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Single and over 25? Why can’t you find someone?

We surveyed the rocky terrain of broken hearts to investigate

SAMAA | - Posted: Nov 23, 2021 | Last Updated: 6 days ago
Posted: Nov 23, 2021 | Last Updated: 6 days ago

The Kiss 1907–08, oil on canvas by artist Gustav Klimt.

If you are above 25 and single, here’s a question you’ve asked yourself several times: Why can’t I find someone?

You could be well settled in your career, have a great circle of friends, have traveled the world and have shaped a stable, mature relationship with your family. These achievements are, however, eclipsed by a lone ‘failure’ that you do not have a steady partner. Dear God, why?

The answer to the crisis of singledom lies in a fairytale we have been told. Get married and your life will be complete. This fairytale has several versions. Girls hear this version: A good man will take care of you. They got stinging remarks about wasting time on education or careers, that their time was better spent learning how to cook, clean or manage kitchens and linen cupboards because “apnay ghar jaogi toh yeh sab aana chahiye.”

Boys were strung along in more covert ways. They were told not to waste time playing because it took away from their studies. They got biting remarks if they showed any artistic inclinations, because “iss say kamaogay kya?” Advice about building a life rarely strayed beyond building a strong base from which to support a family. Eventually, the velvet glove came off and one question became never-ending: “Beta, shaadi kyun nahi kartay?

The fairytale has the classic, unexplained happily-ever-after.

Junaid Safdar with his wife Aisha Saif at their nikkah ceremony in London. (Photo: Twitter)

This programming never leaves us, even where the institution of marriage frustrates us. The seed has taken deep root, even if we have been unable to find someone we can commit to forever or have been through a divorce. That’s why the odds are that if you are single, you will have asked yourself and others why you can’t find someone.

Luckily, this piece is about helping you find someone, not talking you out of needing ‘a companion’.

Many of you have done the right thing and married someone your families found, or someone you found in college or university. Congratulations to you, you can stop reading now. If you missed the university boat and can’t bear the thought of signing up for life with someone you met five minutes ago, this piece is for you.

Finding someone to settle down with entails meeting new people. Several Karachi people shared stories of how they met new people. Each tactic is promising, but comes with pitfalls. One thread runs common to all of them: a willingness to pick yourself up after failure and to learn from the experience.

Urooj and Tahir were lucky to have found a partner without needing to meet new people. They reconnected after several years and a failed marriage each, and are now happily married. For every Urooj and Tahir, there are thousands of us who have no choice but to cast the net wide.

The Misers by Marinus van Reymerswaele

Offices and professional situations

Workplaces replace universities as the most popular fishing grounds, only by virtue of keeping us captive for half or more of our waking hours. The obvious pitfall of approaching someone at work is that you might get in the way of their work. Most women, and a few men, lose count of how many times they get approached at work. They say the attention is largely unwanted and makes it difficult to focus on their careers. Natasha, 36, a school administrator, shared the story of how she was caught unawares when a former boss professed interest in her. He had waited till she was transferred to another department because he “didn’t want to do anything inappropriate.” Incidentally, she had recently announced her engagement.

The attention can, however, be welcome at times. Ten years and a divorce later, Natasha is currently dating a colleague. She says the relationship sprung up organically after months of conversations that begun professionally and developed into a deep friendship. Now, she has to be careful about maintaining appearances, especially after stories of another workplace romance set the company grapevine ablaze. She speaks of the challenge of keeping personal matters from affecting the professional relationship, and vice versa.

Fatima, 34, dated a colleague. The relationship fizzled out when the two were jockeying for a promotion to the same position and could not keep their professional and personal lives apart, she said.

Egon Schiele, self portrait, 1914

Some professions lend themselves to chance interactions. Farheen, a journalist, met Usman at a vintage car show she was covering. He was a car enthusiast and she interviewed him for her story. A few days later, he sent some giveaways to her office, one of which was addressed to her. She reached out to thank him and they got to talking. They dated for eight years before religious differences got in the way.

Nafeesa and Hameeda both work in public relations. Nafeesa was introduced to someone by a client at a fashion show. The first two dates went great, she recalls, until he revealed a controlling side on the third date. He proposed to her and insisted she stop working immediately. She stopped seeing him immediately.

Hameeda developed a friendly relationship with the marketing manager of one of her clients and several months after the assignment was completed, he asked her out. She discovered he was married, unhappily he said. His being married did not bother her until a few months later when she developed stronger feelings and asked if he would leave his wife. When he showed no signs of moving for a divorce from his current wife, Hameeda swallowed the bitter pill and pulled back.

Public spaces

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, 1942

Burhan, another journalist, says his work schedule doesn’t leave him much time to socialize but when he can make the time, he makes it a point to hang out with new people. Sometimes this means accepting invitations to personal gatherings from people he has met because of his work, including government officials. At other times, it means loitering around in public spaces, such as malls or parks, and finding small groups of women he thinks might be receptive to a stranger saying hello.

He developed a knack for gauging receptiveness and approaching strangers when he was studying at the University of Karachi and would chat girls up at the restaurants outside Muskan gate. “If you tried to talk to a girl from the Islamic studies department, you could expect an indignant response,” he warns. “But girls from some departments might be more receptive. A few unpleasant encounters will quickly teach you how to choose who to talk to and who to avoid.”

