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8 dates you'll meet in Madison

Navigate your way through the Madison dating scene

It seems like every month Madison finds itself in another list of “best places” for this or that. It’s certainly been called a best place to live and a best place to raise a family. But is it a best place to date? And for whom? 

The personal finance website WalletHub in November ranked Madison the 15th best city for singles in 2017. It was behind some of the largest U.S. cities, like first-ranked San Francisco, seventh-ranked Chicago and 14th-ranked Phoenix.

While Madison is a fairly large city of 252,551 people, it’s midsized among others in the U.S., translating to a midsized number of eligible bachelors and bachelorettes. As of 2016, 51.2 percent of the Dane County population was single. 

Nationally, more Americans are living without a spouse or partner, according to a 2017 Pew Research report. Pew reports that in the past 10 years, the share of these solo adults climbed to 42 percent from 39 percent in 2007. 

So if living situations are shifting, local dating scenes like Madison’s have likely changed, too. (And we haven’t even talked about online dating yet!) But the art of dating is not a science. Every story is different depending on age, outlook and living preference. We can’t tell you if this is the place you’ll find a good match, but we can identify some types of people you might meet in the Madison area, as well as some ideas for date nights. 

Think of this as a conceptual speed dating experience to familiarize yourself with the Madison dating scene. Do any of these types of people check a box on your list? Would someone else check this box about you? Here are eight types of people you’ll find in the Madison area dating scene, as well as some ideas for a great date night.

No. 1: The HometownerErin Scallon and Ray Moore eating and drinking at The Coopers Tavern.

In Madison’s dating scene, you’ll meet a few “hometowners”—people who love living here and have no intention of leaving the area. These are the potential partners who might be looking for marriage and a family. (They might even have their eye on a house in Middleton or Sun Prairie already.) 

Dating in Madison has its perks. For starters, you’ll pay about $47.50 for a two-person, three-course dinner date at a midrange restaurant, according to Numbeo, an online cost of living calculator. In Chicago, you’d pay $60 for the same dinner—in San Francisco, $75 and in New York, $80. 

Erin Scallon, 34, and Ray Moore, 36, who met through Match.com and have been dating on and off for about seven years in the Madison area, enjoy going on dinner dates, and the sky seems to be the limit on restaurants or cuisine they’ll try around town. One date consisted of going to Taste of Madison, and the goal was to spend a max of $10 each. Although Scallon ended up spending $12 total, this cheap dinner date would be hard to replicate in a larger city. 

Hometowners will probably be quick to share what they love about Madison—the lakes, the parks, the food scene, the tech community, the Badgers and more. There’s a reason Madison ranks high on many “best places to live” polls, including WalletHub’s 2017 “happiest places to live” study that placed Madison 15th overall compared to 150 other U.S. cities in the areas of emotional and physical well-being; income and employment; and community and environment.

But these hometowners might be “loving Madison blindly,” according to Rebecca Ryan, a Madison-based economist and former columnist for this magazine who says there are some downfalls Madison needs to own up to—like the loss of certain opportunities when living in a city its size.

Looking to go on a great date? Test out one of these Madison mainstays of dating.

No. 2: The TransitionerTempestt Ballenger laughing into a microphone

A “transitioner” in Madison is someone who doesn’t consider Madison a place to put down roots. Maybe this person is not among the nearly 83 percent white population or doesn’t experience the “best places to live” perks. Maybe this person isn’t finding the exact career or community that he or she is looking for.

A transitioner might also be part of the University of Wisconsin–Madison student population and is in town only for the duration of his or her schooling. In the fall 2017 semester, 43,820 students were enrolled, which is part of Dane County’s population estimate of 523,643. And according to fall 2016 semester survey numbers from UW–Madison’s Data Digest report, only a little more than half (about 54 percent) of undergraduate and graduate students (out of 38,729 individuals) were Wisconsin residents at the time of the study.

