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COMMENTARY: Could the coronavirus fundamentally change the way we date?

Physical distancing is changing the way people date during the coronavirus pandemic.
Physical distancing is changing the way people date during the coronavirus pandemic. Classen/ullstein bild via Getty Images

We are lovers in a dangerous time. Thanks to the novel coronavirus, millions of people are now navigating the dating world in a society defined by social distancing, working from home and virtual hangouts.

We are forced to be apart, so new relationships must actually go through an extended “courting” phase of phone calls, video chats, maybe even a meeting in a park two metres apart.

This has markedly slowed the pace from the casual swipe right, meet up, move on. But even in the midst of a pandemic, the desire for love doesn’t die.

In the same way our brains treat thirst and hunger, romance is a central need, according to Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at the Kinsey Institute.

“Thirst and hunger aren’t going to die, and neither are feelings of love and attachment that allow you to pass your DNA to the next generation,” she says.

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READ MORE: ‘You can still date online’ — How to maintain relationships during the coronavirus outbreak

People are continuing to pursue romance and getting creative and more personal as a result of the confines of the pandemic. In fact, the coronavirus may fundamentally change people’s dating behaviours for the better as we see a shift in priorities.

Laura Bilotta, founder and owner of dating site singleinthecity.ca, says isolation is forcing daters to qualify would-be partners and make sure they are truly suitable matches before getting physical.

“You need to build the foundation before you put the roof on the house,” she said. “More people are seeking out a partner based on mental and emotional compatibility rather than just physical chemistry.”

There are still those daters who aren’t following physical-distancing measures and asking to meet up face to face.

Jessica O’Reilly, host of the @SexWithDrJess podcast, told me some of her clients are blocking daters who are pressuring them to get together in person.

“The desire to connect — physically and sexually — is not automatically repressed by the fear of the virus or by government restrictions, and some people are simply ignoring them,” O’Reilly said.

READ MORE: N.Y.C. man uses drone to ask out neighbour, goes on date in bubble

But for the most part, people want to play it safe and follow the new rules of engagement, particularly those looking for long-term relationships. Without the distractions of a heart-pumping action flick at the movies, flirtatious exchanges in a loud bar or the swank ambience of a chic restaurant, daters are actually going to have to engage in quality conversations.

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And seemingly, they are doing just that.

According to Meredith Gillies of Bumble Canada, the most recent data shows that one in four conversations on that platform is turning into something more meaningful, with a large number of messages exchanged.

“We’re also hearing from some users that since the pressure is off to meet up (in real life), that they are feeling more relaxed and more comfortable having deeper conversations online,” Gillies said.

Even pre-pandemic, the global industry of online dating, which has $6 billion in annual revenue, had become the new norm. Gone are the days of the stigma of a swipe for love. Today, couples are more likely to make a love connection through online dating than any other method, according to a 2019 Stanford study.

Dating tips, advice for those practicing social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic
Dating tips, advice for those practicing social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic

Dating apps have certainly seen an increase in the desire to connect virtually over the last several weeks since lockdown.

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Bumble Canada’s most recent data shows that the number of video calls has more than doubled, and the average video call/phone call time is 29 minutes.

“There was a 33 per cent increase in messages sent on Bumble in Canada during the week ending March 27,” Gillies says. “The company has also seen an eight per cent increase in gen Z registrations.”

Bumble recently introduced new features to enhance its chat experience. In addition to the app’s existing chat, voice call and video chat options, Bumble users can now record and send audio notes to their matches and reply to specific messages within their chats.

“More than ever, having someone to talk to can make a world of difference,” said Tinder CEO Elie Seidman, who reports daily messaging activity across the United States has risen by 10 to 15 per cent among the app’s American users. “While we are socially distant, we definitely aren’t disconnected.”

Match Group, which owns Tinder and Hinge, also plans to roll out new video chat features soon.

Even smaller companies like Bilotta’s are making the pivot to meet the demand for virtual dating, with singleinthecity.ca launching a virtual speed-dating event in the coming week. Talia Goldstein, a matchmaker and founder of Three Day Rule, recently introduced “virtual matchmaking” to her services.

The virus has even led to the creation of a new dating app, Quarantine Together, which launched in late March. Literally putting love and hygiene hand in hand, the app texts users a daily reminder to wash their hands and physically distance. Upon confirmation they are keeping it clean, users are sent a new match and video link to chat.

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Through this pandemic dating, though, O’Reilly stresses the importance of connecting with other sources of support and not sitting around waiting for a potential love interest to call or depending on them for all entertainment and connection.

“Social support can help to attenuate the effects of stress, and the quality of your relationships with friends affects your overall mental and physical health. If possible, you don’t want to rely on a single source of support during the pandemic or over the course of your lifetime,” she said.

READ MORE: ‘Re-save our date’ — U.S. couple has coronavirus-themed engagement photoshoot

While the new normal has changed things for singles looking for love, there are some roses in all the thorns of this dating upheaval and uncertainty.

With purse strings tightening, virtual dating is a lot friendlier on the wallet than in-person dating, with the average night out costing $102.32, according to research from Match.com. So, barring a dab of lipstick and a cute outfit (at least from the waist up), virtual dating has some ironic financial upside, too.

Many have said this pandemic will see a baby boom. But this quarantine period may very well lead to a boom in weddings, too. Studies show a longer courting period translates into a more stable marriage — so there could be a silver lining to all this long-distance loving.

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As we pump the brakes on our rushed lives, we just might see the return to tender romance, with a slightly modern twist.

Meera Estrada is a cultural commentator and co-host of kultur’D! on Global News Radio 640 Toronto.