Removing the dating app from my phone wasn’t exactly unusual. As long-term dating app users know, it’s a love-hate relationship. For every promising match, raunchy fling and interesting encounter, there’s a flip side: The ghosting, the hours lost to swiping and the kicking yourself for mistaking a week of messaging for a connection when you know that’s not how it works. Taking a breather is part of the process. After a few days or weeks, you dive back in – which is what I’d been doing for years.
As my peers settled into married life and parenthood, in my mid 30s, I was riding a second wave of singledom. After almost making it down the aisle (my fiance called it off, which was a blessing in disguise in hindsight), I discovered that ticking those conventional boxes wasn’t the only path to happiness. Being single wasn’t the tragic failure society is fixated upon – in fact, it can be awesome – and, as it turned out, I was happier dating women.
This wasn’t a case of cracking a code and suddenly finding everlasting love. The search was well and truly on and I was having fun.
Cocktails with a hot stranger on a Monday – why not? Spontaneous after-dinner dash to find an open bar – sign me up. Keep it casual was fine by me. If a fling was on the cards, I was all in and not worried if it didn’t go anywhere.
I wanted to find love eventually, but I wasn’t going to pin all my hopes and happiness on it, and I was fiercely positive about being single. Why do we have to be in such a rush, and why does it have to be about long-term monogamy? I’m not saying I don’t believe in enduring love, it’s just that I also believe there’s more to life, and more than one way to be happy.
Luckily for me, I was ‘good’ at break-ups. With a colourful string of them under my belt, I’d mastered the art of dusting myself off – and there was always a philosophical spin to be found and another date waiting in the wings. And it made for good stories. Settled friends loved living vicariously through my tales, and I loved telling them. My love life was a sitcom that occasionally swerved into soft porn.
‘I need to stop getting emotionally attached and keep a healthy distance – you’re good at that,’ a single friend said during a discussion about the pros and pitfalls of modern dating. At a certain point, however, things changed. I started seeing someone and, for the first time in a long time, it felt like a connection I didn’t want to just come and go. It fizzled – but I knew the drill.
Take a breather and get back on the app. Soon after, I met someone else. Our brief but passionate fling also burned out fast – but something about it got under my skin. Brushing myself off wasn’t proving quite as easy and jumping back into the dating pool was losing its allure.
I couldn’t shake off the feeling and, more importantly, I didn’t want to – I had been stung and I was angry and sad.
My bucket was full
This time, when I declared I was taking a break from dating, I didn’t mean the usual few days or weeks. This was to be a proper pause of at least three months – a significant but not too scarily long stint, and close enough to 100 days, often cited as the time it takes to break a habit.
Three months is no great stretch, but the readiness I felt for my ban was new territory. Would I go the distance? If I’m honest, I expected to last a couple of weeks before being pulled back in. But the first few weeks came and went and the temptation to revisit the app wasn’t there. Something was happening though – I was crying a lot and feeling raw. It was business as usual on the surface but, in the safety of my own company, an emotional volcano had erupted.
Discussing my break with fellow single friends was interesting. Some thought three months was no big deal, while others thought it was far too long. We all agreed that embracing solo time was a brilliant idea.
This wasn’t about discovering the joy of ‘dating myself’. That’s something I’m quite at home with: solo dining, theatre trips and – my favourite – tickets to a dance show are a cherished part of my life. So, what was it really about?
‘I think I’d like to meet someone,’ I confessed. My sabbatical seemed at odds with what I wanted, so how was not dating going to help? Of course, the old ‘it happens when you least expect it’ cropped up – a few people reassured me that I’d meet someone now that I’d stopped looking. But that was the furthest thing from my mind. There was no secret hope that calling off the hunt would lead serendipitously to finding love like some romcom cliche.
