Ottawa·The Slow Return

Ghosting, vaccine status, changing first meets: That's dating during COVID-19

Singles navigated the dating world at a time of lockdowns and unprecedented public health restrictions, and experts say that evolved world will remain for the foreseeable future.

Catherine Aquilina says the pandemic made it challenging to date, but she happily found a partner

Dating has moved largely online for many singles during the pandemic, and according to experts, a lot of changes in the dating world may stick around. (Boryana Manzurova/Shutterstock)

Now more than a year into the pandemic, CBC Ottawa is looking at how people are adapting to new realities with its series The Slow Return.

Catherine Aquilina began actively looking for a long-term partner in the fall of 2019 — only to have her dating world turned upside down a few months later.

"At the beginning, it was a lot of learning to date again," said Aquilina who is from Milton, Ont. "There [were] a lot more obstacles post-COVID."

Though she's the type to prefer in-person interactions, Aquilina soon found herself spending a lot of time online, streaming and texting more often than not.

She's one of many who navigated the dating world at a time of lockdowns and unprecedented public health restrictions — a world, according to experts, that has evolved and will stay that way for the foreseeable future.

"I think the biggest challenge, in any dating scenario, is finding somebody that you're aligned with," she said. "The restrictions with COVID just adds another layer of checklist points." 

"Pre-screening," as she calls it, became a normal part of her process. She noted another major change: "superficial checklist items ... fall by the wayside."

Single people as a whole felt lonelier than ever.- Karen Strang Allen, Ottawa love coach

Her biggest takeaway, though, was the pandemic forced her to slow down.

"With restrictions and lockdowns, there's a lot of times you spend alone and I think that's highly underrated," she said. Aquilina found her match this summer, and says she's over the moon. 

"Both my boyfriend and I took some time on our own, before meeting one another ... that was absolutely instrumental I think in getting to know ourselves," she said. "A lot of singles skipped that part. I think that if neither one of us had taken that break, we wouldn't have met."

Catherine Aquilina, right, and her boyfriend Kurt are seen here on one of their first formal dates together during the pandemic. The pair became a couple this June. (Submitted by Catherine Aquilina)

'Less accountability' during COVID dating

Ottawa photographer Val Miles, who specializes in professional photos for people's dating profiles, says she's had an uptick in clients during the pandemic. 

"[My business] definitely has gone up in interest because of COVID. I think more than ever, it was important to have a dating profile that stands out, with good photos that accurately represent [you]," said Miles.

She said clients have told her the biggest change is people are taking a longer time before meeting, and are more likely to ghost (suddenly ignoring someone they've been talking to) and move onto another person more quickly.

"[It's] almost like there's less accountability," she said.

More respect for personal space

Karen Strang Allen, a dating coach for single women in Ottawa, said most of her clients have been frustrated to be forced online, and some even pulled out of the dating world entirely to wait until the pandemic is over.

"There are many people who resist ... but there was pretty much no choice in 2020," she said. "Single people as a whole felt lonelier than ever." 

Allen says a lot of changes in the dating world have actually been positive. 

For instance, the nervousness around boundaries has created what she describes as more respect for people's personal space, and less rush and push toward physicality. 

Karen Strang Allen is a love coach for single women in Ottawa, and says the general hesitancy among singles has levelled out in recent months. (Submitted by Karen Strang Allen)

"I personally believe that's a good thing ... At what point do you kiss or have sex? It actually slows that down a bit, which is good because people need time to know each other."

Also, first dates have largely shifted to more outdoor walking dates. 

"When we go to a restaurant with somebody, I think sometimes it feels like a date-date ... Whereas a walk, it feels more casual, something you do with a friend," she said. "I see it continuing. I see that a lot of people are still choosing a walk date as a first date." 

Allen said nowadays, the general hesitancy among singles has levelled out and people starting to swing back to normal dating patterns — like meeting at coffee shops and restaurants. 

"But I wouldn't call it a new normal because there still are people who aren't comfortable. I have many clients who are still not going back to normal dating yet." 

Renewed energy, and vaccine status

Matchmaker Terran Shea, who founded Mutual Match and has clients in Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto, says she sees singles becoming more focused and serious about finding a life partner than before the pandemic.

"I think there's a lot of excitement right now and a lot of renewed energy when it comes to dating," she said. "Now's a good time to date. It's different from six months ago."

A pair walks on Parliament Hill as snow falls. Walk dates have become a popular first date option, and will likely stay like that as the pandemic continues, says Allen. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

The added layer of vaccination status has changed how dating operates, Shea said, and she encourages her clients to always be straightforward and upfront about their status and what they're looking for in their partner. 

"It can be awkward," she said. "If you are someone who is vaccinated and only willing to date someone who is vaccinated, I think you have to be upfront about that. If you're not vaccinated, it's probably something that has to come up in conversation."

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