How Covid-19 has upended dating for singles
In March, Alexandra Glaser’s love life ground to a halt — and she wasn’t alone. For the 33-year-old product manager at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, it was a strange feeling: Much like the swift clip of her daily runs through the city, she was used to her life moving forward. She squeezed in dates between work events and dinners with friends, expecting to settle down with a long-term partner and perhaps even start a family in the next few years. But when Covid-19 struck, her plans, like those of many others, began to crumble. “The pandemic is delaying a relationship I hoped would happen,” Glaser says. “Time is ticking on.”
Even those who aren’t planning on marrying anytime soon are worried about whether the pandemic may shrink the pool of people they will know in their lifetime, making it harder to find a spouse. Take Johnny Bui, a 22-year-old senior at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. He was looking forward to meeting people on campus this year, knowing college offers more opportunities to find a romantic partner than he’s likely to ever have again. But socializing is now considered a health risk, and Bui largely has been confined to his dorm room. “My generation just isn’t getting the same opportunities to socialize as previous ones,” he says. “Friends of mine who have already graduated are now working from home, and they’re meeting even fewer people.”
Covid-19 has made dating harder and more laborious than it was before, singles told me in more than a dozen interviews. Apps are now one of the only ways to meet people, but it can take weeks or months to take a budding romance offline. Even then, promising relationships sometimes fail to go anywhere because people aren’t at their best right now: Being surrounded by disease, death, and financial instability takes an emotional toll. (This is partly why marriage rates plummeted during both the Great Depression and World War II.)
In some ways, the pandemic has only exacerbated problems with dating that had been bubbling up in recent years. Nearly half of Americans say dating is harder now than it was a decade ago. This coincides with the rise in dating apps, which are increasingly becoming the main way to find love: 39 percent of heterosexual couples and about 65 percent of gay couples met online in 2017, according to a 2019 Stanford University study. But although dating apps increase your pool of potential partners, many people say they can make dating feel impersonal, while also increasing the risk of being lied to or sexually harassed.
Couple this with the fact that millennials are delaying marriage or not marrying at all, which means they’re spending more of their life dating than previous generations. Millennials and Gen Z also have less sex than previous generations for many reasons — including that they’re less likely to be in a couple.
Covid-19 is amplifying all of these issues, and Glaser and Bui are not alone in their frustrations. As I reported this story, I spoke with single people in their 20s and 30s from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds and sexual orientations, along with researchers studying how the crisis is changing the dating landscape. They all described how the pace of dating has slowed down, making it harder and more time consuming to start romantic relationships. Now, singles are beginning to worry that it may have a domino effect on their lives, derailing their plans to marry and start a family.
I have spent a lot of time thinking about domino effects like these. In my book, The Rocket Years: How Your Twenties Launch The Rest of Your Life, I delve into the social science about how the decisions of young adults play out in the decades that follow. Small, seemingly insignificant choices we make in our 20s can shape our daily lives well into old age, just like infinitesimal changes in a rocket’s flight path can make the difference between landing on Mars or Saturn. The data shows that people who establish exercise habits in their late 20s can add up to two extra years to their life; those who vote just once in their 20s are likely to be lifelong voters; the random hobbies we pick up as 20-somethings are the same ones we’ll be doing in retirement.
In many ways, today’s young people are profoundly aware that the decisions they make will reverberate into the future. This is why, as my research revealed, they spend their 20s singularly concerned with finding the right career, one that will keep them intellectually engaged and purposeful for decades to come. But as they edge into their late 20s and early 30s, finding a life partner becomes a dominant concern. This is largely because many people begin to feel their biological clock ticking.
Not everyone wants to marry or become parents, and, in fact, American millennials are increasingly opting out of both choices. But for the 42 percent of people who do want kids and the 34 percent who aren’t sure, pressure to find a partner begins to build as fertility concerns kick in. Many are now worried that the pandemic may torpedo this compressed, already-stressful timeline.
“This would not have been an issue when people were getting married in their 20s and could wait out two years of a pandemic,” says Riki Thompson, an associate professor at the University of Washington Tacoma who studies how people are using online dating technologies to find connection. “When you start extending the courtship process — which is definitely happening right now — then anybody who has a limited amount of time will suffer.”
