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Sex bans, socially distanced dates, and zumping: How 2020 transformed the dating landscape

As 2020 comes to an end, Olivia Petter reflects on the ways that coronavirus transformed the dating landscape

Tuesday 29 December 2020 10:51 GMT
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It’s been a strange year for love. Whether you’ve fallen in or out of it – or desperately tried to stay in it – love will undoubtedly have been a more complex affair for you than it was before. And that’s saying something. Thanks to the advent of apps, the contemporary dating scene became a labyrinth of deceit, disappointment, and absolutely everything in between. Generally speaking, dating was already difficult. Then coronavirus happened – and it became a bit like a Mensa puzzle.

When the UK went into what would be its first of two nationwide lockdowns, in March, myriad romantic dilemmas arose, and they differed depending on your relationship status. For couples who didn’t live together, the rub was having to choose between pressing pause on their romance, trying their hand at a virtual relationship, or accelerating their commitment and moving in together.

For couples who’d already cohabited, the issue was adapting to a new life of spending 24/7 with a partner they’d typically only see in the mornings and evenings. As for single people, well, they really drew the short straw given that their dating lives had become online-only for the foreseeable future.

Even as restrictions lifted several months later, things didn’t get any easier. Sure, you might have been able to go on dates, but you had to maintain social distancing for the duration. Cue many awkward goodbyes and elbow bumps. This made things quite difficult for singletons looking for love, of which physical intimacy is obviously a fundamental part. It didn’t help when, in June, new coronavirus laws actually made it illegal for couples who lived apart to have sex.

Then, in September, the government complicated matters even further by publishing a document stating that you could in fact ditch social distancing measures with a partner so long as you were “in an established relationship”, whatever that meant.

Now, as England has returned to a strict four-tier system, sex and dating is practically completely off the table, as mixing indoors with those outside of your household or support bubble is banned in all tier 2, 3 and 4 areas, which is most of the country.

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But despite these sizable hurdles, the dating scene hasn’t wavered. In fact, it has thrived, with dating apps reporting peak figures and all-time usership highs. It seems that during a time where almost everything felt in flux, people craved the intimacy of a relationship more than ever - even if that relationship was an entirely virtual one.

From the Dominic Cummings jokes people made in their dating app bios to how lockdown might have put paid to ghosting once and for all, here are the seven ways the pandemic has changed the dating landscape this year.

Dating apps acquired new social significance

In 2020, the prevalence of dating apps reached new heights, given that they became the only way of meeting someone for much of this year – unless you were picking people up in the socially distanced queue for Tesco or meeting someone in the neighbourhood Whatsapp group, that is.

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When the first lockdown was announced, Hinge saw a 30 per cent spike in messages sent on its app, while it reported an 83 per cent rise in overall downloads. Meanwhile, Happn reported a 52.7 per cent surge in messages sent this year compared to last, and a 15 per cent rise in the number of users joining the platform. 

As for Tinder, on 29 March – one week after the first UK lockdown began – the dating app recorded its highest amount of activity to date.

Virtual dating became the norm

Real-life dating was put on hold this year, so people were forced to get creative. More than half (64 per cent) of Hinge users reported having a virtual date this summer, and most of them seemed to be somewhat successful, with 81 per cent of them saying it was only slightly awkward or not awkward at all. As for what people were doing on their virtual dates, activities spanned from virtual cocktail making classes to virtual dinner dates. But virtual dating is more than a pandemic necessity. 

Many dating apps have now released in-app virtual features that enable users to video call one another while still using the app, which means you can do so without having to exchange phone numbers. It’s a smart safety feature, one that is likely to gain popularity in 2021 among users who want to “meet” prospective dates over the phone before doing so in real life. 

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Logan Ury, director of relationship science at Hinge commented: “Based on the findings of our Hinge Labs research, video chat dates are here to stay. A majority of our users who have tried virtual dating say they’ll incorporate it as part of their dating process in the future, even once we’ve put away our masks. Users tell us that video chat functions as a ‘vibe check’, something that confirms there’s chemistry and helps them feel more comfortable about eventually meeting up in person.”

