On March 11, I went to dinner at a crowded Mexican restaurant with Louis*, a Bumble match. It was our third date, and when I slid into the seat adjacent to his, he asked, “You’re not worried about sitting close to me, right?” I reassured him it was fine. We traded sips of our margaritas and held hands under the table. We kissed good night outside the subway, and later that evening, I joked over text that I’d send him the hospital bill in case our outing got me sick. The coronavirus felt like a distant threat — not like something that would upend life as I knew it. Three days later, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the state’s first two deaths, and non-essential businesses began to close. The rest of the country soon followed suit. None of us will ever forget what happened next.
Suddenly, I couldn’t stop myself from reading apocalyptic news about the pandemic long enough to check my Bumble notifications. While cases ticked up at a terrifying rate, Louis told me he was still hitting the gym and hanging out with friends in bars. Days earlier, I had been absurdly attracted to him, but now, I was repulsed.
By the end of March, I had shifted to working from home full-time, moved in with my parents in Massachusetts, and spent most of my time devouring a steady stream of news about the virus, the economy, and the government’s handling of both. All of it depressed me. I wondered if finding someone to crush on would serve as a soothing distraction. But as I flicked through Bumble, I felt like a character in a bad dystopian movie. I used to swipe right on guys who were 6 feet tall; now, I favored people who promised to stay at least 6 feet away from me. A disturbing number of men advertised how eager they were to break quarantine by having casual sex with strangers. When I matched with Carlo, a John Krasinski lookalike who manages a brewery, I was relieved to find we shared similar views on safe dating protocol. After exchanging a few messages and texts, we planned to FaceTime.
The night of our date, I put on makeup and a bra for the first time in six weeks (both felt strangely formal). I stacked up books under my laptop and asked my family not to enter my room for an hour or so. Nervously, I called Carlo. I didn’t know quite what to expect, but I hadn’t predicted we’d spend a mere 40 minutes together talking almost exclusively about the pandemic, while his hand-held phone jostled at a variety of distracting angles. His wicked Bostonian accent reminded me I was no longer in New York, the only city I’ve ever dated in. When our call ended, I felt dejected, then horrified. Where was the romance? That was what dating looked like now? Would I ever fall in love again?
According to Kiaundra Jackson, a licensed marriage and family therapist, I needed to grieve my old dating life before I could embrace my new one. “Make room for your feelings, because oftentimes, when we try to stifle them, that’s when it becomes unhealthy,” she says. “It's OK to be angry at the fact that you can't go out anymore. It's OK to be annoyed that when you do go out, there's a mask over people's faces so you can't really see them. It's OK to be sad and tired of dating apps.”
Face my feelings? Did I have to? The truth is, prior to the pandemic, I had invested a hefty chunk of my energy into dating. It is literally my job, and when I’m not at work, I write novels about women’s love lives. When I’m not doing that, I’m probably wearing my black leather first date pants, perched uncomfortably on a stool at a cute wine bar, talking to a guy listed in my phone as “Josh Bumble” or “Ari (#2) JSwipe.” Leaving all that behind for bland FaceTimes would be jarring for anyone, but especially for someone like me, who’s made a career out of dating.
Then, Carlo texted to say he enjoyed “meeting” me and wanted to “go out” again, and I decided to give this new way of dating a shot.
The jostling continued on our second date, but this time, we made a pact not to discuss the news. We focused on getting to know each other instead. Soon, Carlo was texting me dozens of messages a day, bookended by tender “good morning” and “good night” texts. He called me “babe,” which felt shockingly intimate — I had been in years-long relationships that had never reached the nickname stage, and yet here we were. After our third FaceTime date, he invited me to join his family’s summer vacation on Cape Cod.
When he called me unprompted one night — an actual phone call — just to chat, I got flustered. I didn’t know what to say to him. His steady stream of affection was starting to wear on me because it felt unearned; we didn’t know each other well enough to pull off that level of emotional intimacy. I can understand why he came on so strong. Almost every single element of dating as we knew it had been stripped away: we had never met in person, getting dinner or drinks in public wasn’t possible where we lived, we (obviously) hadn’t kissed. The only thing we could do was talk. In spite of his sweetness, I realized I wasn’t that into him. I broke it off via text.
