When the pandemic hit, a lot of single people had to give up on dating. For some, it was a relief: Coffee dates with strangers can feel like a grueling slog, and it was kind of nice to take a break.
Then a few weeks became months — and here we are, almost a year later, still self-quarantining. Many single people have returned to some semblance of old dating routines, swapping out dinners for walks in the park.
Many have not.
We spoke to single women who haven’t dated, or have hardly dated, in a year. They talked about their “timeline” — the age when you’re “supposed to” find a partner, get married, have kids — and how it feels to fall behind. Others shirked these conventions, but still longed for the possibility of meeting someone new.
For women who hope to have biological children, relationship timelines exist in a way they don’t for men. Biology is part of it: Fertility starts to decline earlier for women, though studies have now thoroughly debunked the claim that fertility “drops off a cliff” when a woman turns 35. Women are more likely to be affected by societal expectations around dating and family, says Ellen Lamont, a professor of sociology at Appalachian State University and the author of “The Mating Game: How Gender Still Shapes How We Date.”
“For women, there is this stigma,” she says. “If you haven’t found someone by the time you get to a certain age, what’s wrong with you?”
The pandemic has been cast as time “lost” or an opportunity “missed” for single women, especially for those who want a family. But many don’t see this year as a loss. In interviews, women emphasized what they’ve gained from their year of not dating: time to paint, time to imagine, time to reflect on what they want from a relationship — and how they’ll find it as we continue our slow crawl toward normal.
“People are starting to say, ‘You know what, I want to figure myself out first,’” Lamont said. “‘So it’s okay if I delay these parts of my life or even skip them altogether.’”
Before the pandemic, if you weren’t partnered up, people assumed you were actively trying to be. Those assumptions have shifted.
To be single, for now, is enough.
On the last Saturday night she spent with her friends before the pandemic forced them apart, Erin Gullikson turned her dating life into a game. She was finally single and out at age 35, free to date women after five years with the same man.
Who should she choose?
Gullikson logged into Tinder, projecting her phone on the big-screen TV as everyone else curled up with a beer. With each new profile, the group delivered a swift verdict.
Woman with cool tattoos: yes.
Woman with four ferrets: no.
When a man appeared on Gullikson’s women-only feed, her friends all started yelling at the television.
It felt like the night before a major snowstorm, Gullikson said: Everyone expected disruption — but no one knew how much things would change or for how long. When her boss sent everyone home the day before, Gullikson grabbed her computer cord but left her coffee cup half-full on her desk. She figured she could clean it in a week or two, when she was back in the office. In the meantime, she would continue swiping right, bantering with women she’d meet as soon as this was over.
“Everything was out on the table. The whole menu was available to me,” Gullikson said. For the first time in her life, she could be queer “in public,” surrounded by friends who could finally see a part of herself she’d never been able to share.
Early in the pandemic, Gullikson decided not to meet new people in person. She got anxious in line at Trader Joe’s, eyeing the person behind her to make sure he stayed six feet away. How could she kiss a stranger?
If she couldn’t actually date, Gullikson decided, she would use the time to learn everything she could about her sexuality through books, podcasts, TV shows and movies. When “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” started streaming in March, she dimmed the lights and noticed how her stomach fluttered through the sex scenes. She re-watched “Schitt’s Creek” in April, replaying her favorite moments between David and Patrick, the show’s leading gay couple.
She took mental notes: I want to touch a woman like that. I want to surprise a woman with a serenade.
Trapped inside, Gullikson sometimes worries about losing her “good years.”
“There’s definitely some heteronormative baggage to this, but I wonder: How much longer am I going to be an attractive future mate?” Especially as a woman, she said, it can feel like there is a “deadline for being a sexual person out in the world.” Gullikson doesn’t want kids, but she does want a life partner. By coming out so late in life, she said, she lost prime dating years. Now she is losing more time.
The week before the pandemic, Gullikson went to a lesbian bar for the first time. When she walked in alone on a Sunday afternoon and ordered a beer at the bar, everyone was facing a wall of TVs. Of course, she thought: On Sunday afternoons, people watched football. She knew nothing about football. Suddenly, she felt extremely self-conscious about her J. Crew dress shirt with its Peter Pan collar. Fifteen minutes later, she walked out without speaking to anyone.
One day she will go back to that bar in her favorite T-shirt and sneakers, she said. She’ll turn to the woman beside her. Summoning her courage, she will smile and say hello.
Madison Decker would usually wait until midnight to open her dating app. With her parents and brother asleep, it was a little easier to forget that she was spending the summer in her childhood bedroom, messaging men she vaguely recognized from kindergarten.
This was supposed to be Decker’s “fun year” to enjoy New York City: She’d planned to date around and befriend her local bartenders, officially renouncing her role as the sober-enough friend who gets everyone else home safely. Working in theater administration, handling ticket sales and finances, her job was “boring” compared with those of her friends who are actors and directors. She knew people found her uptight.
She had until August 2021 — her first month of law school — to prove she could be someone different.
Things didn’t quite work out that way. Decker ended up moving home to the Philadelphia suburbs in May. It didn’t make sense to pay New York rent while working remotely. Still, she wasn’t ready to give up on her plans for the year. There were no bars or clubs in her town, but she still had Tinder. If she was careful about the coronavirus, she thought, maybe she could still date.
There were a surprising number of viable options. The app was buzzing with men in their 20s who had also moved home during the pandemic, probably messaging her from their own childhood bedrooms. They would exchange a few messages before Decker was forced to confront the obvious question: How do you “casually date” when you can’t touch each other?
