He Said, She Said

Is dating dead? How Covid-19 has changed the game — maybe forever

Monique Verduyn and Sibusiso Mkwanazi consider the ways that the pandemic has changed the dating scene, and what it could mean for future romance

14 February 2021 - 00:00 By Monique Verduyn and Sibusiso Mkwanazi
Love in the time of Covid.
Love in the time of Covid.
Image: Siphu Gqwetha

MONIQUE VERDUYN ON SURVIVING THIS NEW CYBER MATING RITUAL

My grandparents never went on a date. They didn't go to movies or meet in a dimly lit bar. They grew up in the same village in northern Italy and knew each other from Sunday mass and market days. They spent little time alone together before my nonna's father gave his approval to the union and they were hastily married. So much for the notion of the romantic courtships of the past.

It was only in the mid-20th century that dating became a thing, placing romantic love on a pedestal even above the necessity of marriage itself. For centuries before that, the purpose of marriage was to forge an alliance between families, often economic. A match was usually entirely negotiated by the couple's parents and extended family, and the courtship choreographed through chaperoned visits, the exchange of messages, and the delivery of gifts. The roles were highly gendered.

In the 1960s and '70s, liberal social and sexual attitudes transformed the nature of courtship and sparked a gradual change in the power balance between men and women. By the time we were old enough to date, my friends and I went about looking for love in a completely different way. We moved out of home, lived in rented apartments, and had large circles of friends from university and work. We met in bars and trendy restaurants and went clubbing all night.

Looking back on that now, it, too, feels like a bygone era. The pandemic has slammed the brakes on dating and romance. You can't show your flame a good time by going to a comedy show at Kitchener's or taking a stroll on the Keyes Art Mile on First Thursdays.

Rom-coms like last year's Seriously Single, where Tumi Morake and Fulu Mugovhani confront the hurdles of middle-class dating rituals in pre-Covid Joburg, are as nostalgia-inducing as 1999's Notting Hill. The poignant truth is that no-one knows if or when our lives will look like the Before Time again.

SO, WHAT'S NEXT?

Dating may be a relatively recent phenomenon, but it follows a script that hasn't changed until now. You meet for a first date; if you like each other, you go on a few more; at some point you kiss and then go back to "your place or mine", and you have sex. If it all works out, you announce it to the world on your social media app of choice. From that point anything can happen, depending on whether you follow the rest of the script or reject it.

Regardless of our sexuality and gender identity, and whether we conform to societal expectations or deviate from them, who and how we love is deeply influenced by the times we live in. Under lockdown, the giddy fervour of the first date has been replaced by a Zoom meeting (unless you're a Muizenberg lockdown defier). People haven't met strangers in trendy bars for almost a year.

As human instincts go, the desire to form connections with other people, particularly of a romantic nature, is stronger than most. Statistics released by Tinder and other dating apps such as Bumble show that in a time of social isolation people are turning to online dating in increasing numbers to create human connection. For those social dating apps that have in-app call functions, the length of conversations has also spiked.

There are those who believe that internet dating is the fastest, most efficient way to gather a pool of suitable candidates. Opportunities that could take months to track down are thrown out by the computer in seconds. At the same time, the experience can be as shadowy as searching for a used car in the classifieds.

ARE WE BECOMING MORE SERIOUS? 

There are various takes on online dating during Covid-19. Some see it as a real opportunity to "connect", while others see it as a chance to get off the dating merry-go-round. But how do you go about pursuing a connection if it means that a physical meeting may not occur for weeks while you wait to ascertain whether you can let your new boo into your social bubble? The virus has made dating harder and more laborious than it was before.

In our recent past, dates were casual affairs. People met to go to a movie or dinner and if it didn't work out there was generally an amusing anecdote that you could share with your mates afterwards. Then you could go back to swiping left or right and begin the whole process again.

Well, those days are over. The pace of dating has slowed down, and it takes more effort for a generation of people who no longer want to throw away time or money on endless casual dates. This is not the first time that expectations have become more intense against a backdrop of cataclysmic events. World War 2 saw a sudden increase in the number of weddings as young people, unsure of that the future held, grew anxious to formalise their relationships.

