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I tried virtual dating during the coronavirus crisis and it was exhausting

I wasn't going to let social distancing slow me down.
Carly Marsh

I am two weeks into social distancing from the comfort of my studio apartment in New York City and all of my social interactions have moved from in-person gatherings to virtual hangouts and livestreams on my iPhone. As a result, my screen time is up 77%: My usage of social media apps rose by roughly 50% but my dating app usage soared 130% — and I’m not the only person who’s been caught up in a surge in swiping.

As the coronavirus rapidly spread throughout the country in March, a representative from the dating app Bumble told TMRW that it saw the rate of messages being sent rise by 21% in Seattle, 23% in New York City and 26% in San Francisco. Another representative from the online dating site OkCupid told us the number of introductory messages being sent is up almost 4 million from this time last year and the popular app Tinder saw messaging on its platform go up 10-15% compared to the previous week.

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Earlier this month, Bumble CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd published an open letter urging users to switch to virtual dating. The app’s video call feature saw a 21 percent increase in usage, with the average chat lasting 14 minutes. At OkCupid, a recent survey also showed 25 percent of daters are video chatting.

Last week, as I enjoyed the extra activity on my dating profiles, it dawned on me: I wouldn’t be able to meet anyone for the foreseeable future. I made the decision that all of my upcoming dates would happen exclusively via video calls. I wouldn’t let social distancing slow me down.

Journeying into the world of virtual dating

On the first day of this experiment, a barrage of vibrations coming from my phone woke me up at 7:15 a.m. A man I had matched with previously was sending me book recommendations to help me productively pass the time. Since I was up an hour before my alarm, I made a pot of coffee and walked to the park to get some fresh air before retreating back inside to work from home all day.

As I sat on a rock overlooking the city, I wondered if meeting someone over video chat could help me quickly weed through the over-plucked garden of city singles. Would this new process for courtship add compassion and human decency back into online dating? Would experiencing this anxiety-riddled time "together" lead to a stronger foundation for a serious relationship in the future? I was dying to find out.

I went home, answered emails and hopped on some conference calls while I swiped through Tinder, Hinge, OkCupid and Bumble matches.

My first virtual meetup was an impromptu lunch date. Because I was awake early that morning, I had some extra time to fix my hair and put on some eyebrows and highlighter. To disguise the sports bra and leggings I'd been wearing before the spur-of-the-moment FaceTime, I threw on my favorite dangly earrings and a basic maroon T-shirt.

Right before my internet date called, the perfectionist in me kicked in and I scrambled to frame up a flattering shot that also showed off the cutest part of my studio apartment. When I answered, he was impressed with the setup and said it looked like I lived in a real home and not a bachelorette pad in New York City. I laughed. We spent a while chatting about working from home, among other topics, but honestly, it felt kind of awkward.

My perfectly curated online dating nook.
My perfectly curated online dating nook.Courtesy of Carly Marsh

I cold call people for work pretty often so I'm a pro at meeting strangers, but sometimes I’m an awful date. I tend to hide behind witty barbs and sarcasm when I’m intimidated by people I might actually like. It’s a defense mechanism I’m actively trying to curb.

About 45 minutes into our conversation, I talked about my nervousness and terrible dating habits and my walls started to come down. The last 15 minutes were fun and easy, like catching up with an old friend. Before we hung up, he asked me if I would like to have a second virtual date and FaceTime again one evening and enjoy a drink together. I said I would.

Later that afternoon, I updated my dating app profiles, changed a few photos and indicated that I was looking to go on virtual dates with people.

Online dating during coronavirus
My Tinder profile updated to reflect my new dating goals during the coronavirus crisis.Courtesy of Carly Marsh

After my workday ended, a man I had matched with months ago started a conversation and told me he was having a hard day. He had lost work because the service industry slowed following statewide restrictions on gathering in groups. I sympathized as best I could with a stranger texting me about personal issues.

He asked if I wanted to hop on Skype. I re-downloaded the software and the conversation started off pretty heavy. I felt kind of like I was in a pod on "Love is Blind" as a stranger poured all of his day’s problems onto me.

In 20 minutes' time, our conversation took a lighter turn and my face began to hurt from smiling and laughing. We hung up the call because he had plans to hang out online with a group of friends. He said that he would call me back later that night, and he did.

We ended up talking for over two hours while I worked my quarantine craft: sewing patches on a vintage windbreaker. When we hung up, I was feeling a little emotionally drained. Doing the work of a therapist/partner for a cute stranger from the internet is exhausting.

Perfecting my quarantine craft.
Perfecting my quarantine craft.Courtesy of Carly Marsh

Feeling like a contestant on "The Bachelorette"

I woke up to yet another assault of dating app messages. This time, from a personal trainer who was more interested in video chatting than wasting time messaging back and forth on the app. I was pretty busy with work that day, so I told him we could chat in the evening.

Around lunchtime, I took a break to make a playlist for working from home called “Mellow Grooves for the End of the World.” I sent it around to friends and family — and to the cute, funny and stressed man from the night before.

