cover_story (2006-06)

DATES R US: Dating coach Melissa Smith.

LOOKIN’ FOR LOVE: John Mason waits for speed dating to commence.

EYES ON THE PRIZE: Angela Goodale won’t be single for long.

You know you’re hard-up for a date when you’re sitting at the vet’s office acting out trashy romance novels in your head. There he is, muscles rippling enticingly under his tight-fitting flannel work shirt, curly hair brushing his face as he gently boxes his golden retriever. Dodging the tongueful of slobber about to land on his chiseled, perfectly scruffy jaw, he looks up and locks eyes with me. And though he catches me lamely ogling him, there’s something in the look that makes me clutch my scrawny Boston terrier a little bit tighter to my chest.

Attraction can make life’s dullest moments more interesting, especially if you have a vivid imagination. On the other hand, we’d save ourselves a lot of heartache if we never acted on our animal instincts. While the incident at the vet’s office is more akin to a monkey scoping out a prime specimen of the opposite sex than it is to “love,” as humans, we sometimes desire more—a lasting relationship, companionship, a family. The question is, is monogamy just a social construct, or are humans biologically programmed to seek long-term romantic companionship? And even if we are “meant” to find one mate, is it worth the hassle?

"You complete me.” Remember melting when Tom Cruise tearfully begged Renee Zellwegger to forgive him in Jerry McGuire ? The more I think about that line, the more I wonder why it’s so powerful. Why is it romantic to complete someone? Shouldn’t we be whole people on our own? But you have to admit, there is something irresistible about the idea that someone can’t live without you, who just isn’t whole without you. Is the one the missing piece of your own screwed up puzzle?

If we learn to love from those around us, then I’ve had the best and worst of teachers, both extremes being my parents. I don’t know when I started noticing the look between them that I’ve come to identify as love—the look of understanding that endures plate-smashing fights, three complicated children, chicken pox, mortgages, stretch marks, National Lampoon-style vacations, deaths, disappointments, etc. I’m sure I don’t know what they’re thinking, but I know it makes me feel safe.

And a little scared. With such a sickeningly-in-love set of parents, it’s hard to imagine myself ever measuring up. You get through college—four years of hookups, breakups and general fumbling through romantic endeavors. Then your friends start coupling off, and no matter how happy you are on your own, it’s scary to think you may never find that for yourself.

It doesn’t help when people pity you, saying, “One day, you’ll find the one .” It’s a commonly dreaded phrase among singletons (if I may borrow Bridget Jones ’ terminology). Where is this mythical one? Does he/she really exist? And why, above all things, is there so much societal pressure to find that one? Doesn’t it seem a little idealistic, even ridiculous, to think there is one single, solitary person out there for each of us?

Despite the common practice of polygamy in other cultures, monogamy pervades in our country despite its high failure rate. In the United States, an estimated fifty percent of marriages end in divorce.

Some blame the high divorce rate on the changing role of marriage over the past century. Rather than a social institution, primarily functioning to raise the kids, it’s now widely perceived as a romantic endeavor between two people. And perhaps that’s not a strong enough leg to stand on.

Ironically, of all human mating rituals, the wedding can be the most horrendous for the singleton to endure. As if to hammer the notion into our brains, the idea of monogamy is reinforced everywhere you look, from the groomsmen who insist on walking women down the aisle (as if we couldn’t make it alone) to the little plastic bride and groom on top of the cake. I usually try to either leave early or be in the bathroom during the horrifically archaic tossing of the bouquet.

I recently went to a wedding with my sister Hannah and got asked the same question at least 10 times, “Have you got a boyfriend?” Saying no, I’d go on to talk about how I loved my job though, and they’d quickly interject and change the subject, as if woman having job was a taboo subject at this caveman fête. No one wants to talk about interesting hobbies or music or sports at weddings. Marriage, boyfriends and babies are the only sanctioned subjects of conversation. And if you haven’t got any of those going for you, well then you had better just get drunk, eat cake and dance. While weddings apparently make some single women want to get married more, they only make me more indignant in my singleness. With each wedding I go to, a little part of me that wants a relationship dies. This is how women become old maids.

But say you do want to get married someday. How do you know if you’ve found the right one? How do you know if you’re really in love? And let me be up front that I am by no means proclaiming myself an expert here. This is not an advice column. I’ve certainly kissed a lot of frogs, but as far as I can tell, none of them have come to resemble charming princes.

Some of my friends say they’ve found the one . I remember sitting on my Fort Sanders porch with my friend Jen in college. We’d just come home from a night of partying and were slurping up chicken-flavored Ramen noodles and talking about boys. At one point in the conversation, she got very serious. “I met someone tonight that I think might be the one,” she said. “His name is Gideon and I don’t know why, but I just have a feeling about him.” I rolled my eyes and warned her to play hard to get. She ended up calling him that night. I went to their wedding last year.

