Last August, Sam* met a Hinge match in real life. For the first time in a while, he had met someone whom he was excited about seeing again. That said, he recalls noticing how "exhausted" she looked when they first met. The first lockdown had not long since ended and we were in the midst of what the 30-year-old calls "the Eat Out To Help Out summer".
The second date came later that month. "It was all going well," the north Londoner recalls. "And then she said: 'I’ve got something to tell you... I've got Long COVID'."
As they sat opposite each other over drinks, Sam’s date explained she was struggling with breathlessness and that the residual illness was having a serious impact on her body. He remembers telling her that they didn’t have to stay out if she didn’t feel up to it but the pair went ahead and ate dinner together. Afterwards, they continued messaging but, having arranged a third date, new coronavirus rules which came into force in November prevented them from following through.
Shortly after that, Sam’s date stopped replying to him altogether. Two months later, she messaged to apologise and suggested meeting again but did not respond when Sam wrote back.
Out of curiosity, he recently opened their chat on WhatsApp and noticed something strange. "Her 'last seen' was about three months ago," he says. "This is going to sound terrible but I feel like she might be dead."
The last year has brought us a proliferation of stories of lockdown love, longing, dating and heartbreak. Thanks to the pandemic, gone are the serendipitous meetings of old, from the friend of a friend with whom you remain at a party 'til sunrise to the colleague you wish would stay longer at after-work drinks. In their place came tales of people gambling on love: moving in with Hinge dates after two meet-ups, making a go of it with exes and striking up digital relationships they knew could gestate for months before culminating in that decisive first IRL drink.
Her 'last seen' was about three months ago. This is going to sound terrible but I feel like she might be dead.
As is so often the case, it is mostly women who have shared these stories and the fragile hope that came with them. We’ve also heard from women who feel they’ve lost their chance at parenthood or been robbed of a crucial year of dating.
But single men have also lost a year of connection, intimacy and searching for a partner. They, too, have contended with the feelings of isolation that come with being separated from friends and family. Of the 25 to 44-year-olds who live alone, almost 70% are male. In 2017, the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness estimated that 8 million men of all ages in the UK feel lonely at least once a week.
In the months preceding the first lockdown, Ollie* had been using dating apps for the first time ever, following the breakdown of a long-term relationship at the end of 2019. Having been in a relationship most of his adult life and only recently acclimatised to the world of online dating, the 29-year-old found the sudden shift in tone on apps that came once the pandemic started a bit jarring.
"I’d never sent a nude before," he explains. "Then, suddenly, I've been talking to someone for two days and it would start being all like, 'Hey, so what do you think about Joe Biden?' and then it would escalate and they'd go, 'Yeah, okay, goodnight... Unless I should stay up and do something to myself?'" He found the shift to single life hard to navigate.
In April last year, Ollie began seeing a woman who lived alone. Though they weren’t in a relationship, they decided to keep the arrangement exclusive to minimise coronavirus risk. "I’d always go to hers," he says, "but you can't date normally so you don't know if it's a real thing or if you're just both finding solace because you're so miserable and you can't do anything else."
In June, the government introduced support bubbles, making arrangements like Ollie’s – where one person lives alone – legal. However, many felt the move was too little too late, coming after the 8 million people who live alone in the UK had spent months banned from seeing anyone at all, often while confined to tiny flats with no outdoor space. Some praised the approach of the Dutch government, who advised single people to choose one 'sex buddy' for the first lockdown.
There’s no denying that support bubbles have been a lifeline for people who live alone but they’re no panacea for lockdown-induced isolation, nor are they a solution to the inevitable complexities of dating in a pandemic.
Twenty-six-year-old Jordan discovered this following an intense three-week relationship with a man he met shortly after the second lockdown ended last year. "He basically moved in with me," Jordan recalls. "We needed to have a 'date night' already, three weeks in, because we were basically living together."
After an intense few weeks of cooking meals together, watching TV and a "shit-ton of sex", Jordan says that, despite racking up the hours, the pair realised they hardly knew each other. This was crystallised one night when Louis* offered to make dinner for Jordan. "He cooked a meal and the pasta just wasn't cooked," Jordan says. "So I made a joke, which is very much my personality. I was like, 'I can't eat this!'"
"Obviously, because he didn't really know me yet, he did not find it hilarious," he continues. "He literally ate his portion and then ate my portion to prove a point."
Jordan tells me he knew then that, despite having slipped quickly into "marriage mode", he and Louis didn’t yet "understand each other’s perspectives".
"In order to actually get to know each other, in a staggered way, which is the best way to get to know anyone, I would slowly introduce my personality," he reflects. "But when you first meet someone, you don't want to be like, 'Oh actually, I front myself this way because I'm incredibly insecure'."
