This weekend, a man contacted me through a dating app. After I skimmed his profile, I was 99% sure I wasn’t interested, but I decided to continue the conversation just to see what happened. I do that sometimes, on the off chance someone pleasantly surprises me. So far they haven’t, but I’ve ended up with a few funny stories.
This guy told me he’s looking for a serious relationship, but he wants to start with friendship and allow the rest to develop organically. That’s exactly what I’m looking for — at least on paper, although really I’m still hoping for the “our eyes met across the room and we just knew” experience (it’s a real thing; it happened to Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna). So I agreed with him. He then said,
“I adore you. I’d really like to take you to Hawaii if this works out.”
Wha…? I was sort of amused and sort of bewildered. How did we leapfrog over friendship straight to tropical vacations together? He had just gone to great lengths to be sure I knew he wasn’t looking for casual sex. So…Hawaii?
Often I’m left feeling like I belong to a different species than men on dating apps, or at least an alien culture. I’m irritated by those who go from “Hi” to “Send nude photos” in five messages or less. (Even sleazy guys in bars try harder than that!) On the other end of the spectrum, a disturbing number of men want me to promise, after only two or three messages, to not even talk to other guys.
Now, I’m a monogamous creature by nature. I don’t understand the allure of open relationships. When I meet the right guy, I won’t feel a need to keep my options open.
But I’m also not going to commit to someone within the first 10 minutes, or 48 hours, after I become aware of their existence. And when men press for exclusivity before they get to know me or give me a chance to know them, it signals dominance or obsessiveness or insecurity. Or maybe it just means that before they share anything damning about themselves, they want a guarantee that it won’t be a dealbreaker. But I can’t give that guarantee. How much worth is a promise you’re not sure you can keep, made to someone you don’t know?
With every interaction, I become increasingly sure I’m not going to meet the love of my life on a dating app. But that’s not to say the apps have had no value: Many of these interactions afford low-stakes opportunities to define and enforce boundaries.
I’m not great with boundaries, and I encounter a lot of men who aren’t either. A lot. My counselor friend used to contradict me when I said I was a psycho magnet; maybe, she suggested, I just come across as kind and non-judgmental, so people feel comfortable spilling even their weirdest thoughts. Then last winter, I told her about a disturbing experience at a local restaurant.
“I wonder,” she said, in her best counselor tone and language, “what it would be like for you to acknowledge that you just attract really creepy men.”
At which I burst out laughing, because yeah. I’ve been telling her that forever. If you have a homicidal fantasy to confess, if you want to casually bring up that fetish you’ve never told anyone about, if you feel the need to proposition me while you’re making my burrito, if you think my eyes look good in my face but would look better in a jar of Formaldehyde on your nightstand…you will fit right into my gallery of freaks.
In fairness, I’ve been known to get a little obsessive myself. On the way home from our favorite coffee shop, one friend and I used to take a route that detoured past the homes of both our respective crushes. I even created a “music to stalk by” playlist that we could listen to in the car.
All this to say, I needed better boundaries: setting them, communicating them, discerning other people’s, respecting them. And dating apps have given me abundant practice. No, I’m not giving you my number until I know I want you to have it. I won’t download an app I’ve never heard of just because it’s more convenient for you to communicate that way. You’re not going to trick me into texting you by asking for a photo of my dog. That question is too personal from someone I’ve just met. I don’t want to continue this conversation.
I’ve even initiated discussions specifically about boundaries. Usually the men say they understand, then keep pushing for whatever they’re pushing for. And while a couple of them have set off alarm bells, I don’t think most are predators. But across the board, they’re really bad at no.
I’m not sure if this is a cultural thing, if they’ve bought into the idea that women like men who don’t take no for an answer. (Spoiler alert: We don’t. And speaking for myself, if you can’t take hints and you push to the point where I have to give you a straight-up no, I really, really, really mean it.) Some seem personally offended if you don’t trust them from the outset; I’ve actually seen profiles that say, “I’m not one of the bad guys, so don’t treat me like I am; I expect your number.” Well, here’s the thing: Not giving you my number immediately doesn’t mean I think you’re one of the bad ones. It means I don’t yet have enough data to assume you’re one of the good ones — and that’s not a risk I am willing to take with a stranger online.
Because it is a truth of my existence that I have trauma in my past. And some of that trauma is linked to men who obtained my contact information, sometimes without me supplying it to them, and then used that information in ways that harmed me. I’ve worked very, very hard to process (whatever that really means) and travel toward healing. I’ve made progress. I no longer feel like the walking wounded, no longer fear the unexploded land mines buried in my psyche. Whole days go by when I don’t think about it at all.
But. It is, and always will be, a truth of my existence that I have trauma in my past. And whoever I get involved with will have to live with it too. That trauma might sometimes cause me to be more paranoid, or at least more suspicious. Sometimes it allows me to be wiser, more canny in spotting potential problems. Sometimes it means I am not willing to compromise on things you don’t think are a big deal — like giving my number to a stranger on a dating app. But if you insist on texting or nothing, then you’re not willing to compromise either, and you’re telling me that your convenience matters more than my sense of safety. That’s a dealbreaker.
I have to be very clear about my boundaries because stalking is inherently about their negotiability, their permeability. About one person deciding they have the right to someone else’s space, time, attention. Even their identity. And while it’s initially flattering and thrilling to be the focus of obsession, obsession is never really about you. It’s about the person casting the obsessive gaze. About who they think you are, who they need you to be, how they crave for you to perceive them. It’s built on fantasy and illusion, and in the end they have a vested interest in not knowing the real you, because the real you is never going to live up to the dream or stay in the box where they want to confine you. The real you has feet of clay: whiny days, chin whiskers, bald spots, flatulence, halitosis. Obsession tries to redefine you to fit someone else’s ideal and their needs. Love embraces who you truly are.
I want shortcuts, of course. We all do. I want the magical moment of eyes meeting across a room; men on dating apps want instant commitment, or at least trips to Hawaii. But as I grow healthier, as I develop a stronger sense of my boundaries, I’ve also realized that love takes time, because knowledge takes time. And boundaries are necessary so the knowledge and then the love can unfold at a pace that’s sustainable, that builds, that grows. I no longer crave an all-consuming, passionate, overwhelming infatuation that will help me escape myself. Now I want to stay grounded in who I am. To let myself be known. To discover and learn and know, and then to love, savor, rejoice in someone else.
I still doubt I’m going to find him on a dating app. But thanks to dating apps, I’ll be better prepared when our paths do cross (or our eyes meet — I’m holding to that dream!). Better with the boundaries, more able to let go of the anxiety that leads to obsession, more open to the knowledge and the surrender that is love.