•First dates used to be about drinks, maybe dinner. But post-pandemic singles are opting for low-key options that allow them to ‘screen’ potential partners.
•Virtual dates are the new coffee dates – a low-pressure way to see if you and your match connect.
Before the pandemic, Louise, 33, was a prolific dater. She would typically meet someone new from a dating app once a week, and her standard first date would be “a drink or three after work”.
But when Covid-19 hit, and happy hour in her home city of London was replaced by virtual drinks and Zoom pub-quizzes, her dating life shifted, too. Louise found herself embracing phone calls and video dates with potential suitors – and she was surprised to find she enjoyed the change of pace.
“It was a positive move to get to know someone over a long period of time,” she says. “I found the slower pace suited me. I think taking away alcohol was a big factor, as you have clearer judgement and opinions on someone. The lockdowns made me really take a step back, and look at the way I was approaching dating.”
When restrictions lifted, Louise chose not to dive back into her pre-pandemic dating habits. Instead, she wanted to take the best bits of dating at a distance and use them in a new approach to looking for love. She had particularly enjoyed going on walks during the months when bars and restaurants were closed but meeting outdoors was still permitted, so she continued to suggest active, outdoor dates, rather than opting for dinner and drinks.
Now, a first date for Louise is more commonly a dog walk or an activity that she would otherwise do with a friend, like a gig she’s already interested in going to. She also tends to send voice notes or call potential dates before meeting in real life.
“Before Covid, I would go on dates with the mindset of ‘may as well see what they’re like’,” she says. “But by going into dates with this attitude, the chances were that it wasn’t going to be a very good match. Now that I’m back in the office, going to sports clubs and seeing friends, I don’t want to waste my time on pointless, mindless dates – I want them to be fun, and with someone I genuinely want to get to know better. So, I make sure that I take the time to get to know someone first, to make sure that we’re on the same page.”
Whether it was changing careers or moving cities, the pandemic prompted many people to re-evaluate their lives – and love lives were not exempt from this reckoning. Louise is one of many singles to rethink their approach to dating since the pandemic; experts believe many people are now less willing to commit to a time-consuming, high-stakes first date.
Instead, they are scoping out potential dates with voice notes, video calls or a casual meet-up woven into activities that slide more easily into their day-to-day lives. This low-stakes pre-date is changing the way that we approach looking for love – but does it lead to stronger and more lasting connections?
An ‘explosion’ of virtual dating
For many daters, a low-stakes pre-date starts long before meeting a new match in real life.
Before the pandemic, John Junior, 33, who lives in Cheshire, UK, would sometimes go on multiple dates in one day. But John still has concerns about catching the virus, and is also more wary about new people after being catfished during the pandemic. This means he now FaceTimes people before agreeing to meet up. “It’s easier and more convenient,” he says. “I can see if we are compatible and if they really are keen. It’s been a huge positive, and it feels safer.”
The rise – and subsequent staying power – of video first-dates is perhaps one of the biggest post-pandemic dating trends, and a key indicator people are looking for a first date that slots more easily into their schedule. Researchers from leading dating app Hinge say the rise of video dating has been “explosive” in recent years.
“Virtual dates are the new coffee dates – a low-pressure way to see if you and your match connect,” says Logan Ury, a behavioural scientist and director of relationship science at Hinge. “It’s a chance to see if you can carry a conversation and are excited to spend more time together in person. You get a sense of the person, from the comfort of your own home, without a long commute or expensive evening.”
The idea of not wanting to commit time, energy and money to multiple in-person first dates is certainly one that resonates with Louise. For her, changing the way that she dates is part of a wider consideration of what she wants her life to look like post-pandemic. Having more time to herself during lockdowns brought a fresh perspective; she values quality over quantity in lots of aspects of her life.
Kate Balestrieri, a licensed psychologist and sex therapist, based in the US, says this was a common reaction to lockdowns, which forced people to confront how fast-paced their lives were pre-pandemic. She says the rise of the pre-date is part of a broader trend towards so-called “slow” or “intentional” dating that has developed over the last couple of years.
“The incessant swiping that used to dominate the dating world left people feeling burnt out and tired of inauthenticity,” she says. “Seeking more connection, many are adopting a slower and more intentional approach to dating, to ensure a good fit that does not waste their time or drain their energy.”
The idea of time-wasting is one that comes up a lot among daters embracing low-stakes first dates. During lockdowns, people had space to think about what was really important to them – and to understand what they really missed when it was taken away. If going on lots of dates wasn’t something they particularly missed, but they were still interested in finding a partner, then a low-stakes first date can be easier to fit around more valued activities.
“People have experienced a shift in their work-life balance, and are seeing time as a more precious commodity,” says Balestrieri. “Many are now taking more care to get to know someone before allocating a lot of time and financial resources to a more formal dating process.”
A better way to find love?
Data shows post-pandemic singles are more serious about looking for love. After a lonely year or two and a slow return to ‘normal’ life, 58% of daters have shifted towards intentional dating, and 62% have become more interested in a meaningful, committed relationship. Only 11% of app daters now say that they want to date casually.
How does a low-stakes first-date fit into this increased desire to find something serious?
For Balestrieri, it’s a sign of people’s growing distaste for spending time and money on casual interactions, instead saving up these resources for dates that they can see developing into more serious relationships. A low-stakes pre-date can help them filter through a crowded market of potential partners to find the people with whom they have a genuine connection and, in these contentious times, with whom their values align.
“Going through the pandemic has left people with a renewed sense of what is important to them, and allocating time on people who are not a good fit is no longer a noteworthy endeavour for many,” says Balestrieri. And although there’s no guarantee that the low-stakes pre-date will lead to more lasting love, it certainly means fewer bad dates and more time to allocate to the things that truly matter.
As for Louise, the pandemic gave her a chance to reflect on not only how she wanted to date, but whom she wanted to ultimately end up with – and she hopes the low-stakes pre-date will help her to find them. “I would like to meet someone who is genuine, and I think that by changing my habits I am giving myself a better chance,” she says. Yet, true to her slower pace of dating, Louise says she’s taking her time. “I’m in no rush to meet someone,” she says. “My life is pretty good as it is.”