How a culture of coupledom, some loneliness and just getting older complicates dating in Calgary

"If there’s one thing I’ve learned in all of this: There are no rules in dating anymore — so we’re making up ones that work for us as we go.” Jessica Barrett with Part 2 of her look at dating life and romance in Calgary.

'If you’re over 35 and not married, it’s a tough city'

Clockwise from top left: 1) Wedding of William Thomas Knights and Freda O'Brien, Calgary, in 1921. 2) Mary (Minnie) Nolan, Calgary, ca. 1895. 3) Masha Rosenblatt and husband, Calgary, ca. 1925. 4) Zachary Taylor Wood in his North West Mounted Police uniform, Napanee, Ont., in 1888. (Glenbow Archives)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second part of Jessica Barrett's look at dating in Calgary. Here's the first one.

Aside from the complex issue of contemporary gender politics that I looked at in my first article, another complicating factor for single women in Calgary is its overwhelming culture of coupledom.

Indeed, few cities I've been to seem to be as family-focused as this one.

In Vancouver, where I lived for 15 years, it's normal to still be casually dating well into your 30s, and starting a family as you near 40.

In comparison, Calgary's singles scene is crawling with people who are looking to settle down and have kids, or who've done so already and are back on the scene. The dynamic definitely adds a layer of complexity to dating, particularly if you're not the settling type.

Mary Ann Ellis as a young woman, possibly in Wales, ca. 1886-1890. (Glenbow Archives)

One 24-year-old woman I spoke to summed up Calgary's default dating culture as a fast track to the "relationship escalator" — the assumption that a full-scale relationship is the goal, and one you more-or-less reach after three or four dates with the same person.

That's all fine and good, unless you're looking for something else out of dating. Many of the women I spoke with for this article were in no hurry to enter a relationship.

Rather, they saw dating as a way to fulfil their needs for companionship and intimacy while they were in a phase of self-exploration.

Some even saw dating as research into what to look for in an eventual partner.

Zachary Taylor Wood in his North West Mounted Police uniform, Napanee, Ont., in 1888. (Glenbow Archives)

Wanting to be single

"I do want to be in a long-term relationship eventually, but I don't think I'm going to find this super-amazing person tomorrow," Ashya Lanceley, a 31-year-old server and jewelry designer, told me.

When we spoke, she'd been single for just over a year after calling off an engagement and was committed to remaining unattached.

"I want to be single for myself right now."

After an intense relationship, being single allowed Lanceley to get clear on what she wanted out of life and an eventual partnership, including the realization that she did not want to get married at all, or have kids.

But aiming to stay single did not mean going without companionship, nor did it mean relying on no-strings-attached hookups.

Bull Bear, and wife, Blackfoot, ca. 1886. (Glenbow Archives)

When we talked, Lanceley had been seeing a man for about month with the clear understanding they would not be headed for the relationship escalator, an agreement she credited to very clear communication around their shared goals.

"We've just been like really, really honest about where we're both at," she said, adding that although the relationship was a casual one, it was grounded in maturity and respect with frequent check-ins.

"He's an adult and he talks to me, like an adult," she said.

What interested me about Lanceley, and other women I talked to who were in no hurry to find a long-term partner, was that they seemed to look at dating as an end itself — something they were doing in order augment their lives, not to meet a partner so they could start one together. And yet, they also seemed to exude a cool confidence that, when they were ready, a long-term relationship would just be there.

"I don't feel that I'll be single forever," Lanceley said.

Mrs. Amelia Livingston, Calgary, ca. 1886-1894. (Glenbow Archives)

Expiration dating

Of course, there are those who have no interest in marrying or mating, and those who really do.

For the latter camp, dating can become an exhausting and exasperating process, especially as the end of your reproductive years draws near.

One 42-year-old woman I spoke with told me that after several years of uninspiring attempts to meet a partner through online dating, out in the world or even through a matchmaking service, she'd "lost her lust" for dating altogether.

Instead, she'd decided her efforts were better spent on "trying to manifest a partner out of nowhere."

Whether her trouble finding a partner came down to bad luck, bad timing or impossibly high standards, I can't say. But it does point to a harsh reality that is true in most cities, but particularly pronounced in couple-centric Calgary: age is factor in finding a mate, particularly for women. 

Mrs. Jamieson, wife of Alexander Jamieson, ca. 1890s. (Glenbow Archives)

"Men tend to die younger and date younger," said Barb Sim, who has run a matchmaking business in the city since 1993. She told me that the tables that favour women start to turn in this city at about age 40.

Alexis Peters, a sociology professor at Mount Royal University, put the fulcrum even younger. "I think if you're over 35 and you're not married, it's a tough city," she said.

