Just before lockdown began, Matt Hancock and Dr Jenny Harries presented the nation’s daters with a stark dilemma. Non-cohabiting couples, they advised, should either move in together for the duration or stay physically apart. Couples who barely knew each other’s surnames were catapulted into levels of intimacy that would normally have evolved over years and the enforced lovebirds were soon living like old-style pensioners, spending every moment in each other’s company, arguing over hand sanitiser brands and giving one another dodgy haircuts.
For the large pool of existing singletons, the picture was radically different. Gone was the usual flurry of social engagements, and even the possibility of meeting someone at work. With face-to-face meetings forbidden, romance meant either breaking the rules (and risking the wrath of neighbourhood Covid snitches) or restricting yourself to virtual dating. Relationships froze in time. Meanwhile, many friends reported former flames trying to rekindle things in lockdown.
Covid’s impact on the dating landscape mirrors its effect on the entire economy. The pandemic has simultaneously sped up and slowed down existing trends, hastening the demise of the traditional office and business travel, while vainly trying to preserve the economy in aspic through business loans and furloughing. Dating had already migrated largely online, particularly among the young. The worst excesses of the #MeToo movement had put paid to office banter and dampened physical interactions; far safer to meet people through the socially sanctioned, sanitised forum of a dating app than risk approaching someone in a pub or club. Where #MeToo made workplaces more po-faced and paranoid, the pandemic has removed the office from the dating game altogether and added layers of complexity to what was already a social minefield.
First-date greetings are awkward enough at the best of times. With social distancing, they’re a nightmare. Kisses on cheeks? No way. Handshake? Never. Too often the awkward wave prevails — or worse, the loathsome foot- or elbow-tap. Once the date has begun, the stakes are even higher. The old method of kissing numerous frogs in the hopes of unearthing the occasional prince seems long gone. Few would risk a first kiss — and possible infection — except for someone they consider a grade-A potential partner. Others have been more entrepreneurial, laying the groundwork for future dalliances. One of my male friends busied himself by messaging ten different women in lockdown, and is only now beginning to meet the virtual harem he has so painstakingly assembled.
Despite the stereotype of young hedonists thronging city centres and merrily driving up the R-rate, a clash of sensibilities is under way in the virtual world as in the country at large, loosely mirroring the old Cavalier/Roundhead divide. Identifying fellow lockdown purists or sceptics, depending on your preference, is yet another tricky obstacle to overcome. Users of the dating app Bumble may even specify what kind of date they are comfortable with (‘Virtual only’, ‘Socially distanced with mask’, ‘Socially distanced’). Sadly there’s no option for ‘normal’.
The #MeToo movement encouraged a subsection of worried or opportunistic men to cultivate a performative ‘nice guy’ persona, designed to reassure potential mates — and I suspect something similar is happening in lockdown. Much is no doubt genuine, but the experience of several of my friends suggests that many are chancers, exploiting loneliness and fears for the future to build a false sense of trust. Some dating coaches praise the new regime, on the basis that ‘small talk is out and deep chat is in’, but that’s not everyone’s idea of fun. It’s the inconsequential pub gossip and banter that I most miss. Better to flirt over a drink than bare your soul. And Zoom dates doubtless suffer the same problems afflicting conference calls — the absence of the body language and social cues of meeting in person. Inevitably there’s a pause, then both speak at once, breaking off in confusion and over-politeness (‘No, you first’, ‘After you’).
Others have chosen to ignore the ritual dance altogether. With pubs and restaurants closed until recently, and the usual dating venues still heavily restricted, many are simply cutting out the middle man. ‘Lockdown dating is grim,’ says one female friend.
‘The pretence of even going for a drink is gone so it’s straight to “Hey, I’ve got a job, a bottle of plonk and Dettol wipes at my place… come on down”.’ (‘I mean that’s fine,’ she adds, ‘but at least pretend a bit first, play the game.’)
Virtue-signalling is rife too, vividly demonstrated on the app Hinge, where both parties answer banal questions about themselves, eliciting worthy replies: ‘What is a cause you’re passionate about?’ ‘Recycling plastic waste.’ I gradually realised that ‘-liberal’ means ‘left-wing’ on Hinge — hence the baffling sight of self-described liberals whose number one requirement is ‘no Tories’. Alongside the unintentional hilarity of the social justice brigade is the occasional decent gag: ‘Another wooden ball. Would it kill the makers of avocados to include a different toy, like a mood ring or novelty eraser?’ (When I escaped to Cornwall from progressive London, things improved markedly thanks to the prevailing demographic of handsome lifeguards, tree surgeons and naval officers.)
Daters in the #MeToo world were already increasingly prone to second-guessing their own behaviour, and Covid has only fuelled this sense of unease and self-consciousness. Apps, after all, encourage users to manage their own brands obsessively. I learnt that Hinge is swarming with naval history nerds; dozens triumphantly identified my location in a random snap taken in HMS Belfast’s control room. I was unsurprised to discover that I am an incurable grammar snob, forever ruling out people for minor mistakes. I rule out manic gym enthusiasts, too.
But what if we are making the wrong decisions for ourselves? What if the love of my life is bearded, an Iron Man aficionado, or has a fatal weakness for misplaced apostrophes? Or what if someone is perfect on paper, but has the voice of Alan Partridge? Fundamentally, you need to see the whites of their eyes, smell the aftershave and hear the timbre of the voice.
For all the talk of the ‘new normal’, Covid has been disastrous for singletons, not merely an inconvenience generating short-term loneliness. For thirtysomething women, the biological stakes are genuinely high — six months of a meagre romantic life is a catastrophe for those keen to meet their life-partners as soon as possible. And just as it is unsustainable to freeze the economy indefinitely, it’s deeply unhealthy to put our vital social interactions on ice. It seems to me that lockdown has not heralded the renaissance of traditional courtship — but an upsurge in fear, paranoia, and a lot of people doing a lot of crazy things.
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Madeline Grant is assistant comment editor at the Daily Telegraph and a columnist for the Sunday Telegraph.
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