Today is our intern Celia’s last day for a while as she heads back to school. We wanted her to tell us what it has been like to date through the pandemic. Here’s her delightful rant.
I rang in the new year, a new decade, new era, much like everyone else did: at a party surrounded by my peers drunkenly yelling, “Happy New YEAR!!!” at each other as we raised our red solo cups in the air. I had my partner, Ben*, at the time by my side as we embraced and then wove through the party saying hello to new and old friends. None of us had any idea that the insidious COVID-19 had already made landfall in the United States, and my jumbled brain didn’t think anything of accidentally sipping from someone else’s cup, hugging a complete stranger hello, or crowding into a tiny bathroom with seven other people.
“Dating in 2020” isn’t an article I thought I would ever write, for several reasons. First, I entered the year in a relationship that seemed far stronger than it actually was. I anticipated staying in this relationship for the course of 2020 and wasn’t planning on thinking about meeting new people, navigating single life, or going through a breakup (am I naive? Probably.). Second, a pandemic completely upended the dating norms I had grown accustomed to as a young person and was left relying on old-fashioned communication more so than I ever anticipated. Thirdly, the importance of a partner’s political values has never been more important in an election year and I simply have no time for anyone who isn’t willing to talk about things that matter.
To put it lightly 2020 has been one hell of a curveball for my dating life, but somehow I am happier than I have ever been, despite all the factors that might suggest otherwise.
I have now experienced pandemic life both in and out of a relationship. While Ben and I were still together, we were forced to live at home with our parents during the thick of March through May. We were used to doing long distance at the time, with me living in St. Louis for school and him living in Kansas City. Naively, when I moved home because of the pandemic, I assumed that we would be able to spend more time together and considered it a win for our relationship (global health crisis aside).
As soon as I moved home, I found out that he had cheated on me and in my drive to make this relationship work (finding compassion for all ways to handle a seemingly black-and-white situation was a big growing moment for me), we committed to working things out and rebuilding a stronger relationship. That meant more time spent together, open and honest communication about everything, and making our relationship a priority. In some ways, quarantine made those efforts easier with less “life” to distract us, and in other ways, made it far more difficult.
We were quickly met with the challenge of the stay-at-home order in our community, and together decided that while we were not going to go inside each other’s houses and risk exposing ourselves to each other’s families, we would continue to see each other outdoors on walks or on socially distant picnics. As significant others in our early twenties who were living at home, this seemed like an appropriate compromise. Was it the most responsible choice to continue to see each other? Probably not. Did it make sheltering in place far more bearable to know that a couple times a week I could see Ben in person? Absolutely.
What used to be movie nights and weekend trips to each other’s towns turned into relying heavily on texting and Snapchat like middle schoolers. I felt like a teenager again, excitedly jumping whenever my phone buzzed with a text from him. The in-person aspects of what makes relationships feel adult and tangible were all but erased due to the strict orders and old-school texting became the norm for us again. This was challenging. In a time when I regressed into my high school self by moving back into my childhood bedroom and living with my family instead of my peers, it felt like a few steps back from the adult relationship to a high school one again. And while I had plenty of boyfriends in high school, the feeling of not being able to act my age was somewhat crippling.
As spring wore on and turned into summer, I began to feel a shift in my relationship. As the city began to open back up, the quiet little bubble my partner and I had been living in burst and social pressures of bars, parties, and other gatherings began to creep into our peripheral. I was not comfortable going to bars or parties, but he took the green light and began socializing. As our social lives began to start back up again, my partner and I split up. Was it due to quarantine that we had been able to work on things in the first place? I don’t know. Was our split inevitable due to our changing identities as twenty-somethings? Probably. Was the fizzle due to the unsettling nature of suddenly not being able to count on anything as a by-product of 2020? Most certainly.
In the age where in-person splits are seen as the most appropriate and tasteful way to end a relationship, waking up to several missed calls and drunken voicemails from him ending things while promising to, “never forget me” was an interesting punch in the gut unlike anything I’ve felt before. It didn’t take long for that tidbit of information about my personal life to become the greatest inside joke my friends and I have ever had.
As soon as I finished the voicemails, I called my best friends and we went to the park (because convening in my bedroom to eat ice cream and cry over him isn’t an option in 2020) to eat donuts and process the whole thing. Seeing my friends, it was the first time I felt comfortable hugging them since March. Desperate times called for desperate measures.
