The Doc Project

Looking for love during lockdown? 6 tips from the frontlines of pandemic dating

Dating has never been easy, but these pandemic romantics are rising to new challenges.

Dating has never been easy, but these pandemic romantics are rising to new challenges

Clockwise from left: Trevor Campbell and boyfriend Daniel Downey, Matthew Chapman with one of the squirrel drawings he's made for his boyfriend, Franny McCabe-Bennett's non-engagement ring, and Lana Carillo. (Trevor Campbell, Matthew Chapman, Franny McCabe-Bennett, Lana Carillo)

Searching for a mate during a global pandemic is a challenge. 

Dating has gone from When Harry Met Sally to The Hunger Games: a dystopian competition of shifting alliances in which coming out on top means potentially putting the health of your competitors at risk. Fortunately, our real-life variant includes considerably less crossbows. 

After a pandemic breakup, I returned to dating – slowly, safely and without a playbook. COVID-19 had changed the rules, and my years of dating intuition have felt useless. I've had to learn the new rules from scratch.

It's been hard. But while the pandemic didn't help me get the hang of fermentation (my one and only stab at sourdough looked like a frisbee), it did teach me a thing or two about how to date. 

So with the help of some other Canadian singles, I've made a list of lessons learned from a year of pandemic dating. As someone who's recently started a new relationship, I can tell you they work – and will likely remain relevant long after our last vaccination.

Homemade gifts and gestures show a lot of care

Buying your date movie tickets, drinks or dinner is an easy way to demonstrate affection, and store-bought items are classic markers of dating milestones. Sure, we can still do some of these things – and please support local businesses if you do – but less in-store shopping means more chances to go DIY.

3-D artist and illustrator Matthew Chapman, 28, is making his partner a special record of their time in lockdown. "He loves squirrels. So I'm drawing a squirrel every single day and in different styles. And I'm going to turn them into a book to give to him."

Matthew Chapman is using his time in isolation to make his boyfriend something special. "He loves squirrels," says Chapman, "so I'm drawing a squirrel every single day and in different different styles. And I'll turn them into a book to give to him when [COVID-19] cases have dropped." (Matthew Chapman)

Handmade gifts take planning, time and concentration, and this shows care – especially if your date knows you wouldn't normally make something yourself. And if that janky scarf you knit for your beau turns out to be an unwearable fire hazard, you can laugh about it together far from any open flames.

Connections don't have to be in-person to have value

Chapman and his boyfriend have been dating for a few months – but only met in person once, early on in the pandemic.

"Everything we've done so far has been purely by text, phone calls and video chats," he said. "So it's almost a bit like long distance even though he's only 40 minutes away."

While they're eager for the pandemic to end, they don't feel like their relationship is on hold. "We're finding ways to make it work. And actually, there are some benefits to staying distant in the early parts of dating and actually getting to know each other and work through some kinks before we do anything physical."

Choose your "bubble" wisely

"Who would you want to be stranded with on a desert island?" was once a cliché reserved for job interviews and dinner parties. But now, forced into isolation with whoever else happened to be under our roof, we've seen how much our lives are influenced by the company we keep. Do you surround yourself with people who accommodate you, empower you, and give you a kind-yet-firm reality check when you're losing touch? This makes for a much better desert island – and will make you a better date.

Virtual events are still eventful

It'll be a while before the return of sweaty dance floors, but theatre producer and performer Franny McCabe-Bennett, 35, couldn't wait. So she hit the clubs with her new partner during the pandemic – over Zoom.

For most, technology was a constant component of dating during a pandemic. Despite being housebound, Franny McCabe-Bennett got camera-ready to attend a virtual dance party over Zoom with her partner. (Franny McCabe-Bennett)

"We would each have headphones to listen to the dance party, but then have one earphone out so we could talk to each other in a separate call, so you'd have multiple screens," she said. "And it was kind of a lot to juggle, but it was also really fun."

Though virtual events – like concerts, plays and parties – may seem tame in comparison to the real thing, you might be surprised by how much you enjoy them. On one of our early dates, my boyfriend and I went to our first concert via YouTube (Kylie Minogue's Infinite Disco, in case you were curious) and it was a nice change to end the night without queueing for the coat check or wringing spilt beer from my button-up.

Know your boundaries

The way we care for ourselves has enormous implications on the way we date, and pandemic living has been a sharp reminder of the importance of setting realistic boundaries.

Dating during the pandemic has helped Lana Carillo realize that any potential partner would need to see eye-to-eye on health and wellness. “Are you an anti-masker? Are you an anti-vaxxer? Then you need not apply.” (Lana Carillo)

For civil servant and voice-over actor Lana Carillo, 42, this led to a better understanding of what she's looking for in a relationship, and any future partner would need to support her priorities.

"Out of the few people that I was talking to, I'm in touch with one person still," she said. "He was the only one that really respected the boundaries and rules that were set by our province with regard to the pandemic."

Rather than limit her potential suitors, Carillo considers these parameters a more effective way to identify a match.

"Like are you an anti masker? Are you an anti vaxxer? Then you need not apply. Maybe that's what I would put on my profile."

Be your best date

"You have to be your number one best date," said McCabe-Bennett. "I've committed this year to myself in a very public way on my social media."

She bought herself a ring that she wears on what would traditionally be the engagement ring finger. 

"I thought, you know, I don't know what kind of relationships I'm going to have. I don't know that I'm ever going to be allowed outside again."

“My dating life this year has been kind of a relief,” says Sean Elliott. “It's been kind of nice to have no choice but to stay home.” (Sam Gaetz)

Actor and director Sean Elliott, 54, agrees. "Try dating yourself for a while. What a better partner you'll be if you actually can enjoy your own company and not bring the baggage of putting your happiness onto somebody else – baggage that can, you know, spell the end of any relationship."

In the end, he says, finding a partner is just one of many ways to live a fulfilling life. "Let happen what happens, because it's going to play out the way it's going to play out anyway. So, you might as well enjoy yourself one way or the other. You don't need anybody to complete you."

(Kai Yapp)
About the Producer

Trevor Campbell is a writer, designer, and educator whose work has appeared in the Japan Times, NOW Magazine, and the Puritan. He hosts a comedic podcast about LGBTQIA+ origin stories called You Made Me Queer! and  is currently writing his first book.

This documentary was edited by Veronica Simmonds.