Haley McGee met the love of her life during the first months of lockdown.
In February 2020, the Canadian-born and now UK-based playwright and actor had just finished the first draft of her book The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale and, while still smarting from a tumultuous off-and-on relationship, started trying online dating.
She went on two in-person dates – “both hard nos” – and then, as lockdown descended, she found herself chatting with dozens of potential men on the dating app Hinge. From that pool, she chose a few for Zoom dates, and one guy – a visual artist named Robert – stood out. They continued to chat, text and use WhatsApp, and finally agreed to meet in person.
“In early May, we met on the South Bank of London and walked along the Thames and crossed over the bridge and along the river and back over again for eight hours,” she says. “I had to pee so badly.”
Because of those early COVID-19 protocols, whenever they stopped or leaned against a wall, police officers would tell them to keep moving.
“It was a great first date,” says McGee. “There was something Austenesque about it, as if we were being chaperoned. We couldn’t even really look at each other but just had to walk and stare in the same direction. I think that allowed us to have a deeper and more meaningful conversation than we would have had if we had been sitting across from each -other in a pub or bar.”
Nearly two years later, the two are still dating, and are looking at finding a place together.
The dating scene
Not everyone has been so lucky in love, however.
One of the reasons is because the traditional ways of meeting people have been on pause for nearly two years.
“The last time I went on a date was in December of 2019,” says Nawal Salim, a Muslim woman of Pakistani and Indian background. “When COVID hit, I gave myself the leeway not to date – to give myself a break from the relentless pursuit of finding a partner, which is expected from a woman in my culture after she turns 21.”
In the before times, Salim would meet people through school, work or volunteering.
Now, in her late 20s, she’s out of school and works at an arts organization of all women that keeps her so busy that she doesn’t have time to volunteer – “and besides, volunteering during the pandemic is probably a lot of online things and coordinating as opposed to meeting in person,” she says.
Early in the pandemic, Colin Asuncion figured he just wouldn’t date.
“I initially thought, ‘Well, we can’t meet or touch anyone new, so dating is out,” he says.
“And then a good friend started a podcast that was essentially a dating show. He invited me on to be a guest – the single of the week – and I chose one of three guys to go on a Zoom date. It was my first Zoom date, which was weird. It’s unintentionally intimate, because you’re inviting someone into your home. And you’re sort of forcing them to look at you the entire time – there are no breaks.”
Afterwards, Asuncion – an actor and baker – met other men on dating apps and went on a few more Zoom dates. When the weather improved, he graduated to walking dates.
“Walking dates are nice – they’re casual, relaxed, a fun way to get to know someone without having to spend too much money,” he says, laughing. “I’ve even gone on some picnic dates, which is funny. Before the pandemic, a picnic date would have signified something special, like an anniversary or a proposal. Now it’s something you do during COVID.”
A matter of life and death
Asuncion recalls one guy he had been seeing for nearly two months. After their third walking date, when they both felt a connection, they had a serious talk about whether they were seeing others and whether they could join each others’ bubbles. Trust obviously played a part in this negotiation. During a pandemic, it can be a matter of life and death.
“A friend of mine got COVID in this same situation,” he says. “They were dating someone new, and the other person wasn’t forthcoming in terms of who they were coming into contact with.”
For Michelle Nochomovitz, the sight of unmasked people riding the TTC and anti-vaxxers demonstrating has caused her lots of fear about meeting other people.
“Those things create a certain amount of distrust in my fellow human beings,” says the gender-fluid insurance adjuster. “Add to that being raised and socialized female, I already had things to be nervous about when it comes to dating. This exacerbates all of that.”
Registered psychotherapist Bronwyn Singleton has heard similar fears from her clients. She wants them to have a strong intention and stable sense of self before they begin dating so they can deal with possible rejection.
“I have to have a very clear understanding of people’s ‘why,’” says Singleton. “Why do you want to be out there? What do you want out of it? Are you looking for a relationship? Or is this about sexual exploration – and that’s a totally legit reason to be out there. If you know why you’re out there and what you’re looking for in a prospective partner, then you’re in a better place.”
Singleton also says people need to have the resources to handle disappointment.
“A lot of people have a fragile sense of self right now,” she says. “The pandemic has been disorienting. People don’t know who they are. They feel like a hollow shell of a person. Sometimes they don’t know what they’re interested in. Relationships can’t fill a void. You need to know yourself before you can enter a relationship.”
Two years ago, writer Bee Quammie was separated from her husband and going through divorce proceedings while also raising two young daughters. She figured she’d meet some new people, have some fun. And then the pandemic hit. Encouraged by friends, she downloaded dating apps.
“I was supposed to be out there looking cute with this How Stella Got Her Groove Back glow,” says Quammie. “But I couldn’t. So I felt resentful. And initially that impacted how much I engaged with a lot of dates, because sometimes I would just be like, ‘This is not how I want to do this,’ and I would delete my profile.
After an eight-month break, however, her mom convinced her to go back on the apps.
Strained long-term relationships
Those in long-term relationships haven’t had it easy during COVID-19 either.
Stephen (last name withheld) is a writer in the GTA who’s been married since 2010 and has two children. His wife is in education. He now works at home and looks after their kids, who do online schooling.