Carlo and I weren’t a match, but I wasn’t ready to give up on pandemic dating just yet. I signed up for a virtual singles’ mixer hosted by Here/Now. The event took place on Zoom, and the hosts led me and seven other participants through a series of small group and one-on-one conversations. (We were strictly forbidden from discussing the pandemic or our jobs, which forced us to use pieces of our brains that hadn’t been stimulated in eons. Interests? Hobbies? What are those?) When the night was over, I filled out a survey indicating I liked three of the participants; later, I learned I had matched with two of them. I wound up on FaceTime dates with both of them.
My date with Alex* was laughably bad: he monologued for an hour, name-dropping his prima ballerina ex-girlfriend and several of his famous athlete friends and bragging about the pedigree of his family’s dog. My subsequent three virtual dates with Mark were refreshing by comparison — we had delightful two-way conversations about books, travel, politics, and more. The only hitch was my WiFi connection; my FaceTime calls from the living room kept dropping, so twice, I moved to my bedroom. The second time it happened, he winked and quipped, “I guess we work better in here, huh?”
Ultimately, a light internet stalking session led me to conclude Mark is about four inches shorter than I am — a fact I would have picked up on instantly had we been able to meet in person. I had a hard time picturing us as a couple, so I ended things. I thought back to Louis, my pre-pandemic Bumble date. Obviously, we weren’t ultimately compatible, but I missed being able to suss out attraction and chemistry IRL. Scheduling FaceTime dates felt just about as romantic as logging into Zoom meetings with my coworkers. Besides, I had finally started embracing my new homebody lifestyle — I loved my new nightly routine of reading novels in the bathtub, then watching TV with my family. Pandemic dating just felt like a drag getting in the way of savoring my downtime.
So I decided to take a break until the prospect of meeting someone new felt exciting again. According to Jackson, this plan could even improve my luck. “If we have negative emotions and negative thoughts about dating virtually, then guess what our lived experience is going to be? Trash. Just straight trash,” says Jackson. “Your thoughts affect how you feel.”
She says a positive attitude can go a long way. “Say, ‘Yes, this is a different time, I am still longing for a partner. It hasn’t happened for me yet, but it will happen for me, and when it does, it’s going to be amazing. I’m going to find the love of my life on this app. I’m going to go to the grocery store one day and meet someone nice.’ [Dating] is a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
It turns out there’s another reason my woe-is-me attitude isn’t doing me any favors. The pandemic has actually made dating “way more romantic,” according to Maria Avgitidis, a matchmaker and the CEO of Agape Match. “Yes, it's harder to meet, but there is a lot more digital courtship than ever before,” she says. “People are spending more time online dating, hopping on a quick FaceTime, and from there, setting up physical dates that are socially distanced. As a result, people spend more time talking and getting to know each other.”
I had a hard time believing dating is better now, but Avgitidis has helped 30 clients find love since the pandemic hit five months ago. She knows what she’s talking about. She says many people are relaxing their superficial preferences when it comes to age, height, and location, and adds that 2020’s hottest date idea — a socially distanced walk — fosters a stronger connection than a typical drinks date ever could. “Walking side by side creates a certain kind of vulnerability, which helps people open up more,” she says.
Before transitioning from a virtual date to an IRL one, she recommends trading honest notes with your match about your recent social activity, and only meeting up with new people once every 14 days. “Obviously, mask it up,” she advises.
After I spoke with Jackson and Avgitidis, and after I planned an official move out of my parents’ house, I felt more hopeful than I had in months. I opened a dating app, chatted with a few matches, and when one invited me on a FaceTime date, I said yes. He was shorter than most of the guys I had dating during the Before Times, but a global health crisis has a way of making superficial hang-ups fall away. I took advantage of the fact that only my upper body would be visible on screen and traded my uncomfortable leather first date pants for a roomy dress. I felt calmer than I ever did before a traditional drinks date.
Moments before my FaceTime date began, I re-read my notes from my conversations with dating experts for a last-minute pep talk. A line of Avgitidis’ advice stood out to me: “Love is pandemic-proof, and it's waiting for you as long as you have the right mindset.”
Then, my phone rang. I accepted the call.
*Name has been changed.