For single people, the last year has been a swirl of emotions. There’s been loneliness; grief over the dates we’d hoped to go on, the sex we’d hoped to have; guilt about the dates we did go on and the sex we did have.

Now, as we near the middle of 2021, our outlook on the coronavirus is a lot different. (At least in the United States, though it’s still raging in other parts of the world, such as India.) The vaccine is widely available to adults everywhere, and “The Great Thaw,” as I call it, has begun. Spring is here and summer is rapidly approaching. Dating app users are happy to put their vaccine status in their bios. Many people, including myself, are dating in-person once again and are elated to be doing so.

Still, there’s a hum of anxiety around dating that’s impossible to ignore. It’s so palpable that Hinge coined the term “FODA,” or Fear Of Dating Again. While the pandemic has been more traumatic for some than for others, we’ve all been through a uniquely difficult time — and we’ve all likely been forever changed by it.

It makes sense, then, for there to a pervasive level of re-entry anxiety. We spent a year isolating, hanging in the limbo of uncertainty, constantly asking questions like “When will we be able to touch other people again?” And even now we moving forth into the unknown, into “post-pandemic” life and toward “the new normal.”

What will that look like for dating?

To help answer that question, Mashable conducted a nationally representative online survey of 1,081 adults (18 and older) in April. Respondents answered questions about their dating lives before and during the pandemic, their plans for the future, their COVID vaccine preferences, and more. We also gave them the opportunity to name the biggest way the pandemic has affected dating for them. We’ll go through these results chronologically.

Dating before coronavirus

Even before the pandemic hit, most heterosexual couples met online as opposed to through family and friends: 39 percent according to a 2017 Stanford University and University of Mexico study, up from 22 percent in 2009. For several reasons (geography and tolerance being two), the internet has been the dominant way for same-sex couples to meet since 2000.

In our survey results, however, family and friends edged slightly ahead of social media and dating apps as the method for meeting new people prior to COVID: 52.7 percent for friends/family, 50.9 percent for social media, and 41.5 percent for dating apps.

Even more so than on dating apps, survey respondents said they met people at social venues or events — such as bars, restaurants, concerts — before the pandemic (48.2 percent as opposed to 41.5).

These in-person connections were the first to go by the wayside as COVID hit, and daters had to choose whether they would date online or not date at all. Several respondents expressed that the pandemic forced them to start online dating, such as one woman between 25 and 34 who wrote, “I have no interest in online dating but it’s the only option now.”

“[COVID] made me have to go online,” another woman in the same age bracket said. “Before the pandemic I wouldn’t have joined a dating app.”

Image: bob al-greene / mashable

From swearing off dating to learning from it

As COVID swept into the United States, our way of life shut down almost overnight. Nightlife disappeared, bars and restaurants were reduced to take out-only if not closed completely. We were discouraged from leaving our homes entirely and thus dating, unsurprisingly, came to an abrupt halt.

During the first six months of the pandemic (March through August 2020, as defined in the survey), the largest number of respondents, 37 percent, swore off dating and/or deleted their dating profiles. That makes sense given that only a bit above half of respondents (51 percent) used dating apps at all during this time.

In terms of the entire pandemic, around the same number of respondents — 36.4 percent — said they didn’t go on any dates, in-person or virtual. People gave a number of different reasons for not wanting to be on apps, such as disliking the restrictions of dating under COVID or wanting to focus on oneself.

“For right now [the pandemic] has made me chill out on the dating apps,” said a male respondent between 25 and 35 years of age. “I don’t want COVID and I feel weird going on a date with a mask on.”

Another male respondent in the same age range said he’s been spending this time self-reflecting, which he believes will help his dating life later. “I have been focusing on myself more,” he said, “and have become a more eligible dating candidate.”

Of those who chose to keep dating, 27 percent switched to dating virtually only, while 22 percent kept dating in-person only. Fourteen percent had a mix of both.

“For right now [the pandemic] has made me chill out on the dating apps.”

As for which dating apps people who wanted to meet new people turned to during the pandemic, Tinder dominated among our survey’s respondents, especially for the younger crowd. Fifty-seven percent of overall users said they used Tinder during the pandemic, which includes 73 percent of respondents 18-24 and 62 percent of respondents 25-34.

