Rebuilding one's self through online dating

When I was in my early 30s, my husband of four years and partner of nine, left abruptly in the middle of the night.

In the surreal weeks and months that followed, I grew increasingly apprehensive about the idea of online dating. I had not been single in nearly a decade; I did not even have Facebook, let alone a stockpile of profile pictures or an irrepressible texting game.

But I was also a writer who worked from home, one whose closest friends were married with children. Meeting someone "IRL" (in real life) seemed unlikely at best. And so it was that, some four months into singledom, I gathered the courage to join OkCupid and head to a wine bar with Pete, a musician-turned-accountant whom I chose for his spectacularly anodyne profile.

Now, over three years and seven dating apps later, I've gone out with 86 men and counting; I know because I keep a list that reads like free verse. I haven't met anyone I've liked enough, or who liked me enough, to cancel my accounts.

But I am nevertheless here to offer a defence of online dating, not necessarily as a tool for finding a partner, but rather, as a means of rebuilding one's self in the wake of separation.

Yes, online dating can be deeply demoralising, a parade of indignities that throws into relief not just our self-absorption and banality, but our nihilism too.

Worse still are the car selfies and nephew pics; the weird proliferation of taco and pizza emojis; the men who take it upon themselves to tell you who you are - "a girl who takes care of herself" - naturally, which always reads to me like a thinly-veiled threat. And above all, the ghosting.

You'd think that I'd be used to it by now, for I've been ghosted again and again. Perhaps I take these vanishings especially to heart, recalling to me as they do the unsolved mystery of my ex-husband's disappearance.

But what I've gained from online dating far exceeds what I have lost. That spectral ex-spouse of mine used to complain of what he called our "heteronormative" lifestyle, a term that made me roll my eyes though I knew just what he meant: Our lives had lost their capacity to surprise.

I remember reading the memoirs of French writer Blaise Cendrars; I could not stop marvelling at the boundlessness of that man's existence, one that made him a film director, beekeeper and watchmaker.

How narrow was my own existence, I thought then, and how it continued to narrow by the day.

But to go on dates with 86 different men is to gain as many windows on the world; it is to see one's vast city and one's vast self, if only for a few hours, through the eyes of a stranger one would never otherwise have met.

Thanks to Hinge and Bumble, I have dated German poets and Indian bankers, Australian contractors and Brazilian waiters. I have met United Nations diplomats and my favourite movie star's ex-husband. I have spent a summer dog-sitting in Los Angeles and flown to Jamaica for a third date.

And as for those ghosters, they have their purpose too. For it wasn't long after reading Cendrars in bed beside my sleeping spouse that I began to realise that I was slowly losing track of who I was and who I wasn't, of what I believed and what I didn't.

The conventional wisdom is that marriage makes us whole, that it completes us (as if alone we were unfinished). But as much as I loved being married, I see now that dilution might provide a better metaphor.

I think of old organic processes, of oceans tempered by rain, of mountains rent by wind and snow, when I think of my creeping disorientation as a wife, of how the self in wedlock can be worn away.

Perhaps that is why, when I first went online, I was so susceptible to fantasy. In a matter of minutes, I would map out a new life for myself, one that fit the mould of whatever man I was messaging.

Luke and I would chop firewood and breed St Bernard puppies!

Juan and I would move to Uruguay and raise his teenage daughters!

But I soon noticed that the flipside to the disappointment of each mismatch or aborted romance was a mounting sense of strength and self-sufficiency, a hardening of character, a greater understanding of the woman I am when I'm intact.

There's little like ghosting to delineate where we as human beings begin and end; and little like ghosting, too, to lay bare our own infinite reserves.


• Katharine Smyth is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 25, 2019, with the headline Rebuilding one's self through online dating. Subscribe