what dating is like when you live in the countryside
"You’d hardly ever get signal to use Tinder where I’m from, and will almost definitely match with a neighbour if you do."
To be young is now to be lonely, according to a body of work that has gradually uncovered an issue that was once spoken of -- if at all -- as the exclusive preserve of the elderly. As far back as 2011, studies were reporting that 86% of millenials felt lonely and depressed. Three years later, this survey suggested that 18 to 24-year-olds were four times as likely to feel lonely all the time, as those aged 70 and above.
Loneliness is a lethal kind of poverty with potential for pain equal to physical ailment. Its causes are many, while its solutions are difficult and elusive to grasp or enact. At its worst, loneliness can feel like a personal failing of a peculiarly terminal kind. As if there is something wrong inside us, that keeps us from the meaningful connections of friendship or love.
Though it’s inadvisable to reduce complex things to simple premises, the revolution in the way we search for romance can’t have helped matters. Online dating, in all of its ephemeral manifestations, frequently leaves us feeling less, not more connected. It’s hardly a revolutionary statement. The listless scrolling, periodic uninstalling, nightmare dates in chronically over-visited Zone 2 bars. The settling for tepid “seeing” scenarios that dribble on over the course of a few months, with zero mutual intention of meeting each other's friends, and a texting pathology that dictates response times of never less than 48-hours. That sneaky, perpetually nagging sense that something better is always an ill-advised Tinder Boost away.
There’s a reason that dating apps have been found to lower self-esteem and leave users feeling depersonalised and unfulfilled. And there’s a reason why their cusp-of-the-decade supernova success has turned into something approaching a peculiar kind of spiritual fatigue and, in some cases, exhaustion.
It’s a tough conclusion to take issue with, though one deserving a caveat. All of these lightly worn cliches about 21st century dating rely on both the presumption of unlimited choice and ease of access. They are overwhelmingly urban, designed to fit into the presumptions of what it means to be single in the city. But what happens when those presumptions are removed? How do we search for romance outside of the metropolis and what potential compromises does it involve? Simply put, what's dating in the countryside like?
It's not a process 22-year-old Megan would rush into again, she says. Having grown up in a small Welsh town of around 3,000 people, she explains how limited her options felt, not least “in the capacity to meet anyone new”. Even more constraining than the absence of choice was what would happen if you did happen to meet someone you felt an attraction to. “Even if you are (just) seen chatting to a guy you like, the whole town will know about it before he even does.”
Despite this, or maybe because of it, Megan explains that she’s never crossed over into dating apps, “even though I’ve since lived in both London and Paris, which, ironically, have both been very lonely places at times. I’ve always insisted on meeting people the ‘traditional’ (i.e. hard) way -- venturing out and meeting guys off my own back. Maybe that's just because you’d hardly ever get signal to use Tinder where I’m from, and will almost definitely match with a neighbour if you do.”
But is there a point when the absence of choice becomes a positive, something clarifying rather than the first step to romantic petrification? Instead of feeling overwhelmed, perhaps it forces a different kind of standard on a relationship, or the way we conceive our relationships. Just maybe the hyper-modern modes of dating hark back to something much more old-fashioned than we like to admit. The constant waiting for something perfect and idealised to turn up is really just a differently glazed search for ‘The One’, who is always one more elusive date away, one swipe out of reach. When choice is eliminated, a healthy kind of pragmatism can have time to flourish. Or not, as the individual dictates.
“Personally I feel there’s more (options) in my small hometown, where everyone knows everyone and it is much easier to meet people by chance or in person than through dating apps."
23-year-old Jessica* hails from Hereford (a largeish town in the south-eastern fringes of England). She’s only lived in London for a few months and has made a conscious decision to take some time “off” dating as she gets her bearings, wary of warnings from friends “about the fact that dating in London is much more difficult than elsewhere due to the vast quantity of people and the (stereotypical) idea that everyone is more focused on establishing a career than a relationship”.
For her, it’s London that feels devoid of choice: “Personally I feel there’s more (options) in my small hometown, where everyone knows everyone and it is much easier to meet people by chance or in person than through dating apps. But I feel that I will have to use apps if I want to 'meet' guys and date here,” she says. Using the same methods in the countryside isn’t a necessity, she explains, but comes freighted with its own codes and anxieties. “You see someone you know from school or work and you match with them something like 'lol' -- it's almost as if it's common knowledge that it's awkward to speak with someone you know on an app like Tinder.”
Of course, these are by no means thoughts and anxieties confined to the young. Sarah Thompson is a 42-year-old single mother, freelance writer and increasingly sporadic rural dater and dating app user based in West Dorset. It’s not a process that has damaged her self-esteem, she tells me: “if anything it strengthens it because you get so good at not needing anyone and not being prepared to settle”. Loneliness is hardly an issue for a working mum with two children. In fact, there’s no such thing as isolation. “I fantasise about being lonely”, she says.
That isn’t to say, living in the countryside doesn’t come with its own personalised set of frustrations. “It is exasperating. I feel trapped in a small pond with no other big fish. Historically, I’ve just widened my search and hoped that whoever I met would be up for lots of weekends in the country. And it has worked to some extent.” And it wasn’t a retreat to a country idyll that ended one of her last relationships, but something beyond the confines of location: “It ended because he was a massive twat, not because of the distance.”
"Some also regularly list things like 'nice bum' as a quality they are looking for in a potential suitor. Feminism still seems quite new in the country."
One thing Sarah did notice was an attitude lag between the two. “A lot of the men I see on apps here haven't learnt that it's not cool to call women ‘ladies’ and write things like 'one of the last true gentlemen' and 'I will treat you like a princess' on their profiles. They also regularly list things like 'nice bum' as a quality they are looking for in a potential suitor. Feminism still seems quite new in the country”.
However, she’s prepared to acknowledge that this isn’t something just confined to pastoral visions. “I just like to imagine people are more sophisticated (in the city). But there are probably plenty of 'true gents' in both settings.”
For Jason, a man spending his 30s based in a small Worcestershire town, the whole rigmarole has proved a strain and a pressure. The lack of choice hasn’t exactly felt like liberation, but a burden, though he’s glad to have “never seen an old schoolmate on Tinder”. As someone who, by his own admission, holds “a lot of anxiety about women and dating in real life”, it's been disappointing to find that the supposed "revolution" in dating mores “doesn’t exist” or simply hasn’t reached his town yet.
“I've seen Twitter posts making fun of the Reddit Incel movement, then looked at that page and found myself actually getting sucked into their arguments” before quickly realising “what a crock it is and feeling profoundly depressed at my idiotic situation.”
Unlike Sarah, his self-esteem has been “ruined by these apps, yet I return to them like a moth to a flame”. An inevitability considering his anxiety around more traditional avenues of dating and the sense of being stymied by location. It’s a complex problem and again one that isn’t reducible to a platitude.
For Jason, the whole edifice of online dating is “inherently a bit creepy, voyeuristic and fruitless. Maybe living in the real (non-metropolitan) world out of necessity, brings out better qualities in people.” One thing he seems certain of is that “there doesn’t seem to be anybody out there like me. Even when I extend the search radius to ‘Anywhere’”.
Sarah’s rural life makes her dream of a romance “where I meet someone by chance or through a friend or work and we hit it off and then we fall for each other”. A reminder that, just as loneliness is not a preserve of the countryside, love isn't exclusive to the city either.