But many graduates decide to stay and work in Wisconsin after graduation. The Data Digest report also found (based on an undergraduate postgraduation plans questionnaire) that 46 percent of responding 2015-2016 undergraduates (3,655 total surveyed)—who selected finding employment as their postgraduation plan—responded that they planned to work in Wisconsin after graduation.

Other transitioners could be among the local workforce (maybe some of the approximate 9,000 employees of Epic Systems) who aren’t in careers they see themselves staying in long-term.

Ryan, a Madison-based futurist and economist, used to write a monthly column for Madison Magazine called “Next.” One such column that ran in 2013 started an online conversation about the Madison region and its limits as a “tier-two city”—a city she characterized in the column as “an affordable, Midwestern college town.” She called Madison a place that comes with an opportunity cost. “Your career, your opportunities, your network—all will be limited,” she wrote.

You can probably imagine how angry this might’ve made some locals, who indeed voiced their strong opinions about the column both online and directly to Ryan. “Madisonians—many of whom fall left of center politically—have a hard time hearing anything that doesn’t fit neatly into the ‘Madison is a great city’ storyline,” Ryan wrote in a follow-up column the next month. But she also received direct email from people saying “thank you for saying those things out loud because we’re not allowed to talk about not loving Madison,” Ryan recalls.

We called Ryan for a follow up to see if the sentiment still holds up today. With a few updates, Ryan thinks if you took off the date and changed some outdated references, the pair of columns could be republished today.

One big change would be to acknowledge the work being done for and around the Race to Equity report, which published after her columns did.

“Certainly a lot has changed in Madison. On the whole, it feels like our median age is going down, not up, in larger part because of Epic and all of its spinoffs. Certainly our airport is busier than ever,” she says. But she feels like Madison is still reliving its glory years in a sense, instead of facing its challenges and being the “best place” it’s been characterized so often in lists.

“Certainly someone is going to create a spark in Madison—a vision of something that can be our next 1960s moment. It feels like we’ve gotten more conservative over time about what we’re willing to take a chance on, and really swing for the fences on. And that’s I think our hope for Madison. This city has so much potential and in so many ways is living up to that potential, but there is even more that could be exploited here.”

But for 26-year-old Tempestt Ballenger, the pool just isn’t big enough in Madison to set down roots—especially when it comes to dating as a black, gay woman.

“For me, being a lesbian, I feel like lesbians are not [like they were] back in the day before Tinder, Bumble and all this other stuff,” says Ballenger, who has lived in Madison for three years and currently works in New Glarus. Ballenger says she likes meeting people in organic ways—through a friend, at a concert or at a bar. Before the dating app scene, Ballenger says eligible LGBT people were more part of the nightlife scene. Now, “people are just kind of like, ‘Oh well, I can just stay indoors and meet people instead,’ ” she says.

Ballenger sees herself sticking around the Madison area for the time being. “After five years, probably not,” she says. An ideal place to live might be San Fransisco, where she says she can meet different kinds of people. And as far as dating scenes go, San Fran might be a good choice, as it hit No. 1 in a Sperling’s Best Places ranking of large cities with the most singles. In Sperling’s midsized city ranking, Madison sits at No. 24. 

No. 3: The SwiperSara Solovey looking at her phone at Stone Creek Coffee.

We all know a “swiper” type—the person who has a folder of dating apps and consistently swipes right on possible candidates and swipes left for those who don’t make the cut. Many look to find dates, relationships or hookups without lifting more than a finger from the comfort of their homes.

But who could blame the serial online swiper? It’s a fast, easy, casual way to meet people. According to the Pew Research Center, 15 percent of Americans have used dating sites or apps. With so many different dating sites and apps, especially when including niche dating services like Christian Mingle and Farmers Only, swipers quickly find that there are, ahem, PlentyOfFish (another dating site) in the sea when using dating sites in the Madison area.

Sara Solovey, a 40-year-old east Madison coffee shop manager, has had her share of online dating nightmares. During her first Tinder date, a man picked her up at her door and immediately said he thought she would wear something more revealing and asked her if she wanted to change. On a different occasion, her date arrived late because he needed to listen to a police scanner to see when the police were busy so he could get away with driving without a license.

