The dating scene was completely decimated as a result of Covid-19 restrictions. The threat of contracting and spreading a potentially lethal virus has impacted dating behaviours across the globe, and fluctuating social distancing measures over the last nine months in Ireland have plagued the romantic lives of single people.
A worldwide survey by online dating publication Miingle found that 38.2 per cent of single people continued dating during the pandemic, despite their country being in lockdown. So how have people been navigating romance in Ireland throughout the course of lockdown, and what are the implications of current dating trends for the future?
Dating and relationships coach Annie Lavin and international matchmaker Sarah Louise Ryan both say they are seeing fundamental changes in how singletons are relating to one another.
“The biggest way I have seen clients responding is that they’re seeking certainty,” Lavin says, “and as a result then, they’re almost skipping past those early stages and moving into relationship status very quickly.
“Generally speaking, relationships need space, time to grow and to flourish. But then there are also some relationships that will thrive in conditions where there is less space. It all depends on the couple and their ability to relate to one another.”
Ryan, who works in the dating industry in the UK and worldwide, credits the 300 per cent increase in inquiries to her matchmaking business to people struggling with dating during Covid.
“When we hit an adverse time, say politically, economically, and now it’s pandemically, what happens is we humans, we seek to connect with other humans. That’s just our natural reaction,” Ryan says.
Much like Lavin, who says “there’s an opportunity for singles to develop their self awareness and their relationship skills,” Ryan points to the various ways single people can benefit from taking this time to be more introspective.
'A single person seriously looking for a relationship in the near future will benefit from this lockdown and the reason being is, I am spotting a death almost of the hookup culture'
“I think for new singles it’s really important to use this time to take stock about what you want and what you don’t want, and to be really authentic,” she advises. “I’m seeing a lot of authenticity in dating right now and since March, particularly because people are really figuring out what they don’t want, as well as what they do want, and so there’s less game playing and real connection.”
Ryan says lockdown has had a significant effect on hookup culture, a culture that predicates on the physical and sexual aspect of a relationship rather than an emotional connection.
“I think a single person who is seriously looking for a relationship in the near future will benefit from this lockdown and the reason being is, I am spotting a death almost of the hookup culture,” she says.
However, Catherine Kennedy, who manages The Sexual Health Centre in Cork, an NGO funded by the Health Service Executive, is not so sure. The centre saw many people avail of their condom postal service since lockdown was first announced back in March.
“We had a contingency plan in place. We kind of knew that lockdown was on its way so we made sure that we had certain things in place and one of those, what we thought was a very simple idea, was just bringing the condoms home with us so we can post them out, and there was quite a large response to that,” she says.
The Sexual Health Centre normally has a clientele predominantly based in Cork City, Kerry and Waterford. However, during lockdown, people from all across Ireland made contact.
“It wasn’t even just single people hooking up with other people and using condoms, just couples who needed them who didn’t want to venture out to the chemist, weren’t quite sure what to do, didn’t want to go to the supermarket, you know. It was a broad range of age groups, and a broad demographic that reached out to us,” says Kennedy.
“Yes, it’s Covid,” she continues “and yes, people are supposed to be physically distancing. But we’re at this game a long time, [long enough] to know that what we should and must be doing isn’t always what we actually do in real life.”
This certainly rings true for Sarah* (34) who says she has “gone to three guys’ homes since the first lockdown”.
'I was bored after being at home for so long and lockdown and the stress of it all, so I was just looking for fun'
Based in Dublin, Sarah has been single for three years and has used dating apps sporadically in that time. She downloaded Tinder towards the end of April and since then, has had face-to-face encounters with three of her Tinder matches. One was a casual hookup, the second took her on a few dates, while the last one resulted in a string of casual encounters lasting two months.
Did she discuss social distancing measures prior to going on dates? Sarah admits that while they were often in agreement about practising social distance, it didn’t always pan out that way.
“We agreed initially over the phone that we’re going to socially distance and have coffee in a park,” she says of her last Tinder date, “but literally once we got there, we hugged and started talking and we sat next to each other.”
