I find it hard if not impossible to stay in a relationship. Yet I’m tired of being alone. For going on 7 years now, I’ve been in this gray limbo. Bookended between a desire to be intimate and committed and consistent, and a need to be free and independent and selfish and for myself.
My last serious girlfriend moved out of our shared apartment when I was 25. Since then, I’ve jumped so deep into the bachelorhood rabbit hole that I’m starting to doubt there’s an exit, at either end. Looking strictly at the numbers, my dating life has lasted for about 15 years, from freshman year of college to today. In that decade and a half, committed relationships account for 4 of those years, or about 25% of the time. Only one quarter, which also means that for 75% of my adult life, I’ve been single. If I live to 80 and maintain the same ratio, then I’ll be in a relationship for 12 of those years, and alone for 36. Three and a half decades of more of the same…I can’t take it.
Occam’s razor would say, I’m single because I don’t want a relationship more than I want to be single. I’m too comfortable with bachelorhood, doing as I please, with no lifestyle collateral and no emotional stakes. There’s some truth here. Every past relationship has ended upon my initiative. Maybe the desire really isn’t there, at least not to overcome the inertia of solitude. Perhaps, despite statements and wishes to the contrary, my actions paint a simple picture: of a person who can’t let go of the freedoms and carnality and masochism of bachelorhood.
The move to Asia was intended to help me shake things up. If you keep playing a game and never win, then change your strategy. As a college educated Asian American guy with some disposable income, I couldn’t ask for a more favorable environment to find a girl. Now that I’ve been here for a year – time spent mostly between Taipei and Shanghai – my outlook is about the same. Feels a bit like an ouroboros, running furiously in circles only to realize I’m chasing myself. Despite meeting some great people, I’m still single, and in that year the longest relationship barely survived 4 weeks.
What follows is a long winded essay (forgive me!), in some ways just a collection of related observations, about love and failed dates and baggage and Tinder. Why I’m 32 and single. Why I can – but somehow won’t let myself – settle down.
Since college I’ve had three serious girlfriends
The first relationship lasted perhaps 20 months. It started in high school and the powerful drive of first love was enough to carry it for almost another year of long distance. The second one lasted a year. The third not even 11 months which I’ve rounded up. So you can see the trend.
The first one was real, it was torturous and overwhelming and ecstatic. She was my first love and the only great one. No one can take that away from me – I use “me” instead of “us” because I haven’t spoken to her in a decade. Sometimes I daydream of what would happen if our paths crossed again. Most likely nothing: too much time has gone by, too much hardening of the heart from bad experiences, too many calories of the heart. Life pushes you farther and farther away from a road you had once walked intimately together.
Aside from those three, I’ve had a number of brief recent relationships. Not quite flings since I saw real futures with both girls, but the relationships were disappointing both in how long they lasted (neither more than six months) and how they ended (with a whimper, not a bang).
Ok, that’s not entirely accurate. One of them ended quite literally with a bang. One of those post-breakup “we feel an awkward sadness here, so let’s make love right now, pretend everything is ok for a few minutes, and let our physical desires squeeze some pleasure from the emptiness that will immediately follow” kind of things. We did it on the couch, during the day, while mostly clothed, and with the blinds raised. This was the first time they’d all been combined in this way.
But I digress. The ending whimper I’m referring to is of the emotional kind. In both cases, there was no good reason to break up, no smoking gun of an argument or hookup or betrayal. I simply wanted my freedom, a resumption of the bachelor life. Freedom from relationship duties, freedom to reactivate Tinder, freedom to masturbate without guilt, freedom to pursue other girls.
There is no discernible pattern when I look back on these relationships, what with the many years that have passed, the state of my deteriorating memory, and the natural complications and forgotten nuances of every human-to-human connection. It reminds me of a paragraph from writer Karl Ove Knaussgard’s memoir, an observation of his own childhood now changed by his experience as a father:
Seeing her grow up also changes my view of my own upbringing, not so much because of the quality but the quantity, the sheer amount of time you spend with your children, which is immense. So many hours, so many days, such an infinite number of situations that crop up and are lived through. From my own childhood I remember only a handful of incidents, all of which I regarded as momentous, but which I now understand were a few events among many, which completely expunges their meaning, for how can I know that those particular episodes that lodged themselves in my mind were decisive, and not all the others of which I remember nothing?
All relationships work like this. Who can say whether the episodic moments we remember and write about and tell stories of really were significant, and not just imagined fiction that our brains plays on us in the absence of better things to do?
