It’s a freezing cold evening in late November, and I’m sitting on a bench in Battersea Park, trussed up in multiple layers, gloves, scarf, and three pairs of socks, sipping from a plastic cup of ice-cold red wine. It’s pretty dark and I’m not sure my date can even see me that well; more importantly I’m not sure I can really see him. He finishes telling me about how much he enjoyed studying PPE and excuses himself to pee in a bush, and I sit there thinking how bizarre this whole situation is. Even if I like him, which I’m not sure I do, all I can think about is quite how cold I am, and how much longer I can last until hypothermia sets in.
You would think that removing almost every avenue for dating – no candlelit dinners in tiny Italian restaurants swirling with laughter, indie music in niche cocktail bars or dancing until the early hours in a warehouse in Hackney – would deter singles. On the contrary, over the past year, both in and out of national lockdowns and tiers, the dating world has certainly kept pace, if not thrived. Tinder usage dipped during the first peak, but by the end of 2020 had boomed to over 50 million sessions per week worldwide; Bumble was the second most popular, rising to around 25 million sessions per week from just over 20 million. YouGov found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that those aged between 18 to 24 were the least likely age group to have stopped dating.
On the surface, all singles of any age can do to date in this current lockdown is walk. It’s all very Bridgerton (well, episodes one to three) – distanced strolls with your beau in daylight (or after dark if you dare) with government presence in the form of omnipresent police as your chaperone.
There quickly developed a new lingo – singles awkwardly skirting around big topics. What were the other person’s views – this time not just on politics, money, family or whether they were open to a relationship – but also on how were they treating the pandemic. Would they meet you? Could you go indoors? Would they hug you? Kiss you? Sleep with you? Want to see you again? Where beforehand, pride could be protected by the swarm of everyday life – now being "too busy" to reply simply isn’t a valid excuse.
Bumble found in the very beginning of the first lockdown – from 13 March to 27 March, there was a 93% increase in the app’s voice call and video chat functions. But fairly quickly, the rules started to get broken. And now, almost a year later, dating expectations have never been muddier.
What single men and women are looking for at the moment, and how they go about it, is influenced by a variety of factors directly related to the pandemic. First, those who are looking to progress from the early stages of dating to something more serious have, in this third lockdown, no future timeline to look to as a benchmark because it has no end date. In this way it is markedly different from the first two lockdowns – in the first we had the promise of summer and freedom, in the second we had December openings and Christmas to look forward to. “We’re walking and walking and walking and when does the walking stop?” says chartered psychologist, lecturer and author Dr Audrey Tang. “But at the same time, it’s forcing conversation, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”
We must acknowledge that in the face of Covid some people are prepared to break the law in the quest to find love, and expect dates to do the same. One friend I spoke to who met his boyfriend during the November lockdown said that he would not have pursued the relationship were they both both prepared to ignore the government rules. “I don’t see the point on doing the same date over and over again," he told me. "If Boris had said the Covid restrictions will end next week or in five years’ time it would have been irrelevant to my decision. I wouldn’t have gone past one or two dates if all we were going to do was walk around, when there are people out there who don’t care about the rules and I could be dating properly.”
Whether there has been a change in what people are looking for – be it stability, intimacy or companionship – is unclear, but there has been a shift in why they want someone. “It’s made me want a relationship because the lockdowns favour couples,” explains another friend. Where the Netherlands were quick to introduce “sex buddies" for singles, the UK tailored its support bubble rules for those already in a relationship on 23 March 2020. One friend reasoned that “lockdown has made me realise how much I need that comfort from being close to or intimate with someone, but that’s also largely because other social interaction is at a minimum.”
“What I’ve seen is how precious dates are,” agrees psychotherapist Lucy Beresford. “Prior to the pandemic, we knew we could hook up with 5-10 people a week if we really wanted to, now everything feels more precious. I’ve noticed that a lot of people are taking more time to have those meaningful Zoom or WhatsApp chats to really put the time or effort in to know that if they are going to see this person, that they’re not going to waste any time. People are saying I’ve got to take my choices seriously, about who I spend my dates with. They’re less willing to put up with people who are going to start ghosting, or with any red flags. People are being much more picky, more judicious about their choices of who to date.”
Conversely, some people are craving intimacy to such an extent that they are overlooking potential red flags or things that might previously have been deal-breakers. When it comes to conversations around exclusivity, one friend posited that the question itself has changed: “are you seeing anyone else?” has morphed into “would you be seeing anyone else if you could?” There is a huge distinction. “You don’t want to be in a relationship with someone because they can’t meet other people, you want to because they don’t want to,” she says.
One of the biggest concerns for those dating during this pandemic has been safety beyond health concerns over catching or spreading Covid. Because the only way to date is walking, and because it’s winter, some singles are progressing to their dates’ homes much sooner than they would have otherwise. Riva, who is single and in her mid-twenties, tells me that her attitude towards safety has changed for the worse. “Before the lockdowns happened, I honestly would have never dreamed of going to a stranger’s flat for a first date. But because options are so limited, it has made me reconsider what I’m prepared to do. I met Sam for a first date at his flat where he lived alone – and aside from it being illegal – I didn’t want to get murdered! I shared my live location for the next eight hours with multiple friends, sent his photo and address and said if you haven’t heard anything from me by 11pm please call the police.”
