In the latest instalment of her column about her adventures in online dating, Alie Benge makes a real connection – and wonders why she can’t shake the need for romantic love.
A friend told me I seem happy again. “It’s nice to have happy Alie back,” he said. “It’s been a while.” It made me think of a few weeks earlier when a different friend had said, “I can’t get on your level anymore. Your energy is too frantic.”
I am happy. My dating life has changed. It now looks like brunch on weekend mornings with Tall Liam; dragging him into bookshops; drinking whisky and watching boomer movies. I’m writing this from a cute cottage in Greytown because we’ve run away for the weekend. I finally get good morning texts and bi-weekly dates. That’s all I wanted.
But a month before we met, I’d rage quit. My positivity and universal love for all mankind ran clean out. I’d wondered if men ever actually fall in love. I kept forming strong attachments to people who couldn’t muster enough enthusiasm to reply to a text the same day. There’s something about the reward system of getting a reply from a bad texter. When you’ve been waiting two days and your phone lights up, and you get that shot of serotonin, and you know you had to debase yourself to get this attention. This text was worth your pride. I’d had enough.
Quitting meant sitting with my loneliness, which was a small dark thing, nipping at my ankles, saying “At some point, you’re going to have to look at me.” Lockdown had come up on every date I’d been on because it was a common experience and a good conversation starter. Of course, I just said it had sucked so badly that it altered my whole personality and the things I want from life. I didn’t mention watching the sun go down, feeling my heart race because of how long this night would be, or how there’d been nothing to distract me from my anxiety, and I couldn’t read, or write, or paint, or care about anything except the 1pm briefing. Or how even on the good days I’d felt that there was a blade pointed at my heart. Lockdown didn’t end when it ended. Not for everyone. It felt weird to be on dates posturing myself as some kind of chill girl who just decided to start doing this again, rather than someone who was using them to alleviate my anxiety, to stall going home, to work out my lockdown trauma. I’m so grateful we have the freedoms we do, and I’d do it again to keep those freedoms, but lockdown really fucked me up.
I wanted to find my way back to whatever I’d loved so much about being single. And I really had loved it. Before lockdown, I’d been so content with my own company. I’d also realised that when you date through apps, you’re dating a lifestyle. I wasn’t just weighing up whether I was interested in the date himself, but whether I wanted what he wanted: a Canadian hops farm, 2.5 kids and a Jennian home, or whatever is in Denmark. I was looking for someone to get me out of New Zealand. It’s so small here, and lockdown made me feel forgotten at the bottom of the world, disconnected from the rest of humanity. I missed the option of other countries, even though, on my income, they were never really an option. Instead of attaching myself to someone else’s life plan, I needed to decide my own. So I deleted Bumble and stayed up till 1am for a PhD info session in Edinburgh. Having a plan gave me hope. Maybe if I was in a country with closer proximity to the rest of the world, and a higher population, I wouldn’t feel so disconnected. I just wanted someone to know I was here. I was worried I’d be forgotten.
But then I’d find myself on the train home, wondering who’d jumped on Bumble while I’d been away. I was getting targeted advertising for Hinge and wanted to see what the deal was. I missed the thrill of the new, and the possibility of connection. And my thumbs missed swiping; they literally missed the movement of left and right on possible future lives. I managed to stay off the apps for a few weeks, but then told myself I was doing it for my thumbs. Hinge was so much better than Bumble. The pool was smaller but filled with more people I was interested in. The format facilitates better conversations, and I didn’t see a single fish photo. I ended up going on three dates in three days, for no other purpose than to connect with someone; to hear about their life. I wasn’t looking for a relationship this time. I was looking to fill the white space. I was still determined that no one would ruin my Edinburgh plan. But then I started talking to Tall Liam, and he was so funny, and even before we met in real life, I felt the loneliness shuffling off me.
The thing is, I was never really alone. I have friends, and a close family that I could spend all waking hours messaging. But that didn’t alleviate my loneliness. What is this need in us that other strong relationships can’t touch? Why do we make ourselves crazy over people we’re interested in, but not over other relationships? It could be the affirmation of having someone pick you as their person, or to be desired, or to have someone who has to hang out with you. At the same time, I know how lonely and isolating the wrong relationship can be. There’s something about attaching myself to someone, and partnering with him, meeting his family, working towards the same goals, that makes me feel like finally, someone will know I was here.
Read the whole series here.