The trials of falling in love two metres apart: Marathon hikes just to meet up, a ban on hand-holding – and no kissing until you’ve passed the two-week quarantine
- Lucy Holden examined how singletons have adapted to dating in lockdown
- Jemma Forte who lives in London, shares two-teenagers with her ex-husband
- The 46-year-old vets those who she meets because she can’t afford to get ill
- Katrina Kutchinsky, 38, confesses she’s enjoying this less pressured new world
Can you fall in love at two metres’ distance? What if you can’t touch, let alone kiss?
And can you really agree to ‘be exclusive’ if you’ve only ever met on a video call? As lockdown loosens, singletons are coming to terms with a whole new world of socially distanced dating, and discovering that very different rules apply.
These days, the first date no longer takes place over a nervous drink in a bar, but instead on a blurry screen via Zoom. Going for a long walk is the new dinner date and, from today, venturing into a date’s back garden may well become the equivalent of ‘coming in for coffee’. But it’s not just about finding new places to meet when restaurants and bars are closed.
In this curious new world, where strangers pose an inherent health risk and the very act of socialising carries an element of unseen danger, dating singletons are forced to assess every potential match on completely new terms — not just do I fancy him, but do I fancy him enough to gamble that he’s corona-free?
Jemma Forte who lives in London, is among the singletons who’ve been experimenting with social-distance dating during lockdown. Pictured: Jemma in Richmond Park
‘Dating feels very different,’ admits Jemma Forte, a 46-year- old author and broadcaster, who lives in London and, since their divorce in 2013, shares the care of her two teenagers with her ex-husband.
In her novel, Be Careful What You Swipe For, she explores the dating apps she’s been using in her private life for the past few years. Her most recent relationship ended last year and she was seeing someone casually at the start of the year but lockdown ‘put an end to that’.
‘It’s turned into a personal risk assessment,’ she says. ‘The majority of Brits have been careful and have played by the rules, but when you’re a single mum, the buck stops with you.
‘I have very much vetted whom I meet, with video calls beforehand, because I can’t afford to get ill.’
Since the easing of lockdown, she’s had a one-off socially distanced gin and tonic in Richmond Park, Surrey, with a divorced father-of-two she met on dating site Hinge.
While lockdown ‘heightened the sense of needing company’, she says, its easing has forced singles to confront a ‘real moral conundrum’.
‘What if you meet someone you’re really attracted to? Can you touch them without feeling like you’re putting yourself at risk?’
Our newly acute sense of caution is perhaps also changing the kind of partners we click on — and the very nature of the popularity contest that is online dating.
A man who loves fast cars, exotic travel and sky diving might not be as attractive these days, for example, as a good home cook who enjoys long walks and knows his way around GCSE maths.
Katrina Kutchinsky, 38, (pictured) who runs PR agency AKA Communications in London, admits she’s enjoying this less pressured new world
Preferences — and standards — are liable to change in a pandemic. Indeed, the new term ‘corona-goggles’ (from ‘beer-goggles’, where alcohol persuades you to find someone more alluring than you otherwise might) describes the phenomenon of singles considering dates with people they wouldn’t usually be attracted to.
Certainly, any swift move from first date to something much more intimate is off the table for many.
‘At the moment, the term “hook-up” feels weirdly dated,’ says Jemma Forte.
Charly Lester, dating expert for The Inner Circle, a dating app for elite professionals, says there is always a spike in online dating during recessions, as in uncertain times, people look for certainty elsewhere. ‘Nothing stops people dating, and at times of crisis many people think about partnership more — but how we date has had to become more old-fashioned because hook-ups aren’t an option,’ she says.
For 57-year-old estate agent Zoe Pearce [not her real name], dating at a time of coronavirus — with its park promenades and no-holding-hands protocol — has the potential to feel positively Victorian. ‘The mortality rate increases from your 50s onwards, so we have to balance the fun and flirtation of dating with the very real risk,’ she says.
Just before lockdown was announced, she went on a dinner date with a 59-year-old publisher.
‘We stayed in touch throughout quarantine, sending texts and photos of our lives, but we deliberately downplayed any romantic element. We were just trying to stay alive!
‘We didn’t see each other for a month but then arranged to go for a social-distance date,’ she explains. It was only then that Zoe realised just how much more complicated dating had become.
Single mum Harriet Waley-Cohen, 43, (pictured) who lives in Hampshire, said she thought that 2020 would be her year to meet someone but coronavirus changed that
‘Getting public transport still feels like a complete no-no to me, even though I have a mask, so I walked for two hours like a Hardy heroine to meet him at a country estate in East London. I did walk past a few rail stations and think: “If only…” ’
Relevant provisions threw up a few dilemmas; as did deciding what to wear for this new style of date.
‘Everything’s changed. Normally on my evening walk all I took was a credit card and water, but now I needed the contents of a handbag again. It was like a military campaign.
‘I took a snack, water and, for the first time in months, make-up, because I knew I’d be melting by the time I got there. I ended up applying it behind a tree before we met. I’ve talked to other women who’ve gone on distance dates, and worrying about the lack of public loos is also a real concern.’
But the date, despite the four hours of walking either side of it, was fun, she says.
‘The first thing Simon said to me was: “Don’t touch me!” I think we were a bit hysterical with nerves. And it is hard to keep two metres away all the time, while trying to pay close attention to the nuances of what the other person is saying.
‘I realised that, living alone, I was quite rusty when it came to face-to-face conversation. But it got easier. Eventually, we sat either end of a long bench and felt quite bold. And there was a nice moment when he said that he’d carry my bag, even though I worried I’d contaminate him.’
Without the connection of touch — a press of the arm, a hug as greeting — romantic signals are harder to read, she thinks.
But in a way, taking things slowly feels rather nice.
