As someone born in the early 80s, I have vivid memories of talking to my boyfriend on the phone, lying on my bed, with my fingers tangled in the spirals of the phone cord. He went to a different school in another city, so the phone was where we developed our relationship, slowly, over hours of phone calls interspersed with trips to the mall where we held hands and ate nachos.
As I dated online in my 20s and 30s, faced with a sea of faces and rounds of swiping, I found myself yearning for those days again. When I had time to develop things slowly with one person, without the time pressures and urgency of modern-day dating. I found people’s desire for instant gratification disheartening, with unrealistic expectations of magic and fireworks on the first date a prerequisite for a second. I hated the inefficiency of texting, wishing more people would just pick up the phone. When my now boyfriend left for Europe after a month of dating last summer, we talked every day that he was gone on WhatsApp, until he returned at the end of August. It was like I was in high school again. And it was glorious.
Now, I didn’t expect a pandemic to be the catalyst for a change in the way we approach online dating, but I did think something had to give. And now, the inability to see and touch people in person has disrupted the online dating process in a major way. No longer able to get the instant gratification of a one-night stand and have any sort of physical intimacy with someone new, those on the market are going to have to use something that has been, in my experience, in much shorter supply: emotional intimacy. Will the pandemic be the thing to slow dating down again? Will emotional intimacy make a long-awaited comeback?
Online dating apps have responded to the new COVID-19 reality with speed and gusto. Tinder has made Passport, a paid feature that lets you change your virtual location so you can swipe anywhere, free. OkCupid, which relies on users answering questions to assign compatibility ratings via algorithms, has added questions related to virtual dating to help those with like-minded approaches find connection; the questions were answered 40 million times in March alone. It has also provided lists of digital date ideas, like drawing pictures of each other, doing a crossword, or, less romantically, doing your taxes together.
Users are changing too. According to Tinder, as an area becomes more affected by the virus, new conversations flourish and last longer. Since mid-March, daily messages have been up 10-15 percent in the U.S., and up to 25 percent in harder-hit areas, such as Italy and Spain, the company said. Tinder bios are now peppered with terms like “Stay home,” “Be safe,” and “Wash your hands.” With nowhere to go, and nothing to do, people are turning to the online dating world for connection and solace.
Clearly, people want to connect even when they can’t touch. But what do they do when they find someone or a few someones they like? Dating itself has changed overnight. Faced with no real rules of what to do in a pandemic, daters are having to figure it out, one step at a time. Logan Ury, a behavioural scientist and dating coach who previously co-ran the Irrational Lab, Google’s behavioral economics team, spoke to me about the unique opportunities that social distancing rules present. “It’s a chance to check in on our defaults and a chance to question the status quo. In general, people just follow a given path, (but) now, there is no obvious path.”
There are a range of dating experiences, from the casual and flirty to the more long-term focused, and even risky propositions.
Carlyn, a 28-year-old woman of colour whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, has been using online dating on and off for a few years, with two long-term relationships stemming from that experience. She returned to Bumble two months ago and has noticed a change in her experience amid the pandemic. “I’m generally very picky and mindful. Before this, I would have only said yes to a few people. Now that I’m self-isolating, I’ve found that the quality has gone up. I’m liking more people,” she said.
“People are way less creepy. In the past, I’ve been sent dick pics right off the get-go.”
Raj Patel, a 35 year-old working in film, described himself as “not the prototype of what every gay man is looking for–I have a turban, I don’t have a six pack.” His experience has been quite different. While he was finding it hard to meet people on Grindr and Bumble pre-pandemic, he found himself getting messages from people that wouldn’t have messaged him before with propositions to meet up for sex. “I was getting messages from those, in the hierarchy of gay men, (who) are generally seen as the top … probably the most desired ones. I got a message from someone and I thought, Is this an ad? Is this a scam? What’s happening? But I realized it was still a ‘hit it and quit it’ situation, but they recognized that they had more power and control. That I was more likely to take the risk and break physical distancing rules to meet up with them, to hook up.”
Maisie, a 24-year-old engineer, told me she’s “having a blast. It’s obviously a different time, but it’s pretty fun.” She’s seeing someone that she had hung out with a few times before the shutdown, and also meeting and vibing with other people on Tinder and Instagram. “It’s been interesting to have met someone before, and have established that, then then have to keep up the relationship.” She described how relationship steps have adapted virtually. “With this person, who I have developed feelings for, I would want to introduce them to some of my friends. My friends and I do queer craft nights … We did one last week that was a costume party, and I invited them to the Zoom call so they could meet everyone.”
People are still getting sexy though, and thinking about how to make virtual relationships spicy. Ury recounted a recent conversation with a male friend, who told her that he’s “never gotten more nudes or sexting requests in (his) life.” Maisie said she’s spending a lot of time sending nudes and mini pornos. “I took my first virtual shower last week. I’m pretty sure (my phone) is waterproof, so I took it in the shower with me, which was fun,” she said. “I’ve taken a bunch of videos of myself masturbating, and sent those to those that I’m COVID-dating; they’ll send them back, too.”