History is being reshaped, as is popular culture. Because the pandemic has been so life-changing for everyone, it's likely that the patterns of behaviour established during this period will remain.

As work has moved online, so too has romance. And there is no going back. Some predicted that online dating would take a hit from the pandemic. After all, who wants to risk infection by meeting with strangers? But the stats show that apps are now the only way to safely enter the dating pool once trust has been established.

MUST LOVE DOGS

In a 2017 study, a group of psychologists at Montréal's McGill University investigated whether people's dating behaviour would change if they were worried about the risk of infectious disease. Would they shy away from meeting new people if they were subconsciously aware of a potential health risk, or would the human desire to find a partner prevail?

They had little idea that Covid-19 was around the corner. Their study offers fascinating insights into how the crisis appears to be affecting our dating behaviour, and it points to ways in which we date more successfully in the future as well as form deeper and stronger relationship bonds.

We are spending longer getting to know each other in the virtual world before meeting. This means that by the time you meet in person, the encounter carries more importance

There's an element of our psyche known as the "behavioural immune system". It has developed in response to the various pathogens that have presented a threat to our survival throughout history. The researchers found that people who felt more vulnerable to disease displayed much lower levels of interest in dating.

Pre-pandemic, it was common for people to serial date, easily moving from person to person. Now we are spending longer getting to know each other in the virtual world before meeting. This means that by the time you meet in person, the encounter carries more importance.

The psychological and social impact of this moment in history is teaching us that we need to be more honest with ourselves and have deeper, more meaningful conversations with the people we're dating. Given the risk attached to meeting up, it must be assessed beforehand whether you have the same ethics, values and socio-political views. There is no room for dilly-dallying. After all, who wants to waste time on someone who can't appreciate that, yes, the dachshund really is Mummy's little empress?

This intentionality is likely to last for some time. The virus has taken its toll on the emotional state of nations around the world. Many retail establishments have died. Movie theatres are no-go zones. Live music is on hold indefinitely. University campuses are ghost towns and even high schools are radically changed. We don't yet know the full extent of the repercussions of SA's alcohol ban, but it's safe to assume that not all craft beer and gin bars will be around come autumn.

CONNECTION, CONNECTION, CONNECTION

When Tinder users received an unusual message on the app, telling them social distancing doesn't have to mean disconnecting, and that connection was more important than location, it was a signal that, post-pandemic, the world will be largely unrecognisable.

In these times, love is bound to change too. For those poor souls who have lost their income streams and even for those lucky enough to still have a job, the new top emotion that people are experiencing is stress. We are sad and bored. Even those who aren't planning on marrying any time soon are worried about whether the pandemic may shrink the pool of people they will know in the future, making it harder to find a partner.

But it's not "unprecedented". The free love movement of the '70s stopped abruptly with Aids. That pandemic ended one way of life, and the current pandemic has engendered a new one. We may look back on dating with wistfulness, but human beings have endured much, and we will no doubt survive this new cyber mating ritual too.


SIBUSISO MKWANAZI ON THE EVOLUTION OF THE DATING LANDSCAPE

Dating has always been an anxiety-inducing experience, and the pandemic has only made things worse. Consider lockdown public health guidelines like this from the City of New York: “You are your own safest sex partner”. Or Canada’s chief medical adviser’s warning to “wear a mask during sex”. Our minister of police, Bheki Cele, advises: “No kissing, no nothing.”

So what can we do to find love in the time of coronavirus?

SWIPE LEFT OR RIGHT?

The fact that virtual dating platform Tinder was one of SA’s most downloaded apps last year demonstrates that love was already shifting online.

According to his dating profile, one 33-year-old, well-educated cardiologist from Cape Town is of “fair height, gifted with an exceptionally talented love machine and a villa in Bantry Bay furnished with the finest Italian wares”.

But none of this seems to have mattered to the ladies he’s dated during lockdown.

“For the first time ever, I am striking out,” he says, discouraged.

“All of a sudden, I can’t wave around my hunky looks, fast car and thick wallet to woo ladies. Nothing is physical. It’s all make-believe on the internet. Because the game’s moved online, the ladies don’t care about the physical anymore. I don’t think this is dating at all, but it’s all us single people have, until the world gets back to normal,” he says.