Solovey’s online dating experiences through Tinder, Bumble and PlentyofFish have exposed her to a bigger pool of people, although increased quantity doesn’t equate to increased quality, she says.

The same 2015 Pew Research Center study referenced earlier also found that while online dating has jumped from previous years across almost all ages, there is still a high percentage of people who haven’t used one and an even larger percentage of people who aren’t staying with someone they met online.

Two researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison—Jonathan D’Angelo, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication Science, and Catalina Toma, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Arts—found there might be too many choices in online dating sites and apps, so many people end up feeling less satisfied.

Kira Sabin, a certified life coach specializing in helping singles, says many people think Madison is one of the worst cities for dating.

“People are really overcomplicating it,” Sabin says. “We’re basically holiday shopping for boyfriends and girlfriends.”

Sabin doesn’t discourage online dating if individuals are meeting quality people, enjoying the process and finding success. However, she says the dating industry makes it seem like people are meeting only online. In reality, many people are still meeting through friends or by socializing with new people.
Either way, swipers have a chance to meet a larger number of people with ease, including individuals who might not have time or an interest in trying to meet potential dates at the local pub or elsewhere. The casting of a wider dating net is especially important in the Madison area, where not every bar is swimming with singles. (Maybe it’s too cold to venture out in a Wisconsin winter?) 

Click here to check out some great places to take a first date.

No. 4: The Unexpected PartnerJohnny Walsh

Madison shows up at No. 9 in the top 10 least diverse places at the city level among the 100 most populous U.S. cities. Maybe that’s why you’re feeling like your options are limited in Madison. But in case you’re thinking a larger city is the answer to a more diverse dating pool—it has been found that the most diverse cities are often the most segregated. This is according to the polling aggregation site FiveThirtyEight using data from Brown University’s American Communities Project based on the 2010 U.S. Census.

It’s hard to step out of your comfort zone—that goes for dating, especially. Which is why it’s easy to write off someone as “not your type.” This applies to height, opinions (maybe whether they like Taylor Swift or not), and, yes—unfortunately still—race. It’s something to be aware of. If you think the local dating pool is small or inadequate, keep in mind that you might be rejecting people prematurely.

In a city of more than 250,000, it’s possible there are a few unexpected partners out there. These potential candidates might be from diverse backgrounds or experiences different from your own. Or maybe someone you would have never met by chance at a bar.

Johnny Walsh, a 35-year-old Madison lawyer, is nearly blind from Usher Syndrome, a condition that impacts hearing and sight through retinitis pigmentosa, causing night blindness and a loss of peripheral vision. Walsh was 15 when diagnosed. He says doctors told him then that he would lose most, if not all, of his sight. By 31, his vision had taken a dive.

Through online dating, he says he’s able to meet people he wouldn’t have otherwise met while also explaining his vision impairment. Walsh says he was able to gain more interest from online matches by simply revising his bio from describing himself as “legally blind” to “visually impaired.”

Going to a dark nightclub or venturing out to an unknown part of town isn’t an advisable option for Walsh. When he schedules dates, he tries to go to places he’s been to before so he can navigate the spaces more easily. Since Walsh’s blindness has always been the most challenging at night, he often suggests coffee or lunch dates, especially in the winter when there are fewer hours of daylight.

“My approach is to be very upfront about it at the beginning and go from there,” Walsh says.

You might not meet someone like Walsh in traditional settings for singles. At the end of the day, Madison isn’t a big city, but its population of creative and talented people looking for a counterpart might be more vibrant than you think.

No. 5: The Active and Educated DateRob Gard standing with Bucky Badger

In Madison—deemed by Fitbit in 2016 to be “America’s fittest city”—you’ll likely cross paths with more than a few potential suitors who lead active lifestyles.

