Dating at 50: What Tinder Taught Me About “Normal”

When I was in my 20s, I imagined turning 50 would be the emotional equivalent of being cryogenically frozen. I was convinced that all my relationship wants and needs would be suspend in a cold storage unit at the end of a serpentine hallway in the basement of my mind. I assumed a comfortable sweater, a newspaper, and a club sandwich would satiate all my earthly desires. Now that I am 50 and recently single, I am surprised to find the younger me was mostly right. Even though print news has become somewhat aloof, I find that climbing into my cozy clothes and ordering off Denny’s sandwich menu keeps me mostly happy.

As a young man I sought a woman who shared my vision of an ideal life. My list of desired attributes was long and detailed. I wanted to be challenged by someone who was ambitious, beautiful in every aspect of her being, and would partner with me in making the world a better place to raise our exceptional children. As I prepare for my twilight years, however, my criteria has narrowed. Now, I swipe through potential mates on Tinder and Bumble and wonder, if it ever came to it, would she be willing and, if so, gentle while inserting a catheter.

These are not my current needs, mind you, but it seems wise to plan ahead. So, I swipe profile after profile in search of kind eyes and steady hands and wonder how literally to interpret the phrase “no hookups.”

It would be nice to have a companion, but I don’t feel incomplete. I have children, friends, pets, hobbies, books, HBO and SportsCenter to keep me company. I have a routine that is probably more entrenched than I’d like to admit. In my 20s, I was like Silly Putty willing to be stretched and manipulated to fit into the right woman’s life. In my 50s, I’m more like the oddly shaped Ikea fastener you find on the floor and think, this goes somewhere very specific, as you throw it in the junk drawer and wait for the furniture to collapse.

All this to say, I’m looking for a place where I fit. I don’t want to trick someone into dating an aspirational version of me. That’s why I keep my dating profile as accurate as my ego will allow. It’s an authentic representation of my life, perhaps slightly enhanced by soft lighting and a rose-colored tint. For instance, I allude to personal growth but I don’t include a single picture of me balled in the fetal position on my therapist’s couch. I also have zero photos of me staring into a Costco bag of potato chips after I realize I’ve unwittingly eaten my way to the bottom in one sitting. My shocked expression, lit by the haunting glow of late-night television as a week’s worth of sodium bloats my face into cartoonish proportions, is as unvarnished as my life gets. I’m just not convinced anyone benefits from that level authenticity.

Part of the unspoken contract of being on Tinder in your 50s is the recognition that we’re all a little bit broken. So I’m often surprised when people lead with their shortcomings, or their Ex’s shortcomings, or the declaration “I’m sick of the stigma of herpes,” which I’ve actually seen. Also, if you’re in your 50s, Burning Man photos are not whimsical, they’re cries for help from a deeply repressed part of your psyche. I try to recognize that while my needs are simple other people’s can be magnificently complex. I try to honor the reality that we all have traveled unique paths to Tinder and swipe without judgment — but that can be hard.

The idea of monogamy is so attractive to me that I’m bothered when people call it plain vanilla. Vanilla is not plain — it’s a flavor and it’s fucking delicious. I’ve always theorized that human sexuality is a Gordian knot of unattended emotional and physiological needs; but in the past few years I’ve been introduced to a new lexicon of how these desires wind themselves into an assortment of romantic arrangements and sexual desires. My Google search history reads like the glossary to BDSM for Dummies, but at least now I understand the origins of the phrase, “stop topping from the bottom!”

It would be nice to have one person with whom to share intimate thoughts, hopes, dreams, emotions, and vanilla flavored moments. The thought of tracking safe words and tending to the needs of more than one partner just makes me feel sleepy. But others, it would seem, have greater capacity and have put infinitely more thought into the rules of how to maintain the multi-relationship sm-örgy-bord. I’m only on the mainstream dating sites, yet even there it’s a sundae bar of unorthodox couplings wrapped in urine tinged leather with fist prints in the ice cream.

Anyway, after meeting dozens of women and dating a few for an extended period of time, I’m not sure I’m any closer to knowing where I fit, but I am very much enjoying looking for a potential hook-up.