Another friend of mine had the opposite encounter with identifying the one . She waited until she was 25 to give up her virginity. People thought she was crazy, but she always said she didn’t want to have sex until she was in love. After dating a guy for five months, she decided to prove her love to him by going all the way. Shortly thereafter, the bastard dumped her. Now that’s gonna leave a mark.

Finding a good match can be complicated, because we’re socialized to believe the attraction should be instant, and we should immediately be able to identify our perfect soul mate. But in real life, there are so many variables: “He’s nice, we have fun together, but he’s too short, too shallow, trying too hard, etc.”

In his book, How Can You Tell If You’re Really in Love? , marriage counselor Sol Gordon, Ph.D., gives some surprising insight that flies in the face of traditional thinking, where it’s generally accepted that the hotter the relationship, the better. “In my experience, the ‘unsure it’s love’ couple stands a better chance of developing an ongoing, wonderful relationship than the impulsive ‘madly in love’ couple. After several months of marriage or living together, many ‘madly in love’ couples become just plain mad.” So in a sense, asking these “what if” questions may not mean the relationship’s not “meant to be,” but rather that it has potential. Who knew?

And that “madly in love” sizzle doesn’t last forever, of course. Once a couple is settled, things continue to change—socially, communication-wise, and even biologically. In a recent National Geographic article, “Love: The Chemical Reaction,” author Lauren Slater writes of a study on lovesickness that found seratonin levels in the brains of a group of newly in-love subjects to be around the same level of those with OCD disorder, “Love and obsessive compulsive disorder could have a similar chemical profile. Translation: Love and mental illness may be difficult to tell apart.”

Good thing those brain chemicals don’t go on raging forever. It’s only natural for relationships to mellow, for passions to die down, even if you have found the one .

With her Barbie-blond hair and fuschia lipstick that perfectly matches her sweater, Smith seems to be from another era. Sophisticated and sweet, she exudes a charm-school magnetism that’s rare these days. As a “dating coach,” she hires herself out to clients and advises them on their approach to dating as well as their appearance and attitude. The name of her business, Dating Again Coaching Services, refers to her primary clientele: older people who’ve been divorced and are trying out the dating scene again. “After a divorce, people have often spent so many years taking care of their families, they wake up and realize that they don’t know how to take care of themselves,” she says.

While “traditional” dating entails going about everyday life hoping to stumble upon true love, Smith encourages people to become pro-active about dating. Like searching for a job or a house, she reasons, you have to go after what you want. “There is hope,” she says, “All people have to do is open the door. They’re not gonna come to you, though.”

Having met her boyfriend on Match.com, Smith is an avid supporter of online dating. She coaches her clients on how to set up their profiles to attract the kind of match they’re looking for. For example, she noticed right away that one client named John Mason, a divorced 54-year-old TVA employee, wasn’t smiling in his Match.com photo. “Women like a man that’s friendly and welcoming,” says Smith. “So we changed that, and we also changed his catchphrase. He’s a history buff, so we changed it to, ‘Make history with me.’”

Sitting at a booth at China Pearl, waiting to participate in Smith’s speed-dating event, Mason is disarming and handsome as he talks about his dating experiences. An avid traveler, gardener and cook, it seems he wouldn’t have any trouble in the relationship department, but he says there aren’t many available women where he lives in Sweetwater. With Smith’s online dating tips, Mason says, “I’m definitely starting to generate more interest,” though he hasn’t met anyone special yet. “There’s unknowns there,” Mason says of the common concerns of online daters. “You don’t know the real person, and they could be an axe murderer for all you know. I’ve met three ladies online who were alcoholics, but I think that was just coincidental. I’ve met some nice ladies too, but it just didn’t work out.”

Smith and Mason agree that online dating has some benefits over its face-to-face dating counterpart. “I think it’s good because you can chat anonymously with many different ladies. My phone number’s not on there, so you’ve got some secrecy and privacy,” says Mason. “Plus, I’m just not much on going to bars.”

While many of Smith’s clients say they’re “not big on bars” or “too old for bars,” the speed dating event isn’t miles away from the typical bar scenario. Most people are drinking—the girl beside me is medicating her nervousness with a multitude of cocktails; she’s pretty sloshed by the time she begins talking to men. Ten women sit in booths by themselves and the eight men circulate the room, sitting at each booth and chatting for five minutes. Smith, who’s thoughtfully placed a little mound of lifesaver breath mints at each table, rings a bell at the end of each period.