But breakups – breakups are different. They are easier to analyze. Like endings to movies, they are simple, bold, singular. And there is a clear pattern in my breakups that can be traced back, in dotted line fashion, to my second girlfriend. This relationship began early in my junior year of college. We had been together for a school year and were fresh off a summer apart, I in New York on a finance internship and she in Chicago working and volunteering. In a small fit of fear and fantasy, I decided to break up with her to start senior year. Fear because my animal instinct sensed that her feelings didn’t measure up to mine, and mine were only burrowing deeper. And fantasy because a unique opportunity had revealed itself to hookup with this other girl, someone who was new and different and right in front of me.
Breakup accomplished, newly single me went ahead with the hookup. Only it didn’t happen. In the gray and wet and hungover regret of the next day, I had tried to get back with her. She said no, because she possessed even then an intuitive wisdom that far surpassed my own. I still loved her, and I was genuinely crushed and didn’t appreciate in the least bit the situational irony. No matter how I tried, she wouldn’t take me back and it was my first excruciating sting of unrequited love.
To escape, I spent almost half of senior year either high or drunk or hungover. It was this particular breakup, cascaded as it was by a poor sequence of decisions, ending in hopeless heartache – and deservedly so – that caused me to internalize that love can cause a kind of unending pain. There is a real hell on Earth, and funny enough, it exists on the same plane as heaven. I resolved never to let it happen again. Limit the downside at all costs. Enjoy what upside you still can. But don’t let anyone shatter you again.
Three years passed and I found myself in a third relationship. The lesson had gone nowhere, was present and sharp and ready for action. As soon as the relationship grew unsteady and uncertain, my defenses activated and I began to emotionally isolate myself. Placed my feelings into a makeshift box, then casually pressed on the box until it was flat and collapsed. The strategy was simple: Break up in my head, then break up in real life. The strategy worked so well – so terribly efficient – that it became my most reliable relationship tool.
Ratchets and baggage
Age has made me pickier, especially about looks. Five years ago, I could walk into a bar or club and find at least a handful of interesting girls to pursue. Now I find some flaw to fixate on and deem it not worth my time. She’s too loud, it would take a lot of energy to talk to her. She’s showing too much skin, just wants attention. She’s too quiet, I’d have to put in all the conversational work. She’s dressed so conservatively, must not be very fun. The conclusions contradict themselves. But it’s easier to think them than take a real risk.
Chris Rock used to joke that while women can’t go back in their lifestyle, men can’t go back in what their women do in bed. What he means is that women won’t let go of private jets and Louis Vuitton to return to a life of economy flights and Kate Spade. Men, meanwhile, can’t return from a high energy freak in the sack – if that’s what they like – to a steady diet of missionary and cowboy.
Relationships in the Chris Rock sense, then, are like a ratchet. You can only ratchet one way. Like people in their jobs, and kids at school, you only want to be promoted and move upwards and onwards. Unlike most guys, my ratchet is not sex. I’m happy with vanilla sex if I’m in love. Even prefer that, probably. But in reality, our ratchets are many and changing.
Take for example one of my recent girlfriends as a case of ratcheting up the good. She was an amazing cook and a natural caretaker around the home. In fact she was so easy and efficient about it that I almost didn’t notice. Like good health, it was a quality I appreciated best when it was taken away. I remember a particular morning when I left for work. Returning at noon, I came home to an apartment that had been cleaned and vacuumed, dishes washed and stacked, and a lunch plate of couscous and chicken with a thoughtful note left on the counter. Oh, and she was vegetarian. Didn’t eat meat, yet she cooked probably the best chicken dish I’d ever eaten. Made me cry the first time I tried it. A culinary sucker punch that one was.
Ratchets are just a transfigured version of that old baggage concept. Once you’ve experienced X, you either want more of X or you want Y. Over time you develop preferences that are specific and stubborn. Such preferences, like whether a girl is punctual for your dates, can grow out of all proportion to their intrinsic value. Some people have preferences so strong they even have a phrase for them: deal breakers. You might break up with a girl because she triggered one of your deal breakers. The possibility of true and lasting love, dashed because someone is twenty minutes late. But for you (for me), it’s never about the twenty minutes. It’s about her respect for your time, her selfishness, her inability to follow schedules and plan ahead. Punctuality is just an example, but the general attitude is a poisonous one and I have dosed myself with it for years.
