Finding Love in a Hopeless Place
Jess O'Hare loved living in New Hampshire. She moved to Concord for a job as an environmental organizer just after her college graduation and enjoyed the affordability, tight-knit community, and natural landscapes.
"Life in New Hampshire was mountain-biking, swimming, skiing, sometimes even before work. You'd just get it all in," she said. "And it was easy to do that."
But there was just this one thing.
"I was single. I had a wonderful network of friends, I loved my job, but one of the things that was missing was that it was really challenging to find single people my age," O'Hare said.
Is New Hampshire a bad place for people in their twenties and thirties to date?
"It's a whole new world with dating apps. Things are much more transparent than they would have been before," said O'Hare. "If you're familiar with the dating apps, you swipe through people, yes or no. And you cycle through people pretty quickly in New Hampshire."
She found herself swiping and talking with people in Kittery, Maine–an hour east–and had friends who drove an hour west to Vermont for first dates. Plus, she regularly had to swipe through people she knew personally.
"It was noticeable how many people you would see again popping up on the apps and how many people you just knew, so all of a sudden, your pool was really reduced," said O'Hare.
The dating apps gave O'Hare somewhat unnerving insight into her potential dating pool. The idea of a "dating pool" can be difficult to identify and might mean something different for everyone: It's defined by sexuality, distance you're willing to travel, preferences regarding height, age, or weight, education, or interest in starting a family.
Take O'Hare, for example. She's in her early thirties and looking for someone around the same age. In Merrimack County, where she lived, there were almost 10,000 unmarried men between the ages of 20 and 34, according to the American Community Survey for 2012-2016. Unmarried people in the same bracket add up to just under 15 percent of the overall population, but compared to New York City and its surrounding boroughs, unmarried people make up 22 percent of the total population.
But searching the census for singleness or eligibility is tricky. Just because someone is unmarried doesn't mean they're available or even looking for a partner.
While there is a whole genre of clickbait articles that rank the best U.S. cities to be single, the cities listed can vary wildly. The point is nobody really knows the best place to date, and the lived experience might look and feel quite different than what the data suggests.
Unmarried men and women between ages 20 and 34, as estimated by the American Community Survey for 2012-2016. NHPR's Casey McDermott contributed to this map. This data is subject to a margin of error.
And as for Jess O'Hare, swiping through Bumble in southern New Hampshire, she felt a keen sense of scarcity.
"I started calling dating a numbers game. You just have to go on a number of dates to find someone compatible. That's true everywhere," she said. "But I think there's this behind-the-scenes latent anxiety that comes with feeling that there aren't that many single people around you."
This was particularly true around the holidays.
"We would just notice the rush of all these people coming back," she recalled. "Dating apps were all of a sudden supremely populated. We would kind of mourn the fact that all of these single people would then leave. It was noticeable!"
And she'd wonder: "Am I doing the wrong thing by staying here? Am I going to meet someone compatible with me? It was a constant conversation that we were having."
And finally, there came a moment when O'Hare realized that she needed to make a change.
"Many of my friends had started their families, and I am so, so happy for them. But I had a funny reaction: I felt very alienated suddenly. They were entering this stage of life that I had no experience in, and I felt kind of left behind. It made it very clear that I was not in that same place. It made me feel even lonelier," said O'Hare. "So I realized if that's something that I want, if I want to start a family, if I want to meet people, I better make some changes."
In spring 2018, O'Hare relocated to Brooklyn. While she had social and professional reasons to move, she's open about the fact that dating was a major factor in her decision.
"I hate to admit that! I mean, I'm supposed to be a modern woman, surging forward in her career," she said. "Anecdotally, I had one friend who thought I was crazy for moving just because of dating. But it's really important! If you're somebody who's seeking out a relationship and that's something you want, that's a really big part of life."
It's still early days for O'Hare's transition to the big city. Her job has kept her busy during her first summer in New York and she hasn't had much time for the dating apps.
"It's funny because I haven't even opened the dating apps all that much," she said, laughing. "Fall will be my high time to try out the dating scene here."
For single people in New Hampshire, O'Hare's story isn't exactly uplifting. Are things really so bleak?
Listen to "I Brought a Microphone with Me on a First Date. I Have No Regrets."