‘The pressure is off at the moment, in that respect, which is ironic really, because we’re probably all in better physical shape than normal thanks to the extra exercise we took in lockdown.’
The big question, Zoe says, is how new romantic relationships can become physical.
Katrina (pictured) who has been single for 18 months, revealed there was no desire to break the two-metres rule on her last date because there wasn’t any chemistry
‘I want the scientists to tell us whether it’s safe to kiss someone. Do we have a modest kiss and then isolate for a week and see if we get ill? Can we ever stay over with someone again? It really is a whole new era for dating etiquette.’
Indeed, when (and how) we can have sex again with someone who doesn’t live with us is a question yet to be addressed by Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty.
Will people make those they’re interested in show their antibody test results to prove they’ve had the virus before throwing caution to the wind? Will we feel more able to let go if we’ve had the virus?
Or, in rather glorious teenage fashion, will we write on our calendars the date of our desired ‘first kiss’ with a new partner and self-isolate for two weeks beforehand to make sure we’re Covid-free? That would take the spontaneity out of it, but it would certainly build excitement.
Katrina Kutchinsky, 38, who runs PR agency AKA Communications in London, confesses she’s enjoying this less pressured new world.
Single for 18 months, she’s been on three socially distanced dates since the strict lockdown regulations were relaxed. ‘On my last date, I took the guy on a walk I’ve been doing solo during lockdown.
‘The chemistry wasn’t there, so there was no desire to break the two-metres rule at all. He was lovely, if a little staid.
‘It does take longer to get into the groove on a walking date because you don’t have a glass of wine to loosen you up, but I am appreciating that old-school mentality that comes with no human contact.’
Some of the men Katrina has met online, however, have different ideas. ‘One guy invited me for a mini staycation at his amazing house, with a cinema room, in an upmarket part of London,’ she says. ‘He said I could have my own room and my own bathroom and that a cleaner was coming regularly, but I was still worried about the practicalities of social-distancing.’
Such a date would also have been breaking the rules (both then and now, because friends are still not allowed to stay overnight).
Katrina (pictured) said it was off-putting to go on a social-distance date with a man, who confessed to having had sex the week before
‘Instead, I suggested a two-metre picnic in a park and ordered us a Peruvian takeaway from Coya, a local restaurant, to eat on the grass.
‘I wasn’t tempted by the idea of physical intimacy,’ she continues.
‘Another guy I met for takeaway pizza told me he’d had sex the week before, and I found it massively off-putting. I don’t want to risk it.’
Inner Circle’s Charly Lester says: ‘If you’re dating at the moment, the other person’s ideas about it will probably show you how compatible you are. If you’re a good fit, you’ll likely have the same feelings about how you can interact.’
Of course, the big winners here have been Zoom, FaceTime, Skype and other video-calling apps. Few in the UK had ever been on a video date before coronavirus, but now, says dating app Hinge, 64 per cent of the site’s users have tried it.
The technology is here to stay, says Logan Ury, Hinge’s director of relationship science.
‘The majority of Hinge users who have gone on a virtual date say they’re likely to keep using video chats as a part of their dating process even when we can safely meet up in real life. People ask if a real relationship can develop over video, but more than a third of Hinge users say they’re open to being exclusive with someone they’ve only dated virtually.
Logan Ury who is Hinge’s director of relationship science, revealed 43 per cent of men would be willing to discuss exclusivity with someone they’d met only on video
‘Surprisingly, that number is even higher for men: 43 per cent say they’d be willing to discuss exclusivity with someone they’d met only on video.’
And in a virus-struck world it is clearly more important than ever that you know whether your potential new squeeze intends to see other people too.
‘Zoom and Skype are a great way of weeding out the “definitely nots”,’ says Charly Lester. ‘Working out if someone is right for you before you meet goes a long way in assuring you have a good date and don’t feel you’ve wasted your time.’
But what video dates can’t do is give you a nuanced picture of someone’s personality, she adds. ‘The problem is you can’t see how your date interacts with others. You can’t see them being rude to a waiter for example.’
For some in the dating game, the stakes are even higher. Single mum Harriet Waley-Cohen, a 43-year-old women’s leadership coach who lives in Hampshire with her two boys, learned she had early-stage breast cancer in 2018 and went through ten hours of mastectomy and reconstructive surgery which required a long recovery.
‘I didn’t have chemotherapy or radiotherapy, which would have put me in the high-risk category during coronavirus,’ she says, ‘but I’m very careful about my health.’
She was divorced in 2012 but held off dating ‘and then had to get used to my new body after cancer treatment’. Finally, she was ready to enter the fray again.
‘I really thought 2020 would be my year to try to meet someone — but coronavirus changed that.’
Katrina (pictured) said there has been moments where she’s thought that she won’t meet anyone, because we don’t know what the future holds
The one date she’s been on during the pandemic was disappointing as well as stressful — the hunt for a ‘safe’ babysitter, who had ideally had Covid-19, proved tough.
‘As soon as I saw him, I realised I didn’t find him attractive, which took the pressure off. I think we felt similarly awkward about the date, but it was fun to meet someone new.
‘Not rushing into anything is important to me, so I’d like to keep the virtual side of lockdown dating going even when we don’t have to.
‘It sounds a little Jane Austen-y to suggest men should woo you before you meet, but I haven’t spoken to a single person yet who wants things to go back to the way they were pre-lockdown. You can learn such a lot about someone by talking more before you meet up.’
It’s a learning experience for everyone, indeed. Katrina Kutchinsky, for example, is letting the idea of starting a relationship drop down her priority list.
‘There have been moments when I’ve thought: I’m never going to meet anyone now because we don’t know what the future holds.
‘I’ve been thinking about this for a while, so I’ve made up my mind. I’m buying a puppy. He arrives in six weeks!’
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