The next day, with my brand-new singleness in one hand and a pint of icecream in the other, I downloaded Bumble and Hinge and began to update my profiles that I hadn’t touched in almost a year. I was half impressed and half surprised to see options for virtual and socially-distant dating displayed as preferences. As I swiped, I could see who was comfortable with what, which made me feel more secure matching with someone who was at my same comfort level.
During this time, several of my good friends went on dates and met people through dating apps. Popular first dates these days seem to be going on walks, which I kept in my back pocket for when it was my turn to get back out there.
Conversations on dating apps used to be about photos in one of our profiles, or something we had in common, but openers quickly transitioned to commentary on how weird this year was. The one perk of living through a pandemic and civil rights movement is that there is plenty of common ground to speak about, and it is far easier than normal to decide who is worth my time and who isn’t. I am far pickier than I have been in the past, always swiping left on someone who put “conservative” on their profiles.
At the beginning of July, I went on my first date since the split and the pandemic with another journalism student. We met in my neighborhood and went for a walk and just talked. We kept a safe distance and got to know each other in a way that felt far more organic than other first dates that I’ve been on. Something about being active during a nerve wracking situation takes some of the physical nerves away. He was lovely and we aligned on the current issues that mattered most to me: voting Donald Trump out of office, fighting for Black lives, and staying socially distant. The date didn’t end with an embrace of any sort, but we happily waved to each other as we walked our respective ways.
In addition to dating apps and “getting back out there” to mend a broken heart, I didn’t know what else to do other than drive around and listen to an angsty playlist I had made to process my feelings. There was no party to go to to get my mind off of everything. There wasn’t a campus to romp around, new friends to make, or the typical post-breakup freedom that sometimes manifests into a dramatic life change (I joined a Facebook group for moving to Hawaii if that counts?).
Instead, I scheduled regular therapy appointments with my longtime therapist for the rest of the summer, had my long-distance best friend on speed dial, and decided the only way to get over these emotions was to push through them. Socially-distant nights on my parents’ back patio with my closest friends here at home became a regular occurrence.
In my one other significant relationship, the biggest thing that helped me get closure from my past partner was speaking about what happened in person. There is something about seeing a person’s face and listening to their side of the story after a bit of time has passed that really helps to be more empathetic and takes the edge off of upsetting feelings. In 2020, however, there was no way I felt comfortable being closer than six feet from Ben. Knowing that he had been partying and going to bars was something that I had made excuses for during our relationship because I was grasping at straws, letting myself and my standards down to keep our relationship, but now that it’s over- there was no getting close, literally.
There has been discussion of meeting up to talk, but aside from the fact that I am still, months later, speechless at the way things went down, I don’t want to risk the health of my family and closest friends to meet up with a guy who cheated on me and dumped me over a voicemail in the middle of the night. That sounds like the worst way to contract COVID-19 in my opinion.
The absence of the normal amount of distractions that would usually help me get through the end of a relationship and the roadblocks to starting a new one, I believe, have made my personal life far more blissful and simple than it would have been pre-pandemic. When all you can do is sit with yourself and replay what happened over and over, at some point you are forced to get through the emotions instead of replaying them. I started biking almost every evening with my friend to get exercise and look at the houses in our neighborhoods. I broke out my watercolor paints and made an effort to create art as much as possible. I spend undivided time with my family, not worried about leaving to see a boy. In therapy, I worked through my feelings light years faster than I had in the past and was able to see things for what they were a solid year before I was able to in my last breakup.
Being forced to slow down and just be single sounded terrifying when my relationship ended. I couldn’t imagine what to do with all the extra time I would have to mull over what happened. But when it came down to it, I put my priority in my healing so I could feel like myself and make the best of a bad deal as soon as I could. Am I angry anymore? Honestly, not really. What happened seems to be more of an unfortunate fact, a chapter in my story, than something that keeps me up at night. I have come a long way from the desperation to stay with someone who didn’t value me enough to be faithful to me, and choosing myself, my health, and the safety of those around me first has been amazing for my dating life. When you are forced to take such care over your body and your space, it transcends into your personal life in a way that was truly transformative to experience.
With my senior year of college on the horizon, I wanted to make sure when I left for St. Louis, I had a light heart to bring with me into the school year. I want to focus on my friends, finishing my degree, and being present for each and every moment. A relationship sounds exhausting right now, and I am far more equipped to be single and genuinely love my life where I can focus on myself in a way that I have never felt before. After all, if 2020 can throw us the curveballs of a pandemic, social justice movement, and trying to vote out an atrocity of a president, getting broken up with is really the least of my concern.