Men as a kind of hollow index fund
In some ways, men appreciate like an index fund in the dating world. As we age, our perceived value increases in a slow and steady fashion. This phenomenon was particularly clear in my late 20s, when I started to attract the kinds of girls – particularly in looks – that were out of reach not five years before. That kind of growth and progress is misleading and addictive. At some point the ride will stop. It always stops. At 32, I no longer see before me a gradual hill to climb, but rather a bumpy and expansive plateau. Because I’m in Asia now, I’ve sustained a kind of valuation increase that all well-educated foreigners receive out here. But aside from the geographic boost, my market value is starting to dip. In fact that may explain at least partially my anxiety at settling down. If every year things were going objectively and undoubtedly better, why would I settle? Like the beginning of another Chris Rock joke, a man is only as faithful as his options, no more, no less…
Another piece of the dating game that puzzles me: why do I prefer younger girls as I get older? As a college sophomore, I was more attracted to the seniors than the incoming freshmen. The seniors were hot, to be sure, but there was also a depth to what they said and did. You admired them. Of course at 32 the idea that 21 year old girls are admirably sophisticated is pretty funny.
But eventually the preference flipped. It maybe happened in my late 20s. I began to find girls in their late 20s and early 30s unappealing. Maybe I see in them a lot of the qualities I don’t like in myself: the growing cynicism, the emotional defenses, the ebbing energy and enthusiasm of simply being alive and gifted. Like Anais Nin says, we don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.
So today I like younger girls. Mid to late 20s, but even this year I’ve dated girls who barely graduated. There is some guilt, but it doesn’t last. Spending time with them eases my own worries, makes them feel lighter and fuzzier. It’s a portal back to a cleaner, simpler time. Maybe it’s just nostalgia. Maybe in seeking younger partners we are just seeking our younger selves.
The mobile generation
We are the most mobile generation that’s graced this planet, and we will surely be surpassed by our children. Mobile in the iPhone and the mobility sense.
The world is shrinking. Planes and trains become faster and more frequent. Cars can drive themselves. And the digital world – oh the digital world. Get whatever you want at the tap of a button. Even a few taps is sometimes too much. And yet we demand more, faster, now, yesterday. Everything accelerates. We live in more cities, stay in more hotels and apartments, have and change more jobs, make and lose more friends. It’s never been easier to get someone on a 10 minute Skype call, and it’s never been harder to meet them for a slow coffee. Even weekend brunch can feel rushed. People arriving late, out of breath, without much of an apology. People needing to leave early for some other overscheduled commitment. On a Sunday.
The more job changes we make, the more countries we tour, the more cities we live in, the harder it becomes to maintain relationships. Good luck keeping the same circle of friends for a year, much less a generation. People come and go and we’re getting used to it. Some people grow to prefer its casual nature, its lack of risk. I might be one of them.
And in dating, this mobility and optionality can be great fun – it gave me the opportunity to learn that Hong Kong girls, for example, take more initiative in seeking dates than LA girls (who wait and hem and reschedule). But this is not commitment. It is its opposite. As the Chinese say, 日久见人心 (it takes time to know a person’s heart). How can we put in the slow hours, the honest talks, the moments of nothingness that real relationships require, when you spend half your month traveling Europe for work, and in the 2 weeks you’re back, you’re both exhausted and behind on said work, and she has friends visiting for the weekend? So we learn to make more and more sacrifices of our time and our schedules, thinking all the while that’s the important stuff, forgetting that it’s really not.
Online dating and hot girls
This is my last and biggest bugaboo. I don’t even know what the word bugaboo means but it sounds about right. I’m addicted to dating apps and it’s a problem. Tinder, how do I quit you. Except it’s not just Tinder. There’s Coffee Meets Bagel and Bumble and here in Asia Tantan and Momo. In the past there was Skout and even the vintage Match and OkCupid. Can’t delete them, can’t stop checking them, yet unable to find a girlfriend through them.
Perhaps I use the word addiction too lightly here. It’s like the addiction others have to Facebook, Instagram, Minecraft. Tech addiction, to tech drugs. A self aware addiction, with an inability to stop ourselves.
There’s a sad irony here: I spent several years detoxing from Facebook, annoyed and frustrated and jealous of the popularity echo chamber it had become. On Facebook I couldn’t escape the tyranny of other peoples’ opinions, but I didn’t have the courage to express my own when they differed. Today I’m proud of the fact that I barely check Facebook and don’t have a Snapchat account and never log into Instagram. Yet I’ve gone and replaced one digital addiction with a wholly different one. The old Facebook has been replaced by the new Tinder, and you could argue this one is worse.