And we’re not just talking about someone who heads to the gym a couple times a week and eats healthy food for the most part. Madison is home to some whose identities are defined in part by their niche active communities. The city is practically built for active individuals, including cyclists (Madison reached platinum status in 2015 as a bike-friendly community by the League of American Bicyclists), runners (the city hosts hundreds of races and events each year, including the multi-sport event Ironman Wisconsin) and crossfitters (the 2017 Reebok Crossfit Games were held in Madison—and are scheduled for this year and in 2019—drawing an estimated 72,270 spectators).

“I’m still shocked at how many bicyclists I see when it’s below freezing, or people out running around going for jogs with steam coming out of their nostrils,” says Rob Gard, who recently moved back to the Madison area after living in Los Angeles for 20 years. One of the Beloit native’s first visits to Madison right before moving back to the area was during the Crossfit Games, when Madison was crawling with active (and possibly eligible) individuals. He was impressed by Madison’s atmosphere that weekend, but beyond that, Gard says he was surprised at just how active and fit Madison residents seem to be in general. “I think it’s kind of just really part of the daily life for a lot of people in Madison, which is surprising,” he says.

As a single man in his 40s, Gard sees potential in Madison’s dating scene, but he also calls out its weaknesses, especially when comparing Madison’s nightlife to that of Los Angeles. “When I moved back to Wisconsin, honestly part of me thought I was entering a hermit age. I thought I was going to be a monk for the rest of my life or something compared to dating in LA,” he says. In Los Angeles, Gard says, you could walk into any given place on any given night and you’d likely strike up a conversation with someone your age. “In Madison that’s not something I’ve come across at all,” he says. “It’s like everyone’s there with their significant other.”

But Madison still has a lot to offer, Gard says. “What attracted me to Madison was kind of the explosion of culture and business that’s happening here,” he says. “There’s a lot of interesting and exciting things going on in Madison.”

And when it comes to what he looks for in a woman, intelligence is attractive, he says. “That’s hugely important. The downside of that is that all the smart people have already wised up and married each other.”

Seemingly, Gard is in the right place to find intelligent women. Wallethub’s 2017 ranking of most educated cities in America placed Madison at No. 5 in the overall ranking of 150 of the largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. The Atlantic published an article that ranked Madison seventh out of 102 U.S. Metro areas with 500,000 or more residents in percentages by which college-educated women younger than 35 outnumber college-educated men younger than 35. Madison’s seventh-place ranking (equating to a 14.42 percent “man gap”) means the young, local college-educated population isn’t necessarily tipping the scales one way or the other for men or women.

There’s good news for straight women and gay men, too. The Atlantic article also states that overall, college towns, tech centers and the Midwest are among the metro areas that offer some of the most abundant educated-male populations. Madison fits all three of those descriptions.
“I have met some very, very smart women and active women and interesting women [in Madison],” Gard says. “You don’t have the same numbers that you do in LA. But certainly the quality of the personalities and their interests in Madison is refreshing and hope inspiring.”

Looking to train your body and mind? Try out one of these dates!

No. 6 The Re-SearcherKelly Pfeil sitting at Avenue Club and The Bubble Up Bar

In comparing Madison to Los Angeles, Gard argues that life stages seem to happen at different times in either place. In Los Angeles, he sees a lot more women in their 30s who haven’t yet started a family or had kids. But in Madison, he sees people in their late 20s already married and having children, or women who already have children and are back in the dating scene to find a partner—not to find someone to start another family with. “Scheduling dates in Los Angeles, you might have to work around somebody’s yoga schedule—not their child’s soccer and dance schedule,” Gard says.

Dating for the “re-searcher” has its complicated nuances. These are the individuals in the dating scene who are reentering the single population after either a long-term commitment, a marriage that ended or having already raised children. 

According to Census Reporter of Dane County, the divorce rate for local males is 8 percent and the divorce rate for local females is 10 percent. In addition, 1 percent of males are widowed and 6 percent of females are widowed. Nationally, Pew Research reports that while divorce statistics are complicated, many argue that the divorce rate has generally been stable or has fallen since the 1980s.