While she recognises that this breaks with official advice, Sarah says she sees herself as “just over the line in terms of guideline crossing.” She adds that the stress of lockdown forced her to re-evaluate what type of relationship she was looking for.
“I was bored after being at home for so long and lockdown and the stress of it all, so I was just looking for fun. I really wanted to find someone seriously, but you know being on your own since March and no interaction in work, no going out, no nothing, I was at a point where I was like ‘f**k this, just give me someone.’”
'If someone goes "the whole thing's a conspiracy', the "likelihood that you want to go out with that person is quite slim'
Single man, Jordan Robinson (27) from Northern Ireland, who met his previous long-term girlfriend on Tinder, also points to changes in hookup culture.
“I don’t necessarily think that this is the final nail in the coffin for the whole hookup culture,” he says. “I think it’ll adapt to the new kind of normal. To say that hookup culture would go away entirely, I don’t think it’s true, I just think it will adapt to the kind of circumstances that we’re in at the minute.
“I think everybody has different attitudes towards the severity of how they’re keeping to the restrictions,” says Robinson, “and I guess that’s just another thing that you have to find out if you’re compatible, because if someone goes ‘the whole thing’s a conspiracy’, the likelihood that you want to go out with that person is quite slim.”
Annie Lavin echoes Robinson’s sentiments towards dating compatibility. “People [who choose hookup culture] will probably still find that there’s other people who will meet their needs, and also do that,” Lavin says, “but it’s kind of a coping mechanism rather than anything else.”
Single public relations professional, Wayne Lawlor (34) believes Covid-19 has not marked the end of hookup culture.
“You can see people on the Grindr app are still having parties,” he says, “but I haven’t done it so I can’t really give an honest take on it.
“Swiping up and down is not for me. I feel people use apps when bored. I would like to meet someone in person, but no chance of that now.”
The Dublin-based marketer met his previous partner on Instagram and is no longer using dating apps.
“I don’t use any online dating apps at present,” he says, “as I find it all too much in the pandemic. We have a lot more issues and dating is the least of my worries.”
'I wouldn't meet anyone I didn't know now and put myself or anyone I come in contact with at risk'
Lawlor describes pre-pandemic dating as “the good times” and recalls his most recent flame who he initially met back in December.
“In the last lockdown, Level 3, when the restaurants first opened, I was dining with friends when I noticed a guy at the table behind us was a guy I went on a date with before [lockdown], but that was it,” he says. “Later that evening I mailed him and said he looked well and he replied so we arranged to go on another date.”
The pair met up, but things fizzled out after a few dates as they were “limited on what to do, so it all became too much effort,” he says. He is keen on developing a genuine connection with someone and says, “the minute the restrictions are lifted, I plan to get out there.”
“I wouldn’t meet anyone I didn’t know now and put myself or anyone I come in contact with at risk,” he says.
According to Dublin-based psychotherapist and psychoanalyst Marie Walshe, some people are still making physical connections because they feel it might be their "last person or last opportunity", while others are "discovering things about each other that they might not otherwise know" in the absence of physical contact.
“Things have changed in a very fundamental way, it’s reminded us of the fact that we are actually mortal beings,” she says.
“What’s forbidden is eroticised. We have been forbidden social contact so what will happen afterwards is there will be this added dimension to being in social contact with other people. So it doesn’t matter, you know, the glimpse of an ankle is going to turn people on. So it will be something that we need to think about.
'It's a bit of a challenge but if you're making the effort, it shows from the other person's point of view that you care, that you want to meet them eventually'
“The whole question of sexuality is something that deserves looking at and deserves rethinking. I think this second lockdown is all the more challenging, because now there is no getting away from the fact that, yes, there is a real threat out there. So for people making connections now, they’re making those connections within the shadow of that [threat].”
So how are single people bonding romantically without a physical relationship? “Without the physical, they’ve had to actually talk to each other so they know how each other vote, they know how each other thinks about politics, religion, principles and ideals,” Walshe says. “A system of belief is something that they’re actually bonding over now.”
