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‘I’ll feel like a teenager again’: How do you go from two metres apart to intimacy after a year of no dating?

As the UK marks one year since the first lockdown, Olivia Petter examines the implications of 12 months without regular dating

Thursday 25 March 2021 10:51 GMT
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If time really does fly when you’re having fun, imagine how slowly it goes when you’re single, but sex and real-life dating are against the law. Now, as the UK marks one year since the first lockdown began, this previously unimaginable dystopian scenario has been the reality for millions of people across the country for the last 12 months. Though it’s probably felt much longer than that.

Sure, people have still gone on some dates. But due to social distancing restrictions, they could only do so virtually, or in parks while sat at least two metres apart. There was a period of time in the summer when, in England, people from other households could mix indoors, but even then, it remained against the law to break social distancing guidelines between households, meaning any form of physical intimacy was off the table.

To be clear, that’s no hugging to say hello, no accidental knee grazing, and certainly no kissing (or anything else) to say goodbye. All the physical aspects of dating were suddenly illegal, which frequently made the whole experience painfully awkward and uncomfortable.

Now, though, as restrictions in England are slowly lifting,  people will be able to slowly return to normal dating. Currently, Boris Johnson’s roadmap states that, all going to plan, social distancing restrictions will be lifted on 21 June. But how will a year without dating have affected us long term? If recent studies are anything to go by, people are far from looking forward to the sudden change.

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Introducing FODA: the fear of dating again, a term coined by matchmaking website eHarmony. According to the company’s survey of 2,000 people, one in four single millennials are worried about dipping their toe back into the dating world once restrictions lift. There are numerous reasons for this, namely that after a year of living through a deadly pandemic, people are wary of suddenly being able to be in close contact with others again, with one third of those surveyed expressing concerns about kissing and hugging, while while a quarter said they’d be worried about catching coronavirus from potential dates.

Then there’s the crippling nerves that come from being out of practice for a year. “I think I’ll feel like a teenager again,” says Helena, 26, from Brighton, who has been going on virtual dates with people she’s met on Bumble. “I’m a lot more socially awkward than I was pre-pandemic, but I’m trying to think of it as a cute thing.”

Donna, 45, from London is similarly anxious about making the move into real-life dating after having only spoken to people online for the last year. “I’ve been on a Zoom date and had a few video calls and they’re not a confirmation of chemistry,” she says. “But I’m nervous about the thought of dating properly again. I’m a single mum and due to childcare, I’ve had very little human contact since last March. How do you go from staying two metres away from the world to snogging someone? It sounds like Russian Roulette.”

After spending the last year consciously trying to keep your distance from others, it will understandably feel strange to make this sudden leap.  “The internal dialogue that being close to others is dangerous will be hard to shake,” notes clinical psychologist Marc Hekster. “Intimacy has been associated with risk, which will characterise dating as potentially terrifying, at least initially.”

The internal dialogue that being close to others is dangerous will be hard to shake

Marc Hekster, clinical psychologist

There are other considerations, too. Due to the pandemic, many people have undergone seismic life changes in the last year, whether it’s regarding their work or personal lives. Take Imogen Bond, 40, from London, who went from working in theatre (an industry that was rendered obsolete by coronavirus) to launching her own business, something that has come with new demands and responsibilities. “I’ve really got used to spending more time alone and on my career,” she says, adding that she split up with her ex at the start of the first lockdown. “I think dating in your 40s comes with issues anyway because everyone wants to talk about children and biological clocks, conversations which I think will become more intense after lockdown lifts,” she adds.

Then there is the sex issue to consider. Or, the lack of sex issue. Given that Britons have essentially been put on an enforced period of celibacy for the last year, social epidemiologists are predicting a surge in “sexual licentiousness” once lockdown lifts to make up for lost time and months spent being deprived of human touch. Tinder reported that its members were even using their bios to seek out physical affection, with uses of the words “cuddle” and “hand holding” up by 22 and 23 per cent respectively.

But how will this ubiquitous desire for physical touch affect the way we date? “This may lead to a ‘roaring 1920s’ type of dating, where it’s more about physical contact than deep connections,” explains dating psychologist Madeleine Mason Roantree. “There may be a bigger focus on casual dating than looking for a life partner.”

While this might suit some people, it won’t be for everyone. Hence why 40-year-old Rachel Allen says she’s swearing off dating apps once lockdown lifts and will instead enlist the help of a matchmaking agency to find a suitable long-term match. “After a year of being locked up, I question whether people will be looking for serious relationships, or will just want to have fun,” she says. “I don’t want to waste any time finding someone.”

After a year of being locked up, I question whether people will be looking for serious relationships, or will just want to have fun

Rachel Allen

That’s not to say there haven’t been perks of pandemic dating that some people might like to carry into their post-Covid love lives. Given that meeting up in real-life was not an option for many single people who might’ve lived too far apart for a social distancing date, the pace of dating slowed right now and people spent more time getting to know one another rather than rushing into a physical relationship. “I enjoyed that aspect of pandemic dating,” says Aleasha, 25. “I was able to talk to someone at length before committing to meet them.”

Those who have enjoyed this slower pace might be inclined to go on one or two virtual dates before meeting up in real life even after restrictions lift, says Mason Roantree. “It might save you a lot of time and energy on dead-end first dates going forward,” she adds. “You can still have your favourite tipple with you, and you can keep it short and sweet should you feel that it’s not going anywhere.”

For those who are anxious about returning to the post-pandemic dating scene, try to work out what you’re looking for before you dip your toe back in. “This may involve assessing your current social circle, work-life balance, and past relationships so you feel comfortable in your own skin,” says Logan Ury, director of relationship science at Hinge. “Don’t rush into anything either. It’s important that you don’t feel pressured so you can make sure you’re making the right decision for yourself.”

Additionally, don’t neglect the work you might have done on yourself in the last year, says Match’s dating expert, Hayley Quinn. “Look forward to reaping the benefits of this Covid-imposed pause in your dating life,” she adds. “Having had a whole year to reflect on your patterns and build a plan for what to do differently may not be a bad thing after all.”

Whatever changes you decide to make in your own love life, one thing is certain. The post-pandemic dating landscape will be different to what it was before. Take comfort in the fact that everyone else will be entering into this brave new world with you, one knee graze at a time.

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