When the bubonic plague swept through England in the summer of 1665, people left food for the sick on stones that marked the boundaries between villages. Last week, Millie says, on an overcast Sunday afternoon in south London, “it felt like my doorstep had become a plague stone.”
The food was hardly medieval: a marbled brioche from a supermarket in Marylebone. And the delivery wasn’t made by a neighbouring townsperson, but by the man Millie has been dating for the last two months. Millie, 26, had been self-isolating in her flat after falling ill a couple of days earlier. “I refused to kiss him,” she says. “We just stood in my doorway and laughed. He had eaten half the brioche on his cycle over.”
Coronavirus has upended nearly every part of society, and the dating world is no exception. Basic elements of getting to know someone physically (kissing, holding hands, touching, standing close to each other) contain new risk. But even if the disease has put a pause on some embodiments of affection, it doesn’t stop the yearning. The search for love, in a few short days, has adjusted to new realities.
Alex Durrant runs JigTalk, a dating app in which jigsaw pieces hide a user’s photo and disappear one by one as messages are exchanged. Recently, those pieces have been disappearing quicker than usual. Average messages exchanged per match are up 27 per cent this week, and the number of existing users returning to the app is also on the up. “It’s being treated more as a place to come and talk to people,” Durrant says. “People are replacing the demand for the dating element with the talking element.”
The desire to talk is telling. “During times of great uncertainty people yearn for more intimacy,” says Rachael Lloyd, a relationship expert at eHarmony. After the 11 September attacks, when the New York subways were closed, and many people stayed at home, the dating platform eHarmony paused all its advertising in the US. It still saw its activity increase by a third.
But what if you want to go beyond talking? A face-to-face date? “Evaluating the risk as to whether you should still go on a date is down to three things,” says Viren Swami, social psychology professor at Anglia Ruskin University. “The likelihood of something bad happening, your ability to control that thing happening, and how catastrophic the results could be.” The problem is, not many of us know how to evaluate those things, even if we’ve been keeping up with the latest government advice. Different people are drawing the line in different places.
Some have already tried to mitigate against later loneliness. Millie has friends who were determined to get “cuffed before corona” so they wouldn’t have to quarantine alone. Others continue to lean towards dating in person, albeit with caution. Meike Imberg, a 27-year-old client account manager from Germany, has been talking to a woman on Her, a queer dating app. They’ve left each other voice notes and joked about a sunny date in July. But they’ve hinted that they want to see each other sooner (while keeping two metres apart). With the right person, Imberg would pop that all important question. “If I really click with the person, I would carefully and diplomatically say: ‘I really like you. Do you still want to keep the social distancing, or can we get closer?’”
People who started dating someone before the pandemic set in are being forced into serious discussions much earlier than usual. “All the deep conversations you might have with someone a year in,” says Millie, “I’m having to have now because there’s a global pandemic.” It leaves little room for “just seeing what happens”. Ash, a 22-year-old digital coordinator, has limited hope for the man she’s been dating from Hinge. “We’re essentially a suburb apart. If I really wanted to, I could walk to him. I just don’t think we’ve built enough of a base to get over what could be a city shutdown.”
And even for people in full-blown relationships, the situation can be complex. Neil, an entrepreneur in his 40s from Cardiff, is solo polyamorous: he is in relationships with three women, all of whom date other people. One is self-isolating because her son has a fever, and another is cautious about her lung health due to her profession. The latter has said to Neil that if he has physical contact with his other partners, she won’t be able to see him. He is limiting physical contact with all three. “To choose one partner would be difficult,” Neil says. “It’s basically an act of favouritism.”
A hopeful reading is that the constraints put on us by coronavirus might make better lovers, as well as friends, out of all of us. Dr Justin Garcia, the scientific advisor to Match.com, thinks there might be benefits in people “connecting even more, talking more, having deeper conversations, having more time, and using our digital platforms to connect in different ways”.
Eve agrees: “It might push you to realise what you’re looking for,” she suggests. “I think if you’ve got infinite choice, as you do with dating apps, you become lazy and your expectations are completely different. Whereas now it’s almost going back to basics: what is it that I want?”
What is it that we want? The answer, in large part, seems to be each other. And romance still survives this current reality. Could Imberg see herself quarantining with the woman she’s been talking to? “Absolutely,” she responds. “I would see it as a little adventure.”
Some names have been changed.