Sarah Louise Ryan also highlights the role communication plays in maintaining a spark in a virtual relationship, saying you should be “consistent, but not constant”.
“The reason being that when you stay in constant communication, you could be at risk of falling into a trap of talking about the mundane in the day-to-day life at the moment,” she says.
“So it is important to get out of the app and out of the social media space and into video dates consistently,” she advises. “At least you feel like you’re in the same space as them. You’ve got to take it to the next level pretty quickly because otherwise, you’re at risk of building a pseudo relationship, creating feelings with somebody that actually you don’t know, on a different level.”
Betzy Nina Medina (38) and Michael Dunne (35), certainly took a leaf out of Ryan's book, as their Covid love story centres around consistent communication and video calls. The couple first matched on Tinder in the middle of May and bonded over their mutual love for live music. The two would often spend evenings watching live gigs on YouTube at the same time.
“It forces people to think outside the box in regards to dating. You have to work with what you have,” says Dunne, who is originally from Laois. “You have to do something different to keep the connection there. It’s a bit of a challenge but if you’re making the effort, it shows from the other person’s point of view that you care, that you want to keep that line of communication and that you want to meet them eventually.”
When the two met in Medina’s Dublin home after the lockdown restrictions eased in June, they kissed “immediately”.
“The minute we saw each other, I opened the door, he came into the house and we just hugged for a while and we kissed immediately.” It felt natural, Medina says, because “we were talking everyday for so long, video chatting and watching stuff together.”
Dunne spent the following three days in Ranelagh with her and the two went on a series of dates around Dublin. Ahead of the regional lockdown declared in Laois in August, he decided to spend two weeks of quarantine with Medina in Dublin. The two have been going strong since.
'At first, we were in the height of the pandemic, there was nothing open. We couldn't even go to the cinema, restaurants or bars. So we had to think of what we could do to meet up'
Dating via video calls is a trend that is becoming more common due to updated features in popular dating apps.
Tinder has introduced a "Face-to-Face" video-calling feature that allows users to connect visually and Facebook recently launched a dating service in Ireland and in other places around the world.
While Facebook reported more than 1.5 million matches made in the 20 countries where the dating service feature is available, another popular dating app, Bumble, recently found in a survey that 54 per cent of respondents feel less optimistic about dating due to Covid-19.
But one couple who bucked that trend are Blessing Dada (21) and Brian Pluck (26), who met through the dating app.
Dada says she was just about to delete Bumble in April, “and then I saw Brian’s name pop up and I was like, ‘let me just give this a try’.” While she describes their encounter as a “last minute thing,” it wasn’t long until the couple became serious. “I was the first to say ‘I love you’ verbally in October,” she laughs, “but he said it in text first.”
It wasn't an ideal start for this young couple as they faced many barriers while trying to maintain their romantic spark, including the fact that Dada was moving between hostels in Dublin at the time.
"For meeting up at first, we were in the height of the pandemic, there was nothing open. We couldn't even go to the cinema, restaurants or bars. So we had to think of what we could do to meet up. Blessing was homeless so she was moving around and I live near Bray which was a distance as well," says Pluck.
As well as the restrictions around meeting, Dada has fibromyalgia – a chronic health condition – so the couple were careful about social distancing and admit they were “both cautious”.
“We were also both cautious about the virus as he has his mom to think of as she is immune compromised. So that’s why we met in June,” Dada says. She is now living in Tallaght and after bonding on a bench on Rosie Hackett Bridge over Dublin’s River Liffey in mid-June, outdoor dates became a weekly occurrence for the couple. The pair went to the Phoenix Park for walks, picnics and also Dublin Zoo.
Pluck says Dada met his family a few weeks later for his brother’s birthday barbecue. He admits he was “a bit nervous as she was the first of my relationships that have met my family,” but that event led to the pair making their relationship official later that evening.
Outdoor activities and walking dates are the types of dates that single male David* (31), who has been quite successful in dating during lockdown, encourages for others.
