On New Year’s Day – January 1, 2020 – my boyfriend and I called it quits. We had been dating for two years. Of course, looking back, it was a hilariously apt kickoff to a year where the worst was definitely yet to come. While most of the world only clued into the crushing horrors of 2020 around March, I was already recovering from the loss of a relationship that had become such a big part of my everyday existence, its absence left a gaping void. And just as I was coming to terms with this unfamiliar reality, we were all hit with another curveball: a neverending lockdown in response to a pandemic that had brought the world to its knees.
To be freshly single in a lockdown is far from the biggest pandemic problem one can have, but it still feels pretty damn unfair. On one hand, you no longer have a partner to share this singular experience with, to metaphorically hold your hand through the apocalypse. On the other, the isolation of a rough breakup is compounded exponentially when you have to literally sit in your house, cordoned off from an outside world that offers all the cheer and comfort of the zombie towns in The Last of Us. There was no opportunity to get drunk and morose in a bar, to wail out Adele songs at karaoke or call friends over for communal mourning, to pursue the brief distractions of one-night stands; the usual avenues for forgetting were closed, and I could only remember.
But if I was feeling sorry for myself then, it didn’t compare to the frustration of a couple of months later, when I waded cautiously back into the dating pool. The lockdown had afforded me nothing but time hanging heavy on my hands, and little use for it but to introspect. As a result, I was soon ready to get out of my own head and into someone else’s — if only to alleviate a growing sense of restlessness and seclusion. Easier said than done when the tools of the dating trade in lockdown are a WiFi connection and a Hinge bio.
In a year where career goals, trips, and plans of every description have all been put indefinitely on hold, dating feels like one way to regain control of a life derailed. When the world shut down, we were all forced to turn inward, and hardly anyone has emerged from the travails of 2020 without having to rethink their perspectives and priorities. Suddenly, relationships and human connection, denied to us for so long, have become more precious than any promotion. But how do we fulfill those cravings when even a hug is an act of faith?
Dating in a pandemic is a trust exercise.
Modern dating has been fraught with difficulties long before the complications of the pandemic. Hooking up through apps and text messages, decoding intentions that might range from a nameless tryst to a long-term partnership, figuring out the rules of engagement — it’s an ecosystem that leaves those who enter battling trust issues and commitment phobia. Now, there’s the added danger of circumventing not just heartbreak, hurt, and STIs, but also Covid-19.
Which is how I ended up in a digital dating loop, where promising conversations would be conducted online for a week or two, before fizzling out. After all, where was the scope to move beyond the superficial and see whether there was a real spark? In the time of coronavirus, anyone you meet has to make you feel like they’re worth risking a lot more than a bad date, and to find that kind of connection over a video chat is next to impossible. And if you agreed to a date, it was a Victorian throwback: A masked walk with a safe distance between you, wide enough for a chaperone to pass through. If 2020 is a joke, dating in a pandemic, it seemed, was its punchline.
So how did I manage to find love in this most hopeless of places? As it turns out, the lockdown brought me closer to a globetrotting friend who, in a normal year, wouldn’t have been in the same city as me for months on end. What began as a comfortable, casual friends-with-benefits arrangement evolved at lightning speed into a committed relationship, one that took us both by surprise.
The limitations placed on us by the pandemic have given rise to strange new forms of intimacy that translate into romantic relationships as well. Working from home, it’s easy to get together in the middle of the day, having lunch together and doing our own thing in companionable silence. Weekend trips are on the cards, even when weekends themselves have become a meaningless measure of time. And exclusivity is not so hard when you choose someone knowing you can survive a life-changing disaster together.
Dating in a pandemic is a trust exercise. As the year draws to a close, I’m periodically jolted by reminders of how life used to be, and the inevitable thought: What happens when we go back to normal? How much will change, and how many learnings from this bizarre chapter in our lives will stick? None of us have the answers — but for once, I don’t need to know. The chaos of this year has broken me of my desire to foresee the future. Pandemic or not, dating would be less of a struggle for us all if we took life and people as they come.