Dating from a social distance

In the new normal, some swipe apps, others chill

PHOTO/Tero Vesalainen: As the pandemic makes meeting new people difficult, dating apps have become more popular.

When the quarantine hit in mid-March, Carol, 42, a Sparks massage therapist, suddenly felt very alone.

“I live alone, but I’ve always been very social. I’ve always been out there with people,” she said. “All of a sudden there was no work and no way to see friends in person, no place to go, nothing to do but hang out at home… I never really felt lonely before, not really. But after a week or two it started to sink in, I was on my own.” She was connected to others electronically, but the lack of in-person contact made her “get squirrelly,” she said. “I found myself pacing around, moving a lot with nowhere to go.”

Carol, who asked that her last name not be used, was married for 10 years to a man she met in college. She has been divorced for six years and said she has had two relatively short-term relationships since then. She wasn’t in any hurry to find another mate. “You can’t force it,” Carol said. “I’ve known people who get divorced and then go hunting for a replacement because they think that’s the way things are meant to be… There’s a sense of desperation in that, I think.”

Dating, never easy, has gotten downright risky now that everyone is treating all non-family members as though they are radioactive. And for those looking to start a relationship, the hurdles of the new normal may seem insurmountable. Some single people interviewed for this story have benched themselves from the dating game for the duration of the pandemic. Others, like Carol, are exploring dating apps, which have reported significant increases in users since the lockdown began in March.

“I never thought I’d (try an online dating app),” Carol said. “Now I’m on a few of them.” She said that, at least in her age group, the apps seem to have a lot of the same local members. Her experiment in cyber-dating has had mixed results. After all the swiping on the screen, the studying of profiles, the online chatting and a few video calls, she has had three in-person encounters since July, she said.

She met one “match” in a park and the other two in Midtown Reno restaurants that offer outdoor seating. She said she will be seeing one of the three again. The pandemic loomed over each encounter. “We talked about it, how could we not,” Carol said. “But at the start, we agreed not to make (the conversation) all-virus-all-the-time.” One of her dates couldn’t stop complaining about our strange new world, she said, no matter how she tried to steer him away from COVID, politics and concern over what’s left of the economy.  “That told me a lot about how he handles stress,” she said.

The second date also was a bust. “He looked good on paper, but each of us could tell we were miles apart in the way we approached things,” she said.

So the third guy? “There’s a bit of something there,” Carol said. “We want to see each other again and we’re both into taking it slow… No bells ringing or anything, but we get along pretty easy and that’s something.”

The pandemic has taught her it’s good to have someone to lean on, especially when the planet  seems to have wandered from its orbit.

“Now I know how shut-ins must feel. Those two months (of the lockdown) made me have a lot of empathy for elderly people and the ones who can’t get around by themselves. When you’re isolated the walls move in around you.”

— Carol, 42, a Reno massage therapist.

Others said they welcome this time of distancing as an opportunity for contemplation and a reevaluation of their goals.

Taking time to look inward

Nick Eng, 23, a Reno musician and singer-songwriter, said things were going well for him in the Before Times. Last year he abandoned his plan to move to New York, he said, because he and his girlfriend wanted to stay together. He signed with an agency that lined up some great bookings. When 2020 began he was playing a lot of out-of-town gigs. His girlfriend also was very busy at a new job. The couple grew apart. They both felt it, he said.

“We broke up the weekend before the lockdown,” Eng said. “And then quarantine happened and all the work went out the window, too. Months of planning for the spring and summer came to nothing. The agency had to close for the foreseeable future. Everything changed overnight.”

He had the conflicting emotions that follow break-ups and rapid changes in life situations. “It’s like a withdrawal,” he said, combined with a period of mourning.

“But as hard as the isolation was and as hard as it is, it kind of created this real fertile ground for creating new material.  I had felt I was really stagnant for a while in terms of writing new material, putting out new songs and everything. It’s this weird double-edged sword. When you can’t interact with anyone, and have gone through something traumatic, it’s pulling out all these emotions that I’ve ignored, or not had the time to address, before. I may as well make something good out of it.”