The pandemic added tension to his marriage for several reasons, including being constantly cramped together under the same roof – especially when things were on severe lockdown during the first half of 2020.
“I acknowledge my privilege – we have our own house with several floors,” he says. “But during the first part of the pandemic, both of us were working from home. Therapist and podcaster Esther Perel has talked about the need for distance, space and mystery in relationships. The notion of going out of the home and then coming back is necessary in a healthy partnership. And when you don’t have that, it can feel claustrophobic and can open up rifts that might have already been there.”
Stephen admits he’s been suffering from low-grade depression. He hasn’t been able to find a therapist but taking walks and getting exercise has helped. Communicating what’s bothering him to his wife, however, hasn’t always been easy.
“Part of it comes down to the fact that we don’t have a lot of alone time to discuss things,” he says. “And by the time we get to a point where we can talk about it, we’re both so exhausted. We just feel like watching TV and kind of being with each other, which can be very useful and healing in itself.”
Keeping things interesting
Keeping things interesting in a relationship when there’s not much to do can definitely be a challenge.
Toronto writer and filmmaker Cavan Campbell broke up with his girlfriend of five years just over a year ago.
“The best way to describe it is the pandemic didn’t cause our breakup, but we absolutely broke up because of the pandemic,” he says.
“The writing was on the wall that our relationship was going to end because it had become clear in the previous year that we didn’t agree about what we wanted in the future.”
One of the things that aided their relationship was socializing.
“We would go out as much as possible with friends,” says Campbell. “We had pretty congruent tastes in music, so we’d see a lot of shows together. We’d go out to many movies. And all of that stuff got stripped away in the first few months and it made it harder to ignore the central problem in our relationship that we weren’t dealing with. I don’t want to suggest that our social life distracted us. But it brought us a lot of happiness.”
Vaccines and dating
After he broke up, Campbell waited awhile before dating again. The spring and summer of 2021 saw the initial rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. When he started meeting people on dating apps, he would pay special attention to their vaccine status.
He likens meeting unvaccinated people to dating smokers when you’re a non-smoker.
“I’d think, ‘Am I interested enough in this person that it would be worth our time, knowing that it probably wouldn’t go anywhere?’” he says. “Listing your vaccine status is an announcement of a level of respect, both for yourself and for other people. It says ‘I’m being proactive and trying to keep them and myself safe.’”
For single mom Quammie, dating during the pandemic has forced her to trust her feelings.
“I’ve got to protect myself because I’ve got to protect my kids,” she says. “I can’t be frivolous out there. I’ve had these frank conversations with dates about my comfort level around certain things. Before the vaccines came out, I would ask somebody how much they had been out and about, and if I didn’t feel comfortable with it I’d put off the date until later. I’ve learned to trust my instincts. You don’t have to put someone else’s wants above your own. So that was a good lesson.”
Friends with benefits
Finding love might be a long-term goal for many people. But what do you do in the meantime, especially when having casual fun can be fraught with danger and risk?
After a couple of dates, Campbell found he had a connection with a woman, but they weren’t on the same page about having children, which he considered a major obstacle to a long-term relationship. But they liked each other enough to start a friends with benefits relationship. That took some frank discussions.
“We check in with each other regularly,” he says about the arrangement. “I don’t think either of us has been seeing anybody consistently but we’ve both been going out on dates. We laid that out clearly, because we figured it was the only way this was going to work. Another thing we agreed on is that we were only going to go out with people we knew were vaccinated. And if we made the choice to see somebody who wasn’t, we would notify the other.”
Spring is coming
With spring less than two months away, most of the singles I talk to are anticipating going on outdoor dates again.
Asuncion misses parties and meeting friends of friends at outdoor gatherings or even larger indoor ones.
“Hopefully we’ll get back to that in the summer. It’s just so strange to have to navigate your personal life in a way that’s so linked to public health.”
Nochomovitz says they’ll probably start back up on the dating apps soon.
“My birthday is in March, so I may get out there for my birthday. Like it’s my new year.”
Some of their previous pandemic relationships just ended abruptly – but they wouldn’t call it being ghosted.
“We’re all exhausted and going through PTSD right now,” they say. “Mental-health wise, a lot of people can’t sit down and talk about things. I understand that.”
As for McGee, whose book has just been released by Penguin Canada (a Toronto stage version has been postponed twice and is currently slotted for the fall), she’s realistic about what it might mean to live together with her current boyfriend. Even though she’s never cohabited with a partner before.
“He stayed with me in my flat for a week over Christmas and on day two I told him we needed to take separate walks,” she says. “I said, ‘I need to go on a walk and you can have the place to yourself, and then you can take a walk and leave me the place to myself.’ Even having the space to yourself for an hour can be useful.
“My therapist says most couples could benefit from less exposure to each other, to build a kind of dynamic tension and feel like you have something new to bring to the relationship,” she says. “It’s hard during lockdown, but I think separate walks is a really good place to start.”
Glenn Sumi, Colin Asuncion, Haley McGee and Bee Quammie expand on dating during COVID in the latest episode of the NOW What podcast, available on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or playable directly below:
NOW What is NOW’s weekly news and culture podcast. New episodes are released every Friday.