Though not half as hellish as I’d imagined it would be, speed dating is definitely nerve-racking. But I must admit I wasn’t taking it very seriously, as most of the guys there were a good 15 years my senior (and not in that sexy college professor kind of way). This is not to say it was a roomful of perverts or recluses, though, as I’d feared it might be. There were honestly a lot of nice people, all presumably looking for long-term love—something I’m not sure I’m quite ready to pursue. As Mason puts it, “I believe that if it’s gonna happen it’s gonna happen, but you have to put yourself out there. And you’ve got to make the first step in some cases. That’s why I’m here.”

One group of 30-something girlfriends came together, telling their other friends they were going speed-skating, as speed-dating has a slightly negative stigma of being for desperate losers. Mostly though, the guys aren’t losers but divorcees who are just a bit out of practice.

It’s hard to get to know someone in five minutes, so many people resort to vaguely pretentious self-evaluations. One 33-year-old African-American gentleman says slowly, “I’m a dreamer really, and I love beauty…I just love people.” Another, a short, spiky-haired pharmaceutical salesman, blathers on nervously about antidepressants and Cialis, saying that lots of men take both. Good to know.

Surveying the selection of men, I’m initially drawn to one with a boyish face and only slight wisps of gray in his crew cut. When he sits down at my table, though, I’m immediately turned off because he’s nearly illiterate, not to mention eyeing me like a juicy chicken fried steak. On the other hand, I’ve been dreading another man’s visit to my table because he’s rather unfortunate looking, resembling Jim Varney from the Ernest movies (may he rest in peace), only with snagglier teeth. When he sits down, however, I’m dumbfounded that he’s by far the most genuine of the bunch, asking interesting questions and candidly saying, “I just want to meet someone to hang out with. I’m so tired of being alone.” A twinge of guilt nags me the rest of the evening over my quickness to judge on looks alone.

At a table near mine is Angela Goodale, an attractive 33-year-old client of Smith’s. She’s a vocal teacher at Clinton High School and, with cappuccino-colored skin and freckles, she seems to be a catch. She came to Smith because, “I wasn’t doing anything in my own dating life. I’m not a bar woman, and at the time I wasn’t an Internet woman.” Now, she sits at her booth with a dating journal, at Smith’s suggestion, waiting to meet the different men here. Also signed up on Match.com, she got 500 hits from interested men in the first week.

Having moved frequently throughout Europe as a military kid, Goodale says she’s had trouble dating in her 12 years in Knoxville. “I stopped looking for black men because guys here are so stuck on racial issues,” she says. “My mom’s always raised me to be color-blind, so I never pull the race card. Unfortunately there’s not a lot of interracial dating here.”

Goodale is proof that even the most attractive successful people could use a little help in the dating field. “Even the first meeting [with Smith] was really an eye opener,” she says. “She helped me realize that I wasn’t being very inviting. Because certain men will give me the thug look or just look at my boobs, I will give them the shut-down look. But she made me realize I was giving that look to every man I met.”

Though she prefers to meet people face-to-face, Goodale is open-minded about Internet dating, which she finally decided to try after two of her friends met someone on the Web. She’s chatted with many men, about 20 or 30 a week, but she hasn’t agreed to meet with anyone yet. “I was very skeptical at first, and I still think I have a lot of emailing to do before I meet them in person,” she says. “And maybe I’ll ask for some references.”

I’m a little shocked that in the “intention” section, there are only two choices: “woman seeking man” and “man seeking woman.” But then, a lot of the questions hint at a religious tone, so this site seems to have a bit of an agenda to begin with.

I want to be as open-minded as possible, so I check boxes for every religion, race, and also the box that says, “I’m willing to go anywhere in the world for love!” rather than narrowing it down to region, state or city.

While the premise of Match.com is that you get to look through all the profiles you want, eHarmony sends you “matches” based on a supposedly scientific system based on your survey (eHarmony executives did not reply to my inquiries on their system). Once you get a match, you can request communication based on their qualities, which are generic things like “enjoys the outdoors” and “cherishes his family.” Requesting communication entails sending a set of five questions, which you can choose from about 20 preset with multiple-choice answers. If he replies, he might send you back a set of similar questions. In my three weeks on the site, I never get past that stage, so I have no direct communication with any of my matches. It feels like one of those quizzes in Seventeen magazine more so than it does a dating service.

For the most part, the profiles are very vague and one-dimensional, though you can pick out some qualities that the person might not have intended based on his answers. Maybe I’m too picky, but if someone has grave misspellings or grammatical errors, I reject them immediately. As with speed dating, many men take the profiling as an opportunity to inflate their own sense of importance. Yasser, an English teacher in Basra, Iraq, gives the affected answer to what he is most passionate about, “TRUTH, understanding it and being able to accept it.”

Interestingly, out of 57 matches, about half of them are of Indian descent, either living in the United States or in India. I also get an array of other nationalities, from Turkish to South African. Which is OK, because I’m generally attracted to different ethnicities, but I can’t help but feel like, rather than truly setting me up with good matches, eHarmony is sloughing people off on me because I marked all ethnicities and locations. I have the suspicion some of my matches might be looking for a green card.

