#bumble | #tinder | #pof The Highs and Lows of Dating in a Pandemic: Apps, Sex, Stories

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the holiday season seems designed to make single people feel bad about themselves. See: Mistletoe, holiday rom-coms, New Year’s Eve kisses, and that one relative whose entire raison d’être is warning you of the dangers of being “left on the shelf” like some elf who didn’t pass muster in Santa’s workshop.

This wasn’t a novel concept for Holly*—happily single but delighted to mingle should an opportunity arise—but it hit differently this year when she found herself watching Holidate. A widely panned Netflix holiday offering, it stars Emma Roberts as one half of a very unlikeable couple who pledge to be each other’s date for milestone holidays to avoid the terrible fate of going alone.

“I couldn’t even finish it because it made me so mad,” she groans. “Hallmark holiday movies are innocuous enough, but a movie like that makes you feel terrible about being single during the holidays. I don’t feel pressure from friends and family to date, but I do from movies like that.” Especially irritating was the insistence that everyone should always bring a date to festive events, “even if it’s someone who’s not nice.” Adding insult to injury: “the idea that you need to have someone to kiss on New Year’s, because if you don’t, you’re starting the year as a failure.”

Everyone has been more isolated this year, but the single person’s loneliness has a particular set of stakes: Do you roll the dice on your health (or that of other people) for a chance at love, a baby, a hand to reach for in the dark?

This year, of course, there is another thing amplifying the usual anxieties that surround the pursuit of love—and that sinking feeling as another year passes by without having found it. The pandemic’s complete upheaval of the way we do, well, everything has hit single people in a very particular way. Everyone has been more isolated this year, but the single person’s loneliness has a particular set of stakes: Do you roll the dice on your health (or that of other people) for a chance at love, a baby, a hand to reach for in the dark?

Like many unattached people, Christine* initially welcomed the social pause of the first lockdown. “There was some relief that my friends and family couldn’t tell me off for not meeting anyone, since it was impossible,” confesses the British transplant living in Toronto. At first, she even felt grateful for her solo status. “Everyone else was complaining about being quarantined with their spouses or kids, and I didn’t have to deal with any of that.” As the year wore on, however, that mild “smugness” turned into a kind of “existential horror” as she began to feel like a large part of her life was on pause while those of the coupled-up continued as normal. (The endless barrage of quarantine pregnancy announcements did not help.)

A casual dater pre-pandemic, Christine found out that she was, in fact, a person who wanted to fall in love—at the worst possible time. “I realized, a little regretfully, that I don’t want to be alone anymore,” she says. “Life is hard on your own when you strip out everything you normally do, like commute, travel, party…I finally have this desire to meet my someone special, but the world is against me.”

She’s not the only one who is feeling the urge to couple up and hunker down. “More than half of Canadian daters on Bumble are putting a stronger emphasis on the need for a partner heading into the holiday season,” says Meredith Gillies, senior marketing manager at the popular dating app. 

So lockdown has not managed to cancel Cuffing Season, then (that internet-invented pre-winter phenomenon of rushing to find someone to “cuff” yourself to so you don’t have to spend long, cold nights alone). A testament to the resiliency of the human spirit! Or, as Julia*, a 34-year-old Torontonian, told us, “People are just really horny right now. Especially guys, who seem terrified of being alone.”

While Gillies reports daters on Bumble largely feel “optimistic” heading into 2021—anticipating Gatsby-esque hijinks of the new Roaring Twenties, mayhap—40 per cent say they “are no longer confident they know how to date successfully.” And for good reason: Even among seasoned daters, COVID dating is entirely uncharted territory.

Thanks to the delicate dance of distancing precautions, the already complicated game of love has turned into a comedy of manners worthy of a period drama. A recent bit of satire in The New Yorker equated dating in 2020 to living in a Jane Austen novel: “It’s a long, drawn out affair composed of public meetings” and “you regularly inquire about the health of each other’s family members.”

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There is, for example, the phenomenon of the virtual first date—the COVID-safe way to avoid the dreaded “pen pal” situation that can arise when you’re messaging someone on an app and it never goes anywhere. While the video-chat date has some pros—if it’s a dud, at least you haven’t wasted time and money and the need to dry-clean your best outfit—it’s no one’s first choice. “They can feel like a job interview,” Julia told us.

“When you’re on video, you’re way too conscious of your own face and mannerisms to be as charming as you’d like to be,” said a dater named Noelle*. Many raised the deep disappointment of seeing their date was a less than stellar housekeeper. “Or judgmental shit, like, ‘Hmm, I don’t know that I like their light fixture,’” Noelle admitted. Phone dates seem to have more success in building intimacy, with Christine likening them to “snuggling up in bed with someone.”

Like many daters, Noelle is taking extra care over who she sees because she’s got an older parent she wants to be able to care for. “I’m going to be 50 by the time this is over,” she complains, tacking a decade or so onto her age for dramatic effect. “I’ve lost a year of my life! Like, this week, I’ve only left my house once, to get wine.”

