On March 12, I was heading into work on the Tube when a friend sent me a post from a Twitter wit. This character was railing against the pandemic for interfering with a seasonal ritual for singletons: start scheming on dating apps in spring if you want to be in the throes of a flaming hot summer romance come June. After reading, I found myself crying, quietly but bitterly. That aching feeling of loneliness was going to gnaw at me for another year, wasn’t it?
I have been using apps and websites, reluctantly, since 2017. Bumble, Hinge, Match, Guardian Soulmates (RIP), Coffee Meets Bagel — I’ve tried them all, having concluded, aged 30, that life doesn’t have much meaning if you’re not sharing it with someone, and for my busy-busy, slightly socially awkward generation there was no other way to meet someone in anonymous London.
I’ve been on so many dates. Mostly first dates that have misfired, despite establishing a good text-rapport beforehand. There was the hedge fund manager who wined and dined me at the Savile Club — then took me on a tour of the building to show me the “blow job” phone booth. I declined. A “feminist” charity worker suggested we swing by a women’s charity Christmas fete before gluhwein at Mercato Metropolitano. I’m not sure what grossed him out more: me salivating over copies of Spare Rib or the artworks made out of tampons on sale. I went to a speakeasy in Soho to meet an Old Etonian comedy producer, whose opening gambit was that he had simulated sex with a pig for a sketch. When I made a joke about another Old Etonian who’d had a run-in with a swine, he replied haughtily: “I support Corbyn. I think what he’s doing is very interesting.”
In January, I was ready to enter a nunnery. I had been for tapas with a man in reinsurance who seemed to hold me, a woman, personally responsible for his mother walking out on his father after 45 years of marriage (some live flamenco stomped him into silence, thank God). Why was I becoming Margaret Schlegel in Howards End, forever failing to connect? In three years I had managed only three meaningful relationships, each coming to an end only months later. Perhaps I didn’t need nuns but a very expensive shrink. Then The Civil Servant appeared on the scene, thanks to Coffee Meets Bagel.
We rushed in an initial meet-up before lockdown — baklava at Comptoir Libanais on March 14 — then dated on Zoom, quizzing each other every Saturday, watching films on Netflix party and late-night texting every day in between — before we could embark on a relationship-proper when lockdown eased.
I thought this one was going to be different, partly because of all that talking. When things were going well, I had chuckled at my former self weeping on the Tube. Really, this pandemic and the way it had slowed down life had given me what I wanted: time and headspace to fall for someone slowly and deeply.
It seems other daters were thinking the same way. At the end of March, Match.com activity was up over a third, with users dedicating more than seven hours a week to cultivating their online connections. On Bumble, video calls made through the app increased by 42 per cent after March 23, and on OKCupid by 573 per cent month-on-month in April. Hinge, which launched its in-app video in May, said one third of users had conversations lasting more than an hour. Though that still seems rather businesslike to me: calls to the Civil Servant unfurled over four hours every Saturday.
We were getting the hang of this slow-dating thing. Badoo says that at the end of May, 7,200 users in the UK had deleted their app because they were now entering a relationship. Either all this chatting was seriously romantic or more people were breaking lockdown than we knew. Remember, we weren’t able to form support bubbles until the end of June.
I was in the former category. The Civil Servant and I had decided to centre our calls on a weekly quiz on our specialist topics, but it was those moments in between when he shared something brilliant or endearing, or those times we said how we couldn’t wait to see each other that kept me coming back for more. The absence of a kiss when we started socially distanced walks was perversely delicious for the longing.
Spoiler: he dumped me a few weeks ago during a walk on the South Bank after work. After the initial shock, I felt just fine — free even.
Still, the whole sorry affair has confirmed to me my theory that there’s a major glitch with dating apps altogether. See, once again I had found myself with a captive audience and I was desperate to make it work. I bit my tongue too often when he said something I didn’t agree with. When he actually bit my tongue, I laughed it off.
But the endless scroll on these apps does something to us. When you find a little glimmer of something familiar in among all those fish, it feels more special than it actually is. In fact, there are plenty more fish. Plus you’ve put in all that effort, all that texting — you can’t go back now. And something sadder still: the pictures, those biographies and prompts whisper to us that we must construct someone better-looking, funnier, cleverer, simpler than we actually are. If you do come up for air after all this dissimulation, you suddenly realise you’re headed down a path you don’t like. The Civil Servant had come to this realisation and I respect him being brave and telling me as soon as he knew, however baldly he put it.
I’d say we’re stuck with the app dating scene, especially with Covid lurking. Globally, one million Bumble users are using a new profile badge that shows whether you are comfortable with virtual-only dating, meeting socially distanced, or socially distanced and with masks. In the UK, 80 per cent of people who have used the badge have chosen that last option. Bumble has found nearly half, 48 per cent, of users who have dated virtually confessed to feeling nervous about dating in real life, and the same percentage were looking to date locally to avoid public transport.
As a friend pondered over drinks on Saturday night: “Is Covid the new chlamydia? I don’t want to get caught catching it on a date.” The pandemic has made us very aware of our health and that of our loved ones and we’re probably thinking more about what we want from life too. Dating apps have noticed conversations on their platforms lasting longer and users are saying they want commitment. Let’s hope they’re looking beyond the profile at the person too.
Me, I’m back on blooming Bumble. Just to see if I’ve still got it. I’ve been talking to a dude in data who plays the piano and someone in publishing who’s been making agnolotti in lockdown. I’m in no rush to meet up and am enjoying the slower pace of the conversations. Maybe I’ll make a lasting connection with one of them.
Modern love: the new dating lexicon
Covid cuffing Seeking someone to lock down with for the second wave. Find someone who doesn’t snore and removes their hair from the plughole.
Flu-merangs Well, well, well. Your ex from three years ago has texted to say he been thinking about you a lot recently. Oh, and that person who dumped you last year has been reacting to your Instastories. Can’t find someone else, eh? Just move on, guys.
Pendemic pal That person you’ve been messaging since March. Maybe suggest a video call to move things on?
Social kisstancing On your socially distanced date in the park you might flutter your eyelids, ruffle your hair, deliver some compliments — but no touching! It used to be called flirting.
Quarreltines Arguments arising from poorly constructed text messages and sloppy timing of emojis to your long-distanced lover.
Wokefishing He said he always wears a mask, but surfaced from the Tube without one and now he’s asking to sample your margarita. He’s a lockdown sceptic! You’ve been wokefished.
Zumped When she scheduled your Zoom date for 10am rather than 10pm you knew something was up. It was good of her to do it face-to-face but she didn’t have to leave the call abruptly when you started to cry.