Ghosting became less common

Ghosting, when someone you’re dating shuts off all communication from you without warning, is one of the cruellest trends of modern dating. But in 2020, its effects would have been more viscerally felt given that people were more reliant on human connection than ever before. So, to be ruthlessly ghosted would have taken quite the toll. 

Thankfully, it seems like daters realised this and vowed to be kinder to one another, with 27 per cent of Hinge users reporting that they had been ghosted fewer times during the pandemic compared to before. Here’s hoping this is a trend that will stick around for 2021 and beyond.

Relationships resembled something out of a Jane Austen novel

Much has been said for “slow dating”, but this year the term acquired new significance. Given that, for much of this year, single people couldn’t meet up with one another in real life, the pace of dating naturally slowed. People spent more time getting to know one another, either virtually or via phone call and text, and subsequently formed deeper bonds based on emotional and intellectual connections given that they couldn’t form physical ones. Dating website eHarmony called this trend “Darcying” in honour of the character Mr Darcy from Jane Austen’s classic novel, Pride and Prejudice

Kate Winslet and Greg Wise in Sense and Sensibility (Rex Features)

The term reflects how many single people were forced to eschew casual sex culture and return to more archaic dating models, such as courting. “The ‘Darcying’ tend, saw many singles take a more traditional approach to dating,” notes Rachael Lloyd, relationship expert at eHarmony. “Getting to know a partner over a longer period of time. We applaud this return to more chivalrous values, where compatibility can be explored before things heat up physically.”

Current affairs infiltrated bios and conversations

No matter how far removed the dating scene may seem from current affairs, the pandemic catalysed some inevitable crossovers. For example, Tinder reports that mentions of “masks” grew by 10 times this year, while many people also discussed masks and mask-wearing in their bios to ensure they matched with people whose views reflected theirs. 

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Additionally, Tinder reported that mentions of “Black Lives Matter” in people’s bios grew by 55 per cent, while mentions of “NHS” grew by 122 per cent in May compared to the beginning of the year. Of course, some memorable moments provided a much-needed dose of humour, too. Like when Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s former chief advisor, famously broke lockdown regulations when he drove to Barnard Castle as a way of “testing his eyesight”, a moment that Tinder found led to people using the following line in their dating app bios: “It’s a long drive to Barnard Castle, who’s Cumming with me?”

Breakups became even more brutal

Breaking up with someone is always a miserable process. But this year, it became even more so thanks to Covid-19. Consider those who broke up with live-in partners at the start of lockdown and were forced to isolate with their exes, or those who had to find somewhere entirely new to live (and spend lockdown in) due to a sudden breakup. But what of those whose relationships slowly disintegrated during the pandemic? And what if those couples who live apart? How can you end things when you can’t even see each other in real life? 

Enter the latest insidious dating trend: Zumping i.e. being dumped over Zoom. The so-called “trend” first came to light in April, when Los Angeles-based writer Julia Moser tweeted: “Am I the first person who’s been dumped via Zoom?” The tweet quickly went viral, and as many concurred that they, too, had been dumped via Zoom, the internet leapt at the opportunity to coin a new catchy portmanteau in that way it always does. And so the term “zumping” was born. Let’s hope this one doesn’t last long.

People reassessed their dating patterns

If there’s one thing we’ve had time to do this year, it’s think. For single people, the pandemic has offered ample time to reflect on one’s romantic choices and habits. For commitment-phobes, Hinge data suggested that those who might have previously juggled numerous matches at once were focusing on just one person at a time and changing their habits as a result. 

Perhaps this is why more than half (52 per cent) of the Hinge community have now said that they're ready for a long-term, serious relationship, and 51 per cent of users are being more honest with their feelings as a result of the pandemic.

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