By that measure, I am, at 36, squarely in the danger zone.

But I drew comfort and inspiration from the women I spoke with for this article. Whether stoic or excited about their single status they were intent on making their lives as fulfilling and full as possible.

Far from pining for Prince Charming, these women spent their time and energy building rewarding careers, creating comfortable homes, travelling, nurturing hobbies and cultivating strong relationship with family and friends.

Mary (Minnie) Nolan, Calgary, ca. 1895. (Glenbow Archives)

And in comparison with Vancouver, where the cost of living essentially makes cohabitation a condition for survival, a single person can actually build that kind of life here.

Newly single, and to be honest, utterly heartbroken over it, I found these conversations encouraging. But I also had a nagging feeling there was another side to it that had gone unsaid.

No one I spoke to brought up the topic of loneliness, so I guess I will.

Alone vs. loneliness

As carefree, luxurious and exhilarating as single life can be, it can also be unbearably isolating.

When you're at a time in your life where you'd rather be building it with a partner, and perhaps naturally assumed that you would be, coming home to a life perfectly suited just for one can feel less like a marker of your successful self-sufficiency than a failure to achieve a fundamental human milestone.

Mrs. Standish, wife of William Standish, ca. 1900. (Glenbow Archives)

It has nothing to do with how much you like yourself, how many friends you have, or how favourable the demographics are, and everything to do with reconciling the life you envisioned for yourself with the one that you have now.

It can be a difficult process.

Admitting that, however, feels taboo in a culture that prizes independence and preaches a gospel that finding that perfect partner comes down to not wanting or needing one at all.

Unfortunately, that's not the way we're built, said Joel Sinclair, a relationship coach based in Calgary.

Fierce feminist icons & pop-culture playboys

Humans are pack animals, he explained, we crave companionship, community and connection on a biological level. However, our culture is set up to direct us away from that.

From our fierce feminist icons to pop-culture playboys to the way we increasingly communicate with people solely through screens, we're fed a steady stream of messaging that we should be happy to exist as islands, with occasional visitors from time to time.

Masha Rosenblatt and husband, Calgary, ca. 1925. (Glenbow Archives)

"Our society glorifies the self-made person," said Sinclair.

It's a stark contrast from generations ago, when bustling village squares and large extended families fostered a collective community mindset; when life was about being part of something bigger than your self-contained existence.

We still crave that community, Sinclair said, but in modern life the primary way most of us achieve that is by being part of a couple. 

"In order to explore in the world and grow as a human you need somebody to relate to, or something to relate to," Sinclair said.

"In most cases that's a partner."

Wedding group at Springbank United Church, Springbank, Alta., June 3, 1915. (Glenbow Archives)

And if it feels like finding one has become more complicated than in previous generations, Sinclair said it has. The island-like mentality espoused by our work-obsessed, technology-focused society makes it difficult to find true connection because it has us fundamentally confused about what a relationship requires. 

As Sinclair sees it, a relationship is essentially a balance between feminine and masculine energies — importantly this is not to be confused with female- and male-identified people.

Regardless of our gender or sexual orientation, we all have both qualities, Sinclair said. Our feminine sides crave connection and intimacy, and our masculine sides value freedom, independence and achievement.

Trouble is, our culture is firmly rooted in the masculine; we prize personal achievement, individual success and extreme self-sufficiency — exactly what most of us, men and women, project when we're out on date, or for that matter on our dating profiles.

George and Norah Main, Calgary, Dec. 25, 1914. (Glenbow Archives)

Those aren't bad things, Sinclair said, but they require a counterbalance in order to create an environment where connection can occur.

Complexity and vulnerability

Just as men are not supported in showing their full range of emotional complexity in our culture, women have also been directed away from showing any kind of vulnerability, especially on dates, lest we be painted as being overly emotional, overly sensitive, or needy.

We owe feminism a lot for making life better for women (and also men), but Sinclair posits that a possible downside is that it has stamped out a certain nuance needed for connection.

More than ever, women are proving they can do everything for themselves, and that leaves a lot of men no longer knowing what they're needed for. Both sexes, by and large, show up on dates with their '"masculine" energy in full force, he added.

Wedding of Edith (Phoebe) Sanders and Archer J. Toole, Calgary, May 26, 1915. (Glenbow Archives)

We talk about our great jobs, fulfilling lives and generally give the impression that a partner is something that would be icing on an already delicious and fully baked cake, not a sought-after ingredient for a fulfilling life.

"Whenever you see someone saying 'I'm good on my own,' it's the masculine side coming out," Sinclair said.

When women do this, we're projecting what we want in a partner — someone who is put-together, capable and accomplished, said Sinclair.

