‘Hesidating’: Pandemic Uncertainty Is Killing Our Drive To Find Love

Photographed by Laura Chen
If social media is anything to go by, the pandemic has put dating and relationships on double time. Hinge matches who locked down together after three dates. Couples who didn’t know each other before COVID and have already tied the knot. Longstanding partners who decided to start a family or buy a property earlier than they might have done because, well, there hasn’t been much else to do these past two years. 
While the pandemic has been described as 'the great accelerator', there’s a bubbling counter-narrative too. Online dating site Plenty of Fish has coined the term 'hesidating': "Feeling indifferent about dating, unsure if you want to date seriously or casually because life in general is so uncertain right now." According to their research, 70% of single people are feeling this uncertainty.
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'Uncertainty' certainly sums up the collective mood throughout the pandemic and it’s no wonder this is seeping into our approach to dating. The cultural portrayal of dating – cocktails, romance and endless opportunities – is rarely the reality, especially in a pandemic with ever-changing social restrictions, clashing COVID viewpoints and health concerns. "With the constant news around the new variant and the scary feeling of 'what if Christmas is cancelled again?' I just don't feel I have the energy for dating at the moment. Psychologically it takes a lot of effort," said 31-year-old Clarissa. 

The idea that people are falling into two camps – accelerating and hesitating – taps into the well-known psychological framework for understanding decision-making: maximizers vs satisficers.

Jodie Cariss, therapist and founder of instant therapy service Self Space, has also noticed this. Our newfound freedom can be overwhelming and lead to hesitation. "We understand and appreciate the privilege of a more free life and we want to get decisions right. People are putting pressure on themselves and there’s a sense of urgency for lots of people to make up for lost time."
After having many of our decisions taken away from us, having to make them again can feel overwhelming. This idea that people are falling into two camps – accelerating and hesitating – taps into the well-known psychological framework for understanding decision-making: maximizers vs satisficers. In short, maximizers take a while to make decisions by doing lots of research to find the best outcome whereas satisficers want to make decisions quickly and go with their gut. Are maximizers hesitating and satisficers accelerating? Of course, it’s not that black and white. 
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Much like the concept of extroverts and introverts, it’s a sliding scale with layers of nuance. However, as the pandemic has pushed us to extremes, maybe we are being pushed one way more than ever before. 
Beyond the issues with decision-making, two years out of socialising and IRL dating doesn’t do wonders for confidence levels either. "The return of events and conferences has allowed me to network and talk to people in a more public setting once again, something I severely missed. My confidence is returning but with the pandemic stretching so long I haven't quite regained my previous levels of self-belief, which I feel will take a bit of time," Clarissa elaborated.  

Before the pandemic I was more eager to accelerate my life to hopefully marriage, babies and buying a flat but as much as I still want these things, I want to enjoy the journey.

Tara, 32
For Tara, 32, the psychological impact of the pandemic has made it harder to find suitable dates. Throughout the pandemic Tara has used the dating app Hinge whenever possible. "I try to prioritise dating around my social and work commitments, sometimes setting a goal of a date per week. I didn't want my dating life to be on hold during the lockdowns and was comfortable meeting up in person in parks across London," she explained. However, she often found that the people she met weren’t ready to date. "There are so many people out there dating without any idea what they want. I think people are showing their anxiety and burdens much more visibly after the pandemic and it’s clear dating is the last thing they should focus on. It’s made me want casual dating even less than I did before." Subsequently, Tara has discovered a new perspective and wants to move at a slower pace. "Before the pandemic I was more eager to accelerate my life to hopefully marriage, babies and buying a flat but as much as I still want these things, I want to enjoy the journey."
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The hesitation to date plays out in different ways. For Vicky, 29, her standards are higher than ever and she won’t settle for second best. Thanks to a pre-pandemic breakup, Vicky was forced to deal with heartbreak in a different way. "Lockdown forced me to heal for a number of months rather than distract myself with nights out or dating apps. I think that forced me to fall in love with myself and digest my hurt in a new way I hadn't experienced before." When she began dating again, she saw it through new eyes. "When I started dating someone virtually in May, he set the standard of who I should be dating: someone who orders my favourite burgers to my door or we have five-hour drinks on Zoom. That didn't work out but when I started dating again, months later, my standard for myself was so much higher." Now a relationship needs to be totally right for her to commit. "I'd rather be living alone happy than unhappy in a relationship."
Angelica, 30, the author of Unattached: Essays On Singlehood, shares the same sentiment. She lived alone during lockdown and isolated completely. "In terms of resilience it was amazing. Now my needs in a relationship and desires in dating are different. Before the pandemic I wanted to date to find someone to look after and support me. Now, if it happens it will be nice, if it doesn't that's okay too." Cariss backs up this idea. "We have proven to ourselves how adaptable we are. We have shown ourselves our strength. Having a simplified life meant some people found out what they really wanted. People are more confident in their choices, they’ve found their voices and are bold enough to make change." 
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I'm turning 31 in January and everything society-wise tells me I should be panicking but I have felt calmer in the last six months about dating than ever before.

ANgelica
Haifa Barbari, dating coach and founder of Be What Matters app, has also noticed this trend. Her clients are hesitant to date because they don’t want to fall back into old patterns. "People are completely fed up with the ghosting and breadcrumbing that comes with online dating," she said. "The pandemic has made us rethink what brings us joy and happiness and this extends to dating." With the great pause giving people time to reassess and find clarity, Haifa's clients are approaching dating with a new 'quality over quantity' strategy. "Whether people are looking for a meaningful relationship or simply a hookup, they have realised their time is precious and they don’t want to waste it. They don’t want to put up with dating games."
The pandemic has made us rethink every area of our lives. Ashley, 29, was made redundant in the pandemic and this period has made her more career-focused than ever, driving her to start her own business. "The pandemic has really made me realise what I want to do with my career and for myself. I want to work hard so my future bulldog has a good life!" she said. "Being restricted and hearing about friends being locked down with partners, I want to make the most of being in a position where I have the freedom to just get up and go. I don't want to miss out on that opportunity to do these things alone and march to my own drum before meeting someone or settling down." 
For Ashley, the wider shifts in cultural and political conversations that have played out during the pandemic have also made her more hesitant. "The pandemic has opened up a public floor for debate and people's opinions on health issues, economic troubles and feminism. With that online for everyone to see, it's hard to date or be interested in someone when you know they are an anti-vaxxer or think all lives matter."
Whether you’re accelerating a relationship, dipping your toe into dating or finding solace in single life, the pandemic has made us all rethink our lives. Often for the better. Angelica tells us she has found a new sense of peace around dating. "I'm turning 31 in January and everything society-wise tells me I should be panicking but I have felt calmer in the last six months about dating than ever before."

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