For those who are serious about finding a longer-term connection and possibly a “pandemic partner,” the increase in online dating activity has seemed to translate to a need to step up their game. People are longer able to rely on impressing someone with chi-chi hotspots or luring them in with their A+ pheromones. To stand out, they need to use their words, and use them well. In a now viral tweet, comedian Kaitlyn McQuin said it best: “Welcome back to courtship, Brad. Welcome back to talking to a gal for WEEKS prior to meeting. We’re pen pals now, my dude. We bout to get Jane Austen up in here. Now, Writeme a poem.”
Anjali, a 31-year-old lawyer, has lower expectations of the men she dates compared to the women, and suspects that she’ll have deeper connections with women. “I’m expecting women to be better at this. I think we’re socialized to be better at connecting with each other and staying in touch. Some guys just don’t know how to do that as well.”
“People are way less creepy. In the past, I’ve been sent dick pics right off the get-go.”
Most people are still in the initial dating stage, with social distancing measures implemented in March for most. “We’re in the early phases of learning how to date right now. No one knows how long this will last, but I think we’ll look back at this time as the early and messy transition,” Ury noted.
But what will happen three months, six months in? “In normal dating, people go on dates that have increasing intimacy, that build in momentum. It’s hard to do that when all you have access to is Zoom, Hangouts, and Facetime,” Ury said. “But you can video chat, then watch the same movie, cook a meal together.”
Resources for long-distance couples, like the r/longdistance subreddit, can be useful in these situations, even if the other person is just on the other side of your city. Research suggests that long-distance relationships are not at a disadvantage compared to in-person ones, and can also be filled with intimacy, quality, trust, and commitment.
Claire, a 24-year-old law student, had started a relationship shortly before the pandemic that is now exclusive. She hasn’t seen her girlfriend since the middle of March, as one of her girlfriend’s roommates is immunocompromised and all of the roommates are staying inside to keep them safe. “I’d never really been in an exclusive relationship, and now I’ve gotten into one over texting,” she said.
But she described an especially positive element to her relationship starting out this way. “We are building a type of strength in our relationship that would not have happened so soon in normal circumstances,” she said. She and her girlfriend are planning to move to Toronto for jobs in May, and will likely become a quarantine couple then, though in separate apartments.
I expect that this may be something we see—relationships developing online, socially distancing outside dates, and then some people taking the plunge to quarantine together, or expand their circles to be a circle of two, in different apartments.
Many people I talked to seemed somewhat relieved to be rid of much of the surface elements of dating, stripping it down to its essence: getting to know someone. They talked about dates in sweatpants, not having to get dressed up, not having to worry about safety or expectations of sex at the end of a date. Shed of the usual trappings, and in a time when anxiety and emotions are at a high, people are getting deep. “Everyone is in a mindset where we are more vulnerable, honest, and truthful,” Carlyn noted. “It doesn’t feel as surface level as before. I dated prior to this more out of boredom. Now, it’s an actual need for connection.”
Robin Mazumder, a 34 year-old Ph.D. student currently based in Edmonton, finds that the pandemic is making people more “real.”
“I’ve been having really meaningful conversations with people. I feel like the pandemic has given us something to talk about, rather than ‘Hey, how is it going.’ Now, with the possibility of not meeting for a while, you have to find a way to have interesting conversations, so that when this passes, we might have a meaningful encounter in person,” he said.
Ury is excited about the changes she’s hearing and seeing in her clients who are seeking long-term relationships. “New ways of dating will emerge, and we have reason to believe those trends will continue after the virus is over: Spending more time going deep with somebody early on, slowing down the path to physical intimacy, investing more in conversation, learning how to tune into how you actually feel about someone’s personality and the parts of you that they bring out, rather than feeling swept away by hormones and the oxytocin that you release when you have sex with somebody.” Ury’s optimism about longer lasting behavioural changes stems from a belief that people will have the time to reflect on their behaviour and values. “ Behaviors that emerged during the pandemic will likely continue well after we’ve put away our masks and come out of quarantine. Someone who rushed to test physical chemistry may realize the power of first connecting with someone emotionally. Another might realize, "Hey, I like video chatting before a date! It helps me feel comfortable before I meet up with someone."
I ask Carlyn what she’s learned from her experience so far, that she would carry with her going forward. “It’s taught me more about how to open up and be vulnerable a little bit quicker. I usually tend to take a lot of time, need to see all these things before I can trust someone.”
All of the women I spoke to expressed a desire to video chat before in person dates in the future. “Video chat is definitely something I will do before going on any other date in the future,” Carlyn said. Janelle, 32, agrees. “It saves me a lot of time to be honest… you get their undivided attention. You kind of get to see how they live. You get a sense and a feel for who the individual is, that I don’t think I would have gotten had I gone to a restaurant or a bar. They’ve been nice and kind in way that my previous dates haven’t been.”
“So many things we thought were mandatory are optional,” Ury said. Something we are discovering in life, in work, and, now, in dating.
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