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Coronavirus has changed online dating. Here's why some say that's a good thing
When California issued a stay-at-home order back in March to curb the spread of the coronavirus, Dana Angelo, a 33-year-old copywriter at an ad agency in Los Angeles, found herself with more free time. So, out of boredom, she turned to a social activity she could still do from home: She got back on the dating app, Bumble.
Angelo said she's been rotating through online dating apps — she's also tried Tinder and Hinge — with minimal luck since getting out of a long-term relationship about a year ago, and had recently been taking a break. "You just see the same people on all of them and then it gets kind of depressing," Angelo said.
But something surprising happened this time around: She actually met someone she genuinely likes. With the possibility of sex — or any physicial intimacy — off the table for now due to social distancing, she said it was easier to sort out matches who were just "cycling through people" from those who were actually looking for a relationship.
After texting for a few days, she organized a virtual date via FaceTime with the match she liked, chatting over drinks for about two hours. The third time, their FaceTime date was over brunch, for about four hours. Eventually, they took the step of meeting in person with a walk in his neighborhood — albeit keeping a 6-foot distance, with her dog in between them.
In the midst of the deadly coronavirus outbreak, a frightening global event that has negatively affected people's lives in many ways, including causing intense loneliness and isolation for some, Angelo found a rare bright spot. It has actually improved her dating life.
"I'm not used to someone making this much effort," she said.
"It's an excellent time for singles to date," said Helen Fisher, the chief scientific adviser to Match.com and a senior research fellow at The Kinsey Institute. "People have time. They're not getting dressed up to go to work. And most importantly, they have something to talk about."
Not everyone, though, is keen to get into online dating, even if spending more time than usual alone at home has made some otherwise happily single people reconsider their feelings about finding a long-term companion. Not to mention that the pandemic has ushered in mass unemployment, higher levels of stress, greater strain for single parents and worries about fatal risks from stepping outside your door — factors not necessarily conducive to romance. While some have sought solace on dating apps, others are looking to online communities to connect with those who are also having a hard time, or focusing on friends and family who were already part of their life before the coronavirus.
Still, some daters looking for a relationship in the time of social isolation are finding opportunity. "Watch the pandemic be the reason why I might get into a meaningful relationship, because we had to take the time to get to know each other," Angelo said.
Dating goes virtual
The popularity of online dating has grown immensely over the last decade, and is now the most common way that couples in the U.S. meet. A study by Stanford's School of Humanities and Sciences found that 39 percent of heterosexual couples reported meeting online in 2017, compared with 22 percent in 2009. The number was even higher for same-sex couples that year, 60 percent of whom reported meeting online in 2017.
Fifty years ago, a global pandemic might have hindered single people from connecting with prospects through their family, friends or faith communities. But these days, most people are connecting virtually to start anyway. "The influence of technology on our romantic and sexual lives has been so enormous," said Justin Garcia, an evolutionary biologist and sex researcher at The Kinsey Institute. "From online dating, to texting, video chatting, sexting, etc., we have already been in the midst of a digital revolution for human courtship," he added, so it's not a huge surprise that singles would continue dating this way in the midst of a pandemic.
The stay-at-home orders issued across the country have been a boon for some of the major online dating apps. "As a city goes into lockdown, engagement on OKCupid goes up," the app's global chief marketing officer, Melissa Hobley, said. Since March, the company has seen a whopping 700 percent increase in the amount of OKCupid users going on a virtual date. The app Hornet, which caters to the gay male community, has seen a 30-percent increase in social feed engagement since social distancing measures began in mid-March, according to CEO Christof Wittig. And the dating app Tinder reported that it saw more engagement on March 29 than on any other day in its history, with more than 3 billion users swiping to connect with people, according to an April 1 press release.
Once dating app users have made an initial connection, the way that they are getting to know each other has changed significantly during this period of social distancing. Most bars and restaurants, traditional first date spots, are closed down, and those who elect to meet up with a stranger could risk contracting COVID-19 themselves, or spreading it to others.
As a result, many singles have taken their meetups online, electing to go on virtual dates via Zoom or FaceTime, or through video chat features on the dating apps themselves. Recent surveys conducted by online dating companies indicate that members are more inclined to try this now than ever before.
