I Went Speed Dating, And It Didn’t Suck

02/04/2017 10:44 am ET Updated Feb 07, 2017

I hate going on dates. None of my three serious relationships – including my marriage – started with dating: we happened to know each other, we got to know each other better, we became a couple. In contrast, dating feels like a contrived hassle, a social annoyance.

So of course, I decided to speed date.

My friend Annalisa and I went out to dinner recently. We were talking about men, relationships… you know the drill. We were chatting about being in a rut and needing to get out there again. But how? I blurted, “Let’s go speed dating.” She said, “Okay.” And that was that. At a minimum, we could laugh about the experience together.

Two days later, I found a speed dating event online, but Annalisa couldn’t go; she had family plans. “Should I go anyway?” I texted her.

“Hell yeah!” she responded. “What do you have to lose? And you’ll have some hilarious stories to share!”

I had three hours of my life to lose, but she had a point. After all, I could write about it. But also, in my job as a law and society analyst, I spend so much of my time researching people who grapple with divorce. A huge part of divorce is what comes after. Many don’t see hope in the post-divorce dating scene; some wonder if their unhappy marriages are the best they will ever do. In these cases, important legal decisions can hinge on very personal perceptions of future possibilities. I had to ask myself, how can I help the company I work for understand the struggles of divorcing people if I don’t try everything that’s out there to try?

Plus I asked my Facebook universe if I should do it, and they insisted that I should. So I bought the ticket. I was committed.

The evening arrived. I hopped in my car and checked traffic conditions on my phone. Downtown traffic was going to suck. “That’s a sign to stay home, right?” I thought. No… I had to go. I could not let my Facebook universe down. En route, I drove by a great Mexican restaurant. “I could pull over and eat…” I said to myself. At one point I got stuck behind a slow truck hauling a huge trailer of chairs. “Definitely a sign to turn around…” I thought. When I got there, I couldn’t find a parking spot. “Guess this means I should call it a night….”

I had to check myself: why didn’t I want to go through with it? Was I scared? No; I really didn’t care that much. Was I nervous? No, I had no expectations.

Then I realized what it was: I was being protective of my time and my space. I have been single for so long, and in that time I have been incredibly picky about how I spend every one of my moments. I’ve done this to feel a sense of control, to feel empowered. But it was time to let go. It was time to realize that I have never truly known if all that control I was exerting was empowering or stifling.

Besides, I couldn’t let down my Facebook friends. Oh, the power of social media. And the regret of proclaiming something online when you should keep your social media mouth shut.

I finally braved the downtown crowd and got there. It was at a small but hip hotel bar. I could give you a play-by-play of what happened from there, but why do that when I can skip around and tell you what you really want to know?

Did I meet the love of my life? No. I didn’t expect to. I work in statistics, and knew the probability of that happening would be slim to none. I actually asked another female participant if she expected to meet the love her life. She was petite and in her early 40s; she wore jeans, no makeup, and had short salt-and-pepper hair. She laughed heartily at my question and said, “There is no such thing. I am done chasing ghosts.”

Did I have stiff competition? I honestly have no idea. Men’s preferences are a mystery to me. What I do know is that the few women I met were delightful. Friendly, at ease, genuine. I didn’t really want to compete with them.

What were the men like? Well, they weren’t likely to be reality dating show contestants, and they definitely did not have game. They were the guys who, in most social situations, might watch rather than participate. They might get overlooked for men with more bravado and better physiques. This all made them more interesting to me. But I couldn’t imagine cuddling with a single one of them.

They had regular jobs – in real estate, in business, at a bank, etc. They wore regular clothes – one guy had stitched jeans (very 2008), one wore a convincing fake leather jacket (yes, I touched it), some wore blazers, one a full suit (he came straight from work). One was really tall. One was really short. They talked about regular things – hobbies, their jobs, where they grew up. There was conversation about eating healthy, not wanting kids, how East Coast cities are so close in proximity compared to Southern cities, how the gym is a great place to meet people because everyone is high on endorphins. One guy mentioned the importance of caring for your elderly parents; another said that you can’t count on your kids to take care of you when you’re old. We talked about how great the city we live in is. One guy liked country dancing. Another liked eating “weird food” and loved to travel but hadn’t been anywhere “for a long time.” He also didn’t like flying overseas because it makes him anxious. I suppose this is what “travelers” are like these days.

One guy asked me to describe my greatest success at work. “It’s the little things,” I said. “When you do something that helps someone in a huge way, and they say a simple thank you, that is a huge success.” He then launched into a description of how his marketing idea doubled growth for his company. I acted impressed.

I told one guy I wasn’t drinking alcohol because I was on a cleansing diet. He immediately said, “I don’t believe in diets. I believe in changing your lifestyle.” He then went on to explain what that meant, I suppose because he didn’t expect me to be a reader or learner of things.

A couple of the guys wore so much cologne that I could smell it on me while driving home (the smell lingered after I shook their hands).

One wore a thick gold chain.

One of them had a creepy look behind his eyes.

Overall, it felt like a whirlwind. To talk to date after date, to hear and absorb so much information… it was confusing. I couldn’t keep it all straight. I couldn’t keep the guys straight.

Despite the confusion, one thought resonated clearly above everything else: all of the speed daters were incredibly human. This might sound obvious, but let me explain. When your heart gets broken several times over, and you spend a couple of years vigilantly detached from romantic intimacy for the sake of self-preservation, your mind starts imagining meaningful romance as a complicated thing. It seems hard and weird and too much trouble. It becomes something for everyone else. You see friends get married, stay married, and build long-lasting relationships while you tag along as a third wheel. When you see your path ahead of you, you see yourself in it alone. And you settle into it because the alternative seems too difficult.

But then there I was, sitting in a row of women who had also had their hearts broken, talking to men who had also had their hearts broken, and realizing that my fears and pains were average. My situation was average. We were all sitting there, talking, sharing… the walking wounded… trying to make a connection. The humanness of it was palpable, and the whole thing actually quite simple.

When it was over, the guys lingered, hoping some of the women would stay. I noticed that none of them were lingering near me; I also noticed feeling relief about that.

Most of the women left. Two women I chatted with before the event had parked their car far away and asked me if I could give them a ride. We left together, talking about the men, sharing our dating stories and laughing. We all thought none of the men felt special. We all thought the same guy was creepy. We all heard different things from different guys and were surprised at the different sides they showed to each of us.

I asked my new friends if they were dating online. Yes, they said. One described a disappointing experience; the other was more positive, but she also said that online “they see you but then move on because there are so many options.” Only 15 percent of Americans see online dating as an excellent way to meet a romantic partner while about half (52 percent) believe that the best way to first meet someone is face-to-face. After tonight, I understand why. Online dating is about quantity. Speed dating is about more about quality. Sure, you only get five minutes, but the men do too, which means you get four minutes and 55 seconds more of their time than you might get on a website.

It honestly seems like a statistical miracle that anyone would meet the right person either way. But then again, it seems like a miracle that anyone finds true love at all.

After I dropped off my new friends, I sat still for a moment in my car. I was supposed go online and select my favorite men so I could get my matches in the morning, but I decided against it. It was early enough for me to drive home and write this before going to bed. That was something to look forward to. That made none of the evening a waste of time.

I plugged in “Smile More” by Deap Vally – my empowered single woman theme song. I drove home singing along at the top of my lungs. Heartbreak or no heartbreak, romance or no romance, life is about these kinds of experiences and these kinds of moments. And life is pretty damn good.

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