The slow dating movement: how COVID-19 changed romance

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The shift to digital captured the desire for companionship. How did this happen? Illustration by ZOE SABANDAL

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — A few months into lockdown, Gabby* began to run out of things to do. After reaching the bottom of her feeds and timelines, the deprivation of social interaction had finally caught up with her. She imagined her 20s would feel more exhilarating. So she did what most of us in our 20s who are single, frustrated, and bored would do — she went on dating apps. 24 and living with her family, Gabby slowly relinquished her five-year hiatus from romance and relationships as she began virtually (and casually) dating a tech firm project manager who lived five minutes away from her.

After a month and a half of getting to know each other, she finally decided to weigh the risks and carefully orchestrated a date. Since going out for necessities and essentials was the only activity permitted outside, she transformed her grocery trip into a date. Highly engineered, a first date spent six-feet apart was both everything she had expected and nothing like she had wanted.

There was visible hesitation on both sides before their first kiss. Different parts of her skin grazed his, and for Gabby, it felt extremely surreal — a feeling not solely caused by butterflies. While they were conscious to carry out a mandatory health background check that has become a new unspoken rule of online dating — where they work, who they lived with, and what they were doing in the past two weeks — they still had a lingering fear for the worst. In between kissing, she anxiously pulled back, “Are you sure you don’t have the coronavirus?”

Dating has definitely changed for many individuals in their 20s to 30s this year. Now more than ever, many of them rely on dating apps to socialize with potential partners — which raises the question, are their social behaviors within the app any different now?

According to Bumble, more than one in four chats on Bumble turn into a meaningful relationship. With a 16% increase in messages sent recorded in May 2020 in contrast to March 2020, Bumble identifies over 100,000 users worldwide mentioning COVID- or coronavirus-related words in their bios and over 150,000 mention being quarantined.

In a brief exchange with Associate Director of PR and Comms for Bumble APAC Lucille McCart, she explained how they adjusted to the new romantic normal early in the pandemic. The popular dating app enhanced their user experience by introducing new virtual dating tools: Questions Game (where you ask a match a question and answers are only revealed when both have responded), audio notes, and expansion of distance filters. “All of these updates are aimed at enhancing user experience at a time when the desire to find meaningful connections is stronger than ever,” she says.

Bumble reveals that lockdowns all over the world have given rise to a new trend of slow dating. 38% of its users admit that it had made them want something of a more serious capacity. Head of insights at Bumble Jemma Ahmed explains that the driving force behind this new movement in online dating is the shift in priorities propelled by people getting to know themselves more. While no one can deny the increased risk of dating that emerged out of the pandemic, she also accounts the abundance of time as a cause for these changed behaviors. “It’s given people time to think and figure out what they want, who they are, and what is important to them,” she remarks.

The pandemic crippled us with unrelenting waves of anxiety, where we feel like our lives have been flipped upside down. The thought of going through it alone is equal parts terrifying and overwhelming. “As a result, we are starting to see that our community is focusing more than ever on really seeking something long-term — a partnership, a meaningful connection, and someone to weather the storm with,” Jemma shares.

The new standard of touch

There’s a certain feeling of warmth that comes with being touched. It can be both exciting and disarming. With the pandemic forcing us to second guess our yearning for physical contact, being touched now leaves us riddled with worry and anxiety. The uncertainty can often feel almost inescapable, which leaves us to wonder, will we ever experience the sensation of touch the same way again without fear?

“It’s the slight forms of touch I miss — the hand-holding, the accidental brushing of arms, feeling a hand slide down your back,” Paula*, a 26-year-old marketing strategist, says.

For many of us, that’s now unsafe. A study carried out by the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami shows that the pandemic left us starved for touch and oxytocin. This triggers a cascade of physical and emotional consequences, such as increased levels of stress and anxiety, compromised immune system, and sleep disturbances. Much like other things in life we enjoy, it took the painful process of losing the autonomy of touch to realize how much we depended on it.

Katalin Gothard, a neuroscientist at the University of Arizona, accounts for touch as the first emotionally meaningful sense we experience when we are born and the last before we die. She said in an interview with The Guardian, “The newborn understands touch much better than he understands sight or sound. The elderly lose their vision, their hearing, their balance. But they don’t lose touch,” Gothard says.

In Tinder’s Year In Swipe report, masks were identified as a dating essential and the measurement for compatibility among most matches. When more countries began to close their borders last April, Tinder was quick to expand dating horizons by making their premium feature Tinder Passport available for free for users all over the world. The usually paid feature of the app enabled users to swipe right in any and every continent they please — resulting in a 7x increase in matches from 2019 averages. Social distancing and lockdown restrictions turned young adults into creative digital daters. Swiping right on Tinder became a convenient way to socialize which led to a 39% increase in swipe volume for users 25 and below.

“It used to be a matter of: do I have the time? Now with all the time in the world, it became a matter of, do I trust this person?”

On a Saturday afternoon, Paula finds herself virtually face-to-face with a French man she had been exchanging messages with for around two weeks. A pandemic breakup propelled her into seeking out dates beyond her own time zone. The pandemic-themed how-are-you’s are followed by an interesting exchange of personal questions in an attempt to get to know each other better. Apart from the lags and minor technical difficulties, she describes it as a comforting encounter that opened up a realm of possibilities she is now privy to. An amassed fortune of international matches through Tinder Passport proved that the world is truly her oyster. “After that, I became more interested in him. [Video call] is the closest form of intimacy I can afford,” she says.

Reimagining romantic prospects

When we think about the exhilarating tension before holding someone’s hand for the first time versus the preliminary flirting with shaky and pixelated versions of themselves, it’s worlds apart. Psychologist Erik Erikson describes the cusp of adulthood as a decisive period where we’re confronted with the choice between intimacy or isolation. The conflict at this stage sharply focuses on the possibility, “Will I spend the rest of my life being loved or being alone?”

