Getting back in the game: Dating anxiety after COVID

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Dating while in college can be hard. Despite the whirlwind of new faces and friendships many college students find themselves in every fall, breaking into the dating scene on campus is a little scary.

Even in the most precedented of times, college students have different opinions on and approaches to dating. While some use the time to focus on themselves, others may find themselves swiping more often than studying.

Now with over a year of isolation and quarantine regulations weighing on the psyche of twenty-somethings across the nation, the prospect of getting back into dating is exciting for some and terrifying for others.

As most campuses have welcomed students back for an in-person fall semester, what pre-pandemic dating woes have we forgotten about? And what has a year of isolation done to college students’ perceptions of dating as a whole?

“It’s been a tough year. And it’s really hard to be hopeful. And I’ve spent a lot of time on my own, you know, I’m sure we all have.”

Thomas Sullivan ‘19, a recent Champlain College grad, has been contending with dating anxieties new and old. Throughout school, dating was an emotional priority for him, but was usually pushed to the back burner to make room for other goals.

As the vaccine began to roll out, Thomas found himself excited for a wave of new connections. However, when the time came, it was difficult to motivate himself to get back into the dating scene.

“The simplest and easiest answer as to why is like, wow, it’s been almost a year since I’ve even touched any of that. A lot of my pictures are out of date, my bio is out of date, and I’ve changed so much as a person, I feel like I’d have to go rework that, and that feels like a whole task to do.”

“I’m noticing that a lot of insecurities that I had, like, three or four years ago about dating and dating apps that I thought my dating experience had kind of cleared … me being on pause kind of brought those back.”

Thomas’s primary avenue of meeting people had been on dating apps — not only as he had just moved to a new city just before lockdown began and had few avenues of meeting people safely outside of a virtual context, but also because of the ease they provide to make a move.

“I really don’t like the idea of making somebody else uncomfortable or making any sort of advance on somebody that would result in discomfort for them. Especially as a man, I know that all the women in my life have shared stories of receiving large amounts of unwanted attention from men in that arena and I just hear those stories and it’s like, I don’t want that to be me. So I’ve liked dating apps in the past because if you swipe on someone and they swipe on you and you match, that kind of unlocks the door in that way… You don’t have to worry if that person is interested or not, because you’re in this context where making an advance on somebody is expected.”

While dating apps have created a COVID-safe way for people to connect, much of Thomas’s anxieties around re-entering the dating world come from what lies underneath the user interfaces of several popular apps.

Match Group Inc., the parent company of several popular dating apps (including Tinder, Hinge, Plenty of Fish, and more) recently settled for 2 million dollars in a lawsuit alleging that customers were charged for automatic renewal without their consent.

“I’ve learned a lot about how those apps work on a technical level, and the big corporations that own them and how they use them to make money, and the system kind of seems rigged… When I see those monetization options that they’re bringing up, they kind of indicate to me that if you’re paying for something, it must mean that it gives you some sort of advantage. If you don’t pay for it, you’re probably receiving a service that’s not going to work very well.”

“Going forward, I’ve been feeling the desire to go out and meet people, I’ve definitely noticed feelings of loneliness… I also feel like I’ve grown a lot, and I’m not looking to repeat the negative patterns that I’ve been in in the past. I’m ready for a deeper sort of connection, but it’s one that I’m not sure how to get.”

On a more positive note:

“It’s nice to know I’m not alone in this.”

“When you’re isolated, it’s easy to blame everything on yourself and to think of yourself as this special odd-one-out case, but it’s just comforting to know that this fear… It’s something that we’re all going through which objectively is worse, but on a selfish personal level, that’s some good perspective for me to have.”

Wren Pyle ‘23, a junior at the University of Vermont, has had a bit of a different pandemic experience. As a first-year student, they did not have much time to explore the campus and build connections before the pandemic hit in their second semester, but dating had been on their mind.

“I think coming to UVM and to Burlington, in particular, was a really exciting time to explore being able to spend time socially and romantically with other queer people. I didn’t grow up in a particularly conservative area, but in my high school, there weren’t that many people who were out as queer…The group was way too small to really be able to date anyone.”