There is unanimous agreement among both singles and researchers that Covid-19 has slammed the brakes on dating. For one thing, there are fewer places to meet new people. Before the pandemic, many couples still met at school, through mutual friends and family, at church, or at bars; dating has now shifted almost entirely online. Match Group, which owns dozens of dating apps — including Tinder, OkCupid, and Hinge — reported an 11 percent increase in average subscribers in a year’s time, a gain of about a million over the same quarter last year. And while online dating had a reputation for being fast-paced, allowing people to churn through matches with abandon, this is no longer the case. “The pace of dating is slowing down,” says Amarnath Thombre, CEO of Match Group America. “Our data is showing that people are being more selective and more intentional about whom they are reaching out to in the first place. This has led to less ghosting — partly, we think, because users aren’t pursuing so many people at the same time.”
In the past, people would use apps to filter through matches, then meet in person as quickly as possible. But in the first two months of the pandemic, Match Group’s surveys found that the majority of daters didn’t want to leave their homes at all, Thombre says. These days, as cities reopen, some singles engage in an extensive screening process to determine whether to take the risk of meeting someone face to face. This has given birth to an entirely new phenomenon: the video date. Many apps, including Match, Tinder, and Hinge, are now equipped with a video function that allows matches to chat. If things go well, many daters told me, they move to FaceTime or Zoom before broaching the subject of hanging out offline. “They want to make sure the person they’re meeting is worth stepping out for,” Thombre says. “The stakes are higher.”
Before meeting, daters told me, matches would have “the talk” about what they feel comfortable doing on a date, which many said felt reminiscent of conversations about sexual boundaries. Should they remain masked the whole time? Is indoor dining out of the question? One woman in her early 20s told me she was stunned when her date hugged her at their first meeting. They hadn’t discussed doing that, and it felt strangely intimate after so many months of not having any human contact. It quickly became clear that they were not compatible, and she says the disappointment stung more than usual because she had sunk more time than usual — and taken so many risks — to meet this person.
As the pandemic stretches from months into (probably) years, there’s a growing sense of despondence among the single people I interviewed. They’re spending more time and effort than ever trying to find a partner, but for most it hasn’t yielded a relationship. Now they’re worried the dry spell may drag on and have long-lasting effects on their life. For many, the anxiety is wrapped up in the idea that there is an ideal age to get married — somewhere between their late 20s and early 30s — and they’re now in danger of missing the window. This timeline makes sense, since this time period is when the average American tends to marry and well before fertility concerns kick in.
Some single people, however, are thriving under these conditions. Thompson interviewed more than a hundred people pre-pandemic about their experiences on dating apps and has checked in with more than half to see how they’ve fared through the pandemic. The new conditions, she found, have been a boon for men who felt too financially strapped to pay for several dinners or coffee dates a week, as well as for single parents who had to pay for a babysitter every time they went out.
Some people are also better suited to a slower pace, particularly those who aren’t into casual sex. One woman I interviewed in her late 30s had been struggling for years to find a committed partner, partly because dating apps created an endless cycle of hookups followed by quick breakups. But she met someone early in the pandemic, when it was impossible to meet in person, and told me that long phone and FaceTime conversations laid a strong foundation for a serious relationship. She’s now been dating this man exclusively for six months and has even met his 4-year-old son from a previous marriage. “People looking for long-term relationships now don’t have to sift through people who are trying to get into their pants,” says Thompson. “People who just wanted hookups have completely dropped off the apps.”
Thombre says Match Group does not yet have data about whether this slower pace of dating means it will take longer for relationships to get serious or move toward marriage. He points to anecdotal stories in the media about couples who met online during the pandemic and committed to one another quickly; some have even moved in together. But it is unclear how common that is. Thompson’s research suggests this happened more frequently early in the pandemic, and that some of those couples have since split up.
The more common story, Thompson says, is that people are struggling to keep their nascent relationships moving forward. It’s harder for couples to have new experiences together or get physically intimate, which makes it harder to bond. When these fragile new romances stall, they tend to quickly fall apart. “People need to feel like their relationship is moving forward, like an escalator, or else they end,” Thompson says. “We’ve been indoctrinated to believe that we have to be connecting, otherwise we’re letting go.”