After a series of false starts on dating apps, Noelle went for a walk with someone a friend set her up with, only to be surprised by how bizarre it felt to be close to a stranger again. “It was so weird, because if I’m going to be hot for someone, I want them to be able to reach out and touch my leg, and to feel their energy, their smell,” she explains. “Those things are such a big part of what makes chemistry happen, and you’re like, ‘I can’t get to that because we’re six feet apart.’” She also notes that it feels almost impossible to get a vibe going without the usual ambiance of a crowded bar, a cozy, dark booth, leaning closer over a candle. “Sitting in a park when it’s cold doesn’t really do it.”

“Now that it’s cold and there’s nowhere public to meet outside safely, dating is pretty much off the table,” said a dater named Juniper*. As winter cancels out summer’s brief respite of the sunny park dates and patio meetings, many daters are wearily eyeing up the Facetime icon on their phone again, resigned to this being the only way to meet anyone until March. (As an aside: According to Bumble, the best time to be online is between 6 and 10 p.m., when the platform is most active, and sharing what kind of dates you’re comfortable with can increase your chances of making a match by 20 per cent.)

“God forbid I get close to someone, risk everyone in my bubble and then find out they’re an asshole. What a waste!”

Should you somehow survive the awkward initial virtual small talk, there comes a time when you’ll want to meet in person—and now that it’s winter, that will likely mean inside. That means it’s time for The Talk—a phrase once reserved for discussing sexual health, but now expanded to include COVID safety. “Are you bubbling?” is the new “Do you use protection?” For Noelle, deciding to be indoors with a person basically does equate to deciding whether she wants to have sex with them. “And God forbid I get close to someone, risk everyone in my bubble and then find out they’re an asshole. What a waste!”

A pandemic, it turns out, is not a moratorium on bad dates or weird creeps who seemed normal on text, nor has it cancelled ghosting or the flimsy excuse for ending things. “I had a good first date, which is such a rarity,” says Juniper. “He was a lovely guy, but he followed up with a text saying he was worried about adding a person to his bubble and exposing his parents to the risk.” It left her feeling like “the shrug emoji.”

Self-described “serial dater” Julia* has reduced her usual “four to five people on the go at one time” to just one. “I do that because I want to keep myself and my partner safe,” she says, horrified at the thought of being an accidental “superspreader.” Having to be so selective means that she’s found herself asking burning questions like “Do you want kids?” much sooner into a relationship—her case of mid-30s-induced “baby fever” having been accelerated by the pandemic. She’s shortlisting candidates more quickly, and ruthlessly. “This is going to sound super-judgemental, but I broke up with a guy over the summer because he was in his 40s and still had bad cutlery,” she says. “It’s not a comment on his economic status, but that there are certain things you need to have figured out by a certain age.” Adios, “Big Dick Rich”!

Speaking of appendages: While many daters mourned the demise of even a chaste peck goodnight after a date, the one night stand is alive and well, pandemic guidelines be damned. Christine, for instance, “firmly bent” the rules around physical distancing for a late summer booty call, which left her “tinged with guilt but ultimately thrilled to have been touched by someone other than myself.”

Despite the headwinds, the course of true love has run smooth for some this year—there’s Alex*, who met his now-partner over the summer and fell in love over a course of backyard hangs; Mackenzie*, who really wasn’t looking for anyone, but met her dream guy when she became a pandemic-spurred cycling enthusiast and joined an old acquaintance for a bike ride. Julia had a pandemic meet-cute when a friend patched a guy “she just had to meet” onto a video hangout one day—and the rest is history.

Many people who used to meet their love interests in bars have decided to give an even more old-fashioned way of finding someone a try: matchmaking. It’s been a busy year for Claire AH, owner of Toronto’s Friend of a Friend matchmaking service. “As my mother says, time passes either way, and a lot of people are choosing to spend this time dating differently,” she says. “Everything is different, anyway, so why not venture a little outside of your usual type or your usual way of getting to know someone?”

She points to the opportunity of coming at dating from a different perspective, no matter how trying the circumstances that got you there. “People have been more coachable and more willing to explore their previous dating patterns, in the hopes of moving past the ones that don’t serve them. When that foundation is set up, it’s a lot easier to see the potential in the right person.”

In her professional opinion, this shift in dating behaviour can only be to the good. “I think it’s owing to people really getting to know each other,” she says, alluding to a trend dubbed “slow dating,” which is exactly what you think it is. “A lot of my most successful matches who have met during the pandemic had at least a few virtual dates before meeting up. What the dates lacked in the ability to share space and feel connection that way, they made up for with the ability to go a bit deeper and listen a bit better in those formative conversations.”

If that just does not appeal, there is always the in-no-way-lesser approach offered by Holly, the happily single Holidate hater. “Take this time for yourself, and do what makes you, and the people around you, happy.” Her plans this New Year’s eve? “A night at home, with a bubble bath, a giant cake, and a whole bottle of champagne—all to myself.”

* Names have been changed.

 




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