A study conducted by Match found that while only 6 percent of singles were using a video platform to meet a potential date before the COVID-19 outbreak, 69 percent of singles said they'd be open to chatting over video with someone they met on a dating app during quarantine as of mid-April. Twenty-two percent of these respondents even said they'd consider entering an exclusive relationship with someone they hadn't met in person, indicating an openness to cultivating relationships mostly online. As of the end of April 23, 51 percent of users on the dating app Coffee Meets Bagel said they planned to video chat more, and 18 percent had had at least one video call with a match.
The outbreak "has sort of turned our social behavior upside down," Garcia said. He noted that terror management theory — which suggests that people evaluate their environments and social interactions differently when faced with their own mortality — may explain why singles have been more open to trying new things during this period.
This is true for sexual relationships, in some cases. The Kinsey Institute recently conducted a study of a diverse range of adults aged 18-81, and found that while 43.5 percent had seen their sex life decline during the coronavirus pandemic, one in five respondents reported they had tried adding new things to their sexual repertoire, such as sexting, sending nude photos to someone else, or watching pornography. But it's also true for those pursuing romantic relationships, as these people have had to reconsider what they want, and how best to meet and connect with people under lockdown.
"If we weren't in lockdown and some guy asked me to do a FaceTime date, I would think that's strange and weird," said 35-year-old Nashville resident Maureen Iselin. But now, "I feel like it's just socially acceptable." After ending a long-term relationship in the fall, Iselin got back on dating apps. Instead of putting her dating life on hold during the pandemic, she recently agreed to chat over FaceTime with a man she met online.
"It was a whole new way of thinking about dating. Like, do I get dressed up to this? Do I put on makeup? What are we gonna talk about besides the coronavirus and being in quarantine?" Iselin said. She added that going on a FaceTime date took off a little bit of the pressure because they were both in their home environments, and she planned to do one again with the same person.
"It's a test of how well you actually converse, and you get to know someone in a different way," said 26-year-old Naakita Feldman-Kiss, who has been conversing via FaceTime and Zoom with women she's met on the dating app Lex, and has exchanged gifts with some of them. "There's actually this deeper intimacy that I've developed with people, because … it doesn't really allow for silence in the same way," Feldman-Kiss said. "I really kind of like the slow burn of getting to know people over phone and video and text," said Holly Samuelson, a 34-year-old from San Francisco who recently had a date over FaceTime where she and her date sketched drawings of each other (both are artistically inclined — he's a builder, while she's a fashion designer). Although the guy she had been talking to online lives 100 miles away, she said that distance seemed less of a deal breaker since California shut down amid the pandemic.
Rachel Ware, a 27-year-old project manager in Atlanta, recently went on a socially distant jog in a park with someone she met through Facebook's dating feature, and managed to chat with him for a steady 3 miles. She said she actually liked being able to meet up with an online connection in the park because it feels safer and more secure than a bar, for example. "I'm a very private person and I'm very wary about security," Ware said. "I like parks because they're a public space, and you can meet someone and not feel the pressure."
Of course, just because potential suitors are open to video dating doesn't mean the connection is guaranteed to be strong. "There will still be time wasters who take phone calls for connection but it doesn't mean when this is all over they're looking for a relationship," said Francesca Hogi, a love and life coach based in L.A. who has a number of clients that have recently tried out virtual dating, including Holly Samuelson.
For Justin Becker, a 33-year-old lawyer based in Washington, D.C., the coronavirus has more or less put his dating life on hold. He recently chatted over Google Hangouts with a guy he met in person before the pandemic began, but has not done so with anyone he met on a dating app. Becker said he had a hard time believing that video dates could move a relationship forward, with someone he had never met in person: "I feed off someone else's energy, and I do not get energy through an app whatsoever."
Embracing the "slow burn"
Before the novel coronavirus hit, U.S. couples were already getting married later in life than ever before. Helen Fisher said what's happening now is increasing the amount of time people spend in a "courtship" stage even more.
"We're seeing the emergence of a new phase in the courtship trajectory, which is meet online, talk online, then talk in person," Fisher added. "Yes, we're moving forward to the past. We're getting to know somebody before the sex."
But, for some, slowing down has encouraged them to open up about priorities and feelings earlier on than they would have otherwise.
Connor Price, a 40-year-old who recently moved from New York to Los Angeles to work for a music nonprofit, found that true when he started seeing a woman right around the time California shut down. The woman, whom he had met through a close friend, didn't want to put her mother in danger of contracting the virus. So she and Price started taking nightly walks in their neighborhoods, keeping 6 feet distance from one another.