Without a phone full of messages, I had space to ponder and assess my feelings. It clicked that rushing back onto the horse time and time again meant I never gave my emotions room to hang around and be processed. I had been a prolific dater, but was it genuine interest or the dopamine hit that had me coming back for more? Apps are designed to be addictive, and now that I’d stepped out of the cycle, I was oddly calm.
About five weeks into my dating break, I met a dear friend for dinner. We’d last seen each other when I’d been aglow with excitement about that brief but passionate fling. ‘Are you still seeing her?’ asked my friend.
When I explained that it was long over, she said: ‘But you were so excited about it – what happened?’ ‘Oh nothing, she ghosted me. It’s fine!’ I breezed, ready to move on. My friend went quiet, then started to cry. ‘It’s not fine,’ she said. ‘Ghosting is brutal. Why do we do it to each other?’
A lump shot to my throat. I didn’t weep of course – my tears were private. ‘Sorry, I’m just so emotional at the moment,’ she continued. ‘I’ve been working through relationship stuff with a therapist and it’s making me reflect. Ghosting is dismissive and disrespectful.’
The knot in no strings
I felt a surge of love for my truthful friend – and something else that took me by surprise. Ghosting wasn’t something I’d complained about – how could I? I’d done it to others, so what right did I have to expect anything different? The truth was I’d told the woman who blanked me from the outset that casual fun was fine.
I didn’t lament about ghosting because I genuinely thought it was OK. I didn’t moan about ghosting because to do so would be expressing an emotional need – and that was unthinkable!
After my friend honestly expressed her vulnerability and real feelings, I realised that what she was saying was reasonable and fair, and my anger and sadness started to make sense. I wasn’t upset about being ghosted, countless dates that didn’t go anywhere and flings that fizzled out fast, I was sad, and angry at myself for never expecting or asking for more.
Had I been denying my needs and feelings because I was afraid of appearing needy; and because I didn’t think I was worthy of respect and love?
Indifference isn’t a skill
I mulled over the words of my other friend: ‘I need to stop getting so emotionally attached – you’re good at that.’ That hadn’t always been the case. I’d spent much of my 20s overinvesting in drama-filled, doomed relationships, ricocheting from one heartache to the next. At what point had I learned to be good at not getting attached? And was it something I wanted to be good at?
Of course, a healthy level of resilience is beneficial, but I was finally starting to see that there’s a significant line between resilience and avoidance. Had I been dancing on that line all this time?
I’d been a prolific dater and it might have looked as if I’d been trying to find love – but had I? Or had I built a comfort zone in a bubble of possibility, knowing that if genuine intimacy crept into the picture, one of us would bail?
When the three-month mark came, I didn’t rush back to the app – then lockdown hit and the world went on an epic and enforced break from dating!
We both deserve better
I’ve started meeting people again, but a few things are different. I’ve made a list of boundaries – a revelation! Before, any hint of emotional unavailability would have been be a green light – crash and burn was just around the corner. Now, it’s a red light. I don’t want to go there any more. Ghosting is no longer fine and I’ve challenged myself not to run away from less fun conversations and to give people a chance.
I’ve redownloaded the app, but I’m not getting caught up in incessant swiping. Real communication is my focus and I’ve slowed down – not just in my approach to dating but in how I’m managing my feelings and vulnerability, as well as that of others. These things need space to breathe. It’s still a work in progress, but I’m ready to do the work.
Are you ready for love?
Katherine Baldwin, a relationship coach and author of ‘How To Fall In Love’, lists the pertinent questions to ask yourself before you start dating.
- Do you feel lovable?
- Are you emotionally resilient with a strong inner core?
- Do you love and respect yourself enough to set healthy boundaries for yourself and others?
- What are you looking for in a relationship?
- How can you increase your level of awareness about your relationship patterns?
- How can you increase your level of self-acceptance?
- Have you let go of your exes – are you truly over them and ready to move on with your romantic life?
- If you are not over an ex, what kind of support do you need in order to heal and grow, and where can you find that support?
Photograph: Getty Images