Dating out of bounds

CHRISTY DESMITH | Updated 8/17/2012

Expand your dating pool by getting outside of your usual social comfort zone.


He was, by far, the handsomest man at the Firehouse Lounge, a dingy nightclub just outside my exurban hometown of Circle Pines. With full, Angelina Jolie-like lips, liquid-center eyes and a mop of curly, dark hair, he, in fact, looked perfect -- sexy as a J. Crew catalog cover -- but for one thing: an unfortunate pair of stark-white, discount-store-bought sneaks.

Clothes aren't the status symbol they once were. But an outfit still provides plenty of information about a potential mate's education, lifestyle and socioeconomics. This guy's shoes were not of the Run-DMC variety, the kind in which Uptown's baristas and graphic designers ironically kick about. Rather, these were tightly laced, amply cushioned and all the more glaring when finally I rose from my barstool to give this otherwise gorgeous stranger a closer look.

In conversation, Jamie proved charming and friendly with a broad, generous smile -- even despite his ghastly footwear, which turned out to be essential to the construction work he did.

Still, deflecting his advances came automatically for me. Despite coming from a blue-collar family, I fancied myself a college-educated, upwardly mobile professional. My dating history provided a road map of my aspirations, checkered by med students, attorneys, an orchestra musician and even a classical guitarist with a nasty case of attachment disorder.

In the nicest possible way, I tried to tell the hunk that he wasn't my type. To this, he curled his upper lip, locked his eyes with mine and said: "Get over yourself."

Recently, when a 26-year-old acquaintance complained of having already "tapped out" the local dating market, I got to thinking about dating across socioeconomic boundaries, and its potential for expanding a Twin Cities single's seemingly small pool of prospects. So many of the professional women I know hold out, against all odds, for guys who are smarter, have better jobs or even more expensive haircuts than they do. In other words, they still hope to marry rich. As for the single guys of my clique (lawyers, designers, musicians), they cling to standards of beauty that are, at the very least, expensive to maintain: perfect teeth, platinum hair, an unwrinkled face.

And yet, most of these people are unhappily single -- if not outright lonely. Might they have better luck in love if they, too, got over themselves and crossed off the more superficial line items on their long lists of criteria?

But before the practice of "slumming it," or "dating down" (to dispense with two slurs), can be recommended outright to these lonely hearts, the long-term potential of these relationships must be certified. So I looked around for marriages between lower-wage working people and members of the educated, urban elite.

This nonscientific study yielded an interesting result: While it's easy to find professional women who are either dating or married to men in careers considered less prestigious than their own -- and these women are happy to talk -- it's difficult to shake words loose from women paired with men of higher rank. Most likely that's because women care a lot about class. If she is in a prestigious career, she plots her socioeconomic status accordingly. However, if her husband is on a higher rung, she considers herself to have climbed the ladder by association.

Men don't seem to care as much. I approached two men who are "dating down," but they suggested the topic wasn't interesting enough to warrant comment. And when a 29-year-old truck driver named Jeremy who is happily married to a child therapist was asked how he feels about the fact that his wife has a comparatively prestigious, higher-paying gig, he replied: "It doesn't make me feel one way or another."

Some women are that way. Cindy, a 39-year-old occupational therapist who married a custodian, says there's just one issue: "It's my expectation that the kids go to college, whereas he's kind of like: 'If.'"

But another woman, a 52-year-old vice president at a major area corporation (she asked that her name be withheld), who has been married to a contractor and industrial arts teacher for 15 years, offered a series of clear-eyed assessments that echoed my own ambivalence. For starters, she and her girlfriends have stopped inviting boyfriends and husbands along on their outings (her husband doesn't fit in). And it might have hurt her at work, too: "If he were a professional person, I would probably be more apt to invite [colleagues] over," she said.

Even though these people's experiences range widely, there was one discernible constant: Each of them was previously stuck on a dating carousel, meeting the same sorts of people at the same sorts of places -- and always with the same results. Prior to meeting his wife, Jeremy had a thing for unemployed, financially needy chicks. Cindy dated "showy" guys who, perchance, "ended up being jerks." The vice president was dating a lot of professional men, but with little luck. In fact, after a string of dating mishaps, her brother, a contractor, finally offered this advice: "What you need is a regular guy, a carpenter, somebody who can do something! "

In my own case, I harbored an unhealthy attraction to self-centered, artistic men with whom I felt intellectually and professionally competitive. So by the time that persistent hunk came along -- ugly shoes and all -- I was emotionally exhausted and, frankly, ready to try my luck with an entirely different sort of sweetie: a gentle soul, someone who's down to Earth and especially kind. As for Jamie's bulging biceps and olive, sun-kissed skin -- the fruits of his chosen profession -- those things are pretty good, too. That's not to say blue-collar guys are better than the rest, only that it was time to try something new -- to let go of some very specific, fairy-tale ideas about what constitutes a suitable mate.

It's no surprise, then, that I met my boyfriend of nearly three years when I finally ventured outside the usual stamping grounds. I simply had to push past my comfort zone to find a fresh, new face and type -- and ultimately, he turned out to be Mr. Right.