I remember the infancy of online dating: before Tinder, before apps. I was on Nerve and Jdate fifteen years before Bumble or JCrush had even been conceived. Back when I was 25 and new to the game, a good looking, erudite stranger popping up in my inbox would inevitably give me a little thrill. Fifteen years later, divorced and online again, I’m encountering something surreal – exes are popping up on my screen. These men are ghosts from another time and stage of my life, yet here they are, coming up as ‘Suggested Matches.’
In my twenties and early thirties, many of the guys I dated wrote in their profiles that they wanted marriage and children, but it turned out that a lot of them were simply looking for fun: Most had no immediate aspirations to settle down. I don’t think I was really ready for marriage and kids back then either. But by the time I reached my mid thirties, I was ready for a more conventional life.
On Halloween almost three years ago, I received a message from a tall, dark, handsome stranger on Jdate. Lou* and I had lived less than three miles away from each other for a decade, but our paths had never crossed. We had a whirlwind courtship and married eleven months after our first date. I praised the merits of online dating to anyone who’d listen, and, after our wedding, I even wrote a ‘Success Story’ for Jdate, complete with photos of us grinning in our wedding car.
Not too long after I’d sent off the ‘Success Story,’ Lou abruptly ended our marriage. I knew that he’d been engaged several times before he’d met me, and that he’d called off each of his engagements. That information should have been a big red flag, but because our relationship felt so right, and because he’d actually got married this time, this felt different. In the end, for reasons that only Lou knows, he headed for the divorce court just seven months after we’d wed.
One year after later, I was still grieving. Even so, I was now 40, still wanting to be a wife and a mother, so I decided that I had to start getting back out there. I knew that I couldn’t give up on my dreams because this very sad thing had happened to me. But no part of me wanted to go back online: I’d been there, done that, met the man and got married. However, around the time that our divorce was finalized, I had a scary episode with my health. I felt firsthand the fragility of life then and realized that I had to move towards my next step. With some trepidation, I set up an online profile again.
Three years after my last experience of online dating, I was surprised to see some of the same men popping up on my screen: ghosts from my past, now with a different photo or new words. I’d gone out on a few dates with these men in the past - dates without a spark. They were still scaling mountains, satisfied in front of their sports cars and looking sharp in their suits. A few still had their arms around their Jewish mothers. I wondered briefly what their last three years had been like — had they been married, divorced, too? Or had they spent three years trying to find the right woman, to no avail?
Scrolling through profiles one day, I came across two ex-boyfriends. One ex sent me a message, which was awkward, because I don’t want to restart anything; I’ve moved on. And with every log in, a part of me wondered if I’d come across my ex husband’s profile; thankfully that hasn’t happened. That ‘Success Story’ bar still dazzles on the right of my screen with a joviality that sometimes makes me roll my eyes but sometimes makes me smile as I think of how much we can’t possibly know about the future on our wedding day.
Some of the guys who I’d sent personalized, well-crafted messages to three years ago had never written back to me, and here they were, three years later, showing up as a suggested match. A few guys who’d written to me before I met Lou wrote again, not mentioning that they remembered me from before — maybe they didn’t. One of the first messages I received after I set up my profile read: “You’re a teacher? I’d like to have detention with you. What beautiful eyes.” This cheesy message made me laugh out loud. I’d almost forgotten the comedic aspect of online dating. Thankfully, there are plenty of men who take a less corny, more cerebral approach.
Not too long after I signed up, a few interesting emails began to arrive in my inbox, and I started setting up dates. Pretty soon, I started to get into the spirit of online dating again, to enjoy the unpredictable stream of emails, likes, winks and ‘matches’ that would come my way, to roll with the highs and lows of internet dating again. Sitting in a bar with a stranger on my first date after my divorce, I had a realization: Meeting a stranger for a quick drink is infinitely easier than going through the agony of divorce.
As it happens, it’s not only the ghosts of men popping up on my screen, but also the ghost of the woman I used to be three years ago. Sometimes when I’m scanning the profiles, I see the woman I was then: more naive. I’m smarter now — more alert to potential red flags. The fact that I can still feel a bit of a buzz when a dashing stranger sends me a lovely email reassures me of the life beyond grief — that, to quote Leonard Cohen, there’s always the crack in the darkness; that’s where the light gets in. After all I’ve been through, trying to find love again feels life affirming.
*Name has been changed