"It also almost felt like dating in the Elizabethan era," Price said. "If I could get, like, one little finger tip, in between her shoulder blades through a parka, that was like the most exciting thing I've had in a month."
Gradually, the two have started to spend more time together, and even shared their first kiss of the pandemic while making dinner one night. Because their activities have been limited, they've had serious conversations early on about what they want out of a relationship.
"We had some very personal conversations much earlier in a relationship I think either one of us would have had because we're spending actually a lot of time with each other. We kind of cut off the entire rest of the world and it's just the two of us," Price said. "Normally, these kind of conversations don't come out for six months."
Fisher argues that the coronavirus-related shutdowns have made conditions ripe for romance like the one Price entered at the beginning of March.
"When your daily habits change, it's novel. And novelty drives up dopamine in the brain," the biological anthropologist said. "The novelty is setting up the brain, priming the brain for love. It's a very good time for romance."
"I truly believe this is how you need to get to know people, anyway," Price said. "This kind of slowed us both down and made us calculate how and when we wanted to do things. It's been fun."
Of course not everyone is looking for the sort of long-term relationship Fisher spoke about, while others who were content being single before the pandemic have had a harder time dealing with being alone as they stay home and miss the normal social interactions of daily life and human touch.
"I think the desire for a romantic relationship is certainly heightened right now," said Shani Silver, a writer and host of the podcast A Single Serving. "It's a lot easier to feel lonely, particularly romantically lonely."
While Silver has shaped her brand around being "an advocate for single women as whole, happy beings," she recently penned an essay for Refinery29 in which she wrote about the challenges of being alone during the coronavirus pandemic. After experiencing a serious bout of depression, she wrote that she suddenly felt "an instinctual, threatened, terrified loneliness that needed a hug and an apocalypse partner and neither were available. I didn't know how long I would be alone for, and for the first time in a very long time, I cared." In other words, it made her think, "I just want a f***ing husband."
On the Facebook group for Silver's podcast, women grapple with some of the same feelings that she's experienced while holed up in her Brooklyn apartment, sharing stories about "quarantine" texts from exes or "one and done dates," the struggle of being the last single person in their social circle, and getting through nights where they just feel very lonely.
Silver said she's been irked by the ways that online dating companies have sought to capitalize on the pandemic by encouraging more people to make distance dating a priority at this time.
"What does that say to single people? 'Don't worry, we know how awful this is that you're single. We want to make sure you can tell that even during a global pandemic,'" Silver said, criticizing the tone that some dating apps have taken in recent weeks. "It's hurtful, honestly."
Even on apps designed for in-person connection, it's clear that many are feeling isolated and lonely at this time. On Lex, which caters to LGBTQ people, users post personal ads with headlines such as "Numb," or "Quarantine Mood," where they write about "feeling deeply unloveable," "touch deprived," or "bored and confined."
While Silver recognizes that there will undoubtedly be quarantine love stories that arise out of the coronavirus, she's more concerned about the "thousands and thousands of single people" who won't meet a significant other during this time. For now, she prefers to focus on "connections we can safely have that are just as meaningful and that don't involve making us feel like crap in the meantime."
There are certainly singles who have sought to do this. Twenty-six-year-old Patrick Easley had been talking to a few guys on Hinge and Tinder, but lost the momentum when he moved back home to be with his mother, who is 60. "It's this weird emotional purgatory, because people do want that interpersonal interaction," Easley said of dating right now. "You can only date someone that you don't know online or over the phone for so long."
For now, Easley's put off dating to focus on spending time with his mom, with little regret: "Getting to know her as an independent adult is really cool."
We don't know how single life and dating culture will be changed by the end of the coronavirus pandemic, but already it has seemed to challenge nearly everyone — single or not — to contemplate their closest relationships, and how they cultivate connection in the midst of a crisis.
Justin Becker said that while he misses physical connections with other men, he'll be more thoughtful about how he chooses to enter relationships moving forward. "I tend to be a little serial monogamist when it comes to dating, where I want to jump into the next serious thing." He said that this period of being home more often than usual has made him reflect on to whom he wants to commit.
In the future, he said, he'll take the time to consider, "are they someone that complements you and brings out the best in you, versus just having someone to have someone?"