As a serial consumer of dating shows I could barely wait to dive into C4’s debut episode of A Year To Fall In Love last week. Having binged on The Bachelor, dined on Dinner Date, and committed my summer to the charms of Love Island, a programme that follows real life singletons as they travail The Tinder Age in a quest to find lasting romance seemed 100% my type on paper.
In spite of moments of lightness found in the first episode, A Year to Fall in Love also bought some darker themes to the television table. Through the erratic and troubling behaviour of focal female Niki’s new paramour, A Year To Fall In Love demonstrated the very real threats faced by women who throw themselves at the mercy of the dating world and the inevitable stranger danger that accompanies it. At one point a visibly exhausted Niki tells the camera how, following a second date, a love interest refused to let her sleep, became enraged that she was not interested in having sex with him, and emotionally manipulated her by insisting she couldn’t like him. It became too much only when he began to punch walls.
As she sniffles through the story her phone bleeps incessantly in the background, her so-called suitor begging for another chance. “I’m sorry, I hate myself for losing you”, he tells her, as though after a mere two dates she was already his.
For me, Niki’s experience rang alarm bells. I was once forced to go to the police after a sustained campaign of harassment following the end of a brief relationship. With two women a week being killed by a former current or former partner in England and Wales the statistics made unpleasant reading as I researched how best to handle my situation. I was only driven to seek help when the individual threatened serious physical harm against me or himself if I continued to refuse to be with him.
The situation Niki and I faced, as reflected in A Year To Find Love, is certainly extreme, if not uncommon. However alongside this very clear example of concerning behaviour played out a similarly troubling scenario.
Twenty-six year old Nick from Wales was introduced as a mild commitment-phobe and serial user of the dreaded double message. He laments his lack of success on dating apps, and wonders what women can possibly not see in his charming and witty profile. He seems affable and unlucky in love, living with his parents after a stint abroad and making elderflower champagne from garden produce in his spare time.
What Nick, and others like him, do not realise however is how concerning his behaviour may be for women exposed to threats of this kind throughout their lives
A rather less charming side to Nick emerges when he meets a girl in real life (it should be noted that on this programme to meet someone “in real life” is held up to be a scenario as unlikely as winning the lottery). It seems that this poor and disinterested young lady had the good sense to give Nick her friend’s number instead of her own. Smelling a rat however, tricky Nicky calls the number to uncover her “mistake”. She vaguely mentions they could perhaps go to a food festival together, and says she’ll use the prank call to get his number to arrange. In spite of signs the contrary young Nick is optimistic. “She said she’d text me and I really felt like she meant it,” he announces, assured in his abilities to get the girl.
When a text fails to materialise, Nick is in denial. He creepily tracks his potential match down on Facebook and messages her. When that evokes no response he calls the friend. “I met your mate the other day and she accidentally gave me your number,” he says “so I gave her my number, and I don’t know if I gave her the right one”. Of course. The only feasible explanation why this woman wouldn’t want to meet Nick is a classic case of the wrong number. She’s probably trying desperately to discover his digits too as we speak, right? Right?
Women watching the programme will have almost certainly been nodding along emphatically. Many of us will have fallen victim to the pursuer who thinks that persistence is flattering, who is certain that enough messages and unwelcome attempts at contact will win us over.
For me, the reluctance to give up bought up more testing memories of my ex, who would send me strings of messages apologising for his behaviour and how “crazy” he was acting, how crazy I, apparently, forced him to act. This would be closely followed by numerous calls from a series of different numbers and friend and follow requests from a plethora of social media accounts he’d created to get around my liberal use of the block button. What I found truly baffling through all of this was the sheer sense of entitlement. Here was a man who felt that I owed him something. I owed him my time. I owed him my attention. I owed him explanations, when I had already clearly told him why I wanted to end our short acquaintance both through messages and in person. Ultimately he felt that I owed him a relationship and was enraged that I wasn’t giving him his dues. The response, in his view, was in proportion to the wrongdoing.
Although the abuse encountered by Niki in the programme is an acute example of how threatening and frightening dating gone wrong can be, Nick’s hapless advances are not a million miles away. Although he is portrayed as an ultimately harmless bloke there is a menace behind his insistence that these women should respond to him. Although I felt a sympathetic urge to pull him the side and gently tell him “mate—she’s just not that in to you” the memories of my own experience reared their ugly head.
To be clear, Nick is not a stalker. Realistically, there is a high probability that there is no ill intent behind his actions. What Nick, and others like him, do not realise however is how concerning his behaviour may be for women exposed to threats of this kind throughout their lives.
The cult of toxic masculinity encourages men to feel that women owe them something - be it sex, a second date, or a simple response to a message. Although as a one-off occurrence Nick’s behaviour might seem at best comical and at worst mildly irritating it reveals a darker underside to the heterosexual experience of dating. When we’re bought up with stories of big bad wolves and women murdered by men they’ve spurned, behaviour such as tracking a disinterested person down online or bombarding them with messages takes on a more sinister edge. And as I and Niki unfortunately learned, it can begin as incongruously as a love interest refusing to accept no as a reasonable answer.