The 'What Are We?' Conversation Is Coming Early This Cuffing Season

"There’s some consideration about, like, 'Are we just lonely, or actually into each other?'"
Hannah Smothers
Brooklyn, US
Two people hug in the kitchen at home
Peopleimages via Getty
Apart and Together is a series chronicling dating and relationships during an unprecedented public health crisis.

After a month and a half of messaging over Hinge and texting, Britta Erickson, a 25-year-old Texan, finally went on a highly anticipated first date on October 7. Before then, things kept getting in the way: She had a planned vacation, his grandfather passed away, and navigating the tangle of COVID regulations and fluctuating case numbers in Texas made figuring out how and when to meet up much more complicated than normal.


The first date went so well they quickly arranged a second, during which they spent a day together watching college football and playing (socially distanced) arcade games. By the end of the night, they’d feverishly planned a third date: a weekend long staycation in a cabin out in the country. “Things moved pretty fast,” Erickson told VICE. “People called us crazy, but I’m absolutely certain I’ve found my person.”

Like many others, Erickson has been anxiously staring down the upcoming pandemic winter. Even though the weather where she lives is moderate and doesn’t threaten the same indoors-only, early pandemic-style lockdown that northern states are anticipating, going through the past year the only single person among her friend group had become grating. In other words, with the fall rolling toward the holiday season, Erickson was more urgently interested in finding a cuff.

“I think I was just tired of doing this alone,” she said. “I wasn’t like, ‘I NEED TO MEET SOMEBODY OR I WILL PERISH!!!’ But I was getting a little sad, being by myself all the time.”

Wanting someone to help combat loneliness is a widely shared feeling right now, and the urgent desire to have some sort of partner to get through the upcoming pandemic winter with has people defining terms more seriously than in years prior. As senior staff writer Alex Zaragoza previously anticipated in a reported piece for VICE, this year’s cuffing season started early and became a gauntlet of people trying to date lots of people quickly and at once, even more so than in normal years, but facing the extra dances around pandemic-related risks.


Cuffing season is always a mad dash to get into some sort of relationship or relationship-ish arrangement with someone before the holidays (in warmer places) or first big cold snap of the season, with the idea being that the winter sucks, everyone is moderately depressed, and meeting someone new amid all that feels futile. It’s a quest to have a partner (or, at minimum, reliable hookup) to make the year’s worst months slightly more tolerable, and maybe do some cute winter-y things with.

But this year, the added urgency of a possible second wave and/or reinstatement of lockdowns has changed the way people set terms with a reliable winter partner, once they think they’ve found someone. And “partner” has taken on a more serious meaning, given the risk of COVID that’s significantly amplified by casually hooking up with multiple people at a time. As several cuff-ees told VICE, people aren’t just trying to lock shit down early, but quickly, setting terms that suit their lifestyles and comfort level with navigating the pandemic. As Zaragoza anticipated, a lot of people are dating right now. Now that we’re full-swing in cuffing season, it’s also clear that the way people are dating is more deliberate and mindful, adding a serious air to a typically horny and slightly unhinged time.

If dating in the early months of the pandemic was defined by a return to courtship via meandering Facetime and Zoom dates that built toward something vague, the fall and winter is defined by a shared determination to set terms and settle down before safely dating is no longer possible. Scared by the possibility of riding out the winter alone, people aren’t just looking for relationships; they’re clear about seeking some kind of partner to get through the coming months with, having learned earlier this year how lonely and isolating a lockdown can be.


“A lot of us have the same feelings about everything going on, and it’s nice to be able to share that with somebody and talk about it.”

Like Erickson, Gigi, 27, who asked to omit her last name for privacy reasons, found herself moving more quickly than normal in a recently formed relationship. She spent most of the pandemic single, after having gone through a breakup in January and whipping through a quick self-described “rebound” in the spring. After undergoing a pandemic-delayed surgery in July, Gigi recovered and re-downloaded Tinder in August. Within two weeks, she met someone who felt promising. The conversation was intimate right off the bat; the two exchanged long, detailed messages for a few days before agreeing to meet out for dinner in Cincinnati, Ohio, where they both live. They’ve been seeing each other consistently for over a month now.

