When I briefly signed up to online dating in my 40s, it was with all the best intentions.I was there to meet someone special. But just a few hours after launching my profile, my attitude changed completely.
The first flurry of ‘likes’ was flattering, and as the ‘pokes’ and ‘crushes’ began to flood in, I found myself frantically checking my inbox every few minutes to see who was making contact.
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Ego-boosting messages such as: ‘Hey, love the photo, tell me more about you . . .’ gave me a tingle of excitement that kept me going back for more.
Within days, these virtual validations had me hooked. I’d wake in the middle of the night to check my phone or spend hours in the bathroom flicking through my inbox — there would invariably be some attractive soul eager for a chat.
I even managed a few desultory dates, but, after a few weeks, the thought of interacting with a woman offline lost its appeal. The potent dopamine hit of each ‘like’ was enough.
Each week, the top 20 most-viewed men on the site were listed in order of popularity. As I rose through the ranks, I completely lost interest in making real connections. When I eventually hit the top spot — the most wanted man on the website! — it felt far more gratifying than any of the dates I’d been on.
I’m not sure whether it was the moody black-and-white photo, my brief but enigmatic profile or the fact that I loved small dogs that got me there, but knowing hundreds of women wanted to go out with me felt amazing. It gave such a boost to my self-esteem I no longer felt the need to go on dates at all — the hit of digital flirting was enough.
There was a clear pattern to the messaging. Women would often open a dialogue during lunch breaks or before bedtime. Sometimes it would be a simple: ‘How’s your day going?’ At other times we would message through the night. Often it was hard to tell what their expectations were.
Some were keen to meet the next day — requests I would studiously ignore — while others liked to remain aloof and mysterious. At times there would be four or five women messaging me at a time, with yet more registering their interest with a virtual ‘wink’ or ‘nudge’.
After a while, it became increasingly difficult to maintain a coherent dialogue. On occasion, tempers would fray and I’d receive the ominous ‘you’re obviously not interested’ message, which would send me scurrying back to the ether.
The longer I stayed king of the gene pool, the more women flocked. For a moment, I felt unstoppably alpha.
Being knocked off my perch by a chiselled young cove from Ipswich named Gareth really ruined my day.
But even as I slid down the most-wanted list (in a week I dropped four places; the next week I’d fallen to number 14; a few days after that, I was out of the running completely), I was still more interested in the narcissistic kick of virtual admiration than finding a meaningful relationship.
And I’m far from the only one. A straw poll of my friends and acquaintances reveals several using dating sites, not necessarily to meet women, but to gain reassurance they’ve still got it.
Knowing women still find me attractive is comforting, but I dread my wife finding out - Andrew
What’s most important to them is that they are still attractive enough to warrant attention. Why risk rejection in real life when they can acquire legions of virtual admirers in a click?
For property developer Harry, a recent divorcee at 49, it’s been 20 years since he last went on a date and the thought of face-to-face meetings with random women he’s met through dating sites petrifies him.
For the past nine months he has been rotating several different apps, but still doesn’t feel ready to meet anyone in person.
And it’s not only single men. Andrew, 50, a sound engineer from Sussex has been in a loveless marriage for most of his 40s and, though he has no intention of cheating on his wife, he’s desperate for some female attention.
‘I’ve been interacting with women online for over a year, but have a limited window of opportunity. I tend to make contact at work or when my wife’s in the shower.
‘Knowing women still find me attractive is comforting, but I dread my wife finding out.’
Hugo, a single, 48-year-old solicitor from Harrow, is too busy to meet women, yet he finds online attention addictive.
‘I’d probably go on proper dates, but my schedule won’t allow it,’ he says. ‘I only have time for brief online flirtations, usually while I’m watching TV. It’s become routine.’
Going on actual dates with women I meet online is too risky - Michael
Next there’s Michael, 53, a self-confessed lothario from South London. A string of failed relationships has left him with a fear of intimacy. Dating apps allow him to keep a safe distance.
‘What’s not to like?’ he asks. ‘I used to have to go to bars to find female attention, but now I can enjoy the best of both worlds: wining and dining women I meet at parties while flirting with whoever takes my fancy online. I have no intention of settling down soon, so I don’t see a problem.
‘Going on actual dates with women I meet online is too risky — she might start comparing me with my profile picture and I bet she probably doesn’t look much like hers, either.’
Dating may be evolving, but it can still be a minefield in the digital world where it’s no longer just about easy hook-ups or finding ‘the one’. For plenty of men it’s often about seeking solace in feeling desired.
My advice to any woman who is baffled and frustrated by the lack of reciprocation online is don’t despair; grab your single friends and venture back into the real world.
There are lots of fine midlife men out there who don’t feel the need to hide in the shadowy ether. In the end it’s how I met my wife: she ignored me at a party and I had to track her down through mutual friends — the good, old-fashioned way.