After months of campaigns to keep us from the clutches of coronavirus, an unfortunate side-effect has come to the fore: we’re a little bit scared about what comes next. What does normality even mean any more? You can feel it as lockdown eases, as we gingerly make our way back onto public transport, or into shops or gathering in our small groups in parks, keeping a distance, hiding behind face masks, the air between us feeling charged and dangerous.
The quarantine era has been tough for everyone and we’ll all have campfire horror stories to share one day, but the humble singleton has had it harder than most. Single people are often envied for their supposedly carefree lives, hopping from lover to lover and embracing their independence, but lockdown clipped these butterflies’ wings. Loved-up couples hunkered down together, but quarantine vaporised the dating scene overnight, rendering meet-cutes and flirty first dates obsolete and curtailing budding relationships – unless you were ready to make a speedy commitment for an unspecified amount of time, which, understandably, few people were.
The dating arena is terrifying enough, but have the calls from well-meaning friends to “just put yourself out there” ever felt more inappropriate? What does dating look like in a post-coronavirus world? How can you be sure someone is on the same page as you when it comes to safety? And which is the right page to be on? Is masking up on a date OK? Will observing social distancing make you look… well, distant? The anxieties stack up before you’ve even swiped. Dating app Bumble is introducing a range of features which aim to alleviate some pressures, including special profile badges so a user can identify what they’re in to. But instead of kinks or a preference for long walks or folk music, the badges display their comfort levels when it comes to dating: virtual only (one in three Bumble users says they plan to continue using video dating post-lockdown); socially distanced; and socially distanced with masks. Bumble user Charlotte has mixed feelings about post-lockdown dating and worries her communication skills might have suffered from lack of interaction. “I think the lack of human contact may lead some of us to falsely believe we have chemistry with someone, when really we just want to feel someone’s touch again,” she says. “There also comes the problem of ‘when is too soon?’ and ‘would I look overly keen to suggest something?’” She is, however, a die-hard true romance fan and believes the extra effort will be worth it.
‘I think the lack of human contact may lead some of us to falsely believe we have chemistry with someone, when really we just want to feel someone’s touch again’
Another issue to contend with is the likely shrinking of our post-Covid dating pool. As going on public transport is still a major exposure risk, dating the locals could become the new norm. Dating apps and GPRS are already primed for this, obviously – although, of course, if you’ve already “done” the neighbours or don’t fancy the scenery too much, you may have to move house for a more refreshed grid.
The stifling of romance the past few months – save for renegades still hooking up in questionable PPE – hasn’t just been a blow for people who love buying strangers dinner. All sense of time may have been forgotten during our months of binge-watching and Zoom calls, but for older daters, the clock has never ticked louder. People in their late thirties and forties may feel they’ve been robbed of precious time to find a partner and potential coparent: the world may be on hold, but their fertility is not. What does all this polite, distant dating mean for them?
There are, of course, practical quibbles for the new dawn of dating. If, once open, there’s no space for you at the pub or the restaurant and you’re forced to date outdoors, what about toilet breaks? Wasp attacks? The fact that once you hit 35 sitting on grass for longer than half an hour risks never being able to get back up again? And that’s before you acknowledge that picnics in the park only really work in romantic novels or period dramas. In real life, nothing crushes a boner quicker than fending a trio of determined wasps off your glass of rapidly flattening prosecco and succumbing to food poisoning from a clammy cocktail sausage.
There’s been a glimmer of hope on the horizon in the shape of “bubbles” – the government’s concession to mixing households up a bit now lockdown is easing. People are now allowed to buddy up and spend more time together in close quarters, so long as they tread carefully when apart. You might think this solves all singletons’ problems in one go, that the streets will soon swell with elated single people charging off to their elected bonking buddy. But it’s not that easy.
Alix Fox, relationships expert for male masturbation toy brand Tenga, found some pals’ congratulations that she could now stay over with someone a little wide of the mark – social bubbles didn’t solve loneliness overnight. “Finding a buddy who’s in close proximity, doesn’t have vulnerable family to think of and wants to choose me over others hasn’t been simple so far,” she says. “It’s quite a sensitive thing. I know lots of singletons are trying not to take it personally if they don’t get picked to be someone’s companion.”
The dating scene has always been a teeming mass of awkwardness and social bubbles have only introduced more. How do you actually ask to be in someone’s bubble? What if you had your eye on someone else and want to politely refuse? For anyone last to be picked for the rounders team in PE at school, it’s a familiar feeling – and not one you relish as an adult. “I’ve been hesitant to ask some people whether they’d consider buddying up with me because I don’t want to put them on the spot,” says Fox, and she’s not alone. One pal told her, “It’s so crushing. A friend who assumed it would be simple for me to ‘hook up with a buddy or something’ then acted like I was being difficult and negative when I explained that no one near me was available or, devastatingly, willing to pair with me. It’s almost made me feel more lonely.”
You could forgive anyone feeling downhearted or even deciding not to bother. Despite its best intentions, video dating isn’t necessarily the most romantic start. The key to keeping your spirits up, says Alix, is to embrace the novelty rather than treat it as a last resort. “I’ve made a list of online dating ideas I want to try, from internet escape rooms to a live-streamed late-night aquarium tour to artistic shared drawing challenges,” she says. “Rather than focus on what’s missing from the date, I’m more likely to enjoy what’s unique and appealing about it.”
‘I explained that no one near me was available or, devastatingly, willing to pair with me. It’s almost made me feel more lonely’
As for small talk, well… we can perhaps take comfort that none of us have been up to anything mind-blowing lately. It’s time to get creative. Alix says: “To break the ice, rather than your will to live, bring a handful of things from round your home to the video chat, each with a story or anecdote connected to them or linked to something you’re passionate about. Ask your date to do the same.” While virtual dating can take a bit of work, according to Alix, it’s a good way to weed out anyone who might not have what it takes in the real world. “An imaginative partner, who’s open to putting the work in to creating and maintaining a healthy, happy relationship is exactly what I’m looking for.”
And if you bond but have run out of things to say and are not quite ready to commit to creating a metal bubble? How about a book at bedtime? “It’s intimate, relaxing and can be hot if you choose an erotic one,” says Alix. Or you could watch your favourite TV shows together, but apart. The BBC has launched a new trial called BBC Together, which allows you watch or listen to any shows on their iPlayer at exactly the same time.
Things will be weird for a while and it’ll take time to adjust. The best way through it is to embrace the weirdness, take the bull by the horns and throw yourself into situations that pre-coronavirus you would never have done. Everything has changed and, as the pandemic has proven, things could change again just as quickly.
If you can, harness your anxiety to be the fuel you need to try something new. But, equally, if you’d rather wait it out a little longer, don’t do it alone – break the fourth wall, take a chance. And invest in a laptop stand and a ring light so you’re more than ready for your video dating close-up.
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