Lisa Bonos of Solo-ish talks to outgoing Date Lab matchmaker Christina Breda Antoniades and writer Michele Langevine Leiby. (Edited by Jessica Stahl and Carol Alderman)
Eleven years ago, when I signed on as a writer for Date Lab, The Washington Post Magazine’s weekly feature that sends Washingtonians out on blind dates and recounts them for public consumption, I was nine months pregnant with my third child, a cool decade older than the typical Date Lab applicant and not exactly in a dating frame of mind. (Before I could even finish writing my first assigned date, I went into labor.)
But my own marriage was the happy product of a blind date. And when daters described their indecision over whether to hug hello or go for the handshake, grumbled about their date’s sketchy table manners, or gushed about the butterflies they felt sitting across the table from a newly encountered crush, I could relate, just as thousands of readers do.
A few years later, I took over from Date Lab’s editors as matchmaker in chief, tasked with pairing daters based on nothing more than their photos and their sometimes candid, sometimes elusive answers to questions that range from the silly to the slightly intrusive, such as: “Quick! What’s the first thing you do when you get up in the morning?” and “Describe your worst date.”
In between shuttling my wee ones to preschool, assembling kid-friendly meals or cajoling my inexhaustible eldest into an afternoon nap, I’d sit down a few hours each day to tackle matchmaking. Scouring the database of thousands of prospective daters, I’d look for two people who had enough in common to sustain a conversation over dinner and — fingers crossed — find each other attractive.
Sometimes I’d find myself charging down a virtual rabbit hole, stumbling across a match-worthy dater who didn’t fit the person I had in mind but caught my eye enough to launch me in a new direction. Sometimes I’d spend hours pursuing a pairing and still come up empty-handed, making a note in my files to check back in a month or two in case the perfect partner should apply.
In some cases, I never stopped waiting for the right match, which is where I am now with an active 81-year-old who’s busy with Latin dance and music lessons (maracas, anyone?).
But our daters are an intrepid bunch. In their Date Lab applications, they have laid out a litany of dating complaints: the guy who talked endlessly about his porn habit, or the woman who obsessed over her ex-boyfriend, or overindulged and then puked on her shoes. Yet still, they’ve signed up and, when selected, signed on despite a daunting legal release that charmingly warns they may be exposed to “public ridicule.” Almost all have earnestly thrown themselves into the encounter, eager to have a good time, so much so that they doggedly push through dates they’d otherwise have politely cut short.
Most embraced Date Lab as a bit of an adventure, with the possible bonus of a romantic connection. Some say they’ve tried everything else — friends, co-workers, their mother, Match.com, eHarmony, Tinder, Coffee Meets Bagel — and see Date Lab as a break from the usual. Or as dater Dan Novak, speaking for himself and his date, recently put it, “We had both just reached a low point and now we’re on Date Lab. No offense.”
No offense taken. Date Lab is, admittedly, an oddball, especially now that online dating has become so dominant. It wasn’t like that when we started. We did our own matchmaking, in part, out of necessity. We still don’t have elaborate algorithms or teams of people calculating the probability a short brunette management consultant will swipe right on a skinny, tall bike messenger. Nor do we have BFF-level knowledge of our daters’ likes and dislikes. But as any inveterate dater knows, there’s something mysterious and unknowable at the heart of matchmaking. The “Lab” in our name has always had less to do with treating dating as a science and more to do with a spirit of examination, exploration and experimentation.
With every match, we’ve learned a little something about why some pairings take off — and why some go down in flames. We know that shared hobbies will break the ice but won’t get you out of the friend zone; that height matters more often than not; that an avid exerciser probably won’t click with a couch potato; that a mismatched sense of humor will heighten the already high awkwardness potential of a blind date.
But we’ve also learned that there are always surprises. Sometimes it’s a lifestyle mismatch that we learn about only after two people have spent hours getting to know each other. (When we set you up with a vegan we didn’t know you had a cheese addiction, dater!) Sometimes the chemistry-crushing surprise remains a mystery, even after the date. I still have no clue what prompted a dater to flee after the salad course (a.k.a. the Great Bathroom Disappearing Act).
The most common unknown, of course, is chemistry. Experience tells us it’s a critical element in propelling people past a first date, but we’re still a long way from a foolproof formula. That means that way too often daters agree they’re well matched on paper but are missing that zing of attraction that makes a second date a no-brainer. Or they seem to hit it off great! But then never follow up.
Thankfully, true fiascoes — like the guy who took a ring off his date’s finger and wore it for the next two hours — have been relatively rare. On the whole, our daters have been engaging, endearing and even forgiving when we’ve goofed, like the time a database glitch caused us to pair a 46-year-old woman with a 30-year-old man. (She gamely dubbed herself an “unintentional cougar.”)
And daters have hit if off plenty of times, sometimes despite a surprise. Consider the guy who showed up to his Date Lab date sporting a circa-1985 hairstyle. His date, before she even knew the hairdo was for an ’80s party, thought it was awesome. (“For real,” she assured us. “I love individuality.”)
Similarly, I didn’t know for sure whether Jane Leinecker and Bennett Podolsky would bond over a shared outlook or that she’d find him “really cute,” even though he was “not normally the type of person I would go for.” We got lucky on both counts: The two were married in 2013 (co-credit for the match goes to then-editor Amanda McGrath), our fourth couple to tie the knot.
Since Date Lab was launched in 2006 we have sent some 550 couples to dinner. Along the way, the feature has become part of the local landscape. We have applicants who started reading Date Lab in middle school and readers who, fabulously, act out each week’s column with their roommates. Daters are sometimes approached by strangers asking, “Hey, are you guys on Date Lab?”
Though we’ve toyed with varied venues — think sailing, horseback riding, a ropes course — and guest matchmakers (from Posties Gene Weingarten and Carolyn Hax to former Redskin Chris Cooley to an astrologer and even a monkey), the mechanics of Date Lab did not change much. Until now.
Starting next week, four new Date Lab writers will make their debut. They’ll work with Date Lab’s editors on the matching process, interview the participants, and then narrate and analyze what unfolded on the date. I’ll miss our daters and the thrill of the next great (or terrible, oof!) match, but, like you, I’ll be cheering along as Date Lab breaks new ground.
Christina Breda Antoniades is a writer in Baltimore.
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