In the end, you have to do what’s comfortable for you. And as wonderful as Internet dating or speed-dating may be for some people, there’s something about it that just feels fake to me. Real life dating is much messier. Maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment, but I like the challenge of figuring out someone’s likes, dislikes, and idiosyncrasies in person and over time, rather than having them placed before me like a laundry list. Rebecca Judy, a Knoxville clinical social worker and licensed psychotherapist in family counseling, hits the nail on the head when she explains, “We don’t know exactly why people are attracted to each other, but we know a big part of sexual attraction is things like smell, voice, facial structures—and Internet dating doesn’t take those things into account…If you hold onto the romantic notion of ‘it’ll just happen,’ then it’s not going to work for you.”

But the hard truth is, some men do seem to want dumbed-down versions of women, or at least women who seem to be in awe of them. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd postulates in her recent book, Are Men Necessary ?, that men tend to be naturally attracted to women with either submissive or nurturing jobs, like waitresses or secretaries. In painful affirmation, a friend of mine whose tongue was left wagging by a female server at a local pub explains, “I don’t know, there’s just something about a woman who brings you beer.”

By no means are women working those jobs any less intelligent or more pliable than other women, but many men perceive them as such. That’s the basic premise of The Rules —that women must resort to trickery and make men believe they are uncomplicated, nurturing and aiming to please, even if they aren’t.

Of course, just as there are “Rules girls,” there are also “Rules men” who seek such women. But many men are the opposite. I’m guessing Dowd’s assumption that all men go for airheads is rooted in her own experience; surely many men are intimidated by her ball-breaking success. On the other hand, some men are attracted to powerful women. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were Internet fan sites devoted to Dowd’s fiery red hair and professional ferocity.

The key may be finding someone whose need for power and control balances out your own, which is easier said than done. The initial stages of dating can be a cat-and-mouse game. Judy says, “The dance is, I pursue you, but if you stand still and let me catch you, then the roles switch. Sometimes we’re not satisfied just getting what we want. It’s the chase. Humans tend to be insatiable. We tend to almost biologically need a lot of change in our lives.”

As for the one, Judy believes that we are capable of loving more than one person in our lifetimes. “Most human behavior, in my opinion, is predicated on survival, and retaining the family structure,” she says. “But there’s been a development of a romantic notion being attached to that. The need for mating and monogamy is very complex, and I think we as a society have romanticized to some extent.” Judy points out that relationships boil down to hard work. “Most marriages that seek help have communication issues,” she says. “They just do not sustain that intimate level of communication that they had when they started out.”

Marriage can be seen as a biologically practical arrangement suitable for raising kids or a romantic endeavor or both. Any way you look at it, it’s a tough road. Tennessee Valley Unitarian pastor Chris Buice counsels every to-be-wed couple in the weeks before he performs the ceremony. “I tell people that marriage is a real leap of faith. One in two fail, so let’s talk about how to beat those odds,” he says.

By the time couples come to Buice, they’ve passed the stages of initial attraction and game playing, so he tries to feel them out for long-term compatibility. “The little idiosyncrasy that initially attracts you to a person is the thing that drives you nuts later. The stable, rooted person is intrigued by the world traveler, but later those differences can just be annoying,” he says. “The secret of that is that a relationship is a call to your wholeness; you’re seeking to be more balanced.” That’s where compromise, the granddaddy of all stay-together tricks, comes into play. “You have to find ways that you’re both getting energized,” says Buice. “You have to figure out ways to compromise with integrity.”

Perhaps it’s obvious, but Buice imparts some advice that seems tailor-made for me; “The best way to find someone is to be comfortable with who you are.” And I realize that, in fact, I’m really OK with being the single girl in the office and family functions, regaling friends with my dating debacles. I’m OK with being the third wheel from time to time. And I’ll certainly be OK with being alone on Valentine’s Day.

Some people, known as serial monogamists, bounce from relationship to relationship with little time to breathe. Sometimes I wonder if these people get to enjoy a cup of coffee and the Sunday newspaper without their latest partner’s cereal crunching. And I’d certainly miss the thrill of kissing someone for the first time, even if they do show their amphibious warts eventually. I might even miss the cat-and-mouse game. And, call me selfish, but I really relish having the whole queen bed to myself, for now anyway.

I guess deep down, I still don’t know what I want when it comes to relationships. I’m not totally ruling out the possibility of finding the elusive match they call the one . But, knowing my impulsive self, I’m more likely to bump elbows with him at the bar, catch his eye through the stacks in the library, or even snag that pooch-loving hottie at the vet than I am to single him out with a mouse and keyboard. I guess I’m just old-fashioned that way.


Latest Blog Posts