The yearly joke about “cuffing season” that usually ranges from late September to late November, where singles cling to each other and hurriedly race into relationships to survive the cold months together (only to break up by March), was put into overdrive this year as the increasing likelihood of a second spike, and the ensuing lockdowns loomed. Many single people who had experienced a first lockdown alone were now faced with the prospect of another. “Having been single for the lockdown one, with zero sex and almost no one around, there was no way I was doing that again,” says Tegan, in her early thirties. “When the summer started to wind down, I started dating like crazy. We could still go to bars and restaurants then, and I was determined to be in a relationship if we were going into lockdown again. You only had to look around a London bar in October and see singles frantically getting to know each other. I’m pleased to say I found someone, and I hope we’re still together when this third lockdown ends.”
However, dating during this pandemic does have its upsides. “Some things are definitely going to change for the better,” argues Dr Tang. “Dating is fun, it’s flirty, it's enjoyable. One of the things people have missed is the idea of being able to dress up and go out and have that excitement. But if we’re not clear with our expectations, then we can end up connecting on so many superficial levels that - when it comes to actually being serious- we find out we don’t want the same things, we don’t have the same views on religion or marriage or children or even where this relationship is going. With Covid, there’s less room for game-playing.”
Does dating in the current situation set up budding relationships or future relationships for longer-lasting success? “People who are dating now are having a crash course in learning how to work at relationships, put effort in, nourish them, keep them alive, keep them spontaneous, and I think that’s only a good thing,” argues Beresford. It also shows you who is prepared to put effort in and who isn’t. “If you can’t really hack it for six weeks or maintain my interests over that time, what hope do we have for the future, for the next sixty years?” What it boils down to is this: “People are starting to say ‘do I deserve you? Do you deserve me?’ Because I want to really see you put some effort in. You can only think of going on walking dates, whereas I’ve got Bruno round the corner who has come up with six creative ideas of things to do together.”
One single male friend thinks that what is starting to happen is dating in reverse. You have to truly like the other person enough without all the constant stimulation and variety that existed before the pandemic. “When there’s nothing to do you learn if you’re actually compatible,” he says. “It almost makes it more exciting for when stuff does reopen as I suppose by that point you properly know the other person, whereas before if you’ve only really done ‘fun stuff’ with them, when it comes to the everyday stuff you may have less in common.”
Abigail met her boyfriend in May of last year whilst still in a lockdown. “I was definitely much more nervous than I was before a pre-pandemic date,” she said. “Definitely about meeting him but also I’d be getting public transport or an Uber which I hadn’t done since the first lockdown began. Like everyone else I was also nervous about being in close proximity with someone because of Covid and all social norms were kind of out the window... how would we say hello? Hug or just stand there? All while trying to seem chilled and cool on a first date.”
Against the odds, they waited nearly seven weeks for a second date. "The timeline for us was definitely much slower than previous relationships. We carried on speaking but didn’t see each other for ages after the first date. It was partly logistical and partly because I secretly wasn’t keen on another park date because it seemed too repetitive. But even when we were dating more normally over the summer it took a lot longer for me to commit because I wanted to make sure that the fun I was having with him was actually because of him and not because we’d been locked up for ages and were finally allowed out.”
One of the most important factors when it comes to expectations is how we are managing our own, of ourselves. “You could come out of this period with such high self-esteem and then meet someone amazing,” says the neuroscientist and bestselling author Dr Tara Swart. “Or with your self-esteem dragged through the bushes for a year.” When you look back, what would you like to have achieved? “I would not have wanted to be wasting my time with some stranger who isn’t serious,” she laughs. If you’re single you now have time to think about what you really want and value in a partner in a time where you’ve had to spend a lot more time alone and without distraction. As Dr Tang says, “If you’re single, you’re one step closer to happiness than someone in an unhappy relationship. They first need to get out of that relationship and become single.”
When it comes to the long-term impact, we can but make educated guesses. “If you look at similar scenarios of national crisis, what happened afterwards?” asks Dr Swart. Using World War One as a touchstone, what followed was the Roaring Twenties. This time round, she says, “If I had to bet, I would say it will be the age of promiscuity, of excess. There are so many cycles of war or poverty followed by a bout of spending, socialising, eating, drinking, having sex. It’s going to be the Roaring Twenties again.” Beresford partly agrees. “I think there’s going to be a real contrast, the pendulum will swing in both directions. There will be a lot more pregnancies, STIs and short-lived marriages as people hurl themselves into a new sense of liberation. But I also believe that there will be some longer lasting legacies in how we communicate and a better understanding of what you yourself want going forwards and are prepared to put up with.” Like so many facets of this pandemic, dating amid Covid-19 has brought out the best in some and the worst in others. It's far from easy, yet, one thing remains the same - dating has always required bravery and hope. The fact that so many of us have dug deeper for those things in the toughest of circumstances to find love is immensely faith-restoring.
A couple of weeks ago I met up with Tom, who I had dated through the November lockdown. We walked along together for five or so minutes discussing how we were mentally doing in the third lockdown and why we had ultimately stopped seeing each other. “Don’t you just kind of feel defeated?” he asked. “Mentally, it's as if I have nothing more to give.” I kind of agree, I offered, I’m not sure why I keep trying. “I really did like you,” he said. “I just felt like what’s the point?” When we parted ways, he paused. “Not sure if I can even ask this, but can I text you in the future?” Even if we’re currently in a lockdown that may persist for months to come, I like that he was still somehow optimistic. That the future still holds the promise of a better time.
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