Facebook Dating was the number two app overall (39.2 percent of overall respondents), and it was the most popular app for respondents 35 and up.

One constant both before and during the pandemic was respondents’ feelings towards dating. Before the pandemic, more people (47.8 percent) were somewhat likely to call their dating experience enlightening or a learning experience than other descriptors listed such as stressful, unfulfilling, fun, awkward, and deceitful/misleading.

That remained the case for dating during the pandemic: more (44.6 percent) were somewhat likely to call dating enlightening/a learning experience than the other descriptors.

“The biggest thing the pandemic changed my approach to dating is it made me realize I need to be more selective and take my time,” wrote a male respondent between 35 and 44.

A woman between 55 and 64 said that the pandemic slowed down her swiping and thus she got to know more people. “I’ve taken more time with profiles,” she wrote, “and actually talking rather than meeting immediately and writing off someone.”

The overall stress of the pandemic, however, can’t be overstated enough — and it seeped into dating as well. More than 35 percent of those surveyed were somewhat likely to call dating itself stressful, while 38 were somewhat likely to call it awkward during the pandemic.

“My social skills have gotten worse,” admitted a female respondent between 18 and 24 years old.

“I no longer have the self-confidence it takes to successfully date,” said a man between 45 and 54. He believes this was caused by pandemic isolation.

Young people don't actually want a 'hot vaxxed summer'

Image: bob al-greene / mashable

Looking to the future of dating

Now that the we seem to have turned a corner and can once again safely meet in person, it does seem like respondents are largely optimistic about dating. Though they’re also nervous, which is to be expected. Nearly half (48.3 percent) of respondents said they are hopeful about dating in the next six months. Excited, nervous, and anxious sparred for second place, with excitement just edging away at 38.9 percent. For the latter two, 38.5 percent expressed they feel nervous, and 38.2 percent said they felt its twin, anxiety.

This positive outlook translates to how people plan on dating in the next six months. Most respondents, 34.8 percent, plan on dating in-person only, while 31.3 will have a mix of online and in-person dates.

As opposed to around the 37 percent of respondents who swore off dating and apps last year, only 17.2 percent of people still plan on doing so from now until the fall. Lastly, 16.7 percent plan to only date virtually.

Hot granny summer?

While the narrative of a “slutty summer” is all over social media, the reality may look a little different. Most respondents, 40.7 percent, said they are looking for a serious relationship post-COVID. Young people ages 18 through 45 are searching for a serious relationship the most, while those over 45 are looking for something more casual.

To break it down, the majority in the 18-24 (37 percent), 25-34 (45 percent), and 35-44 (47) groups are looking to settle down. While there’s probably some aspect of young people wanting to marry and start a family no matter what’s going on in the world, this really goes against the “hot vaxxed summer” assumption that everyone is imagining will unfold. If anything, it’ll be a hot auntie/granny summer.

“I’m way more open to [dating] and I am more committed,” said a woman in the 18-24 age range.

Young people don't actually want a 'hot vaxxed summer'

Image: bob al-greene / mashable

These results match to what both Hinge and OkCupid found in recent surveys of their users. More than half of Hinge users (53 percent) said they are looking for a long-term relationship going into 2021, according to a press release. Even more OkCupid users (84 percent) are looking for a similarly serious relationship, per the OkCupid Dating Data Center. Of those people, 27 percent changed their minds due to last year’s experiences and now want something serious, which they didn’t want prior to the pandemic.

We probably won’t know the true extent of how the pandemic affected dating and relationships — and our feelings about the two — until we’re much further away from it. What we do know, however, is that coronavirus disrupted everything we knew about meeting and connecting with one another.

Even though many of us are vaccinated at this point, we can’t just go right back to pre-pandemic dating — given what we’ve experienced, that may be impossible. We already see how it’s affecting people’s methods of dating (such as sticking with virtual dating) and goals (wanting a long-term relationship).

We also know people are both anxious and excited about dating again. These are normal human emotions no matter our circumstances, but it’s especially understandable that both are entangled after a global crisis. We can embrace all these emotions as we launch ourselves into post-pandemic dating; we may even find it enlightening.

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