It’s been a period of creativity, he said, as well as introspection. “It’s kind of a luxury to have some down time to think about how I want to move forward in my life,” he said.

He plays guitar, sings and plays other instruments on his studio recordings. He mixes his compositions in his home studio and a friend puts the finishing touches on the final work. His career grew out of a lifelong love of music. Playing for weddings and parties evolved into gigs at bars and clubs. He earned a journalism degree at the University of Nevada, Reno, and has done some media work, but wants to make a living in the music business without having to depend  on a day job.

“This year was looking like a good solid road to a good living. Then everything went upside down… Everyone has their own path, it just happens at different times for different people. We’ll see what next year brings. You have to trust the process. Hopefully, when all this is over, there will be good things ahead, both professionally and in terms of forming relationships.

— Nick Eng, 23, Reno musician.

“I’ll meet someone,” he said. “It will happen naturally. I’m not going to over think it. I don’t want to ruin the witchcraft behind it.”

Waiting for ‘my person,’ organically

Cheree Boteler of Reno is a single mom with two adult children. She has been divorced since 2003. She has dated but said she was always wary about bringing someone else into her children’s’ lives. Now that they are grown, she’s ready for a change. “I’d love to find my person, but I’m not really in any hurry,” she said. “I’m happy where I’m at, but I want things to happen organically, not (by) putting myself out there.”

She said she knows people who have turned to sites like Match and Tinder during the pandemic. They told her the internet dating process is happening slower now. “There’s more communication,” she said. “People aren’t meeting (in person) as quick. It’s good for getting to know someone at a more cerebral level.”

Research conducted by the dating app Bumble found that the restrictions that followed the  pandemic have slowed down the online dating process. About 43% of those surveyed said they spend more time chatting to people over the app than they did before COVID-19 invaded our lives. In addition, 29% of respondents said they think the crisis has changed their dating habits for good and that they’ll screen dates with video calls before meeting in person.

Boteler briefly tried dating apps years ago, but won’t return to them.

“People weren’t presenting themselves honestly,” she said. “They’d lie about their age or use a very old photo. That happened more often than not. You would think that wouldn’t be common when the idea is to eventually meet in person. Appearance isn’t a big factor, but lying is.”

She said a personal connection is hard to establish online. Yet, people always crave that closeness, even more so in trying times. “That’s why COVID is so tough,” she said. “I have friends who have had success with dating sites. I also know some people who went back to past boyfriends or girlfriends (during the pandemic).”

Boteler will maintain friendships and wait out the contagion.

“It’s an interesting time. People want to keep their distance and be safe. This time frame really allows building friendships and allowing that to happen. If I’ve met someone who could potentially be my person, then it will happen. I really still believe in that organic love story.”

— Cheree Boteler, Reno.

Matchmaker, matchmaker, leave me alone

Robert, 32, of Reno, has been single since his divorce five years ago. His twin sister has been trying to connect him with single women for about as long, he said. He always rebuffed her. When COVID hit, he gave in and asked her to give a friend his email. “Big mistake,” he said.

His sister didn’t stop at a single referral. She gave his email to three women, all of whom eventually sent him a message. But an embarrassment of riches wasn’t the problem.

“(My sister) is in sales,” Robert said. “She’s good at it. She oversold me. I can’t live up to her buildup. I finally got to the point where I had to say ‘don’t believe a word she says.’”  He said she also stretched the truth about his prospective dates and they also had to set the record straight when they reached out to him. “It got really confusing,” he said. He exchanged emails with his sister’s contacts, but didn’t arrange any phone calls or in-person meetings. “It just felt weird from the get-go,” he said. “I finally told (his twin) thanks but no thanks.”

Robert said he’s considered using dating apps and may still do so, but “it just seems artificial.” Yet, he knows waiting around for someone to turn up on his lawn isn’t a viable strategy. “I’ll get back out there when everybody else does,” he said. “…When the plague is past.”

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