You're Love Island-ing your relationship. All relationships, from friendships to romantic relationships, take time to build. The best relationships build over a long period of time.
Jordan is hesitant to begin dating anyone else, knowing that COVID restrictions could be reintroduced at any time. "You’re Love Island-ing your relationship," he says of the pressure of dating right now. "All relationships, from friendships to romantic relationships, take time to build. The best relationships build over a long period of time where you're able to see each other sporadically and spontaneously."
And so, rather than end up in a prematurely exclusive relationship or break coronavirus rules and regulations by seeing multiple people, the men I spoke to for this article have chosen to take this time away from dating and hooking up altogether.
For Al, a 30-year-old assistant record store manager who lives on the Wirral, the pandemic has been a time to reflect on what he needs from a relationship. Al split from his girlfriend of two years in February 2020, just weeks before the country went into lockdown for the first time. For the first couple of months, he was texting a friend of a friend who he had previously arranged to go for a drink with – only for the pubs to shut before they could choose a date.
"We ended up talking every day," he remembers. "That was really nice but also it kind of shifted, very bizarrely, into a place where we became quite emotionally dependent on each other."
Once the pair stopped talking, Al didn’t feel comfortable seeking out new people due to the pandemic. He is currently keeping that part of his life shut down. "I found it easiest to almost turn it off – just to be like, 'Romance and intimacy aren’t happening and you just need to be okay with that'," he says.
I think the constant shaming of men for being awful fucking men has been beneficial to dating because, hopefully, the concept of shame is slowly filtering in.
Though Al wouldn't go as far as to say that the timing of his breakup was positive, he does believe he’s taken some lessons from lockdown. "I have had to stop and give myself more time and more space and understand my own needs better than I ever have before in order to survive," he explains, adding that he now realises he needs to assert these needs with a partner. "I think the reason my other relationships have dwindled is because I've given too much of myself trying to keep the other person okay."
Meanwhile, for 30-year-old Joe, who was shielding during the last year, dating is one of many things he has had to give up to keep himself safe. He’d like to be in a relationship at some point in the future but says dating isn’t a priority as he gradually reacclimatises to life beyond the four walls of his London flat. "I missed out so much in the last year that I feel like there's much more that I miss than the prospect of dating," he says. "I miss seeing my friends at the pub more, I miss seeing my family."
Once things do fully open up, Joe says he won’t be seeking out flings and hook-ups. "I don't really have any interest in attempting to find the right person by finding five of the wrong people, if I can possibly avoid it," he explains. This is a challenge to the pervasive stereotype that men are only looking for something casual.
Joe says that also isn't the case in his circle of male friends. "If anything, it's been the reverse," he says. "It’s been mostly that the girls my friends meet want something casual while they have wanted something serious." However, he quickly adds: "There are a lot of prick dudes out there who don't have a great deal of respect for women."
While Ollie jokes that all men fear ending up on beam_me_up_softboi (an Instagram account which shares anonymised dating app and WhatsApp screenshots), he believes that open conversations about male behaviour in the dating sphere are having a positive impact. "I think the constant shaming of men for being awful fucking men has been beneficial to dating because, hopefully, the concept of shame is slowly filtering in," he says.
Most of the men I spoke to for this article share a dislike of – or at least discomfort with – dating apps. They all feel that it’s harder to make genuine connections and convey your personality through an app than it is in real life. "I’m a lot more of a face-to-face kind of person," says 27-year-old Rob from Essex. "Losing that ability to even be able to chat to people at work or go to the pub and see someone and chat to them... Me, personally, I found it quite hard to adapt."
However, it was interesting to note that none of these men describes feeling any external pressure to meet someone and settle down during this time. That's quite the contrast to the articles we have read from women's perspectives.
Sam, who says his Asian family has a "quite traditional" outlook on the trajectory someone should be on in their 30s, has noticed in the last six months that his parents have stopped referencing marriage, which he describes as "freeing". The pressure these men described came either from their own expectations of themselves or was linked to the effect of dating on their self-confidence.
"There were definitely times where I said to my friends, 'Is there something wrong with me? I'm not that bad-looking a guy, am I?'" says Mitchell, 26, from Gloucestershire. His close-knit group of four male friends has been a great comfort at times when he’s felt low about dating. "They were like, ‘Mitch, everything you’re saying right now, it’s in your head, you have nothing to worry about, there’s nothing wrong with you. It will happen eventually, you just need to be patient about it.'"
While all of the men I spoke to for this article are looking forward to the prospect of the world opening up again, none seems confident that we’re on a one-way ticket to freedom, or that dating from June onwards will be straight back to normal. All have had to adapt to maintain feelings of connection in their lives and their looming sense that Zoom dates, meeting for walks and enforced solitude may yet return is indicative of the self-protective nervousness none of us can quite yet shake.
*Names have been changed to protect identities