Molly Birnbaum: In the last five months I’ve looked at hundreds of profiles, read scores of messages, and gone on more than a dozen first dates. Everything I’d heard would be painful has been. But for all that I’m learning about myself -- it’s worth it. (KennethMoyle/flickr)

I sat at my kitchen table with a laptop, a bottle of wine, and my friend Mary late on a Saturday night in June. Staring at my blank computer screen, I could feel those familiar strands of anxiety knotted at the base of my throat, relaxing only when Mary poured me some wine. “Let’s do this,” she said. I nodded, took a deep breath, and began to type that dreaded procession of letters:

o k c u p i d . c o m

There I was: Four months out of a five-year relationship and almost 30 years old, wary but hopeful, unsure of how to proceed. The last time I dated I was barely out of college, overly positive, and certainly naive. I had met my ex in graduate school — that pre-selected community of like-minded folks. I had never dated in the “real world,” as an adult with an office and a career and a commute. I had never dated when I had a solid idea of who I was and what I wanted — or didn’t want — in a partner. A lot had changed.

I always assumed that online dating carried a stigma — the stigma of being alone, a collection of unwanteds sifting through each other’s lives on the web, like picking out a cut of meat at the butcher shop. But everyone did it…

After my breakup, advice for finding someone new came pouring in. Take a class! (Too much work.) Hire a matchmaker! (Too much money.) Go drink at bars! (Been there, done that.) But it always circled back to the Internet. The names of online dating sites peppered my conversations. My ears hummed with the okcupids, the match dot coms, the e-harmonies, the (dear lord) J-dates.

I had always assumed that online dating carried a stigma — the stigma of being alone, a collection of unwanteds sifting through each other’s lives on the web, like picking out a cut of meat at the butcher shop. But everyone did it, apparently. Mary did it. My single friends at work did it. Even my mom had done it. I knew I wasn’t ready for another relationship, still surrounded as I was by the emotional wreckage of my last. But I wanted to move on. On-line.

I didn’t think it would be hard to write my profile. I’m a writer, after all. But sitting in front of that empty profile page, trying to figure out how to break myself down into digestible — yet attractive! — parts was daunting.

I’ve always considered myself an independent woman. But it was suddenly undeniable: Over the course of my last relationship, one that had spanned a solid chunk of my 20s, my identity had become tied with that of my ex’s. And when I tried to remember who I was when I was by myself, alone, just me — I froze.

What am I good at? What do I spend a lot of time thinking about? Mercifully, Mary took control of the keyboard herself.

“I’m good at talking, not talking, listening, taking care of myself, laughing,” she typed. “I think about stories — what story I want to tell, and how I want to tell it.”

Together, we picked some headshots that didn’t make me want to gouge out my eyes. One click and I was done.

Meeting in person only ups the ante. New, more complex narratives unearth themselves from beneath a couple of beers. The goal? To figure out if our stories could ever intertwine.

Based on everything I’d heard, I figured online dating would be painful. Sales-pitch profiles (I work hard and play hard). Grainy photos of half-naked torsos shot in a bathroom mirror (Does anyone actually believe those’ll work?). Bad food. Weak beer. Awkward dates aplenty.

All of this? Totally true.

In the last five months I’ve looked at hundreds of profiles, read scores of messages, and gone on more than a dozen first dates. Everything I’d heard would be painful has happened –- in some cases, more than once.

But what I’ve learned about online dating is this: I love it.

I love online dating not for the men I’ve met or even the hope that this is a method that will work — but for what I’ve learned about myself.

It all comes down to stories. The stories we tell ourselves and the stories we tell others. Every online dating profile I read is a narrative — a new one, a different one, out of context from reality. It’s written in the first person, an intimate — if calculated — snapshot of a soul. Every profile I read forces me to compare and contrast — his story to mine, my narrative to his.

Did You Know?
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Meeting in person only ups the ante. There, sitting side by side at some bar in Boston or Cambridge, our stories are more raw, more real, without any filters or Marys nudging me along. New, more complex narratives unearth themselves from beneath a couple of beers. The goal? To figure out if our stories could ever intertwine.

