When Josh’s profile first popped up on Bumble in May 2021, Gemma’s initial reaction was “absolutely not.” Josh was undeniably handsome, but she was put off by the likely antisocial hours of a chef and his faraway location in Andover, 70 miles away from Bristol, her hometown in England’s southwest. It had been five years since Gemma’s last date, and she wanted to ease back into dating with someone nearby.
She had good reason to be cautious. Four years earlier, Gemma had been engaged to the man she thought was the love of her life, and planning to soon be a stay-at-home mum once they started a family. But, four weeks out from their wedding, her fiancé left her for a woman he’d recently met. Gemma was devastated by the betrayal, made worse by an ensuing legal battle over the house they owned together.
For a time Gemma moved back in with her parents, and the feelings of hurt and betrayal took a long time to heal. “My ability to trust men, my self-esteem, and my confidence just went way down,” says Gemma. “It took me a really long time to get over it.” She worked towards rebuilding her life. She bought her own house in Bristol, decorated it to her tastes, went on solo holidays, and pushed herself in her career as a teacher. After three years, Gemma felt that it was time to return to dating and downloaded Bumble. Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
For nearly two years, Gemma chatted with her matches, which helped her slowly rebuild her confidence. But meeting someone for a date once COVID restrictions were lifted was more daunting. “I couldn’t really bring myself to take the plunge,” she says.
Then, one day Gemma was hanging out with a friend who gave her a gentle push to go on a date by swiping on Bumble with her. That’s when Gemma came across Josh’s profile. Gemma was attracted to him and liked that his profile had mentions of literature and history, but she still had those hesitations about distance and his work hours. As she dithered over the logistics, her friend went ahead and swiped right on her behalf. It was a match.
Gemma decided to give Josh a chance, and sent him her go-to opener: “Here I am, what are your other two wishes?” She was surprised when he responded with a voice note, introducing himself and laughingly chiding her for the cheesy chat-up line. “I thought his voice was really attractive,” she says. “It made me feel so much more comfortable. He felt like a real person.”
For Josh, the voice note had been a break from texting. “And I thought it was quite a gutsy move,” he adds. He’d been single for three years since his last serious relationship ended, taking the time to “focus on making myself happy first,” he says. When Josh finally felt ready, he joined Bumble to date outside of his industry and small town. He remembers being attracted to Gemma’s sense of style and smile on display in her pictures, and her profile’s mention of poetry. “I found that really refreshing; she had soul, substance,” he says.
Over the next week they swapped voice notes, getting to know each other. “We made each other laugh,” says Gemma. After she expressed interest in the book Josh was reading (“The Invisible Man,” by H.G. Wells), he started sending her clips of him reading chapters aloud.
With Josh working weekends and evenings, they didn’t expect to be able to meet in person for some time. Then he unexpectedly got the following Saturday off, and booked a train to Bristol. As excited as she felt about Josh, Gemma admits to being “terrified” by the thought of a first date; she nearly pulled out with cold feet before Josh talked her round. “I said, ‘I’m not sure I can do it,’” says Gemma. “He said, ‘You’d better be there, I’ve taken the day off,’ so he was quite firm with me, which I probably needed,” she says.
Waiting at Bristol train station to pick Josh up, she recalls shaking with nervousness. But as soon as she saw him, Gemma was struck by Josh’s good looks, his six-foot-four frame, and how easy it felt to be together. They got ice creams and sat in the sun, people-watching, and because of their mutual passion for history, explored the SS Great Britain, a museum ship. “I felt like I’d known Josh for a long time, even though we’d only been talking for a week,” says Gemma.
For Josh, meeting in person confirmed the connection he’d felt from their conversations: “Gemma had already fulfilled so many of my hopes.” When it came time for him to get the train back to Andover, neither of them were ready for the date to end. Gemma offered to drive Josh home—a two-hour round trip—so that they could have dinner together. When Josh finally got home, “I realised straight away how much I missed her,” he says. He sent Gemma a voice note telling her that, if she was willing to “problem solve” with him for a while, he wanted to make it work.
They had both been upfront from the start that they were each looking for a serious relationship, but it wasn’t until their second date, over dinner, that Gemma told Josh about her previous relationship. “I wanted to tell him in person,” she says. “He was really sad and angry that I’d had to go through something like that.”
Josh then confided in Gemma about his own past relationships. “We promised that, as we spent time together, if anything came up, we’d talk through it together,” he says. Josh told Gemma that he loved her that evening. It was quick, they both agreed. Josh laughs that he’d realised he was falling for Gemma when he found himself thinking of her when he heard “really awful love songs.”
After a few months of challenging long-distance dating, sometimes travelling hours to spend only one night together, Josh suggested that he move to Bristol. “I felt really excited,” he says. “I knew there was a possibility of it not working out, but I just couldn’t see it.” Gemma admits she “panicked a bit” at the speed with which they were moving, but their families encouraged them to take the chance. Josh quickly got a job in Bristol and, after six months of dating, Gemma helped him move. The plan was for him to stay with her until he found his own place, but “then he just never left,” Gemma says. After a month, they’d settled into a routine, and her home felt like theirs.
Josh proposed after a year of dating, on a trip to London for Gemma’s 30th birthday. “We both knew what we wanted, we both knew we were in love with each other,” Josh says. “I got to the point where I just wanted to marry her as soon as possible, really.” But Josh was also mindful that a wedding might bring up difficult feelings from Gemma’s past, and involved her family to make her feel comfortable. He picked out a ring with her mum, and sought her parents and brother’s blessing.
Gemma says Josh supports her in understanding her own feelings. “He’s so emotionally intelligent,” she says. “Sometimes I won’t even know why I’m panicking and he’ll say ‘I think this reminds you of this.’” Their relationship feels “entirely different” than the one in her past. “We talk about everything, it just feels really grown up,” Gemma says. They’re planning a relaxed wedding for February 2023, and are in the process of buying a house together in Bristol.
Josh says he’s already learned a lot from Gemma: “She’s a very confident woman,and she’s someone who I can really look up to.” Gemma, for her part, appreciates that Josh not only supports her, but also challenges her to do better. “Josh makes me feel safe to push boundaries, and to fail,” she says. “I know there’s nothing we couldn’t solve together.” Josh may not have been what Gemma thought she wanted, but, she says, “he was definitely what I needed.”