Because nothing resets the mood like a good playlist.
Because nothing resets the mood like a good playlist.Spotify

After work, I took a walk in the park and packed a blanket so I could sit in the grass and read a book. My relaxation period was interrupted as Mr. Assertive Personal Trainer Guy followed up again to see when I could chat, so we scheduled a post-dinner Skype call.

I took the time to throw a decent outfit together — this time my favorite crop top and a chunky cardigan. When we hopped on the video call, I was amused to find out that he was chatting with me from the comfort of ... the toilet seat in his bathroom. It was apparently the most private space he could find for a video date. He mentioned that, for being isolated and working from home all day, he was surprised I looked so put together. It didn't feel like a backhanded compliment at the time, but looking back at it now, a red flag raises.

He told me he was looking for a relationship and was hoping to find someone compatible with his Myers-Briggs personality type who shared the same love languages. On paper, we seemed to be a match. After about two hours of stimulating conversation about our dating habits, goals and general life philosophies (he’s the most positive person I think I’ve ever met on a dating app), it was getting late into the night. I became tired as screen fatigue set in and was looking for a way to end the conversation while letting him know I’d be open to staying in contact. I said, “It’s getting late and I need to wash dishes before I go to bed, so I’m gonna let you go, but this was really enlightening.”

He asked me where I lived and if I’d want to meet up in person. I had to reiterate that I was serious about social distancing and would not be meeting anyone in person until this pandemic was behind us. I became annoyed.

He asked me to download WhatsApp so we could stay in touch. We’d already exchanged telephone numbers and I told him I really didn’t want to download another messaging app. The next day he asked me again if I downloaded WhatsApp. I told him I had but probably wouldn't be quick to respond on the platform. He asked if we could meet in person on April 10. I rolled my eyes and texted him, “Sure, if I’m not still social distancing then.”

He has yet to message me back on any platform.

Realizing it's time to take a rest

I woke up in the morning and Zoomed into Daybreaker’s #DaybreakerLive event for two hours of yoga, rhythmic drumming, and meditation. It was the best part of my week. I took a video of myself dancing and posted it to my Instagram story. My sister responded to the post joking, “You are going to be single forever.” I laughed and told her that I didn’t care.

I whipped up some French toast and decided that I was done looking for new people to go on virtual dates with. I had run out of steam and needed to recharge.

I didn’t swipe or message any matches during the day. I took a walk in the park, called my best friend and lamented that I was emotionally drained from going on virtual dates and talking to three different men about their experiences during the coronavirus crisis. I didn’t feel excited or happy. I felt overwhelmed.

As I walked through the park and realized this, I got a message from a match and set up one last date.

Enjoying a solo outing to the park.
Enjoying a solo outing to the park.Courtesy of Carly Marsh

He called me from a parking lot outside of his building and had a generally off-putting demeanor. If we met in real life, I would have forced myself to stay for at least one drink to be polite, then made an excuse to leave. I don’t think either of us were vibing and we ended the call after 15 minutes. I said goodbye and breathed a sigh of relief.

The man I shared my chill apocalyptic playlist with texted me to say he had been listening to it and it was just what he needed. He asked if we could video chat again later that day.

When I hopped on Skype to talk with him (this time makeup-free, wearing a sweatshirt and leggings), he could tell I was drained and asked me how I was doing. I told him I wanted to keep in contact but needed to limit the time I spent Skyping. I had come to the conclusion that the screen time and the emotional work of talking to men about ways to weather this pandemic were catching up with me and I needed a break to recharge. He seemed to understand, and it was nice to have such an honest conversation with a date.

Appreciating the unexpected merits of being alone and single during a pandemic

When I set out to write this piece, I was excited to go on as many virtual dates as I could over the course of the week, and I was determined not to let the pandemic slow my love life down. I forgot that dating is a process and it takes time. I can’t fast-track it by going on multiple first dates from the comfort of my home, especially now. Empathizing with strangers over a shared misfortune can take a toll if you’re overextending yourself.

Social distancing is hard. I miss hanging out with my friends in person. I miss giving hugs. I miss being able to sit at a coffee shop and read a book. I miss dancing and bumping into other sweaty people at concerts. I miss the excitement of getting ready for a first date and waiting for someone to show up at the bar.

Still, the forced time alone has given me space I’ve never truly had to connect with myself. It never dawned on me how much I enjoy being alone in my apartment with my thoughts. I’ve reignited old passions I didn’t have time for when I was busy being out in the world with my friends. The experience has been a blessing in disguise.

I don’t plan on quitting online dating entirely as I continue to social distance, but I have decided that it definitely isn’t going to be a priority. I have better things to do with all of my new free time than searching for love on the internet, but that doesn’t mean I’ve given up. If I happen to strike up a virtual relationship with someone during this time, I’ll be excited to see where it goes and even more excited to see what happens when dating can go back to being something that happens in real life.