There are existential issues that make it harder for people to connect emotionally right now, too. Glaser met a man over the summer whom she liked a lot. When they spoke over video, with the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests playing out in the background, they had deep, intimate conversations. They decided to take things to the next level and meet in person, but they found it hard to create a healthy relationship because both of them were wrestling with the stress of living through the current moment. “We are all so exhausted these days, it’s a constant battle just to be okay,” says Glaser. They decided to call it off.
College-age singles are facing their own set of problems. Bui, who was sent home in the spring with every other Babson student due to Covid-19, says it’s easy for new relationships to fizzle out in the pandemic. Back in his hometown of Boston, he joined several dating apps, and while there were several girls he was excited about, he says it was hard to get the relationship off the ground. Video dates got boring because neither person had much going on in their life worth talking about. And planning in-person dates was hard because not everybody is comfortable eating at a restaurant or going to a museum. “You can only meet at a park so many times before it gets old,” Bui told me.
Sex as a single person has been particularly difficult during the pandemic. According to a Match Group survey of 5,000 singles in August, 71 percent said they had not had sex in the previous six months. (This data is self reported, and it’s worth noting that some people may not be entirely honest about how frequently they’re hooking up with people outside their pod, knowing that others may not approve.) Only 13 percent said they had sex with someone with whom they were not quarantining. This has given rise to what sociologists call “situational sexual behavior,” or when social conditions cause people to engage in sex differently than they would previously. For instance, almost a quarter of single people reported having had sex with a non-romantic roommate since March.
For some people, dating during the pandemic is so fruitless that they’ve given up altogether. One manifestation of this is that many people are reaching out to their exes.
This squares with Thompson’s research. Many of her survey respondents, craving intimacy, connection, and sex, had reconnected with someone they dated in the past. They said they felt safer hooking up with someone whose lifestyle choices they already knew than with a stranger who might not be on the same page about health precautions.
Mattie Drucker, a 21-year-old Vassar College student, felt so isolated during the pandemic that she decided to reach out to her first love, who lives in Ireland and with whom she hadn’t spoken since they broke up two years ago. “The loneliness was just overwhelming,” she tells me. “I was craving intimacy, and I just wanted to be with someone who made me feel safe.”
They rekindled their spark. During the long, boring days of lockdown, they spoke for hours a day. Then, even as the pandemic was raging, Drucker flew to Dublin to spend two weeks with him. They had a wonderful time, but as she returns to school this semester, doubts are beginning to surface in Drucker’s mind. She sometimes wonders whether this relationship can last, or whether they’re just killing time until life returns to normal. “I think we’re both asking ourselves whether we would be together right now if the pandemic hadn’t happened, and I could meet tons of new guys on campus,” Drucker says.
Though she’s just 21, Drucker is already thinking about how Covid-19 will shape her generation. Public health experts are hopeful there will be a widely available vaccine, allowing life to potentially return to normal, by the middle of 2021 (Drucker graduates in 2022). But years of lockdowns and isolation are likely to change the course of her life in myriad unforeseen ways. Gen Z will enter the workforce at a time of economic turbulence and skyrocketing unemployment, while also learning how to deal with the new reality of remote work. Without gyms, they may struggle to develop lifelong fitness routines; without music festivals, they may never stumble across a band that would have rocked their world. They may have fewer friends over the course of their life, another potential ripple effect of this extended social isolation.
These thoughts sometimes keep Drucker up at night. She thinks about all the people she would have met during these years but will never know. Would she have fallen in love with one of them? Would she have married another?
It’s impossible to know, but she’s not alone in asking these questions. The worries tend to become more acute the closer people get to the age at which they expected to settle down into a serious relationship. “Even before the pandemic, I felt this pressure to be out there meeting people and going on dates, but this is exaggerated during Covid,” says Glaser. “Sometimes I feel like all I can do is the bare minimum, which is work and maybe go for a run. Trying to date feels exhausting right now.”
But she’s keeping at it, in part because the prolonged period of isolation has helped clarify her desire to be in a committed, long-term relationship. “I’ve always had trouble admitting that I want to find a partner,” Glaser says. “But I do want to meet someone. This crisis has taught me that we need to be more honest with ourselves and have deeper, more meaningful conversations with the people we’re dating.”
Elizabeth Segran is the author of The Rocket Years: How Your Twenties Launch The Rest of Your Life (Harper, 2020). She’s a senior staff writer at Fast Company magazine.