Somewhere in between those two ends of the spectrum is Dave*, a 27-year-old development worker, in search of a (safe) and casual hook-up. With his frequent use of Bumble even before the lockdown, Dave is no stranger to the impending doom of quick-fire relationships that never move beyond the online sphere. The conditional relationships he formed out of his matches hinged on a promise of a future that will take place “when all this is over.”

It wasn’t until he swiped right on Helen*, a medical student who shared his eccentric sense of humor, that he began to consider the alternative. With the dating landscape reshaped by the pandemic, Dave finds himself wanting something more than what he had initially hoped for. “Physical detachment was a big thing for the development of our relationship. It made us rely on just talking or being on video calls, which are things I wouldn’t have been able to do if I [weren’t] working from home.” Dave says, four months after asking Helen to be his girlfriend.

From happiness to self-discovery

Carla*, a 25-year-old interior designer, credits the lockdown for a new-found embrace of her sexuality. “I had trouble publicly expressing myself through physical touch in the past,” she reveals. In her prior relationships with both men and women, she describes her sexuality as something half-lived. “I always felt I had to be secretive in [my past relationships].”

The happiness and security she had only found in her new relationship with a female engineer granted her the confidence, assurance, and peace to share the part of herself she had always kept hidden with the people that mattered to her, without a hint of hesitation. With their daily on-site work life on hold, Carla invited her girlfriend to live with her for a month to narrow the distance between them. Forced to spend more time at home, she also formed a deepened relationship with her family that represented a safe space. “And because I could finally be myself at home, I felt I could be completely myself outside of it,” Carla says.

Bumble identifies over 100,000 users worldwide mentioning COVID- or coronavirus-related words in their bios and over 150,000 mention being quarantined.

She looks back on all her previously failed attempts at online dating, “It used to be a matter of: do I have the time? Now with all the time in the world, it became a matter of, do I trust this person?”

Behind every disaster awaits a new way of life. This new model of relationships we didn’t see coming fragmented the notion that we could quite easily pursue each and every shot at romance from our match list.

“A filter now exists within a new layer to relationships,” sex and relationships therapist Rica Cruz posits. When the getting-to-know stage is relegated to a place that exists purely online, it leads to stronger relationships and the chances of an unwanted heartbreak are lowered. We now approach others with caution as we consider a new string of factors before taking the first leap — their history of going out, their living situation with family, and the likelihood of them lying about it.

“People know each other better,” Rica lists as a benefit of this new relationship framework. Our response to this difference brought back the essence of a conversation being not what you say but rather how you listen. “Being more open, people talk to each other more, which is what we need especially at this time for catharsis — for us to know we’re not alone,” she reflects.

The truth of companionship

The calculated manner of which we’ve come to evaluate our relationships also drove us to revisit existing ones and see them in a new light. For Jake* and Joyce*, their four-year friendship took precedence in their lockdown life and paved the way for a love they had always been hesitant to chase after. “Before the pandemic, I second-guessed myself a lot which made me fear she didn’t feel the same,” Jake expounds on holding back all this time. At age 23 and 24 respectively, they gravitated towards each other as they faced their individual struggles with mental health.

“We made sure to be there for the other and make each other smile at least once a day,” Jake adds. “[The lockdown], as bad as it is, made us both realize things we took for granted.” Relying on each other this way progressed into a relationship they couldn’t be happier with. “If it’s already going well even just through chat, then it can only probably get better when we can see each other again in person,” Joyce concludes.

“I asked him a series of difficult questions that was pivotal to the decision of living together — financial goals, how he confronts fights, and inquiries that led to secrets he wasn’t particularly proud of.”

“When you have a pandemic or a disaster, it intensifies everything,” Esther Perel explains. In the “Daily Social Distancing Show with Trevor Noah,” the psychotherapist refers to the collective experience of COVID-19 as a relationship accelerator. The prolonged sense of uncertainty and looming sense of mortality catapulted the universal truth that life is short into a stark focus, causing us to push away the superfluous and embrace reappraised essentials and priorities. This heightened sense of decision-making made us question if we are happy — or if we are, are we happy enough? To some, their answers actualized in a degree of seriousness that felt like it grew overnight.

Co-habitation is a swipe away

Some would consider Karen*, a 29-year-old doctor, one of the lucky ones. Intrigued by her brother who had found the woman who would later become his fiancée in less than 24 hours of online dating in the pandemic, she shadowed his trail of unheard luck by finding love on her second day on Bumble. With the nature of her work, Karen couldn’t afford to be careless, so she performed a thorough questioning and background check before she decided it was safe to go on a first date. She equates the first hug to almost like an intimacy that was building up had manifested itself physically.

Two months later, they moved in together. “We got to know each other at a level that most couples would take around six months to get to,” she attributes as the reason. With the dates being limited to the confines of her home, Karen’s parents were able to discover what her prospective partner was like at the same pace and manner she did.

Dating in an unusual time warned her not to waste time with anyone who had less than serious intentions. She knew what she wanted and that she couldn’t be reckless with her ruling. “I asked him a series of difficult questions that was pivotal to the decision of living together — financial goals, how he confronts fights, and inquiries that led to secrets he wasn’t particularly proud of,” she says.

The choice to cohabitate unlocked the door to quality time and physical intimacy, which they otherwise couldn’t imagine having this early on in their relationship had it developed in an alternative universe. She admits they remain in this honeymoon phase-like bubble that the lockdown has permitted. “What if we go back to pre-COVID times? How will that affect my relationship?” It’s a worry that crosses her mind often.


*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals interviewed .