How 2020 has impacted singles: Months of virtual dates and stressing about starting a family

Marie Claire Dorking
·7-min read
Lockdown has had a huge impact on many singles. (Posed by model, Getty Images)
Lockdown has had a huge impact on many singles. (Posed by model, Getty Images)

Coronavirus has meant changes to all aspects of our lives. From our friendships and our relationships to our jobs, COVID-19 and the restrictions to combat its spread have caused significant upheaval.

Eight months after Boris Johnson first plunged the country into a national lockdown, the impact of spending the best part of a year keeping social interactions to a minimum, is being keenly felt by many of those who are single.

“Human beings are ‘hard wired’ to connect with others regardless of personality types,” explains Owen O’Kane, psychotherapist and author of Ten Times Happier.

“This doesn’t mean that everyone is destined to be in a romantic relationship, many chose not to be. However, we know from the research that lack of physical contact with others can lead to increased anxiety levels and low mood.”

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Lockdown has had an impact on the mental health of many singles. (Posed by model, Getty Images)
Lockdown has had an impact on the mental health of many singles. (Posed by model, Getty Images)

Virtual dating fatigue

The initial lockdown in March meant that instead of going on dates IRL, single people suddenly found themselves switching to dating virtually, with all the added awkwardness that getting to know someone via Zoom can bring.

Even when the first lockdown was lifted, it left a dating world many struggled to recognise, let alone navigate.

It’s no wonder therefore, that some have put trying to find a connection on hold.

Nearly a fifth (18%) of British singles have given up on dating entirely as a result of the pandemic - a figure that rose to 23% for 25 to 34-year-olds, according to a YouGov survey of 2,608 single people.

Meanwhile 60% of single Brits say they are no longer actively dating.

“Lockdown has been tough for singletons, there is no denying that,” says eharmony’s relationship expert Rachael Lloyd.

“It can be really hard getting to your mid- to late-thirties and feeling that pressure to settle down and have a family. And it’s not just women who feel this, our recent research with Relate also showed that men too struggle with the so-called ‘biological clock.’”

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Dr Elina Berglund, co-founder of birth control app Natural Cycles, agrees that lockdown and the resultant impact on dating has added to the pressure for those who do want a family.

“During normal circumstances single women often feel pressure to have a baby before a certain age or life milestone and there’s no question women experiencing this pressure prior to March have been negatively impacted throughout the pandemic,” she says.

“A recent survey conducted by Natural Cycles revealed that nearly half (43%) of UK women agreed that lockdown restrictions negatively influenced romantic relationships, while nearly 60% expressed hesitation over having sex with someone from a different household in 2020 – both of which make it more difficult to have a baby.”

Watch: Anna Williamson’s advice on how to move on after a nasty break-up

Knock-on impacts on mental health

All this angst about the future is having a knock-on impact on mental wellbeing, particularly when you toss in the loneliness 40% of singles told eharmony they experienced during lockdown.

O’Kane says it will come as no surprise that many single people, particularly those living alone, have reported struggling during a year when our social interactions have been limited due to lockdown or Tier restrictions.

“The key issues appear to be loneliness, isolation, anxiety, sadness, feeling trapped and uncertainty about the future,” he continues. “The Prince’s Trust reported lately that 46% of young people are feeling hopeless about the future.”

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Loneliness has impacted singles. (Posed by model, Getty Images)
Loneliness has impacted singles. (Posed by model, Getty Images)

According to O’Kane it is important to understand that lockdown hasn’t just interrupted the flow of normal life, but has also impacted negatively on the ‘brain chemistry’ (and consequently moods) of many people, particularly single people, and it’s all to do with physical affection.

“The absence of touch can lead to a reduction of dopamine and oxytocin, hormones that contribute to a sense of wellbeing,” he explains.

“The absence of ‘actual’ face-to-face communication can lead to a reduction in serotonin, otherwise known as the ‘happy chemical.’ The absence of freedom to socialise or date other people can lead to a decrease in endorphins which negatively impacts mood or can even lead to a sense of hopelessness.”

Many singles are also suffering from ‘screen fatigue’ says O’Kane, with Zoom and other platforms proving a poor substitute for live human interaction.

“The ongoing climate of uncertainty will also in some cases have led to an increase in cortisol which influences increased stress responses,” O’Kane adds.

“In short, lockdown isn’t just physically inhibitive, it’s also been psychologically suffocating for many.”

Read more: Ask Anna: ‘I’m almost 23 but I’ve never had a boyfriend – is this normal?’

Silver Lining

But it hasn’t all been doom and gloom for singles this year – in fact there are some upsides to the enforced social distancing.

“Out of dark times, we can also experience silver linings and epiphanies,” says Lloyd. “Four in ten (39%) singles believe lockdown has enabled them to reclaim their own time and, remarkably, over a quarter (29%) say lockdown has made them realise they are happier alone.

“It’s great that so many singles have had time to reflect and understand what they want – or don’t want - in their love lives.”

And though it is true to say social distancing has made it harder to meet people in the flesh, it doesn’t mean all singles have given up on dating.

“Over the initial lockdown period across April and May, communication rates online tracked a third higher and the average video date was one-hour long. This shows that dating can still be done safely, especially for women (or men) who feel a sense of urgency when it comes to finding a partner,” says Lloyd.

All is not lost for those who are becoming increasingly aware of the time pressures associated with starting a family either.

“Though it is important to understand that the biological clock is not a myth, thanks to a wide variety of scientific advancements, regardless of where your life takes you – you will have options,” Dr Berglund reassures.

She suggests doing what you can do now to prepare for the moment when you are ready to conceive.

“This means making an appointment with your doctor so you can discuss any tests you may need, as well as learn about how to manage any existing conditions,” she says.

She also recommends doing your family planning homework. “This means not only understand the conception process but learn about your specific body, so you can better identify when you're fertile down the line.”

O’Kane also has some words of hope to offer those who have found this year particularly tough.

“Life for many of us is less than ideal at the moment but remember that when you can’t control what’s going on in the world, you can control how you respond,” he says.

“Better days will come”.

Read more: ‘I go on dates but don’t get asked out again – what am I doing wrong?’

A whole new way of dating. (Posed by model, Getty Images)
A whole new way of dating. (Posed by model, Getty Images)

Embracing single-status in the era of COVID-19

For those who have struggled in 2020, O’Kane has put together some advice to help you feel more positive about the future:

Perspective is key. It may feel like all aspects of your life are on hold, including potential romance. But this is a period of time and opportunities will emerge when normality returns. Life comes back.

Reflect and use this time wisely to work out what you want for your life and even what you desire from a new partner.

Connect to others where and when you can, even if virtual is the only way. Some contact with others is better than none.

Exercise will help increase the feel-good hormones and chemicals, so get out and do what you can.

Look forward. Research tells us that looking forward with some degree of hope improves mood because it helps realign depletion of endorphins and enkephalins, the feel good hormones.

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