloud.

To be safe, it is best not to hunt at all, really. I don’t mean be a hermit, but it is one thing to live life open to whatever possibilities or chance encounters come along, and something entirely different to be actively pursuing a mate. Since most of the time we can get what we go after, proactive behavior toward coupling can be dangerous. You want a specific career? Go after it; you’ll probably get it, which is great. You want a relationship? Go after it and you’ll probably get one of those too – but a relationship is not the same thing as love.

This is why I don’t go hang out at bars, or do singles mixers, or any other activity where the sole purpose is to couple up. Online dating is basically going to the biggest bar in the world.

Finally, there is the issue of the date itself. I recently heard a producer on a film set marvel at how poorly an actress was doing after she had been so great in the audition. This producer wondered how that could be the case, and I thought, “Because the audition is a date, whereas the performance is a relationship.” In both cases, the two skills are entirely different. Many Oscar winners will tell you they are horrible at auditions, just like some people are great at dating but never seem to have anything last.

Back when I was an actor, I was always more comfortable in performance than on auditions, and it probably speaks to where my strengths are. Both performing and relationships require you to be comfortable in a natural, emotionally honest state for a long time, while both auditioning and dating require you to be able to put on a show. PT Barnum I am not, and my date self is nowhere close to the greatest show on Earth.

For me, then, dating is an unnatural, uncomfortable experience. Not only am I self-conscious of and lacking confidence in my own performance, but I am also acutely aware that the other person is doing his best one-man circus as well. Neither of us is getting to know the other in any real sense, and I find the lack of honesty both depressing and a bit scary. Online, the lying only gets easier – and more creative.

Ideally, I prefer getting to know a potential mate in a more natural setting, like at a party or on a job or through mutual friends. But if blind or “cold” dates must occur – as they inevitably must – it is much better if the initial interactions happen face-to-face, rather than through online profiles, façade-to-façade.

So, there you have it friends, not-so-friends, and concerned family. Now you know why I don’t want to date online. My compass points Asshole, I can’t audition worth a damn, and I have no interest in subsisting on a diet of sickly wildebeest. But if you promise to stop insisting I give the internet a try, I promise you can engrave that last sentence on my tombstone after I die alone.

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