I have been on dates with writers and editors, lawyers and graphic designers, medical residents and more. There was the perpetual grad student who was born in Boston, has never left, and reminded me why I’m proud of my own semi-nomadic past, even if I’m ready for it to end. There was the car salesman who drank too many martinis and was no match for me in any way — except in the way he loved his family. There was the chaplain whose boisterous passion for his work helped to remind me of my own, and the online poker player who read fiction so thoughtfully I found myself returning to novels read long ago, reacquainted with the notion that interpretations are liable to shift. I briefly dated a young philosophy professor whose views on the psychology of Hamlet told me everything I needed to know: no, thanks.

Each date forces me to look at who I am, to recalibrate an eighth of an inch, to reassess myself in tiny, almost imperceptible ways. So for that, I’m grateful to all of these men. Not because they save me from being lonely, or make all my dreams come true, but because they have helped me to redefine one of the most important relationships — the one I have with myself. Even if I don’t know the whole story yet, I know I can tell my own.

And so I’m here, starting to do just that.


Tags: Relationships

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  • AMF

    Molly: All I can say is thank you. Thank you for sharing the validation I sometimes (and many of my friends) sometimes need for dating – validation that it’s actually okay that to enjoy dating and learning about yourself. It’s not all fun (a lot of it isn’t), sometimes the failed dates and untied ends make me more lonely, but it never, never leaves me the same way as when I came. I’ve realized as I’ve hit my late twenties and am looking (optimistically) for a partner, that suddenly, the continuum on which I compare myself to friends and other women includes the big ?s: who’s getting married and who’s on their way. Everyone else is off track – at least this seems to be the glaring message. But this can change as more women embrace dating out of college and not with a bitter-I-hate-men-attitude, but with the attitude that a big part of the experience is finding who you are and thus, who you work best with. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the tinges of pity in the reactions to me or my friends’ online dating journeys – yet, its the opposite of pity-party when you realize the courage it takes to put yourself out there, stretch your ability to stay true to who you are and not do it drunk at a bar (I agree, been there done that). Anyways, your enlightenment rings true for me as well, but I want to say thank you for even just writing about online dating in a way that portrays it honestly – which we can’t say the same for some people’s profiles :) Happy dating -and have fun!

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  • midtempo

    Thank you for your honest assessment of dating. I am a 34-year-old man who has been happily dating a woman for four months who I also met through (She, incidentally, only started dating online “as a joke,” her words, and was not looking seriously date, never mind fall in love.) I have the dubious distinction of having all four of my relationships in the past ten years coming from those I met through online dating sites, and several of them went on for years (4 years, 2 years, one year). I am also aware it’s quite likely you are reading this comment.

    So when I remark that I think you are doing something wrong if you have gone on twelve dates and seen none of these twelve men more than once, I am not saying it lightly. I can only guess what you are doing wrong — my cynical, male side says that you are probably being too picky and not giving a few of these guys a second chance, and perhaps you ought to have. Or maybe you just aren’t searching for the right sorts of men for you — although they all sound, by and large, interesting, smart, and professional. Or perhaps you are limiting yourself to men who are intellectual hot-shots and maybe you should try some more ordinary men? You say you have a good idea what you want now that you are an adult who is dating in the Real World, but honestly, you probably don’t have as good an idea as you think you do.

    I don’t know, I’m just throwing stuff out there and talking out of my a__ really. But, all in all, you are new to this and are bound to make mistakes along the way. And you are trying something new and laying yourself on the line, and being quite honest in this piece and even using your real name, and I congratulate you for your boldness. The search for love is as rewarding as it is frustrating. I truly wish you discover more about yourself, have some fun, and I wish you luck in this journey!

    • midtempo

      As a side note about, I have some specific advice: Compare the answers between a profile’s match questions to your own answers whenever you see a profile that interests you. This is “The Two of Us” section of a profile. How he answers those questions is quite revealing and useful. Those answers are often more revealing than whatever he states in his profile. A written profile is merely what he thinks you want to hear, although you are a writer after all and I guess I’m more of a mathematical, logical sort of person.

      • David Holzman

        I didn’t see anything suggesting she hadn’t gone out on more than one date with anyone. But if that is in fact the case, it’s possible she’s not doing a good job of screening yet. I’m a middle aged guy, and I found I needed to really like feel of the profile–not just to feel that the details were compatible.