"I've been in the dating business in New Hampshire for 31 years and I think it's a great place to find love," said Janis Lewis, vice president of Together of New Hampshire. She's a professional matchmaker, so it's her job to believe in the possibility of romance.
"There's more happening in major metropolitan areas absolutely, but if you like New Hampshire and you want to live here, I do think it's possible to find love," said Lewis. "If you think you're not going to find love, you're not going to find love. If you move to New Hampshire and think, I'm going to go out there and meet the person of my dreams in New Hampshire and you leave no stone unturned, I think you will. I think it's all about putting yourself out there, no matter where you are."
Lewis runs Together of New Hampshire with president and founder Fred Sullivan, Jr. out of an office in Hooksett. The artwork in the office has a floral motif, sometimes embellished with an encouraging message. The placard hanging near Lewis' desk reads: "Together is a nice place to be."
Sullivan started the business in 1982, back when Together operated all over the country. Today, the New Hampshire office is the only one left.
"We're not an online dating service. We're kind of what you would call an old-fashioned matchmaker... I interview everybody that we match up," said Lewis. "And then once they go out on a date, they tell us how it went and that's really fun, to hear about the date. Sometimes I think it's going to be a home run and it's not, other times I think, maybe... and it's a home run."
Clients are typically 45 years old, and older. Lewis thinks that people in their twenties and thirties mostly rely on apps, but there was a time when they did have younger clients.
"I remember a girl coming in, she was like, 28. And Fred likes clocks, so the office is always loaded with clocks. And she said, is this is a sign, because my biological clock is ticking? And I said, aren't you funny! No. Fred just collects clocks," Lewis recalled.
Lewis and Sullivan do not match gay, lesbian, or queer singles, although Lewis says she's considered it.
"New Hampshire is such a small market that it really wouldn't benefit us to go with another service, another entity other than the market that we're originally intended for," said Sullivan.
"I've thought about it. I would love to do that. At this stage of the game, we're not doing that. There are definitely a lot of options out there for everybody," said Lewis. "We've just been doing it this way for so long. It's something that's crossed my mind though. I won't say I haven't seriously thought about it, just ... then I just get busy doing what I'm doing and working with the demographic that we have, it's what I'm accustomed to working with. It's not to say that we wouldn't though."
Online dating has opened up a lot more possibilities for queer people living in rural America, according to Skyler Wang, a PhD student in sociology at U.C. Berkeley. He studies how online arrangements influence offline relationships on platforms, including Airbnb, Couchsurfing, and dating apps.
"Online dating is one of those things, even if you're not an active participant of it, you're impacted by its force," said Wang. "With regards to rural areas, I think especially for people who belong to the 'thin market' – queer people, older people, people who traditionally have had less opportunities meeting people at the bar and whatnot, in traditional offline settings – I think online dating has really opened up a ton of more opportunities."
Wang says it's like having a bar in your cell phone.
"It's sort of like a safe space for queer people to explore their sexualities," explained Wang. "Because in rural parts of America you don't have a lot of gay bars or gay community events or whatnot, online dating platforms are sort of this digital space where you can explore your sexuality, you can meet people, find people to hook-up with, find people to have a romantic relationship with."
For those who might not have the resources to move, dating apps can fill a gap in rural America. It can change what's possible, and who is possible to meet.
"The primary mode of contact with new romantic partners is introductions through a friend, going to the neighborhood bar," said Wang. "It is only with online dating, people venturing out, dating people across racial backgrounds, income, educational achievements. And I think that's a good thing. You see a lot more diversity in relationships now because of online dating, because you're driving an hour away to meet someone that is not within the usual scope of people that you hang out with. And that person may not be white, that person not be whatever that you're used to. I think that instead of thinking of it as lowering standards or settling or whatnot, we need to understand that love isn't always convenient. It's not always easy."
Wang says there are a few good practices for online dating in general.
"Get the biggest exposure to different people," he said. "And this is not unique to people not living in urban centers, but I think it's really good to relax your preferences too. I don't think this is settling. I think this is just seeing what's out there because you never know what might come your way that you thought you didn't like, but you're sort of intrigued by it. You don't want to cut yourself out. You want to leave yourself with those options when they arrive. When in doubt, swipe right."