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After decades of marriage, online dating was overwhelming; this is how I coped

By Amy Freeman Special to the Washington Post

One week into online dating, much of the time I spend on Match.com I’m one step north of a panic attack. Married for more than two decades and divorced for several years, I’ve entered a brave new world at 52, feeling the opposite of brave.

Should I write to this guy? Why didn’t that guy respond to my “like”? Was he “The One” and I just blew it by replying too quickly? Do I have to write back to anyone who writes to me?

Staring at profile after profile after profile of smiling men who assure me they are easygoing and ready for something new, the stakes feel impossibly high. How will I ever get from a photo to an email to a date to a partner?

Thus far, I’ve had maybe 50 or 75 exchanges with potential suitors, each interaction fizzling within days or hours. While individual moments have been fun, the process is stressful, regardless of whether I’ve been the fizzler or the fizzlee. I don’t see how I can avoid taking the fizzles personally; these people do seem to be rejecting me.

Imagine my relief, then, when after only a few exchanged emails, a seemingly nice guy sent me this:

“Why don’t we meet for dinner (your choice), to see if we have that spark? We both know by now that that is a must. If we have one, good. If we don’t, well, at least we had a nice evening. No pressure. What do you say?

“– Mike”

Well, well, well. Allowing myself a slight smile, I mulled over his email.

Common interests: Check.

Increasingly interesting e-conversation: Check.

Physical attraction, based on photos: Meh. Check-minus.

Level of titillation in being asked on a date: Check-plus.

The pluses and minuses balanced out. Photo to email to date, in just six days of searching! What did I have to lose, other than a few hours? I grabbed my keyboard and said yes.

No pressure.

I hummed my way through the next day, swatting aside the doubts that bubbled up whenever I pictured Mike’s photo. I swatted them aside until I walked into my therapist’s office, at which point those bubbled over.

“Hmmm.” (Uh-oh.) “Let’s start with your criteria,” she said. “What are you looking for in a man?”

“I’m trying to be open-minded,” I said.

“You’ll go out with anyone?”

I rolled my eyes. “Of course not.”

“OK. So what are your criteria?”

It didn’t take long for me to acknowledge that Mike fits but a few of them. It took a little longer for me to admit that I mostly just wanted to go on a date. It took me the longest to accept that there is pressure on a first date, regardless of whether your would-be partner assures you otherwise.

No matter what you tell yourself (or each other) before you walk in, a date is freighted. We all know what your basic date looks like, right? You’re at a carefully selected restaurant, committed to at least an hour together. Wine might happen; candlelight, too, followed by a gentle tussle over who picks up the tab. Underpinning the whole shebang are your hopes of finding a partner, fears of rejecting, fears of being rejected and the rather raw matter of whether you’ll one day see each other naked.

But!

What if I change that photo-email-date chain? It’s a far cry from the way dating worked for my generation, you know, way back when George Bush was president. No, not W. His dad.

What if I add a step in there?

Meeting.

The nonromantic kind. A simple chat through which you can figure out whether there’s any chemistry there. An in-person reality check, before the freighted tableau of the dinner date.

I can change the setting for a first encounter, too, to feel less like a date. No seated dinner, where we wait for our orders and ask for a check. We can talk over coffee in paper cups that either one of us can toss in a bin if the rendezvous goes sour.

Including a nonromantic element has certainly tapped the brakes on the dating train. But taking my approach down a notch has taken my anxiety down with it.

I emailed Mike and suggested we switch to a Starbucks. He agreed right away.

Could be that I’m not the only one who’s happy to tap the brakes.

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