I don’t know many twentysomethings living in London who haven’t been on a date, but I’m one of them.
I am engaged, though, somehow. (I know, I can’t quite believe it either.) We were friends first and, for better or worse, skipped the seemingly seminal dating chapter and dove headfirst into the comfortable laziness of love and living together. All aspects of my introversion were accelerated (and justified) by the confines of COVID-19, which washed out the dating landscape for pretty much everyone.
I did have relationships previously, at high school and uni, but never got round to doing any traditional ‘dating’ thing there, either. It was friendship, then a period of silliness masquerading as love, then (usually fairly swiftly) onto ugly crying on the phone to my mum. Alternatively, it was hook-ups then bye. Dinner and a movie was a foreign concept to teen and early 20s me.
Until now, at the grand age of 29, I have considered myself extremely lucky to have sidestepped the dating game, which I always felt to be a rather Americanized, twee concept, if its representation in the ‘90s media I consumed as a kid is anything to go by. Writing with all the authority that comes with zero personal experience, in my mind dating is conflated with slushies, diners and buttery fingers in popcorn buckets. It’s corsages and coffee shops and Carrie Bradshaw. It’s throw-up nerves on the subway, only to be met by Mr or Ms Mildly Underwhelming.
As I thumb violently through Wedding TikTok in search of the perfect petal confetti, I can't help but wonder: When I look back on my 20s in 20 years' time, will I regret not having the excitement of a swipe-right? Or the formative experience of being stood up and eating alone (and defiantly enjoying it)? Am I a bad millennial? Maybe I have missed out on key cultural references and societal norms that can only come from experiencing a vibrant, twentysomething dating life. I'll never know. What's more, how will missing years of frequent mini heartbreaks negatively affect my personal growth? What if I get my heart broken big time down the line and I've never learned how to mend it?
If you’re reading this almost-mother-in-law, I’m delighted to be engaged, don’t get me wrong. And whenever I bring up my anxiety around my lack of dating experience, I am greeted by wildly deserved eye-rolls from friends. They tell me I am wrong to romanticize it, with all its difficulties. "You're better off without," they say. They tell me horror stories of being ghosted, Frankensteined, and of potentially dangerous situations that come with meeting people you’ve only briefly seen on a phone screen. We've reported previously that many young people have very valid concerns about dating life in 2021.
There are some hopeful dating trends beginning to emerge which suggest that the dating scene is becoming a more vibrant and empowering space for twentysomethings today. Does that mean there's even more I'm missing? New research from Tinder suggests the purpose of dating in the UK is shifting in the wake of the pandemic, as we reassess what we want from it. More young people are after real companionship and connection from our dating lifestyles, and the demise of the cliched dinner date is nigh. Starting in June, there were increases in bio mentions of ‘picnic’ (+95%), ‘bookstore’ (+103%), ‘mini golf’ (+112%) and ‘roller skating’ (+83%) as dream date scenarios.
Over half of the young people in the UK surveyed by Tinder want to get to know their dates on a deeper level, doing away with cold first meetings over drinks in favour of something more robust. Nearly half of the Gen Z people surveyed plan to have more video chats and conversations with matches before meeting IRL. And when it comes to relationships, 19% would prefer to be casually dating, without the commitment. Seventeen percent of us would rather be making new friends on our dates and casually seeing where things go. This is backed up by data collected earlier this year by the Kinsey Institute, which forecast that the pandemic has changed our attitudes to sex. Researchers spoke to singles and found that over half of them now have no interest in one-night stands. It's the antithesis of the summer of love predicted at the beginning of the vaccine rollout in January 2021.
Part of me thinks I could have been really good at this kind of dating and actually enjoyed it, too. Put me in a crowded place and I shrink; one on one, I can keep a conversation chugging along quite nicely. Have I cheated the world of single-and-ready-to-mingle me? (Okay, now it’s my turn to eye-roll.)
I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that this pang of post-engagement regret I’m feeling has nothing to do with dating itself or the myriad people I could have met (and gladly sidestepped). Instead, what I'm feeling is a form of extended, decade-long FOMO. Badoo has over 400 million users in 2021 and I'm on the outside, looking in. I’m mourning a privation of a cultural milieu that has so widely shaped the lives of my generation. It's the guilt of not having done it, rather than the act of not having done it, that's got me messed up. But what I lack in dating experience, I have gained in an incredibly patient, very understanding partner who's willing to put up with all this self-involved spiralling – and that's the real win.