I had been with my partner for six years when she announced, abruptly, that it was over. I remember she was crying. I was not: I was too stunned. It was as if, in the rulebook of how to end a relationship, she had torn out the last chapter. Disagreements, rows, eating meals in silence, sleeping in separate rooms: these things were all missing from our end sequence.
So, at 52, I found myself unexpectedly single. As well as the pain of the breakup, I was also scared about single life. I had never struggled to meet women, but in the old-fashioned way: at parties, bars and clubs. This was the age of apps.
I knew online dating was now a normal part of single life, so I signed up to Hinge, Happn, Guardian Soulmates and Tinder. I was terrified by the sheer volume of people, all corralled together like items in a vending machine. One woman messaged me and simply said, “Hey.” I thought there was a problem with the text, so I waited for the rest of the conversation to arrive. Then I realised that was it. I thought: is that all you have to say?
I decided to be more considered in my approach. The majority of single women within my age range were divorced professionals who were juggling demanding jobs, young children and perpetual exhaustion. Many lived outside London and were struggling to find the time to accommodate the romance they were looking for. As a fiftysomething single person, the most critical factor in evaluating a potential new partner was availability and logistics: A&L, as I call it. In my head, I invented an A&L questionnaire, with questions such as:
How far away do you live?
Who will do the travelling when we meet?
How much will it cost to get there and back?
How old are your children?
Will I play a surrogate role with your kids?
How tricky is your ex, and will I have to deal with him?
The list might seem cold and unromantic, but so is swiping the faces of strangers on a phone. I once dated someone with two children under 10, who only saw their father every other weekend. I was expected to fill that role, even though I have my own son. Meanwhile, in the background, her ex was still arguing with her over the children’s school and other emotional residues of their divorce. There was a sense that I was in the middle of someone else’s hurricane. I didn’t want that again.
Love begins with pragmatic choices. Romance is phase two, if we’re lucky. Armed with these parameters, I revised all my online dating bios. This was my Tinder profile:
6ft 1in, made in Nigeria, born in London; got a big-mouthed smile wider than Julia Roberts’; into sports, the arts and walking in nature under big skies. I am short-sighted too, so you will look great for ever.
Would love to hear from you if your values are emotional and spiritual, rather than material; ideally slim, fit, healthy, tallish, smart, funny, non-smoker, living in London. I am 52, with a 23-year-old son. Wordless profiles I generally swipe left.
I thought clarity would help, but many of my matches ignored my A&L. I was contacted by a woman in her 40s with two young children who lived in Aberdeen. I didn’t understand why she’d swiped right on me: there was no way I could pop up there for a coconut cappuccino. Another woman slowly revealed that she was six months pregnant with a sperm donor baby, and was looking for a boyfriend who would also be a father. “Can’t we just start with coffee?” I joked.
While I could understand that some people hadn’t put as much thought into the practicalities of dating, I was shocked by the number of encounters I had with women who expressed racist views. Whenever I mentioned that I was looking for a relationship rather than casual sex, this was met with surprise, as if I was going against type: You want love? What kind of black man are you?
I was messaged by one divorced woman with two children who had never dated a black man and explained that she was “trying something new” by connecting with me. She told me, without embarrassment, that sex with a black man was on her bucket list, alongside other post-divorce “experiences” such as trekking in Nepal and zip-lining in Costa Rica.
On another occasion, I went on a first date with a white divorcee who lived in the commuter belt outside London. We went to a wine bar adjacent to the station, and I ordered us two glasses of red. As we settled down, I asked why she’d messaged me.
“You looked fit, and I thought you were a playa.” “Really? But… I didn’t say I was a playa in my profile.”
“Oh,” she said. “I just assumed you were.” Eventually she admitted that she assumed I’d be promiscuous because I was black. My heart sank.
I would sometimes jokingly point out the racism implicit within these assumptions. I say “jokingly” because this is the only tone that worked, in terms of challenging their views. Anger doesn’t play well on a first date and “angry black man” is another stereotype I have to negotiate. Using humour as a tool also meant that they didn’t feel threatened by me, so were more candid about their prejudices. One woman felt comfortable enough to tell me that there was no doubt in her mind that black men were biologically and sexually different from white men.
In the majority of these conversations, it became clear this was the first time these women had ever considered that they might harbour racist views. Although they all either lived or worked in London, almost everyone in their lives was white, and so their assumptions about race had never been challenged.
I was unhappy about being seen as a hydraulic appendage rather than a person. The next woman I met online expressed the same unconscious prejudices. Despite her misconceptions, she was funny and charming, but when it came to sex I deliberately tried to make the experience mediocre. I wanted to smash the stereotype. I wanted sex to be normalised, finally, the way it is for white men.
I learned to become a better emotional detective. By analysing the words and imagery within online profiles, I began to make better choices. I was once messaged on Tinder by a woman whose opening photo showed her from behind, riding away on a bicycle. What was she trying to tell me? Was she afraid? Was she cycling away from intimacy? I made a rule that I would always swipe left on anyone concealing rather than revealing. By avoiding those who appeared not ready, I was able to narrow the field further.
Eventually, I connected with women who were not motivated by racial stereotypes: scientists, psychotherapists, NHS directors, CEOs, actresses, TV personalities and film directors among them. I have since become good friends with three women, after we realised we weren’t right for each other romantically. When people ask if online dating has been successful, I say yes. For me, a good date is one when I have gone out and come back safely, having met someone and learned something.
Eventually, I also found romance on an app. She is white, 47 years old and, like me, works in the media. The sense of vanity so characteristic of many online profiles was absent from hers. When we started talking, she was honest and open, and we seemed to like the same things: Radio 4, running, Premier League football, red wine and cheese – result! Her A&L were also a good fit. She lives in London, has two children in their late teens, who don’t need surrogate parenting and are close to leaving home, plus an ex who is not causing trouble in the background. Emotionally, and geographically, she is available.
We went to a pub after work one night. I’d said beforehand that I could only meet for an hour. (One of my rules is that all first dates should be cheap and short.) But the attraction was instant, as if we’d met before. There was a logic-defying sense of ease and familiarity, and we both smiled: we’d found each other, finally.
• My Terrifying, Shocking, Humiliating, Amazing Adventures In Online Dating, by Ben Arogundade, is out now, priced at £9.99.
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