By Allison Backous
I have a confession to make. The kind of confession that reveals you as someone who is more pathetic than depraved.
I once had a profile on eharmony.com.
And by “once,” I mean “recently,” and by “had,” I mean “waiting for my membership to end so that I can close the profile once and for all and forget that this ever happened.”
There are lots of views about online dating: it’s creepy, or thrilling, or a scam. Every time I get on Facebook, I am bombarded with photos of tan men smiling in pastel-colored polo shirts, advertising their singleness and their ability to make me deliriously happy: “Looking for a boyfriend? A single dad? A man who shares your devotion to Christ?”
The ads speak to a common denominator, the belief that, if you are looking for romance, then there is someone who is looking for you, someone who shares your interests and grins like a Gap model. The sooner you send them your picture, the sooner you will find that Gap model in your kitchen, cooking you dinner, and hanging on your every word.
I joined eharmony as a joke, and as a way to make myself feel better; I have a long line of dating interests that never turned into anything, and at a low moment, I filled out the online application. I thought that, if anything, I could at least get a good laugh from the men that eharmony would “match” me with, the same suckers who were spending their Friday nights, like me, waiting for affirmation behind the glow of their computer screens.
And finishing eharmony’s personality assessment is quite the rush; you are told what positive traits you have, and how those traits make you compatible with others. It is a kind of reassurance, even if it’s from the Internet, and even if Dr. Neil Warren, the kindly, corporate-looking doctor whose face floats benignly above the eharmony logo, smiles at you as you read about your agreeableness, your patience with others, your ability to love deeply.
It gave me what I wanted. It told me that I was good, or at least, that I was good enough for a man to consider.
I did get some laughable matches—my favorite one, whom I refer to as my “Dwight Schrute” match—was a man who did Civil War reenactments for a living, and who referred to himself as a “re-enactor.” His profile photos showed him in full Civil War garb, gun in hand, jaw set against those imaginary Southern rebels.
But the majority of matches that I got were businessmen and grad students, men who worked long hours and didn’t want to meet girls at bars. There was the youth pastor who told me about his father’s schizophrenia. The corporate salesman who wanted to teach me how to salsa dance, and who wrote about the homilies he heard at Mass.
These men could have been lying to me. But the overwhelming sense I got was that they, like me, were tired: tired of putting themselves out there, tired of fruitless connections and unanswered phone calls, tired of feeling like there was no possibility.
I have spent most of my Christian life trying to figure out God’s will in terms of dating, not because the Christian cultures that I have known are obsessed with marriage, but because I want to believe that love is part of the plan. I have read all the books. I have poured my heart out to my friends. And every time a romance has failed, I have told myself that I have done something wrong, that there is something twisted inside me that keeps me from finding that match.
I have tried to believe that I am traveling towards the love I am looking for, that God is moving me along that path.
It is harder to believe what is actually true: I don’t really know why I’m not married, and the ache for a companion keeps getting heavier and harder to bear.
The problem with eharmony is that there is no bodily presence to it; you look at a photo, send an email, and hope for the best. But there is no way to determine affection just by the quality of an email. There is no way of knowing someone unless you are with them. In his poem “Honey and Salt,” Carl Sandburg writes:
Is the key to love in passion, knowledge, affection?
All three—along with moonlight, roses, groceries,
givings and forgivings, gettings and forgettings,
keepsakes and room rent,
pearls of memory along with ham and eggs.
Love, in Sandburg’s words, is “bidden and unbidden,” and while I desire it, I also hope for it to surprise me, to knock me on my ass and leave me grinning. If the story of redemption and new creation is truly a comedy, where Frederick Buechner says that our tears “become glad tears at last, tears at the hilarious unexpectedness of things,” then I want to be caught up in the hilarity and mystery of the Spirit, the sheer surprise in which love catches us.
The offer to salsa dance is tempting, but I want to hold out for more: I want the ham and eggs, the pearls of memory. I want to know that there is not a single key for love, no system of compatibility that I am somehow too broken to enter. I want to know that the love I see between my married friends is an anticipation of the kingdom, and that my yearning for that love is not pathetic.
I have friends who, in the same position as me, have spent years telling themselves that they are destined to be alone. Marriage is not a sure safeguard against fear. There are many who wait behind the computer screen, wrestling with loneliness and doubt.
I am waiting for love to knock the wind out of me. I am waiting on hilarity, on the sudden tears of gladness and surprise.