It’s not just you, I promise. In Britain, one in five of us look to begin relationships online, and in the US, 50 million people have at least tried it. Last spring, the Office for National Statistics found that 51% of the UK population are single, although their definition simply means “not married”. We’re single and searching for all kinds of reasons but it’s safe to assume that these numbers include a fair few who haven’t yet met The One because no one has ever made a move and asked them.
Have you ever asked anyone out, or does the idea make you want to climb up your curtains and cling to the pole, where you can gather dust forever? Think of the person you really, really like – and now think about telling them that. You probably have a sensation in your stomach that you usually only experience when you contemplate a sheer vertical drop, or when you’re about to check your bank balance after finishing the Christmas shopping. To make your secret, emotional self open and vulnerable, and then risk rejection is a kind of madness. Surely it’s safer to keep quiet about your private thoughts and stay single for ever. This is why you’re never been asked out. Because very few people are sure enough of themselves to ask you.
I suspect the pattern starts at school. Most of us experience our first serious romantic feelings in the playground and we learn quickly that if we reveal them, we risk humiliation. Every school had one or two cool couples who seemed immune to their own emotions. I remember Dan and Melinda, the sulky, stratospherically gorgeous gum-chewers who got together on one summer day in year 7, when we were doing long division. If French fashion brand The Koopleshad been targeting 12-year-olds in the late 90s, Dan and Melinda would have been the first couple to sign up. They were so cool that Dan didn’t even ask Melinda out in the traditional fashion, with a torn strip of paper from a work book with the question “Do you like me? YES/NO” scrawled in blobby blue ink. (If the answer was “no”, the scrawler would tease the recipient for thinking that they might have been about to get asked out. In my case, this happened a couple of times, even when my answer had been “yes”.) Dan simply poked Melinda in the back with a 30cm shatterproof ruler, raised an eyebrow – a skill that several girls cited when admitting they fancied Dan – and simply said, “So … yeah?”
For three weeks they stood together silently at break time until one day Dan was standing with a girl called Abby, and Melinda was with Dan’s older brother, Richard. Years later, I bumped into Melinda and reminisced about her time as the golden girl. I’d always wondered whether Dan was a little more talkative when you got him on his own.
“I’d forgotten about that!” she laughed. “I think Dan maybe said 10 words to me for the whole time we were going out. To be honest, I didn’t even like him – I had a crush on Stuart. But I thought I ought to go out with Dan because he was cool.”
I was quite surprised. “Stuart who always had a runny nose, and kept newts?” Melinda explained that she’d once been his science partner out of pity, and quickly became drawn to his wit and warmth. Why didn’t she ask him out? “People would have laughed at me.” But she might’ve altered the course of both their childhoods for the better.
She’s single now and wonders whether it’s karma. “I don’t think anyone has ever really asked me out since Dan. Obviously I’ve had boyfriends, but they’ve always been a bit vague. The last guy I was seeing – well, it went on for six months and at no point did I feel secure enough about it to ask him if we were boyfriend and girlfriend.”
If you have never been asked out, there’s a chance you’ve been admired from afar by a magnetic Melinda who still carries the old-school rules with them and hasn’t been able to reconcile what the heart wants with what they think it ought to have.
Even in 2015, there’s a hideous, heteronormative idea that women are still supposed to wait around with empty dance cards until a dashing chap comes over and twirls his moustache at them. Last month I spoke at a dating event and was astonished when a stunning woman in the audience asked “Am I allowed to message men? Will they be turned off if I make the first move?” I put it to the crowd. “Gentlemen, is there anyone here who wouldn’t be thrilled if this lady messaged you and wanted to meet up?” The “no” was deafening. When a gay friend went on her first date with a woman, she agonised about who was going to take the lead. “What if we’re just sat there waiting to be kissed, or not knowing who asks who out next time?” she asked me. In the end she was the one who paid for dinner, started the snogging and hailed the cab, and admitted that it felt great to take charge. She’d never felt more confident in her life.
When I met my very first boyfriend, I asked him out. We’d met at a party and I’d tracked him down in the phone book – I was 15 and wasn’t yet allowed a mobile, possibly because my parents knew that I was desperate to meet boys and give them my phone number. My fear of humiliation was just about overshadowed by my desire for “closure” (I’d watched a lot of American television). I’d been thinking about him all week and decided that a few minutes of hellish embarrassment would be easier to deal with than a lifetime of longing and waiting.
To my shock he said yes, and seemed grateful and astonished that I asked. For me, that set the pattern for the next 12 years, until I asked a man if he’d like to go for a drink and ended up marrying him.
So maybe you’re just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him for the time because you’re frightened to tell him how you really feel, and fear rejection. Or perhaps you’re just a boy staying in on a Saturday night because you’re scared of putting yourself out there because you really liked someone once, but they left you to your newts. Either way, if you’re wondering why you haven’t been asked out, it’s probably because you haven’t done enough asking yourself yet.