"I was a bastard because I could be" … old-fashioned standards of behaviour did not apply to writer Jesse Fink after his marriage break-up. Photo: Fiona Wolf/Wolfwerk Photography
Some "soul mending" was in order. The problem for me was I couldn't just take off and "find myself". I was 34. I had responsibilities. I was a father to a small child who needed me. I was writing five days a week for SBS and couldn't survive without the money from that job and my overseas commissions. I had no savings. The house that my wife, Lara, and I had bought together in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney – a rambling two-bedroom weatherboard with a beautiful garden we'd planted and watched grow together while sipping tea on our balcony – had yet to be put on the market.
I was not a spiritual person. I abhorred religion and any kind of "alternative" therapy. I was sick of medication. I had lost interest in music and movies. I no longer had the heart for books, having watched my marriage disintegrate while writing my first one. My options for soul mending were limited. So, like many broken men do, I joined a dating site.
I hadn't even owned a computer when I'd got married and had only ever heard of online dating through a friend from school who had tried it and had a few salacious experiences he liked to recount over a beer.
I checked out the available options on the net, was amazed at how many single, attractive women were on there, and put up a photo of my newly clean-shaven but horribly jowly face taken with my MacBook. Seeing myself on the screen took me aback. I was so drained of life and colour by everything that had happened, it was like I'd aged 20 years. I looked faintly like Michael Douglas – and not the young, handsome version.
Online, none of that mattered. Within hours I was making love to someone other than my wife for the first time in a decade: Maria, a fitness instructor with a bony frame and enormous fake breasts. We had nothing in common besides an unspoken but urgent need to be with somebody. It wasn't in any way soul-mending, it wasn't even validating or particularly pleasurable – I was yearning for Lara – but it was a novelty and a distraction.
After a few weeks of hooking up between her gym classes and crying myself to sleep when I got home, I broke it off. She wanted a relationship. I was nowhere near ready for that with her or anyone. So I made my excuses and simply found other women with whom to go through the same heartless process of introduction, seduction and abandonment.
The misery of it all hit me one night while I was with Carly, a girl with a dragon tattoo. A graphic designer and mother of two, she'd told me, flirtingly, before we met, "It's rather large – though not obvious – and very tasteful." It was large but it was obvious and not at all tasteful: a crude red dragon that covered the small of her back to her booty dimples. The most sensuous part of a woman's body. And she'd ruined it. It wasn't sexy. It was scary. On her bed in some McMansion suburb in outer Sydney, I was being eyeballed by a badly inked serpent.
This wasn't my wife. This wasn't my life. But I wasn't dead, either. And, for all I had just been through, that was something.
Just when it was that I went from husband to player, I cannot say. The transition was not deliberate but it was pronounced. From being a devoted family man and father, in a few short months I had reprogrammed myself to become a pants man, a cad.
I still loved my wife and wanted to be with her more than anything else. I was a romantic: I still believed that Lara was The One. It was why we'd married so young and had a child together. But my pleas to her fell into a Grand Canyon of unanswered emails, while online – where as a friend-shy single father with equal custody I was spending the majority of my time – there were hundreds of desirable women who paid me attention, and were prepared to listen to my story, stroke my ego and do all the things Lara would not.
Fortuitously, the ones I met were as f...ed up as I was. They'd given up searching for their mythical Fitzwilliam Darcy and, short of full-blown intercourse, just wanted to hang out for a while and be told before they went to sleep that they were beautiful and tomorrow was another day. It was all so mutually convenient, if utterly barren.
The banality of these internet- and alcohol-facilitated encounters had their attendant pangs of despair, and every now and then I pined for what I'd had before, crying in bed late at night while texting my ex-wife and abusing her for the life she had denied me and my child by leaving me. Over time these feelings dimmed, as did memories of the decade of my life I'd spent with her. Only in my dreams did the silent, grainy, washed-out home movies of my marriage play out.
Emotionally, I was not ready to give myself over to another woman but physically I was happy to whore myself to those I found desirable, who would have me and who knew how to play the game. It was one big festival of sexual bounty and I was lost in the middle of it, not knowing where to look, incapable of making a decision. I was chronically afflicted with what Douglas Coupland, in his novel Generation X, calls "option paralysis". When given so many choices, you make none.
