When the pandemic hit, 27-year-old Alice*, who identifies as polyamorous, was happy with her romantic life. She lived with her primary partner, with whom she says she was very content, and enjoyed a bustling dating life. “I'm a very extroverted person and get excitement from meeting new people and making connections,” she tells me. But then everything changed and she, like the rest of the world, had to spend all of her time at home.
For Alice and her partner, each lockdown amounted to enforced monogamy; no longer allowed to see or date other people. Overnight, her primary partner suddenly became her only partner.
“Not being able to go out and meet new people had a very negative effect on me and put a strain on my relationship,” Alice explains. So much so that she now feels like she is "making up for lost time" and because of this, is questioning her relationship. “The pandemic made me realise that there is so much more to life than what I thought there was before lockdown [...] now I am mostly feeling confused about what it is I actually want.”
She’s not the only one. Popular culture teaches us that when it comes to dating “when you know, you know”. But what if all that you know is that you don’t know? What can you do to help you navigate this uncertainty?
Uncertainty has been the name of the game over the past 18 months as our lives have undergone a radical shift in order to help to contain the spread of a deadly disease. Our home, work and social lives shifted in form, becoming something almost unrecognisable. In no aspect was this truer than in the world of dating, where would-be daters have had to cope with periods of enforced celibacy and prolonged solitude, as well as forming new bonds with people digitally as opposed to in real life.
And though as a society we are beginning to adapt to our new reality, the emotional repercussions of what we’ve all just lived through are still keenly felt by many people, particularly when it comes to their relationships or quest to find one. For many people, like Alice, the pandemic has led them to feel unsure about what they really want from life and who they want to spend it with.
Knowing what our needs are can help us be more mindful about whether a prospective partner could offer us the support we need, or whether we are wishful in thinking they could.
HOLLY ROBERTS, RELATIONSHIP COUNSELLOR
“The pandemic has thrown any sense of what was normal completely up in the air, and that includes our own sense of self,” explains Holly Roberts, a relationship counsellor at Relate. “We might have thought we were really resilient and could face anything, but multiple lockdowns and social isolation have made us more vulnerable.” She continues to explain that many of us have experienced a collective anxiety which has perhaps made us more tentative in finding our way in the world. “The pandemic has taught us life is precious and short, which is a hard thought to hold.”
Roberts says that given all of this it’s unsurprising many people are struggling to decipher what they want. “The weight of this may cause us to feel unsure and perhaps question whether we want to keep doing things in the same way as we did before [...] but knowing how to make change when it’s so important to get things right may feel a little debilitating.” So if you suddenly find yourself questioning every single aspect of your life including how you feel about people in your life, you’re not alone.
According to research shared with me from dating app Hinge, 39% of users say they have become “more picky since the pandemic” and 91% of these say it’s because they don’t want to waste their time on the wrong person. Not that being picky is a bad thing. As Roberts says, “knowing what our needs are can help us be more mindful about whether a prospective partner could offer us the support we need, or whether we are wishful in thinking they could”. And when the stakes are so high in romantic love, taking your time to decide if someone is a good fit is a useful way of minimising any heartache further down the line. But what happens when focusing so much on trying to discern what it is exactly that you’re looking for leaves you more unsure than ever?
Thirty-four-year-old Katherine from Glossop says the pandemic has raised the stakes in dating so much that it has made her reconsider every single aspect of what she’s looking for — and feel more anxious as a result. “I’m completely overwhelmed by dating in the post-pandemic world!” she tells me. “I feel like everything is heightened and feelings about the rest of my life are totally at extremes, but when it comes to dating I struggle to feel anything and I have lost all faith in my judgement of character or knowing what I want.”
The person that was right for us in our 20s may not be right for us ten years later. Life experiences affect us and our partners, so perhaps the best that we can hope for is a partner that adapts with us.
Holly Roberts, a relationship counsellor at Relate.