Pretty much anytime I’m alone and I’m in a semi-private place, I’ll rotate through the dating apps to swipe and type, swipe and type. Lying in bed at night, with Netflix streaming in the background, I’ll go through this routine for thirty minutes, maybe an hour. Swiping and typing. I’ll even catch myself opening Tantan right after I’ve closed it. An automatic response, almost a soothing one, like scratching your neck when you’re nervous. The app equivalent of continually refreshing a website, knowing there are no updates, and you still do it and you kinda enjoy it.
Dating apps, like younger girls and mobile lifestyles, have their positive and negative qualities. They absolutely make the dating market more efficient. Like Facebook does for friendships and reddit does for gossip, Skout and Coffee and Match make human connections that would otherwise not happen. That is valuable.
But life is a double edged sword. If you only see one edge – often the good one – then you’re missing the side that can cut you. For starters, dating apps teach you to care most about surface attributes. For guys, how tall are you, what school did you go to, what’s your job. For girls, what’s your body like, how pretty are you, how old. It’s the anchoring principle in psychology. If you’re continually shown a parade of hot young girls, posing seductively while wearing designer bikinis on tropical beaches, you start to believe that you have access to these girls. Maybe you even grow to expect it. There is a little of that beautiful sentence from Kerouac’s On The Road, “a pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world.”
I’m exaggerating, to be sure. It’s not that bad. We know inside that this is just a game, that looks aren’t what really matter, that those girls spend hours snapping and editing and tagging the perfect photo. Half of those hot girls don’t even reply to my messages. They’re trolling for likes and attention. I know one girl in China who has 20,000 likes on Tantan but doesn’t have a single ongoing chat. The half that do reply, you’re lucky if you can get more than single word replies.
Why do they bother? Then again, why do I?
There are certainly interesting girls on the dating apps – many of them. I’ve met some of them. But the slow damage has been done. “Interesting girls” no longer really register on my radar. Some part of my online-dating-trained brain thinks #1 there are a lot of them out there and #2 I just want to date the really hot ones.
Side note: I swipe right to 99% of the girls because that’s the most efficient strategy. Filter and unmatch later if you need. And yet 95% of my matches – in different cities, over many years, using multiple profile pics and varying personal descriptions – are either Asian girls or black girls. I have better luck with white and Hispanic girls in person, but online dating? No such luck. The results are what they are.
I’ve almost continuously used these apps for 5 years, with the exception of those brief relationships. And each time a relationship ended, I felt a distinct surge of excitement as I reinstalled the apps. The endorphins charging up like they do in anticipation of a good workout or a finished project. Wondering what good things happened in that world while I was away. Today the turning point of a fledgling relationship is no longer an awkward conversation about whether you’re “official”. It’s when the other person deletes Tinder.
Dating apps are good for playing a quantity game but not for quality. Not for quality. At least for me, if the goal is a real relationship, then dating apps haven’t and won’t get me there. I’ve had at least 100 dates through these apps and while I’ve stayed friends with a handful of girls, no relationships have come from them. Every relationship that’s lasted more than a month has been from weddings or through friends.
Quantity just doesn’t motivate me anymore. I never really cared about my “number”. Among guys I have at best an average sexual appetite. Even when the sex is available and convenient I often won’t take it. Sure sex is enjoyable, but depending on who I have sex with, the afterwards can be nice and cuddly or a small platter of guilt and loathing. Reminds me of that DFW phrase from Infinite Jest, That having sex with someone you do not care for feels lonelier than not having sex in the first place, afterward.
So why continue using these apps? The same reason people stay in dead end jobs, the same way unhappy couples don’t separate. Right now, I just don’t see something better. Besides, I’m used to it.
A conclusion I guess
No real conclusions here, just some observations. I had written about these topics before, but I didn’t read that old essay before writing this one. Maybe I should.
Most of these are familiar lessons and observations. We talk and think and read and consume them all the time. We know that relationships are about making a commitment and commitment is a choice and we need to choose to make it work. We know that relationships are fun and exhausting, sad and exhilarating, and the harder you work at them, just like your career or a home garden, the more you get back. That love is messy and gritty and requires courage and above all patience.
Knowing is necessary, but only doing is sufficient. Now where does that leave us? :)