I don’t think this is dating at all, but it’s all us single people have, until the world gets back to normal
33-year-old cardiologist from Cape Town

“On one of the first dates I had online, the lady in question suggested we run on the spot for 10km during the entire one-hour date. It was her idea of sweating it out since she’s not a ‘sex on the first date’ kind of woman — physically or digitally,” he chuckles.

Like many other single South Africans, he has learnt to substitute the traditional with an online version of whatever their needs are.

“I’ve downloaded and used a number of virtual reality apps like ARConk, 3D Holo Girlfriend and Hybri. All I need is a photo and a video of my girl and the apps turn them into reality for me. I’m not only able to be ‘physical’ with the avatars, I can also be intimate with them on other levels. I can give them hugs, caress them reassuringly and be playful with them. Unfortunately, this is still a one-player game, but technology is advancing at a rapid pace and in the future, we’ll be able to connect online simultaneously and feel what the other person is doing to us.”

SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE

Despite the Covid-induced distance, people still have an intrinsic need to be social. Some have fetishes and find pleasure in off-centre engagements. Group dating apps and websites have had a meteoric rise. Grouper, Squad, Entourage, 3Fun and Cliq are popular apps for those who don’t think three (or more) is a crowd.

There are also a number of niche dating platforms for the picky singleton, ranging from faith-based (eHarmony) to tattooed hotties (Tatchat), explicit hook-ups (Mixxxer), astrologically inclined individuals (Align) and one for those who take recycling seriously, plus a service that offers to find you someone who resembles your ex-lover (Match.com). Enduring lockdown doesn’t mean the menu is no longer available, it’s just sanitised and has a QR code.

DATE YOURSELF FIRST, FOR A WHILE

Dating Coach South Africa is a platform where single, divorced, widowed, married and entangled individuals consult experts to improve their relationships. Port Elizabeth-based dating coach, Licia Karp has 30 years of experience in transforming lives, even during the lockdown.

“What seems to be happening with romantic relationships socially is that most people don’t learn the skills to be self-occupied in healthy ways. If employed, people simply get up, eat, get ready and rush to work, and return home to some TV and for the privileged, perhaps some online entertainment,” she says.

“For people who are unemployed or have reduced working hours due to the lockdown, being at home 24/7 is not something they’re used to. This is worse for couples who aren’t used to being in each other’s company 24 hours a day.

“Individuals who have solution-focussing and stress-management skills have become strained, but they continue to work through the process together. They identified each other’s privacy and quiet time needs, and addressed their need for fair contribution to the relationship.

“The rest have perceived the safety mechanisms and the stay-at-home instructions as punishment. They’ve been unwilling to shift from past patterns of coping to new ones,” she elaborates.

I don’t blame those struggling to adopt to the “new normal”, especially as most of it is under duress. But surely there’ll always be a place for physical dating activities — like sexual activity and physical intimacy, which can’t be substituted by an app, robot or artificial intelligence?

“Sexual interaction is not about intimacy for all people. It’s about sexual desire and fulfilling that desire. Intimacy is a long process involving relationship skills; building emotional and psycho-social trust over time and developing a caring and empathic bond.

“For this reason, many men and women struggle to form abiding romantic relationships. They’re usually full of unrealistic ideas that they project onto the other person,” she says.

CHANGE FOR THE BETTER?

Whether or not it’s dating, what’s taking place virtually has changed the landscape dramatically — in some instances, for the better. Potential couples are having to take things slower, as they learn about each other, before meeting “IRL” ( in real life).

There’s no known end date to the lockdown, and who knows if there’ll be a third and fourth wave of infection. For single people uncomfortable about exchanging air particles and bodily fluids with a stranger, it’s hard to have their physical needs and the human desire for intimacy satisfied.

One positive aspect of online dating is that for law-abiding single people who choose not to meet their matches in person, geography is no longer an inhibiting factor. Couples can date people thousands of kilometres away, as long as they have data and a stable electricity supply.

Perhaps the most notable change is improved mental and physical health. As fewer people are having physical relations, it makes sense that the number of sexually transmitted diseases diminishes proportionally. Hopefully, single people are engaging in more meaningful and profound (online) relationships, which might make them happier.