Before the pandemic, Katherine says she was pretty certain about what she was looking for after breaking up with someone and committing to exploring more of her bisexuality by dating more women. But she says that the inability to meet up with matches straight away means that many of those connections ended up feeling more like friendships. At the same time, the passing of time and pandemic-afforded perspective has made her even more aware of her desire to have children.
“I feel like I’m both in a place where I want to do the casual stuff that I didn’t get a chance to, but also that I am 34 and I am starting to think about growing my family,” Katherine explains. “Obviously it means I’m looking for something serious or nothing at all.”
Having time to reflect over the past 18 months has also helped Katherine realise that she’s demisexual, meaning that she is only likely to feel sexual attraction to someone once she’s formed an emotional bond. Alongside this, she says, when she does date, she’s struggling to discern whether she actually likes someone or is just craving intimacy. “I dated someone at the end of lockdown two and realised I’d let my total desire for any human contact get in the way of being able to judge whether I actually liked them,” she says. The combination of all of this means she finds herself caught in her own head a lot of the time, questioning what she is actually feeling, often ending up even more confused as a result.
Roberts says this is very normal and that the idea that people ever really “know” is usually just based on a gut feeling. “The sense of knowing if someone is right for you will come from your heart more than your head,” she says. “Trying to intellectualise this question may leave you with more questions than answers.”
In order to try to break out of this cycle of questions, Roberts recommends taking your time and making space for the ‘not knowing’. “It’s ok to struggle with this. It can be really scary to not have a clue about what you want from life, or who you want in your life, but the more we try to deny our worries, the more they try to knock on the door to let us know they are there.” To overcome this, Roberts recommends trying different things and embracing mishaps and mistakes. “If you don’t know what you want from a relationship you might need to experience different things to know what you like and don’t like. Every experience, even bad ones, will teach you something that will guide you towards the person that is right for you.”
Of course, this is much easier if you are single or in a position to date. For those who are monogamously coupled, finding the space to explore any doubts or negative feelings can be trickier.
Thirty-one-year-old Alex from Yorkshire has been with her partner for eight years, but has found herself less and less sure about the future of their relationship since lockdown. “The period was alright for us, we both have good jobs and did some home improvements and thankfully nobody we knew has been ill, so all very plain sailing,” she says. “But I found that while everything was very ‘nice’, I started feeling lonely and isolated, and was spending a lot of evenings on my own as we have different interests. In normal times that sort of works, but being in the house together 24/7 and not spending any quality time together started to get me down.”
Like Katherine, the pandemic has also given Alex a sense of perspective on what she wants from her life, particularly when it comes to starting a family. “I realised that I don’t want kids, but then I want a really exciting life, and I don’t know if I’ll get that if I stay,” she tells me. “I feel conflicted because there’s nothing wrong with the relationship, we get on and have the same core beliefs, but it doesn’t set my world alight and the pandemic has made me realise life is too short.”
Alex adds that though she still feels very unsure about what to do, she has found that talking about her feelings both with her partner and with a trusted third party (a friend, family member or therapist) has helped her feel confident she isn’t being impulsive.
Ultimately, Roberts says, the idea that anyone is ever completely confident in who is right for them is a myth, as we are all changing all the time, so it’s important not to feel intimidated by people who give the impression that they do. “I don’t think anyone knows 100% that they are with the right person,” she explains. “Those that do feel strongly that they are with the right person probably have an unexplainable sense of this — a gut feeling that tells them their partner is a good match.”
Maybe in the end, Roberts says, the right person for us isn’t the one who is exactly perfect for us right now, but the one who is capable of changing and growing with us as the years go by. “The person that was right for us in our 20s may not be right for us ten years later. Life experiences affect us and our partners, so perhaps the best that we can hope for is a partner that adapts with us, and has compassion and empathy for our ever-changing needs.” In the meantime, though, patience with yourself and your feelings after what we’ve all just lived through is the least you deserve.
*Name changed to protect anonymity.