When it comes to online dating, John DeLamater, an emeritus professor of sociology at UW–Madison who studies the impact of sexuality throughout a person’s life, says mainly younger people are meeting online and those who are older are not as likely to test online dating. *(see editor's note)

DeLamater says a lot of people older than 45 and currently dating are those who were in relationships and lost their significant other or got divorced.

“There’s probably a few people in the world [whom] you can be really happy with,” DeLamater says. So it makes sense that it would be even more difficult to find that person a second time.

By the time you get in your mid-40s, DeLamater says, many are already married or in long-term committed relationships, so it can be even harder to create a relationship with someone similar in age.

There seem to be few men in 49-year-old Kelly Pfeil’s dating age bracket who are single and looking for older women, she says.

Pfeil has raised two daughters—a junior in college and a junior in high school—and for the past 13 years since her divorce, her focus has been on her kids. Now, Pfeil is looking for someone with whom she can go with to see a movie, grab dinner, travel or walk the dog.

She’s tried online dating through OkCupid, Match, eHarmony, Bumble, Zoosk and Tinder, but has found that online dating can give you a judgmental mindset and removes some accountability for the common courtesies and manners you might have when meeting in person. Consistently, she finds divorced men are looking for younger women.

“When the universe decides it’s my time, it’ll be my time,” Pfeil says.

No. 7: The Mature Partner

For some, looking for love and finding someone to share a life with doesn’t automatically include the commitment of marriage. Nationally, marriage rates have fallen, but cohabitation with a partner continues to rise. While about half of cohabiters (those living with an unmarried partner) are younger than 35, an increasing number of Americans ages 50 and older are in cohabiting relationships, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of the Current Population Survey.

DeLamater says there are older individuals who are looking for someone to share the rest of their life with in Madison. In 2007, Ryan characterized Madison as a place Caucasian retirees love because you can “live a good life [but] on a budget”—and with less traffic and crime that you’ll find in a larger city. Laura Hunt, the program coordinator at the Madison Senior Center, says most are looking for companionship only, not necessarily someone to live with.

As a way for seniors to make those connections in Madison, Hunt started a speed dating event.
The center, located on West Mifflin Street, has hosted two speed dating sessions. There have been more women interested in participating than men, so Hunt often has to turn away women. She says men typically do not admit they are looking for someone when they get lonely.

Hunt says isolation has a huge impact on seniors’ health, so platonic and intimate relationships can be extremely beneficial. 

“People in long-term committed relationships have much better physical and mental health,” he says. By maintaining a relationship, DeLamater says there is a responsibility to stay healthy and avoid risky behaviors.

There is still one couple together since the very first speed dating session, Hunt reports. “It’s sweet to see people make those connections,” she says.

No. 8: The OneSean and Sandy McCarthy sitting at the bar at Ruth's Chris Steak House

We saved the best for last. But unfortunately, we can’t tell you anything about this final person.

That’s because they’re “the one.”

So many search for “the one,” and the truth is, no matter where you are or what the circumstances, every path to finding the one is different. And every path leads to a unique relationship, which today is as diverse and nontraditional as ever.

Not everyone fits into a cookie-cutter category. Not every box is so easily checked. And maybe Madison isn’t the place you’ll find that special someone—but maybe it is.

Madison area residents Sandy, 51, and Sean McCarthy, 53, know this.

They have been together 31 years and married for 27, and they are still “dating.” When their two kids were younger, they set aside a night every week for just the two of them. Even though on some nights a date just meant going to Target, it’s still a night devoted to enjoying each other’s company.

Thirty-one years later, with grown children and more happy years than some ever get, they’re still going on dates together—without any of the nerves or stresses.

“Oh my god, honey, it’s too much work,” Sandy says to Sean about actual courtship. “We’re in this forever, right?”

Andrea Behling is managing editor of Madison Magazine and Maija Inveiss is digital content editor.

*Editor's Note: John DeLamater passed away December 13, 2017.


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