This is the great lie of online dating, where one in five committed relationships now begin: it promises the dream of everlasting love and happiness, true deliverance from loneliness, but it often makes monsters of the sort of men coveted by women. Swamped by options, freed from effort, the idea of commitment – usually the whole point of being on a dating site in the first place – becomes anathema. Previously good men become bounders.
I was no different from any of them. Just one of the millions of unhappy men on the net finding deliverance through sex and the false intimacy of online hook-ups. Men constantly on the hustle and happy to forgo security for spontaneity. Men wanting to make something of their fading looks and ageing physiques while they still could. Men craving the adoring attention they didn't get enough of in their failed marriages or relationships. F...ing your way to happiness is as good a cathartic process as any – and an intrinsically male one.
The web is an unforgiving place to find love. A woman's value is rarely judged beyond the most primitive currency: face, tits, arse, legs. Sex on the first date becomes a given. There are rarely second ones, because what gullible women think is their dream guy (handsome, athletic, independent, sensitive) has already moved on to his next conquest and is actively lining up others for after that. He doesn't care that you're upset. Why should he? You're just another face among hundreds.
Everyone's on the make, juggling their "potentials" and "probables". And dream guy won't stop until he's found someone he wants to f... for the rest of his life or he reaches a point where he doesn't think he'll ever do any better. He doesn't want to be a prisoner like other men he knows, stuck in dead marriages with partners they've "settled on" and unable to resist mentally undressing every other woman they meet. Husbands distracting themselves from accepting the misery of their existence and the enormity of their mistakes with trips to the betting shop, organised sport, home renovation and internet porn.
That is the brutal truth. Why do so many women believe otherwise? Do they really think they'll find young, fit, good-looking, educated, accomplished prospective husbands via a medium that only encourages them to act like morally feckless arseholes? Why is there this epidemic of heartbreak when finding true love is supposed to be easier than ever because of technology? Simply because getting out of relationships is also easier than ever because of technology.
The online world and the ease with which it facilitates hook-ups between people who would otherwise never have met in "real life" mean the rules of relationships and dating have changed. Women have become more like men. Men, already by their very nature incorrigible sexual opportunists, have become worse. Emails and text messages allow liaisons to be more secretive. Online dating, chat rooms, social-networking sites and apps such as Badoo encourage curiosity, flirtation and infidelity. The web has become one vast treasure hunt for the perfect mate.
Twenty years ago, taking a picture of your genitals and getting it delivered to the desired recipient took some doing. Now it can be done in seconds. Instantly.
Internet porn and raunch culture have upended ideas about what is considered standard in the bedroom and set higher benchmarks for sexual performance and physical appearance. So many couples exist in a state of perpetual anxiety. Is the life they have made together good enough? Is their partner someone they really want to f... for the rest of their lives? Can they do better?
In this new connected world, sure they can. Or at least they're fooling themselves into thinking they can.
We're living in the age of distraction, where inexhaustible options haven't delivered us serenity. Rather, discontent. Dissatisfaction. In the UK, Facebook alone is cited as a cause in one in three divorces. Technology is having a massive impact on traditional relationships. They've effectively suffered the fate of porn movies: been reduced to "scenes", designed for short attention spans and instant gratification, rather than rewarding patience.
The internet and smartphones have had as catastrophic an impact on love in the 21st century as refined sugar had on waistlines in the 20th. We're only now waking up to the genie we've unleashed, but it's not something that can be put back in the bottle. It's out there. In many cases destroying lives, not improving them.
My relative popularity online, courtesy of my ability to write coherent sentences, decent looks and a rapidly thinning face, meant I could take my pick of anyone I liked, vetting candidates on the most superficial of attributes. Too often for me the endgame was f...ing, not the happily ever after, so that meant big tits, small waists, gamine faces, lissome bodies. Women who had "tuckshop-lady arms" didn't get a look in. I was a bastard because I could be. It was all so mercenary but all so easy.
I assured myself I wasn't doing anything that anyone else wasn't doing. Having lost my moral scruples, I saw no reason to stop unless someone amazing came along. And Lara, in the throes of passion with her new man, wasn't about to have some road-to-Damascus moment and come back to me.
As my father, Alby, would often say – and he knew this as well as anyone from all those lonely nights during his own marriage breakdown – "Life's a marathon, son. Not a short-course sprint race."
Edited extract from Laid Bare: One Man's Story of Sex, Love and Other Disorders (Hachette), out September 11.
From Sunday Life.