While they haven’t defined the relationship as monogamous explicitly, Gigi said it’s implied. He works in a hospital and is a single parent, and, as a result, has to be cautious about how many people he’s interacting with regularly. Gigi feels similarly, having gone through the pandemic thus far by following regulations “to a tee,” she said. The quick exclusivity is hastened even more by the limitations of dating someone new right now. With most public spaces off-limits, or under strict restrictions to keep people as safe as possible, hanging out at home is a normal first or second date activity. “It’s a lot more like, not doing anything but binging a Netflix show and talking,” Gigi said.


Gigi hasn’t gone through the pandemic totally alone, since she has roommates. But they’re in relationships, and spend most of their time now with their partners. A significant benefit of cuffing up now is the possibility that she’ll have someone to share whatever experience lies ahead with. “I feel less lonely,” she said. “A lot of us have the same feelings about everything going on, and it’s nice to be able to share that with somebody and talk about it.”

Myles, 30, who asked to omit his last name for privacy reasons, also went through a breakup just before the pandemic started and Ottawa, where he lives, went into lockdown. His roommates moved out mid-pandemic, leaving him alone in their apartment. He started seeing a therapist to help with unresolved feelings from his breakup, and downloaded and deleted Bumble a few times, never meeting up with anyone. By late July, early August, with most of Ottawa opening up to some degree, Myles downloaded Tinder “because that’s where people are looking for hookups,” which is all that he was interested in.

Or, not “hookups” necessarily, but a consistent person to hook up with through the fall and winter, no strings attached. He met someone within a few days, even though her bio said she was “looking for love,” decidedly not the thing Myles was interested in. “We kind of came to an agreement that we’re fine with going out on dates and hooking up afterwards,” he said. “She was cool with that, and I was like, Alright, here we go. We met pretty quickly, went to lunch, and then came back to my place and got down to business.”


The two saw each other a few more times in the next couple of weeks, but when he raised the question of a post-hookup sleepover, she recoiled, and they stopped meeting up. Now Myles is back to the drawing board, feeling increasingly anxious about a possible lockdown and the cuffing season deadline.

Compared to previous years, Myles said he’s “a little more antsy to get the ball rolling, meet in person, see if there’s chemistry.” The feeling is: There’s no time to waste, if he wants someone to see consistently—on whatever terms—throughout the winter. To streamline things, he also tries to be abundantly clear about what it is he’s looking for.

“I am looking for something fun, but also kind and respectful,” he said. “I live by myself and don’t have any close contacts that I see frequently, so I have a higher tolerance for what’s acceptable for me to do and I try to keep that in mind when I’m talking with people about potentially meeting up—what’s the middle ground? The pandemic exacerbates a lot of the fraughtness and anxieties that come from meeting up with people. But I also don’t want to have long distance video pen pals for the winter.”

Even those who don’t typically use dating apps have been driving to try them out this year, given the near impossibility of meeting someone spontaneously (save some well-placed eyefucking above the mask). Sam Nelson, a 27-year-old who lives in Oregon, said she’s always been personally uncomfortable with dating apps, but downloaded Bumble in late summer after she “got bored during quarantine.” She went on her first and only Bumble date in August, with her first-ever match on the app. They met in a public park nearby.


“There’s some consideration like, Are we just lonely, or actually into each other?”

“We both showed up with masks in hand, but immediately felt so comfortable with one another that we hugged and left our masks off,” she said. “We talked for five hours! It was deliciously non-normative for mid-pandemic.”

Nelson said she was initially just looking for intimacy and connection, and “to get laid,” but now that first date is heading into actual relationship territory, as the weather in Oregon cools.

“There is a palpable desire for connection now more than ever, so there’s some consideration about like, Are we just lonely, or actually into each other?” she said, summarizing what likely many are asking themselves as they lock down cuffs they hope will last the coming months. “I think and hope it’s the latter.”

Like with most things, it’s almost certainly a combination of the two: Quarantine and lockdown are lonely by necessity, as we all learned just months ago, and those who’ve gone through the year without a partner are feeling that loneliness more acutely.

Also, being alone for a long time does things to the brain, in ways that are probably both scientific and not. I’m thinking here about how, in this week’s premiere of The Bachelorette (so sorry about this), after spending undisclosed amounts of time in quarantine at a resort outside of Palm Springs, the cast of men were giddy at the mere idea of touching a woman’s hand. The deliberate approach to cuffing this year is a necessity; who would choose to go through whatever the coming months bring, totally alone, touching no hands?