On Casualties (or: how casual dating causes casual harm)

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Internet dating makes monsters of us all.

I’ve written/lamented/pouted/railed before about the perfidy of the person you have a date or two with, get excited about, reveal things to, harbor rare optimism for—who suddenly vanishes as if he never existed. I’ve sat across the table from a man expounding on the crass amorality of the practice of fading: of being super-enthusiastic, super-involved during the date, of texting flirtatiously over a span of several days, of insisting on a burning desire to meet again soon, maybe even agreeing to a specific time, place, and activity—and then being increasingly elusive and vague until a complete disappearance has been definitively effected (somehow the passive voice seems essential for this definition). I’ve had a man look me squarely in the eyes and say, “P2, we’re dating—nothing serious, but we’re dating”—never to hear a peep from him afterwards. I’ve had my hopes raised and dashed, my bubble inflated and burst, many, many times and I can conclude that fading is a mean and selfish practice that hurts people whose only faulty is to not meet some set of criteria they can’t know or do anything about. Fading is, simply, an awful thing to do to someone else.

And I think I’ve kind of done it.

So the Algorithm gives me a profile: a man who seems smart, witty, eloquent. He lives nearby. He likes dogs. I rate him highly, he rates me highly, destiny is written in the stars (because that’s what the Algorithm uses as a rating system)—and we start to correspond. I enjoy bantering with him in our messages—he’s quick and can write engagingly and expressively, while using correct grammar and punctuation, which skills are so depressingly uncommon that encountering someone who has them is an immediate attraction. I’m trying to be more protective of my time and feelings this time around, but this guy is definitely worth risking a date for. We agree to meet for lunch.

And when I see him in person, (powers-that-be, forgive me) I quail a little. He doesn’t really look like his photos (do any of us?), but more importantly, I just know right away that I’m not attracted to him. And another time I’ll write the essay where I fret at length over whether I’m shallow, and over whether I myself possess the aesthetic properties to deserve certain reciprocal properties, and to authorize rejecting others. But for now: I’ve done this often enough to have learned that chemistry is a real thing, and, rightly or wrongly, you can’t control whether you’re attracted to someone or not. And in this case, I’m not. Nevertheless, I still decide that my response is unworthy, and resolve to give this man a chance (such vanity!). It’s just a couple of slices of pizza after all; what harm can come of that?

I find him delightful. In person he’s even more witty and smart than in his messages. We roam all over, from literature, to tv, to humor. It feels very good to have an intelligent, rapid-fire conversation where we also laugh. Do you know how rare it is to find someone who’s actually really amusing? Who can get past your self-consciousness with some clever turn of phrase or repost that makes you guffaw? I have fun.

Then at a certain point, he delivers a line and I miss it—I simply didn’t hear him because of the hubbub in the restaurant, but he thinks he’s lost me for a minute, and starts to apologize for being too abstruse, too free-associative. People say that he can be a little intense, he says. They find his flow of ideas and thoughts a little much. But they have no idea, he says, what it’s like in here (he gestures to his head). I reply, I’m the same! I have to tell people that all the time too! It’s all the ceaseless thinking and thinking. And we exclaim at the same time, “I can never turn it off!”

I should find this a moment of perfect romantic synchrony, where I think, “I’ve met my soulmate, someone who can truly understand me”—because we’ve just confessed to sharing this quality of having our thoughts roar through our minds, torrent like, all the damn time. Here’s a man who confesses that, like me, he over-thinks; and has a therapist; and has anxiety that sometimes gets so overwhelming he can’t stop thinking but also can’t think straight. Like me, he’s a little obsessive-compulsive. He occasionally suffers from crippling depression, which is unlike me, but which is something I fear could one day overtake me, and which is thus one of the many things which fuels my anxiety. We have a lot in common.

All of these confessions emerge throughout a 3-hour lunch—he reveals things about himself consciously, self-deprecatingly, honestly while also continuing to be engaging and entertaining. By the time we part ways (and yes, he bought me lunch), I feel like I’ve come to know him, and like him. When he suggests we get together again soon, I say yes, and really mean it. But as I walk away, I know that I can’t go on another date with him.

Never mind my shallow pre-judgment of him—I’ve seen enough in 3 hours to feel instant, genuine affection for him. But he’s also told me a lot about himself and what is—by his own admission—a very tortured psyche. One of the things that makes me feel so comfortable with him is that I really get the tortured business, because I’ve brushed up against it from time to time myself—and seeing it in him makes me want to run, fast, in the other direction. I’m not trying to make a case for the whole opposites-attract myth; but there’s something to be said for not getting involved with someone who reflects things back to you that you already have in uncomfortable abundance. It’s one thing to have a shared interest in salsa dancing and the novels of Alexander McCall Smith; it’s quite another to have overlapping symptoms from a DSM-5 checklist. No, I can’t get involved with someone who resembles me that way.

But he’s so nice, I think, and so funny! Surely we could just be friends…?

So he emails me, and I reply, and we write back and forth over the next week or so. I told him (the truth) that I’d be out of town for the next week, so I have all kinds of reasons (don’t I?) for not bringing up the subject of meeting again right away. And if I don’t email every day, that makes sense (doesn’t it?), because of the travel, and being in a foreign country without reliable wifi access, and needing to spend time with family and friends. I have the nagging sense that my emails should be more detailed and chatty. I keep thinking I should be responding more often. I see his most recent message in my inbox and remember that I told him I wanted to see him again and know that I should reply.

And I don’t.

I could say that I can’t, but in studying people’s behavior in professional and personal settings, I’ve learned that sometimes people can’t do things, sometimes they won’t—but the effect on other people is that they just don’t. There is something to be done, that needs doing, that a person ought to do, that others want, need, or require her to do; but for whatever reason, with whatever justification, with whatever level of consciousness—a person doesn’t do it.

And then time passes and it starts to get awkward—if I suddenly reply now, I might need to actually offer explanations, or say what I really think and feel. I’d need to provide some level of honesty, and it might hurt his feelings (more than I’ve hurt his feelings by saying one thing and doing another?). If I reply, he might say something to me—some reproach, perhaps, that would call me out for being thoughtless and selfless, and that would make me feel badly…

So I continue to do nothing.

I’ve faded.

Did you notice how earlier I mentioned it was worth meeting this man? That’s what happens in modern dating—you have a chance to spend time with other human beings, to have time spent on you, and because these people don’t yet have a place anywhere in your life—importantly, they’re not part of anything to do with you, not part of your community—you feel excused from treating them the way you would treat people you care about. Importantly, you feel excused from treating them the way you might like to be treated yourself. Instead, you make calculations about the value of your time, and your own worth, weighed against the potential worth of a relative stranger, or even the very palpable worth of someone you kind of get to know—and you make decisions to save both you and them (on their behalf, unasked) time and effort. Value, worth, saving, spending (“…late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers…”) —I know with certainty that I’ve been badly hurt when others have treated me as something that can be ordered, tried out, and returned or exchanged when I’ve been found deficient in some way. I hate the way modern dating allows, even encourages, people to treat one another as disposable, as forgettable.

And now that’s exactly what I’ve done too. 

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2 Responses to On Casualties (or: how casual dating causes casual harm)

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