While Tinder was a popular avenue for students, Wren mostly relied on meeting people through mutual friends, clubs, and on-campus events so that there was already a shared interest.

Once the pandemic hit, Wren returned home, where they spent their entire sophomore year taking classes remotely in Colorado. Though there was a sense of disconnection and loneliness, as many of their friends had returned to campus by their second semester, Wren also noticed a sense of relief.

“I felt like there was a lot less pressure to date or commit, because it was just like, there’s nothing to do. There was no sense of urgency. I kind of had a little summer fling with a mutual friend. It was a nice way to be able to spend some time with somebody, without having to be, I don’t know, overly stressed out about it because the future was so uncertain.”

As vaccination rates increase, Wren considers themself excited at the prospect of returning to the UVM dating scene.

“I’m definitely more open to dating again. I don’t think that you can put too much pressure on yourself since so much is still kind of uncertain right now… but it’s reemerged as a little bit of a priority, and I certainly feel much more comfortable with meeting up with people, or going out and doing something as opposed to how I would have felt in February.”

Though there are feelings of excitement around returning to campus after over a year away, settling back into the norms of dating does pose a little anxiety for Wren.

“I think in both trying to navigate a queer relationship and having not really dated in a long time, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I feel like I have to figure things out a little bit more. I think there’s definitely been some anxiety around feeling a little bit lost in trying to relearn norms and dating again.”

Jenna Emerson, MEd, a health and sexuality educator at the University of Vermont, gained insight into how college students were navigating relationships and dating through the pandemic via her work with on-campus clubs, Greek Life organizations, and small positive sexuality groups.

“The majority of students were meeting digitally, so that isn’t necessarily a change. I think that’s still how a lot of college students meet each other and would flirt. That’s more of a Gen Z flirting habit rather than COVID necessity, but I think it was definitely nice to have those skills going into a pandemic. The major challenge was seeing people after that and navigating those conversations.”

While meeting people virtually was not a hurdle for most people on college campuses, Jenna noted that one of the more difficult shifts for students was navigating COVID safety in a similar context as emotional and sexual boundaries. Some students turned towards serial monogamy, while others chose not to date at all.

“With COVID, hookup culture and casual dating were really halted. So, what a lot of students had to grapple with is, ‘this might not be casual, and am I looking for a serious relationship?’ A lot of students who I know started relationships during COVID got pretty serious… I think despite everything, students were still finding love, starting relationships, ending relationships, etc.”

Despite the safety and convenience of dating apps in a socially distant world, our relationships with them are not getting healthier. Alongside concerns of algorithmic bias, dating apps are inherently addictive, and, in Jenna’s words, “transactional and draining to maintain”.

“Online dating is just practicing rejection. No matter who you are, everyone gets rejected and ghosted… What makes dating apps so smart is that they lower emotional risk-taking. They break down the question of whether or not people are single or looking for a relationship. And while they have their pros and cons, you really lose the feeling of the natural connection you can make with someone. They’re trying to manufacture this better, deeper connection with people but also keep it very convenient, and I don’t think dating should always be convenient.”

For students still grappling with the anxiety of dating after the pandemic, Jenna advises to “take the learning and leave the rest”.

“If you worked on yourself and learned that you’re okay alone, that is an amazing, amazing epiphany and you should take that with you… If you learned that you need an emotional connection before sexual activity, take that learning. You are normal and that is something that you can advocate for. And if you’re like, ‘I actually realized I don’t like casual hookups, I don’t like meeting someone and having sex with them that night,’ great!”

In wearing a mask, getting vaccinated, and practicing intentional care for yourself and your community, Jenna says that people coming out of the pandemic are demonstrating an increase in self-worth and that bringing that same care and caution into dating is not a bad thing.

“If you’re having some dating anxiety, you are not alone. Other people are having it too, maybe the person you’re wanting to date has it. Like, ‘how do I talk to somebody, how do I flirt, do I sound weird?’ But I think that having compassion and trying to find the commonality around it will be really helpful so that you can connect on that deeper level.”