Love, sex and loneliness in the time of Covid-19: dating during the new normal

By Rachel Steinberg
August 21 2020, 17.25

I thought my therapist was un-shockable—but I finally cracked her.

“The government just made it illegal to have sex with someone I don’t know,” I announced during a virtual session.

I sent over a copy of the Health Protection Regulations, updated on 1 June to read: “No person may participate in a gathering which takes place in a public or private place outdoors, and consists of more than six persons, or indoors, and consists of two or more persons.”

In other words, I explained, what some people call ‘making love’ our government defined as a ‘gathering’. And it turned out getting down to business was different from going back to work.

She compared the situation to Gilead, the setting of a dystopian Booker Prize-winning novel-turned-TV-series by Margaret Atwood.

This handmaid wasn’t getting any tail. Probably not for a while, anyway.

The regulations have since relaxed. Adults living alone can stay overnight in a bubble with one other household and hotels are open, but the ever-changing rules and threat of local lockdowns still feel a far cry from the Before Times.

So while I’m not yet browsing Etsy for a bonnet to match my face mask, Covid-19 guidance released last week by sexual health charity the Terrence Higgins Trust made it abundantly clear: “Your best sexual partner during the pandemic is you or someone you live with.”

I live by myself.

I’ve reached an age where I get more invitations to weddings than nightclubs. It’s been almost a year since I ended things with my live-in partner of three years and, biological clock still ticking, I was making my first foray into online dating when the pandemic pressed snooze.

But talking about my impending dry spell and relationship anxiety during a global health crisis made me feel guilty. Finally, I caved and posted in a Facebook group about how I was feeling. The response was overwhelming. I was not alone—though it seemed many of us were feeling lonely.

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In fact, according to an April YouGov survey of 2608 British singles, 18% of us had given up on dating entirely as a result of the pandemic—a figure that rose to 23% for 25 to 34-year-olds.

And in a study, 30% of Britons surveyed said ‘not being able to have physical contact’ was their top concern in a post-lockdown love landscape.

For singletons, the pandemic has sparked genuine fear about finding a partner in the dreaded ‘new normal’ when the process seemed impossible enough during the old one.

“I want the child more than I want the happy ever after now.” – Katie

Nanny Katie, 39, always dreamed of being a mum. When she was little, she put cushions under her dress and pretended to be pregnant.

In March, doctors told Katie she had a year left to conceive.

She said: “I raise other people’s children for a living. So it’s kind of heartbreaking every day but at the same time I get to kind of play mum.”

The Twickenham resident was turned down for IVF by the NHS and looked at private treatment in the UK and abroad, but the procedure was prohibitively expensive on her single salary.  

Katie is trying to follow social distancing rules, even if that means staying away from gatherings where she might meet a potential partner.

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The rugby fan said: “I can’t be blasé because I work with two kids under three. I can’t risk getting something and passing it on to their family.

“It’s massively frustrating. Because I feel like I’ve got this biological clock ticking inside me that’s saying you have to meet someone soon.

“Tick, tick, tick, tick and lockdown happened.  I feel like it’s moved the goalposts yet again.

“I could potentially have the rest of the year where I can’t get that close to someone to make an intimate connection, never mind talking about having a bloody kid with someone.

“And everyone goes, you’ve got time. But I haven’t.”

“They don’t know how to negotiate their way through it, but neither do I!” – Gina

Katie wasn’t the only one concerned about safety. Gina, 43, recently returned to London after living in Dubai’s “dating desert”.

She’d noticed a new trend: men are putting their Covid-19 status in dating profiles.

Gina agreed with the Terrence Higgins Trust guidance, which states: “It’s important to talk to [new partners] about Covid-19 and manage the risk together.”

The HR professional said: “I think in the same way I would have a conversation about being tested for sexually transmitted diseases, Covid now for me is in the same package.

“So let’s figure out how we both feel, because generally the kinds of people I would want to be with would be people who would be conscious of making good choices around that too.”

“It gets to the point where you’re like… does love exist?” – Kaitlyn

Kaitlyn, 32, agreed. The north London teen counsellor has asthma, which makes her more cautious about meeting people in person.

She said: “Online dating is just grim. It’s slim picking out there at the moment.

“People say, oh, it’s fine, we’ll be sneaky. Then I’m like, well, I liked you. And now I don’t because you just don’t give a toss.

“I don’t respect that because you don’t respect your safety or my safety, or our housemates or work colleagues’ safety. It’s just given me another reason to judge someone away.”

Kaitlyn had been seeing someone since matching on New Year’s Day, and the feelings were mutual.

Then lockdown hit and her match left to live with an ex-wife and son in Scotland. For ‘super affectionate’ Kaitlyn, not being able to touch was hard enough—but not getting any privacy made virtual dates impossible. The relationship was over within three weeks.

Kaitlyn is still on the apps, but she’s feeling pessimistic.

She said: “At this point it’s just too hard because there’s so much insecurity about what’s going on.

“Like, is there going to be a second wave where we have to go back into lockdown?

“It’s hard to put in too much effort and try.”

“All of us have found a Zoom person within our soul!” – Gurpreet

Relate counsellor Gurpreet Singh understood Kaitlyn’s frustration.

He said: “What we’re talking about is an increase in loneliness and the lack of an ability to get to know where the end is, and when the rules will be relaxed to a point where you can actually start dating again and seeing people with physical touching, physical intimacy, kissing, hugging, having dinners together.

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“But don’t get disheartened by it. Don’t lose hope. And in fact, it might actually give you a much healthier relationship long-term.”

Gurpreet, who has moved most of his practice online, was surprised by his clients’ openness in their respective new virtual realities.

And while he acknowledged the importance of touch as a love language, he said, ultimately: “Communication is such an important, fundamental foundation block of relationships.

“You can start building it when you start to get to know someone…talk about interests, families, what is important to you.

“All these things can be done while you wait for the rules to be relaxed.”

And it seems the home reflection time has helped—40% of the singles surveyed by Match said they are now giving more value to authenticity and sincerity in relationships, a figure that rose to 50% for just women.

There could even be some advantages to dating from your Zoom room.

Gurpreet said: “Should we kiss on the first date or not? Well, the answer is obvious isn’t it? Who pays for the bill? No longer relevant. So some of these things are actually playing in people’s favour.

“What you want to get over is loneliness but at the same time not compromising your health and safety, and using the time to get to know people in other ways is perfectly valid.”

“I think perseverance is really what you need!” – Lauren

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It was April Fools’ Day when Lauren first matched with a potential partner on Hinge—but the connection she felt with Matt, 32, was no joke.

The 29-year-old production assistant had video dating down to a fine art. She’d schedule Zoom sessions between work and making dinner so she would always have an easy excuse to leave.

But she didn’t want to stop talking to Matt. Their chats got longer, sometimes lasting for hours, until they finally agreed to meet for a socially-distanced park date where they decided to be exclusive.

They still haven’t touched.

Lauren acknowledged the hands-off approach isn’t something she would have considered before.

She said: “I’m still wondering what that decision is going to entail, but I suppose it’s not normal times, is it?

“I had been waiting for a long time for someone I connected with emotionally.

“Sometimes you can get overwhelmed by the physical connection and that can make you go exclusive sooner than maybe you should have, so it’s quite nice to almost have that off the table.

“I mean physical is great but emotional is really where it’s at in the long run.

“So much of it is putting the time into the app, and then I guess it’s sort of like the real world. It’s just luck of the swipe, isn’t it?”

Love in the time of corona. Perhaps there’s a balm in Gilead after all.

Some names of those interviewed for this story have been changed.

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