The pandemic put an abrupt full stop at the end of 24-year-old Ola’s dating life as she knew it, opening the door to a period of more considered courtship. Before lockdown she would spend hours of her day swiping left and right, meeting up with people she was unsure of and forcing herself to 'keep trying' in the pursuit of finding the elusive 'one'. But in the depths of coronavirus, something changed and now she takes everything at a much slower pace.
Ola’s approach or 'slow dating' – whereby people take their time and go on a number of dates before having sex with a prospective partner – seems to be on the rise. The summer of 2021, when coronavirus restrictions finally eased in the UK, was billed as the summer of love (or, rather, shagging). That may have been true for some but others, like Ola, found that time alone had given them a different perspective on how they wanted to embark on dating in the new, post-lockdown world.
"It definitely forced me to step back and understand what sort of interactions I actually enjoyed and what sort of people I want to be around," Ola, who is from London, tells Refinery29. Now, she says, her focus has shifted to taking things much more slowly — glacially even — getting to know people over a long period of time and prioritising patience with her feelings. "I’m pretty content with where I’m at," she says. "It’s the first time in my life where I truly feel like I love myself and who I am — and that’s enough for me!"
Jemma Ahmed, head of insights at dating app Bumble, tells me that the brand surveyed its users earlier this year and found that, thanks to lockdowns and quarantines, around two in five people are taking longer to get to know someone and have used this time to think critically about what they want in a relationship. "People are starting to get to know themselves a lot more," says Jemma. "And as a result they’re taking the time to figure out who is and isn’t right for them."
Sanjay Panchal, founder of Elate, an 'anti-ghosting' dating app that was created with slow dating in mind, tells Refinery29 that he’s noticed a change, too. "Most dating apps show you as many profiles as possible, relying on you to work out who's right for you," he says. "Before the pandemic everything was about maximum speed and efficiency, people would rush to a first date to figure out what the person was actually like. Now we’ve noticed more people wanting to go slowly and spend time getting to know someone gradually so they waste less time on people that aren’t right for them."
Before the pandemic everything was about maximum speed and efficiency, people would rush to a first date to work out what the person was actually like.
Sanjay Panchal, founder of Elate
Sanjay says that one unexpected and positive thing to come out of the lockdowns for people who are more focused on taking it slowly is that it has become much more acceptable to have a video call or phone call as a first date. "This makes it much easier to get to know someone after you match but before you meet," he adds.
At the same time, research from the Kinsey Institute on post-pandemic sex found that over half of those surveyed now have no interest in one-night stands. Forty-four percent said that commitment was more important to them post-pandemic and 33% said they would want to wait longer before meeting someone in person, while 37% said they would want to wait longer before having sex.
When it comes to sex and relationships, getting to know someone slowly is one of the oldest pieces of advice in the book — something both your mum and great grandma might advocate. It’s also a piece of advice that is often directed at women, tacitly used as a way to control their sexual freedoms and limit them to chaste objects that must remain 'pure' in the eyes of men. We’ve thrown out many of these outdated rules as we’ve become more sexually open as a society so why are so many people — especially women — now opting for more mindful, slower dating? Are there some benefits — beyond keeping us chaste — that can help would-be daters feel better about the whole experience of getting to know one another?
For Niamh, a 33-year-old from Dublin, time out from dating during the pandemic gave her time to think more carefully about her relationship with sex. "I realised that I had never dated someone I hadn't slept with immediately," she tells Refinery29. "I liked to tell myself sex is no big deal, as on a moral level I don't think it's a big deal," she continues, "but I realised it somehow is to me on an emotional level."
This notion that we can’t just have sex and walk away is something that '00s sitcoms like Sex and the City tried to challenge. Sometimes that is the case. But a degree of stigma has begun to surround not wanting to have casual sex. Perhaps, though, it’s also okay that we catch feelings when we share our bodies and beds with another person.
"I get emotionally attached to people quite easily when I sleep with them and I was always quite anxious about how they felt about me even if I knew something was casual," Niamh says. "I was sometimes putting on a façade that I wanted things to be casual out of fear of rejection." She adds that a habit of sleeping with potential partners early on made "all her rational decision-making skills go out the window," which, she says, often left her in what she describes as "toxic situations".
Like Ola, Niamh is now committed to decelerating her dating process. And like them, 21-year-old Jemima from Newcastle has found that a slower approach to dating helped her to feel more confident in herself and her decisions.
Jemima received a herpes (HSV) diagnosis, which, she says, roughly coincided with the arrival of COVID in the UK. "The pandemic definitely made it easier for me to disclose my HSV status to my partner," she says. "They already knew me as a person and I could feel comfortable around them before we had sex or even kissed, as we weren’t allowed to touch each other for months."
I liked to tell myself sex is no big deal, as on a moral level I don't think it's a big deal. But I realised it somehow is to me on an emotional level.
In Jemima’s case, slow dating allowed her to build trust in herself and potential partners as she navigated the new territory of dating with HSV. "For me how slow I go depends massively on how my confidence grows with disclosing to future partners."
The ability to build trust with someone slowly seems a logical draw for anyone who has been burned by a quickly extinguishing flame. Dating expert Liam Barnett says he’s noticed that couples who don’t rush in are more likely to have a more solid foundation of trust between them. "Slowing down when it comes to dating is beneficial," Liam tells me, as it helps to build "a better understanding of your partner or potential partner."
Relate counsellor Holly Roberts agrees. "Stronger trust is likely to be developed through slow dating," she says. "There are less likely to be any nasty surprises to discover because you took so long getting to know each other in the first place!" She also says it helps to really get to know a partner if you take things slower. "You can discover things about each other at a relaxed pace without feeling like you need to hit certain dating milestones."
Holly adds that having the "time to settle into feeling brave enough to open up" means that people can be "authentically" themselves. "The gradual pace of slow dating allows your natural personalities to emerge bit by bit, rather than forcing an exaggerated persona just to make an immediate good impression," she explains. It also gives you longer to establish your relationship dynamic. "A longer dating period enables more space to understand what works and doesn't work between you, the process is more collaborative because you have the time to work on things together."
However there is such a thing as going too slow. Liam is quick to caution that there’s a difference between taking things slowly and going 'too' slowly, which can be read as disinterest. "It is good to find a balance," he says.
Of course, slow dating won’t work for everyone. But for anyone looking to try it, Niamh has a few tricks that she finds help to keep her from getting carried away too quickly. "I'd say firstly when it comes to internet dating I'm more selective about who I meet up with — not just anyone I find remotely physically attractive but only people I'm actually excited about," she says.
Niamh has also found that waiting a bit to sleep with people has been helpful for her. But the biggest change in approach, she says, has been making an effort to focus on how she feels and how anyone she’s dating makes her feel, rather than being overly self-aware and focused on the impression she’s making. "Essentially it’s just giving things more thought and trying to be mindful as to how I'm feeling, as opposed to just going along with things," she explains thoughtfully.
When I ask Ola what she enjoys most about slow dating, she says it’s the ability to meet people without a fixed plan of what you want out of it. Thanks to biology, this tends to be much easier for younger women to prioritise, depending on their ambitions to start a family. "You’re just getting to know people and seeing where it goes," she reflects, "so I guess based on that theory, I’m slow dating everyone I meet?!" Above all, Ola values the "peace of mind" that slow dating affords her. "I think that taking it slower makes me think about myself and my needs a bit more," she concludes. "I wouldn’t want to compromise that for the sake of a mediocre shag!"