Novelist Claire McGowan went on a serial-dating mission. Many awkward pub chats later, here’s what she wants you to know
Two years ago, aged 32, I plunged back into the world of dating. Limping from a divorce and nasty rebound split in quick succession, I was terrified I’d be alone forever. But the internet is full of men, and I was determined I’d date until I found one. If I’d known it would take me a year and a hundred dates, I might have gone into training first. Because dating a lot is like an extreme sport. You’re going to get tired. You’re going to get hurt. And you’re going to wish you had a spare liver on hand.
At first, I approached it like a project – lists, notes, meticulous records. I was on Match, Happn, OkCupid, Guardian Soulmates and Tinder. The first thing I did on waking up was flick to my messages. Before long, I could tell within ten seconds of meeting someone whether it was going to end with 4am kissing at the bus stop, or going home at 9pm and eating everything in my cupboards. My friends thought I was crazy. “Why don’t you just… slow down?” they suggested. But I couldn’t stop – and I’d like to share what I learnt, to save you time, energy and, hopefully, heartache.
“This is fine,” I said to myself, as I waited to have afternoon tea with the funny, interesting writer. It was my first date in over six years, and I was excited. “This is going to be easy.” Wrong. I developed raging toothache as I sipped my Earl Grey and could only eat with one side of my mouth. Apparently, my crazed expression wasn’t a turn-on, because he never contacted me again. The dating world had changed since I’d last visited; modern dating can be as brutal as a dental abscess. I had to toughen up, and fast.
Once I’d hit my stride, I was in for a few nasty shocks. There was date five, who was so shy he didn’t say a word during a two-hour meal. Eight, who demanded to stay over. When I pointed out the trains were still running, he sulked, “Fine, I’ll sleep in the park then.” Number 15, in May, had a psychotic cat who crept into the bedroom and bit me on the foot. I needed to be more selective. Instead of dating anyone who showed an interest, they needed to share my passions, have an interesting job and a picture showing their face. I also hit on the ideal location – relaxed drinks somewhere lively but not too busy (ideally, with a talking point), with the option of going on if it worked out or running for the hills if it was awful. Plays, films and meals were out.
I was on the brink of despair when I got chatting to a cute stand-up comic. That’s
the good thing about online dating: there’s always another possibility. On our first date, we talked for hours, and he rang me when we got home so we could chat more. We had so much fun together for two months – I cried laughing with him and stayed up all night – but the time between dates started to stretch and he never texted. I wanted more, so I ended it. I was confused. Was I wrong to expect texting between dates? Maybe I had to compromise to meet someone? All I knew was, I needed more.
We chatted for ages on Guardian Soulmates before meeting, and I was excited. A lawyer, he seemed sweet and clever. But when we met for our date at the Tate, I knew instantly there was no chemistry. He was just as lovely and funny in person, but then came the kiss: game over. It’s a crushing blow when you realise the guy you’ve been furiously messaging for weeks leaves you colder than a slap with a wet fish. However, he’s now a good mate, and we often go to plays or art galleries – an unexpected perk of intensive dating.
Things started to look up. I met an amazing guy: handsome, northern, interesting and funny. Our first date lasted till 3am and involved paddling in the Thames and staring up at
the stars. I was tingling all over and I couldn’t stop smiling. Yet after our second date he ghosted me. Stunned, I went into a slump, and my friends staged an intervention. I agreed to take a month off. While online dating is dangerously addictive – as fellow sufferers of ‘Tinder thumb’ will know – dating when you’re scared and insecure is not a great idea. I needed to take better care of myself after the knock-backs.
I was dating men who thought it was OK to discuss incest on a first date and greet me with, “God, your hat looks like a tea cosy.”
I began to wonder if I’d ever meet anyone I liked as much as Mr 29. And things seemed to go from bad to worse. Date 37 was so awkward I burst into tears in Pret A Manger on my way home. Then number 48, in August, seemed soulful online, but after ten minutes asked if I wanted to go to his for a “cheeky tumble”. I was dating men who thought it was OK to discuss incest on a first date and greet me with, “God, your hat looks like a tea cosy.” I dated one guy four times, only to learn he’d given me a fake name. My self-esteem faltered. I was exhausted. Why did all these dates come to nothing? Did anyone online actually want a relationship? I did some soul-searching to try to understand my patterns – was I choosing the ‘bad’ boys and rejecting the sweet ones? I decided I’d also wait longer to have sex, as for some guys that seemed to be the end goal, and it was too hurtful when they vanished. Too pushy became a warning flag and a useful way of weeding people out quickly.
All that hard thinking helped, and I soon met a run of lovely guys. I went on several dates with 67, a children’s author who was the most amazing kisser – my knees practically gave way – but he was going through a tough time. We agreed it wasn’t working, though we didn’t understand why. I realised that ‘perfect on paper’ didn’t mean much until you’d got to know someone.
Number 72 was a cool journalist who knew all the best restaurants in town and pursued me single-mindedly. Our first date started rockily: we were stuck at a rained-out outdoor cinema, essentially picnicking in a puddle. But he was so nice and complimentary I began to enjoy myself, and we went out a few more times. But hard as I tried, I just wasn’t feeling it. I had to be kinder, I told myself, and remember that many of my dates might be as nervous and insecure as I was.
I began to turn down dates that didn’t seem viable. I felt like I was taking control.
Christmas came and I’d met half of London. Desperate to stop dating, I spent two months chasing a right-on, but chronically commitment-phobic, guy who said we could be together but only if we saw other people, too. Something had to change. So, I made a second list of selection criteria – this time the absolute no-nos (lives with parents, poor personal hygiene and so on) and set out to look again. Dating people with obvious deal-breakers was a waste of time and tears, and I began to turn down dates that didn’t seem viable. I felt like I was taking control.
Dates 99 -100
On the anniversary of my first date, I had two planned. As serial daters know, it makes sense to schedule. The first – an awkward coffee with an out-of-work actor who lived with eight other people – sank like a lead balloon. As I headed to my evening date, my heart was equally heavy, but I girded my loins and went to my favourite bar, which has a cool ’40s vibe and great retro cocktails. There, I found a grown-up Harry Potter-a-like with glasses and a striped scarf. ‘He smells nice,’ I thought, as we hugged hello. And when, many hours later, I’d missed three buses in a row as we kissed goodnight, I was cautiously optimistic. After all, I’d had amazing dates go wrong many times before.
But it’s now been over a year and we’ve just moved in together. It became clear very quickly that this was something different. It was so easy – no awkwardness or suggestions of polyamory. And this was my eureka moment from 100 dates: Lots of people on dating sites and apps don’t really want a relationship (I know, depressing!), and nothing you cando will change their minds. No matter how many dates you go on, if someone isn’t right for you, it just won’t work. But when I did finally meet the right person, I was glad none of the other dates worked out, because they all led me to where I was supposed to be.
The Ex Factor by Claire McGowan as Eva Woods is out now