        Like you, a strongly agree that elaborations on the answers to “the two of us” questions are often quite revealing. I don’t bother with OKC’s “sorted by magic” category. I go straight to “I care about.” And then “sex.” Yes, it takes time, but if you’re really looking for a life partner, it pays. I’ve been totally charmed by elaborations on the questions, sometimes when I got little of value from the profile, and I’ve found showstoppers there.

  • CupidsLibrary

    Thank you so much for sharing. I’ve never heard this side of dating before and I’ve been in this industry for quite some time. It’s great to see how honest people can truly be and look over all the sexual aspects of online dating. So much negative things have been unfolding and its painting a bad picture for online daters and putting a bad taste in online dating. I hope people read this article and think twice about why they really want to go online.

  • Marie

    Thank you for putting into words the very reasons I loved dating so much. I thought maybe something was wrong with me, but you helped me to see that I love learning about new people, about what makes them tick, about their light within, about the best in themselves, about their STORIES. And, in the process, the learning about myself. Great way to start my day!

  • Nicholas Eden-Walker

    Thank you for your open reflection and sharing. We tend to self-identify so much from how we are related to others. When we tend towards one or two specific relationships (i.e. parent, partner, friend etc), we find ourselves somewhat limited in who we feel we are. Sounds like you are appreciating the opportunity to widen your horizon on who you are. Wishing you continued openness with yourself and others :)

  • David Holzman

    Very interesting account. But I’d love to know more about what happened here:
    >>>I briefly dated a young philosophy professor whose views on the psychology of Hamlet told me everything I needed to know: no, thanks.

    That could be a VERY interesting story.


    Yes, I think so. It helps us to know ourselves well

  • VLH

    I enjoyed your article. Thank you for sharing your experience. I’m a male, mid-40s, When I wanted to start dating again after separating last year (I’m not sure I wanted to “date,” but I certainly wanted to have sex), I chose OKcupid. Yes, the profile was a bit intimidating to write, but once I was up and running, scores of women approached me. It was very empowering and flattering and overwhelming.

    Some wanted relationships, some wanted conversation, some just wanted sex. In the last year, I dated 15 women and that includes a seven month span where I dated one woman exclusively and a two month span where I had to step away and reassess what I wanted. Yes, that means most of that dating was over a 90 day period. Almost half of those dates became sexual encounters, some right away and some by the second or third date. Some for a night, and some for longer.

    And, like you, the most interesting person I met was… me. I realized that I no longer wanted sex without intimacy and I stepped back and wrote at the top of my profile that now was not the time to meet me, that online dating had left me oversexed, heartbroken, and in need of introspection.

    And still someone reached out to me. Her words were lovely and challenging and hyper-intelligent. She asked to meet me and I don’t know why I felt compelled to accept her invitation to coffee. It became a lunch date and a walk on the beach, her hand in mine. Yes, that old cliche. Only I had never taken that walk before and it wasn’t a cliche for me. Our first kiss was standing in wet sand, the cold surf swirling about our ankles. That was a few weeks ago. That was forever ago. That was a million words ago, a hundred kisses ago, and countless smiles ago. I don’t know the exact moment that I realized I love her, but looking back, I can’t find a moment when I didn’t.

    A few days ago, I deleted my OKcupid profile. Not because she asked me to. She didn’t. I deleted it because OKcupid works. It served its purpose; it brought her into my life. I never would have met her in a bar or a club or anywhere else but online.

    I’ve often wondered about the experiences others have had with online dating. I thank you for opening this conversation with your entertaining and thoughtful article.

    • RMS

      Thank you for sharing your story. I am very weary of online dateing now it gives me hope that there can be happy endings too.

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  • Amanda

    Err, I’m surprised to see this here on WBUR’s website. I worked at the Phoenix Personals in the mid-’90s and there is nothing in this article that hadn’t already been said a hundred times back then. And more. I mean, this is really not going very deep. Is there anything at all surprising or enlightening here? If you’re going to cover this subject, can’t you reach a little deeper… either into yourself, or into the experience of others? Some of the comments are quite a lot more candid. I expect more from WBUR.

  • vargaj

    Molly: Thanks for such an insightful article. Yes indeed I met myself on eHarmony and other online sights. 67, male, unattached. married twice divorced twice. moved in and out twice more. And now I’m just beginning to figure out just exactly what i want in a relationship. Each date teaches me a lesson i never learned from my detached mother so long ago. It’s coming back though.