Updated: January 28, 2023
It took five dates for Steve*, 44, to ask Beth*, 49, if she wanted to become exclusive. “I was thrilled when he brought that up,” she says. The duo had been going on dates every evening for the last two weeks. They’d shared stories about friends over dinner, recounted memories from favourite holidays while shopping in the supermarket, and supported one another when family members had been unwell. Beth and Steve were falling for one another, and yet they had never met.
Virtual dating might sound like something out of a dystopian George Orwell novel but in the last couple of decades, fuelled by increasing public access to technology and a more liberal attitude to hook-up culture, it has gone from being a slightly embarrassing way to meet your partner to commonplace: according to a 2020 YouGov poll 13 per cent of British adults met either on a dating app or online platform. Now, with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown, could there be a more perfect storm of circumstances to see digital dating take centre stage?
With no possibility of leaving the house, other than for food and medicine or to travel to work as a keyworker, gone are the days of getting butterflies from accidentally brushing your date’s shoulder or awkwardly trying to work out which person your date is in the pub. Now that dating has to be an entirely digital endeavour, more than ever couples are flirting over FaceTime and jumping headfirst into relationships with nothing but a screen between them.
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According to dating site OkCupid, the number of people connecting over video chat has surged in recent weeks, with 26 per cent of its users now speaking this way. Meanwhile on Bumble (the dating app that allows women to send the first message) the number of video calls among users has jumped by 21 per cent in the last week alone, with the average call length lasting 14 minutes, and on Hinge, 70 per cent of users say they plan to try virtual dating.
Beth and Steve, who had arranged to meet face-to-face just before Boris Johnson imposed lockdown on Monday 23 March, say that instead of dampening the romance the situation just means they’ve had to adapt. “We tend to have a video date every day,” says Beth. “It has been really lovely just getting to know each other and has kind of fast-tracked everything a little bit. We’ve had conversations we wouldn’t normally have had so early on and feelings are definitely starting to develop. I’m getting goosebumps before we go on dates.”
In many ways, coronavirus has not simply shifted where we date (on Zoom instead of IRL) but changed its purpose entirely. People who might have once favoured flings and short-term romance are now, without any chance of imminent physical interaction, having to replicate more traditional behavioural codes such as courting says psychologist Daria Kuss.
Kuss explained to The Independent that removing the physical element from dating allows couples to focus on forming deeper emotional and intellectual connections. “The time and energy that is invested in these behaviours may then also help the couple to form a strong and steady bond,” she adds.
For lots of people, despite never meeting in person, they are experiencing this increased intensity: not least because digital dates are able to happen more frequently than they would in person. “Steve and I speak every night for an hour or longer,” says Beth, who explains she’d never normally meet up someone she’s dating more than once or twice a week in the initial stages.
It has been the same for marketing executive Jamie Love, who has been using FaceTime and House Party to develop a relationship with a man he met on a dating app prior to the lockdown. “The dates definitely seem to be happening more often than they would if we were actually meeting up in real life,” he explains. “What would generally be a couple of dates spread over a month seems to be condensed into a week now.”
Other people are finding the frequency means they’re having to be more creative with their dates and put in more thought, explains Geneviève Zawada Gresset, who runs a matchmaking service called Elect Club. “I’ve had some clients have afternoon tea together over Zoom while others make cocktails and take quizzes,” she tells The Independent.
Dating psychologist Jo Hemmings explains that people are seeing how intimacy doesn’t have to be generated through physical contact, which is no bad thing. “Intimacy doesn’t have to involve sex,” she tells The Independent. “It’s about closeness, rapport, familiarity and affinity. And by going on video dates, you get experiential intimacy, where people bond over shared interests and experiences and gradually become comfortable sharing their deepest ideas and opinions.”
There are other perks, too, to going on a virtual date as opposed to an in-person one.
“A normal date comes at a cost, particularly if you live in London where cocktails are upwards of £10,” says Love. “So virtual dating is often way cheaper. You also can adjust the lighting and the setting to suit you, which makes the whole experience feel more natural.” Love adds that having the physical element removed also relieves some of the pressures people feel in the early stages of dating. “It helps people feel more comfortable because there are no expectations,” he says.
But just as there are benefits, there are also some downsides to the virtual dating scene, as Fran* learned firsthand when she was ghosted by a man she had been speaking to for three weeks. “We’d been chatting every day on WhatsApp and spoke regularly on FaceTime,” she says. “Then, he had arranged to “meet” for a proper quarantine date with dinner and drinks, but when the time we agreed came around, he never answered my call.”
Fran hasn’t heard from this man since, though he continues to watch her Instagram stories – an insidious but common habit known as “orbiting”. “It’s been brutal,” Fran continues. “We’d been chatting normally for two hours before the call was meant to happen, then he literally dropped off mid-conversation and that was that.”
Unfortunately, stories such as Fran’s are likely to become more common, says Kuss. “Callous behaviour such as ghosting and orbiting is more likely to occur in virtual relationships in comparison to physical relationships because there are seemingly fewer consequences to our online behaviour.” This is referred to as the “online disinhibition” effect, Kuss adds, which is the same term applied to explain the psychology behind trolls.
“The advice I would give to people who are embarking on virtual relationships is to connect on various social media channels early to get a good idea of who the person is you are in contact with.” That way, Kuss says you will form a more authentic bond based on trust that will hopefully foster a culture of courtesy rather than cruelty i.e. if someone doesn’t want to “see” you anymore, they will tell you instead of letting you fall into a rabbit hole of self-doubt by simply disappearing.
Nonetheless, don’t let the risks attached to virtual dating put you off. While it presents some challenges, Hemmings suggests embracing it along with the other lifestyle changes we have been forced to welcome in recent weeks.
“Even if your date is not the one for you romantically, you may just find yourself a good friend,” she adds. “And if there’s ever been a time to welcome new friends into our lives, it’s now.”
*Names have been changed