But what we attract is often the opposite.

"If a woman is presenting herself as self-sufficient, she'll attract a man that is looking for someone who can take care of stuff for him so he doesn't have to," he said.

"It's not that a woman has to let go of all those qualities in her life, but when it comes to dating and attracting a man, in those moments she needs to let go of it. Because that's what creates intimacy, that masculine and feminine dynamic in that moment."

Wedding of William Thomas Knights and Freda O'Brien, Calgary, in 1921. (Glenbow Archives)

Essentially, men want to know they can take care of us sometimes.

And if women — actually if anyone — wants a partner who is able to take charge when we need them to, we need to let our guards down, be vulnerable, and tap into what Sinclair calls our feminine energy — that place that yearns for connection.

"There's just as much power in being feminine as masculine," he said.

Massive confusion on making requests

That softer side, however, is something many women are loath to show to a stranger over cocktails on a Tuesday night.

In fact, being vulnerable and open about your heart's deepest desire for love, companionship, home and family feels incredibly risky for anybody. Because it is.

James and Emma Kenny, Endiang, Alberta, 1908. (Glenbow Archives)

"Being vulnerable is just being you, and potentially being rejected for being you. Which is terrifying for most people," said Sinclair.

And that terror, combined with massive confusion over how to make those requests for real connection, particularly in the era of #MeToo, makes dating today a minefield for many, said Peters, the sociologist.

Among her students, who are generally in their late teens and early 20s, Peters said she's seeing evidence the cowboy courtship that initially swept me off my feet in this city is beginning to die out.

These days, her students often come to class discussing their frustrations with phenomena like ghosting, hookup culture and a general disconnection with and distrust of potential partners.

They don't feel like they can say they want to be in a relationship, and many of them do. They're doing more "hanging out" these days than dating.

Hoot Gibson and party at E.P. Ranch, Pekisko, Alta., 1925. (Glenbow Archives)

That, Peters said, combined with the false connection promised through all things social media, is leading to what she sees as an epidemic of loneliness among her students, and likely across much of society. And that has profound implications for mental health. 

"Loneliness is one of the No. 1 things for mental health issues," she said. "No one is meant to be that alone that you're lonely."

Key to breaking that cycle is learning to honour what our hearts are telling us, and finding the courage to communicate that to the people we hope to live out those dreams with, she said. Dating, and life in general, would be a whole lot easier if we did.

"Is your goal to be in a committed relationship and have two kids? That is a noble goal if that's what you really want to do," said Peters. "Don't apologize for it."

First Nations man and his wife, 1886. (Glenbow Archives)

Modern romance

That lesson was a tough one for me.

I spent my 20s unsure if I wanted kids and a partner, and my 30s in a panic that I'd run out of time because I knew that I did.

It led me to make some really bad choices. Picking partners who weren't right for me, staying in unhealthy relationships way too long — anything to avoid winding up exactly where I found myself this past spring: single, again, at 35.

In the end, it was a blessing.

I was so despondent I couldn't have hid my vulnerability if I'd tried. I knew I had all the skills and capability I needed to build a kick-ass life on my own. But I wanted a partner to build a family with and I'd put so much effort into creating space for that in my life that I was no longer willing to pretend that wasn't true.

And it was in this place of raw honesty that I met a very promising candidate this past summer. 

It's still early days, but from the moment we met on a camping trip with mutual friends, I've been continually impressed by his ability to match my vulnerability and capability with his own. We've had the kids talk, excoriated the pain from previous relationships, and somehow in the midst of all the confusion around gender roles and expectations, we've found a genuine connection and an equal footing that seems to honour both our feminine and masculine sides.

Mr. and Mrs. Hunter, 1912. (Glenbow Archives)

Making up the rules

If there's one thing I've learned in all of this: There are no rules in dating anymore — so we're making up ones that work for us as we go. So he can talk about his feelings, fix my computer and love sports cars. We can cook dinner for each other, take turns paying for dates, go to yoga together, and help each other navigate our ambitious, high-pressure careers.

And tradition hasn't completely gone out the window: he brings the car around when it's snowing, offer his coat when I'm cold and holds the door without ever holding me in lesser regard.

So far, things are going great.

The only hiccup is that he lives in Vancouver. But naturally he's a Calgarian, born and raised.

Hiram Hamilton and wife Almira, Conjuring Creek district, Alta., date unknown. (Glenbow Archives)

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at

More stories from the series:


Jessica Barrett

Freelance contributor

Jessica Barrett is a Calgary-based freelance journalist who writes about cities, culture, and society. Her work has appeared in outlets across the country, including the National Post, CBC News, Vancouver Magazine and Avenue Magazine.