Talking to strangers in public spaces is an alien concept to us, even though it is common in so many cities around the world. It is not altogether absent, however. Waleed, 37, and Anushay, 32, met at a food festival. They were waiting in a long line while their friends were elsewhere. “He asked me if this long line would be worth the wait,” she said. “I asked him why he was wasting so much time if he wasn’t sure.” “Turns out we had a lot of mutual friends,” he said, when asked what he talked to a random stranger about. “This is surprising because there’s a five-year gap between us.” They were engaged before the next edition of the food festival and married by the third one.

Mutual friends

Untitled (You are a very special person) by artist Barbara Kruger

When desperate to solve our ‘single’ problem, our first tactic is to goad our friends into introducing us to someone new. This approach has a rather low success rate when our friends are as homebound as we are or are simply not adventurous enough to take on the risk of making introductions. Don’t roll your eyes – rishta aunties are brave (and possibly deluded) enough to keep trying, despite knowing that most introductions don’t work out. That’s not to say you shouldn’t keep pestering your friends to find someone for you.

Raika met Sajid through a group of mutual friends eight years ago. “The first time I met him, he picked us up and took us to a dhaba, where we had tea in his car,” she said, remembering that in that first encounter, they found each other decidedly irritating. They met again a few times in the group before he asked her out. “Neither of us was looking for anything serious at the time because we were still recovering from difficult break-ups,” she revealed. Still, things worked out between them and they dated for four years before religious differences got in the way of another relationship.

Zohra moved to Karachi after her divorce and reconnected with a friend she hadn’t met in a decade. On a lazy August 14 afternoon, she met him and Rafay, a friend he brought along, for coffee. Zohra and Rafay hit it off instantly and dated for three years. None of their friends would have said they had seen the wedding coming.

In 2019, Sajid, tired of the never-ending “Beta, shaadi kyun nahi kartay?” left a comment on a friend’s Facebook post. The friend had posted a picture with someone Sajid didn’t know and just for fun (he insists) he asked who this new person was. The mutual friend went to work and introduced him weeks later to Yasmin. The two were married within a year of that comment.

Social media

BBBBrrrringgg by Deborah Azzopardi

The most controversial way to meet new people is through social media – all platforms. Not LinkedIn, you say? You’d be surprised to hear the stories shared by several women, who say posting a profile picture was a mistake, because anywhere between one and three DMs for every four they receive are propositions from men, not professional messages. I expected to hear this for Facebook and Instagram, but not LinkedIn. Twitter has proved surprisingly fertile ground for those who know how to play the game. Journalist Burhan and Qaiser, a restaurant owner, both maintain active accounts and tweet several times a day. Their interactions with other users over the years have led to several friendships and in a few cases, romantic encounters.

One name I did not see coming is Couchsurfing, the hospitality exchange app. Yasmin found a group of friends on the platform, even though it has not led to any romantic encounters for her.

Tinder. Bumble. Yes, I heard you shout out both names at the first mention of social media.

PR expert Hameeda is skilled at the Tinder and Bumble game. Over the past five years or so, she has met and dated several men that she matched with. This is where she met a Russian diplomat and a Ghanaian businessman, who were in and out of Karachi for about a year each. She is currently seeing a retired armed forces officer she met on Tinder just before the ban.

Tinder and Bumble are popularly associated with the hook-up culture, but a growing number of couples disagree with this limit on the use of these apps. Take Sameer and Lubna for example, who matched on Tinder, bonded over their love for ghazals and were married a few months later. Muzmatch has a better reputation and I encountered several couples who met via the platform and went on to sign a Nikkahnama.

Online dating zooms in on a polarizing phenomenon that exists offline too, but at a frequency so low, I didn’t notice it. Some singles want to take it slow, getting to know the other person over several meetings and conversations before making any firm commitments. Others “expect a proposal at the third date”, as teacher and pro-dater Maisam put it. You might be tempted to ascribe this to men’s reputation of wanting to play the field and women’s reputation for wanting to get married immediately, but nothing could be further from the truth. How quickly someone wants to get to a firm commitment crosses the gender line. Most men and women in Karachi expect to see a firm commitment quickly, much to the disturbance of an emerging minority that doesn’t want to be badgered into commitments before they are ready.

Maisam has used Tinder in Pakistan and in the US. “There, a lunch date means just that,” he says. “No expectation of it leading to anywhere serious.”

He has a Silicon Valley, quantify-everything-you-do mindset and says he has done a great deal of research. “It’s all there in their (Tinder and Bumble’s) blogs and on Reddit. As someone who wants to optimize my chances of success, I read through all of it,” he explains. “There are even ways you can psychologically cue people to trust you more. Your profile pictures should have a variety of activities, with guys displaying a gentler side by playing with a kid, one who is clearly not their own offspring. Also helps to have a couple of pictures with cuddly animals, like a cute dog. In terms of keywords, adventure, reading, and for some reason baking seem to do really well.”

He feels that these platforms are biased against older people, observing that the paid services cost him double the day he turned 30 and noting that the platforms themselves have said that older users’ profiles are shown less often to potential matches. Maisam laments that despite all his research and optimization, the frequency of getting matches has dropped by half after his 30th birthday.

How to make it rain (wo)(men)

Mappa del mondo by Alighiero Boetti

More than half the people I spoke to while researching this story shared the basic elements of Shakeel’s story. Shakeel, 29, hasn’t dated anyone in almost seven years. His life is divided between his work, being at home and hanging out with his friends, who are mostly the same people he works with. He still hasn’t ruled out the possibility of getting married.

The difference between singles (and former singles) who are finding dates versus those who aren’t lies in one variable: how much the former put themselves in situations to meet new people. This is no commentary on anyone’s chances of finding love or getting married, only an observation on different approaches.

If you have an unusual story of how you met someone, or know of an unusual story, let us know in the comments below!

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