TikTok blew up this week, as it so often does, with multiple women sharing stories about a man they dated. His name is Caleb, he lives in NYC and supposedly works as a designer for furniture store West Elm.
What began as a slow drip became a flood – new videos were cropping up left right and centre with women sharing similar, depressing dating stories. This isn’t anything new – dating has always been difficult, it’s a tale as old as time – but what made these stories particularly special is that they all had the same man in common. West Elm Caleb.
Swathes of women – all of them around my age, mid-20s – were sharing stories of being lovebombed by this guy (the process of showering someone with affection and attention very early on as a way to win over and manipulate people). They all received a “personalised” playlist from him. Some of them were even sent the same selfie. Most of them were under the impression he had deleted his dating apps after talking to them and a few of them thought they were exclusive. Critically, he turned around and ghosted them all (completely ceasing communication, essentially ceasing to exist in the relationship).
West Elm Caleb isn’t just some guy – although it is objectively quite amusing that somehow the same, six four, mustachioed art dude managed to date and subsequently savagely ditch so many NYC women in a short period of time. When did he work? Was he not exhausted trying to keep up with all the conversations and all of the lies? Was he just a bit charming and misguided or genuinely cruel? So many unanswered questions!
But no – West Elm Caleb is representative of a phenomenon. He’s the face of all the people who have messed someone around, ghosted a genuinely interested person or left some poor love-seeker wounded. Online dating opened up a whole world of courtship pain. It allowed participants to feel a sense of freedom, and with that comes a lack of responsibility. No one is accountable to anyone, so no one is held accountable when they treat another person badly. They can simply slip away, disappearing into the ether. Maybe the story has resonated so much because we have all encountered our very own West Elm Caleb.
I’m in a very happy relationship now with a man that I met in real life – two things that I think are connected. Before I met my boyfriend, I was a fairly prolific online dater. I had recently moved to London, I didn’t know many people, and I was a hopeless romantic, certain that some gent was going to come along and sweep me off my feet. Back home in New Zealand it’s nearly impossible to ghost someone. That joke about everyone knowing everybody is sadly very true, and if someone were to ghost you they’d likely see you out and about the following weekend, making for one very awkward run in. They’ve also probably dated your best friend’s cousin’s former teacher at some point, too. So the first time it happened to me in London, I truly thought this man had died.
I initially resisted the urge to send the much-maligned “double text”. But as time went on and my WhatsApp remained on two grey ticks (delivered, but not read), I legitimately began to think some awful fate may have befallen him. I thought of the Sex and the City episode when Miranda gets stood up, only to find out her date had actually died. Of course this would happen! I had finally met an amazing guy, and he turns around and pops his clogs!
I archived our WhatsApp conversation. I un-archived our WhatsApp conversation. I opened and closed the app, checking to see if the ticks had turned blue. Macabre scenes cycled through my head – he’d been hit by a bus, his car had overturned in the rural streets around his house, an alien had transported him to outer space. As my imagination sent his fate from bad to worse, my texts got a little more frequent, and a touch more frantic. Until, apart from a few rogue Googles of his name, area and “accident”, I eventually resigned myself to never knowing.
That is until he popped back up (something I know now as zombie-ing, a ghost literally returning from the dead), blaming his sudden, prolonged absence on “busy work”. Naive as I was, I ate it up. Reader, you guessed it: the same thing happened just a few weeks later, when he disappeared off the face of the earth for a second time.
This was not my last experience of ghosting, nor am I innocent of doing it myself occasionally, but the West Elm Caleb situation shines a light on how prolific this behaviour is in the dating world, and the way it can slowly eat away at your faith in the possibility of finding your person, your match. It makes dating seem like a game, but not a fun one, and certainly one where both parties ultimately lose.
For every West Elm Caleb on a dating app I’m sure there are five lovely men with genuine intentions, but I’m also not surprised that I met my person in a drizzly, overgrown backyard in Dalston. He was kind, he made me laugh and I immediately felt like he knew me better than anyone I’d ever met in my life. Like he’d cut open my head and hopped in for a look around, picking up all the terrible bits and liking them anyway.
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It wasn’t stressful, or panic-inducing. I didn’t feel nauseous at the prospect of him not texting me back, simply because I somehow knew that he would. It just felt right, like a missing piece falling into place. I realised the electric-shock connection I convinced myself I’d had with the ghosts of dates past was just the story my brain had constructed about them after one date. The version of them I had allowed myself to build in my head, full of all of the good bits and empty of all the bad.
Dating apps offer such an incredible way to expand your romantic net, and they have resulted in innumerable successful, happy couples. But their implicit anonymity also allows terrible behaviour to go unchecked. For a romantic interaction to function properly it’s important both participants feel they’re on an equal footing and are proceeding with all the facts.
West Elm Caleb is just some guy who lied to and ghosted a bunch of girls, but he also represents a growing desire for legitimate connection and the frustration with the endless hamster wheel of trying to find love in the modern day.
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