“I’ve had a decent few dates. Normally just go somewhere for a walk or to the park. The last one I went into town and we walked down to the canal afterwards. There’s not much to do. Just coffee and a chat, which I like,” says the Dublin-based personal trainer.
“You can also do exercise types of dates,” he continues, “and you can go for a run or something now or go to the park and do a bit of training together if you are both that way inclined.”
He admits he’s had to go beyond his 5km radius in order to date. “I’ve been out of the 5 km radius a few times but nothing extreme. Normally it’s just a matter of meeting somewhere halfway. And if both of you are obviously outside the 5km, there’s nothing else to break because everywhere is closed. It’s only one person. So I don’t think it’s too big of a deal,” he says.
'If we went back to meeting someone through a friend or something, I think that would probably be the nicest scenario for everyone'
So what can be expected for dating in 2021? On this, both Sarah Louise Ryan and Marie Walshe predict that the future of dating will see less online activity and more offline engagements.
“I think that people are going to resort to offline dating experiences,” says Ryan, “and I think people are going to really immerse themselves in, you know, face-to-face experiences rather than sitting and swiping behind a screen because they’ve been doing that for so long and it’s not serving them.”
The revival of matchmaking is something that Walshe admits she was “surprised and gratified to hear”.
"There was a revival of the Lisdoonvarna matchmaking festival, I really think there's a place for matchmakers, I really do and I think there is an acceptance of relationship counselling more and more."
"If that [offline dating experiences] was correct and we went back to meeting someone through a friend or something, I think that would probably be the nicest scenario for everyone," says Dublin-based Emily Kielthy (27) who recently started seeing someone she met within her social bubble.
Kielthy initially tried her hand at online dating and met someone for a first date back in March. The pair maintained a virtual relationship for three months after Kielthy spent lockdown in her family's Wexford home.
“When I came back up [to Dublin], we arranged to meet up,” she says, “but I think until you actually spend a significant amount of time with someone you’re not going to know whether you like them and I think that time kind of has to be in person because then as soon as we started hanging out, even though we put three months into the Zoom dates, I just wasn’t really into it.”
Kielthy is now seeing someone that she met through a friend and admits it is an “easier” situation.
“It was just easier because we’re within each other’s 5km so we were able to meet up quite easily,” she shares, “and then, just because we kind of knew each other, we happen to be in the same kind of social circles when the restrictions were lifted slightly so it’s easier to meet someone that way.”
The Bumble survey carried out in October 2020 found that “locdating” (dating someone in your locale) is set to be the next big trend in dating as 52 per cent of single people across Ireland are more willing to date locally, compared with before lockdown.
Dublin-based couple Jessica* (25) and Claire* (22) met locally and unexpectedly during lockdown, as neither of them were actively looking for a relationship.
“I think it’s safe to say for both me Jess, we weren’t really looking for a relationship when we met each other. But because of Covid, it kinda turned into a relationship more than anything else,” says Claire.
“We had to in a way make a friendship before anything else,” she continues, “and I think that’s kind of uncommon, especially in today’s dating scene.”
“We both go to the same dance and fitness studio,” added Jessica, “Claire was a regular in this class, and I was just dropping into it. We each happen to have no partners. Claire’s class partner wasn’t in the room at the time. So I got put with her and that’s how we met.”
The two Dublin-based women met again in May when the radius was brought up to 5km, they went to Clontarf and Dollymount strand on their first date.
“There was nowhere else for us to go,” laughs Claire, but they continued to go on more socially distanced dates as they enjoyed each other’s company.
She says she is “abundantly happy in this relationship” before her girlfriend shares her thoughts on the future of modern dating.
“I think that maybe like ourselves, there is going to be more of a trend toward getting back into dating properly,” says Jessica, “we were literally courting each other. It was very, very wholesome, old-fashioned and the one time that we broke the 2km rule we sanitised our hands and held hands for a while and then sanitised again. I feel like there might be more of a trend towards that.”
*Names with the editor