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OPINION: 5 lessons learned from two decades of dating

Photo by Designecologist for Pexels

Nothing unites us as a species quite so much as the desire to love and be loved. 

From the moment we enter the world our heads and hearts are filled with fairytales of grand romantic gestures, adorable meet-cutes and generically handsome nonthreatening suitors sweeping us off our feet. It’s only with the reality check of starting our own journeys that we learn the harsh truth that the road to love is far more mundane and considerably less affirming than Hollywood would have you believe. 

In my search for love, I tried it all! I’ve been a paid-up member of every dating app you’ve heard of (and even more you haven’t), I’ve met people at bars, through friends, at gyms, music festivals, parties, work, I even went on national TV in hopes of finding my ideal match.

Wherever it is possible to meet someone, I have met them there. Across a 20-year dating history, I’ve learned lessons from the people who have entered my life for an evening, a fling, a full-on relationship or even just a frustratingly one-sided Tinder conversation that have helped me grow, change and finally accept the infuriatingly simple reality that, in the words of mother RuPaul Charles, “if you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”

Lesson 1: Some people are just assholes 

Dating in the digital age is not for the faint of heart, distilling the essence of who you are into a couple of words and a handful of photos and then advertising it for the judgment and criticism of vast swathes of anonymous potential suitors, including all of their prejudices and biases. As a fat man in the gay community, it has been necessary over the years to develop a thick skin against these prejudices and biases. Like many bigger people in my community, I have a litany of stories and experiences of fat-shaming, discrimination, and cruel fatphobic comments from across my dating history. 

On one such occasion, despite having shared recent photos and acknowledging my body type in my profile, I noticed the disappointed demeanour of a date when he saw me in person — shifting uncomfortably in his seat, speaking endlessly about diets and exercise and circling back again and again for clarifications on when the photos he had previously seen of me had been taken. It dawned on me he perceived himself to have been catfished, reeled in by a deceptive fatty. 

I could see the cogs whirring behind his eyes, planning his getaway strategy and I was more than prepared to react with polite faux-disappointment when he announced an emergency needing his immediate attention, what I was not prepared for was a lengthy message from him later that evening containing links to a workout programme and 1200 calorie-a-day diet plan. 

I pushed myself to remember that this was his prejudice, not mine. This was a demonstration of the relationship he had with his body, not the relationship I had with mine. Taking a moment to sit with that and not internalise it was vital.

Lesson 2: Communication is key

Picture it, Dublin 2010, Wills & Kate had just gotten engaged, TV’s Lost had just wrapped up and the novelty of gay dating app Grindr launched just one year prior, had not yet worn off. With uptake still relatively low on the geolocation-based app from the comfort of my Dublin city centre apartment I could frequently find myself chatting with users anywhere from Killybegs to Killarney.

On one quiet Thursday evening, I was engaged in an enthusiastic conversation with a man from Aberystwyth in Wales, our chat quickly evolved into fanciful notions of what we might do over a weekend together in Dublin.

After a few hours we said goodnight, and I fully expected to never hear from the Welshman again. The next day when he sent a screenshot of a Stenaline booking confirmation I realised the peril of leaning into fantasy for flirtatious banter. As I stood at the Dublin Port terminal watching the ferry slowly lurch into view, rereading the messages that brought me here, I had never expressed that I overtly wanted him to visit, but I had certainly been enthusiastic about the notion. It was instantly apparent on meeting that the people we had been on Grindr were very different to the ones who met in person. Instead of a weekend of romantic dinners and sightseeing, he got takeaway and a Misfits rewatch. 

This experience taught me an important lesson about clarity of communication, and I hope it taught him the importance of a pre-booking confirmation text.

Lesson 3: Acknowledge awkwardness

One of the first dates I ever went on just after I had spread my wings and landed in the big city for college was with someone I met at a university LGBT society event,  it was the first time I was meeting other gay people, going to gay bars and experiencing what it was to be part of a community. I had no experience in dating, it had felt like an impossible notion only a few short months earlier – so when a moderately attractive and admittedly mildly awkward man asked me if I wanted to go out for dinner, I jumped at the chance. 

Photo by <a href="https://unsplash.com/@nadjaoertlin?utm_content=creditCopyText&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=unsplash">Nadja Oertlin</a> on <a href="https://unsplash.com/photos/cooked-food-on-white-ceramic-plate-Excen-koC2s?utm_content=creditCopyText&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=unsplash">Unsplash</a>

Desperate to impress each other, dressed nicely and a little bit anxious we arrived at the newly opened Spanish tapas restaurant Salamanca. When it came time to order he indicated for me to go first. I ordered a bottle of wine and a selection of items and waited for him to follow suit, but instead, he announced he wasn’t hungry and didn’t want anything. The waitress looked confused, I looked shocked and he looked unbothered. I had a split-second impulse to cancel my order so as not to be left devouring a multi-course tapas dinner and bottle of wine with an audience – but a fear of judgment stopped me in my tracks. Instead, with dishes piled high on my side of the table I ate my patatas bravas and gambas pil pil and drank my wine, watched all the while by someone who didn’t seem to realise how inconceivably bizarre this behaviour was.

For the sake of less than a minute’s inconvenience and slight embarrassment getting up to leave the restaurant, I bit my tongue and had one of the most awkward dining experiences of my life.

Lesson 4: If you can’t love yourself, yadda yadda yadda.

Back at the end of 2019 I had a breakup, it felt earth-shattering for reasons I couldn’t quite understand. The relationship hadn’t been long and it ended somewhat mutually over differences in what we wanted out of it.  

Looking back, it hadn’t been particularly deep or intense but after years of putting myself out there, doing whatever I could to find a person who would love me and want to be with me this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Caught entirely off guard by the depth with which I was feeling the impact of this breakup I was prompted to start counselling and along with space provided by a conveniently timed global pandemic I had the opportunity for some deep reflection. 

Working with a wonderfully skilled therapist I unpacked the baggage I’d collected over decades. I realised I hadn’t been looking for a relationship, I had been looking for validation – that I was good enough, that I deserved to be loved. It explained so much, about why I was so willing to abandon my wants and disregard my needs to remain in relationships that weren’t working, weren’t right or had simply run their course. 

This revelation allowed me to approach dating again from an entirely different perspective once the world opened up, it was only by prioritising my happiness that I could be a good partner to anyone else. 

Blue Green Illustrative Presentation Skills Infographic Poster by Info – LGBT Helpline

Lesson 5: When it’s right it’s right

The road to love is indeed far more mundane and considerably less certain than Hollywood would have you believe, but I am living proof that the Hollywood happy ending can exist. Not long after the final lockdown an innocuous Tinder match led to an excellent first date which led to a whole string of firsts from first I Love You’s to first holidays, first arguments to first homes – it became the first relationship where I am truly myself and where I give all of myself to someone who loves me for exactly who that is.

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One Response

  1. Love this open and optimistic look at dating. The video was so revealing of the divide between cultures and open-heartedness of the Irish (mostly) the thing we all pride ourselves in.

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