Decker had no interest in a long-term relationship. She wanted to hook up with a whole bunch of people. In New York, her friends were always going home with men they met in bars, bragging about the number of people they’d slept with.
“That’s not who I am,” Decker said. “But I wanted to be that person, for a little while.”
A socially distant park hang was not going to cut it.
Friends have assured her she still has time. She could let loose after the pandemic, in law school or once she graduates. Decker is unconvinced. While she would love to throw her timeline out the window, she can’t bring herself to abandon the plan. Decker wants to be married by 35 so she can start having kids. There won’t be much time to date during law school. By the time she graduates, she’ll be 30, leaving just enough time to find and date her life partner.
“Some of my close friends are in serious, long-term relationships.” They’ll probably be engaged by the time they turn 30, she said. “I don’t want to be the person left floating along.”
One night in mid-July, Decker closed out of Tinder and permanently turned off her notifications, accepting what she’d probably known all along: She was too responsible to risk her health and her family’s health just to live out some idealized version of her 20s.
Now she spends her evenings shopping online for thrifted clothes.
“Why am I buying this?” Decker asked herself one night as she considered the contents of her shopping cart: two miniskirts and a crop top.
“I’m going to age out of these clothes before I get to go anywhere.”
In law school, the 22-year-olds will be the “crazy ones,” Decker said. She’ll be older, wiser.
That won’t stop her from wearing a miniskirt.
He spoke to her for the first time in September.
Latrice Davis was walking the blue rubber track at Forest Park, as she did three times a week for at least an hour. She’d been coming here to take a break from her studio apartment, where she’d cloistered herself through much of the spring and summer, afraid she might contract the coronavirus if she stepped outside for the mail. Sometimes she’d post on Facebook, she said, just to send a sign of life out into the ether — to remind friends and family that she was still here.
She began her search for the perfect park in June. Forest Park in Queens had it all: a pond, a golf course, a tennis court. There was always someone to watch — moms huddled by the sandbox, teenagers with a soccer ball — welcome confirmation that “civilization is still thriving.” Davis would drift through the activity unnoticed, trying to make eye contact with people she passed.
For weeks, Davis had noticed the man in the windbreaker. He came to the track alone, usually around 1 p.m. She walked; he ran.
“You look happy to be here,” he said the first time he talked to her.
“I am,” she said. “I’m happy to be alive.”
Davis didn’t know what to make of this man. From that day on, he always said “Hello” or “Nice to see you.” Sometimes he’d try to convince her to run. Davis wasn’t used to male attention. Completely bald, she likes to say she’s “no Lady Gaga or Beyoncé.” Every time he passed her on the track, she wondered: Is he just being friendly? Or is he flirting with me?
Either way, she said, “It feels good to be seen.”
Davis isn’t trying to find a man — but if a good one happened to show up, she said, she wouldn’t turn him away. In the pandemic, she has spent a lot of time alone with her thoughts. Her mind mostly goes to her “imaginary boyfriend”: Giancarlo Stanton of the New York Yankees. She doesn’t know much about him besides what’s on a baseball card, but she thoroughly enjoyed his spread in ESPN’s 2013 Body Issue.
“If you saw him naked, you would understand.”
Living in the same city, she likes to linger on how they might meet. Maybe she’d buy a ticket for a luxury box at a Yankees game, and Stanton would happen to swing by when he’s done playing. Maybe they’d lock eyes on the subway.
While the pandemic doesn’t leave much room for that kind of serendipity, Davis somehow met the man in the windbreaker. One of these days, she said, maybe he’ll ask her out for coffee. They’ll go to the Dunkin’ on the corner; she’ll order hot chocolate. Then they’ll walk back to their park and find a bench.
She won’t be the one to make the first move, she said. But she wouldn’t mind being asked.
Kamelyta Noor didn’t know what to say to her 13-year-old daughter. A moment before, they’d been laughing together on the bed, making funny faces as Noor took selfies from above.
Then, out of nowhere: “Mom, do you ever get lonely?”
The answer was yes. Of course she got lonely — especially now, in January, a few weeks before her birthday.
For years, Noor didn’t have time to think about what was missing. When she got divorced eight years ago, she was busy with her two kids, 8 and 5 at the time. If she did have time to herself, she’d log on to Tinder, where she was delighted to discover that plenty of men were still interested.
“I was like, what? These guys want me? Me, who had two babies? With a body that’s all floppy and flabby?” Noor said. “I was like a kid in a candy store.”
Noor went on dates all the time before the pandemic. The more spontaneous, the better: She’d meet a man at Walmart to people-watch or drive an hour to the beach on a Monday night — and end up having sex in the lifeguard hut. She always knew right away if there was sexual chemistry. A man had to be willing to make fun of her, she said, and she had to be able to make fun of him back. If the bantering was good, she said, she’d reach out to touch his face or his hair.
“Oh my god, I’d feel so giddy. I love sex so much, I really do.”
On her 51st birthday — about a year ago — she realized that it wasn’t enough. Her art exhibit opened at a local gallery that night. All her friends were there, sipping wine as they walked around to look at her paintings. She was blissfully happy: Suddenly, she could see art as a career, not just a hobby.
Then she went home alone.
“I was successful, and I didn’t have anyone to share it with.”
In eight years, she says, that was the loneliest she’d ever felt.
Noor decided that she would start to date seriously, looking for a lasting relationship, not just sex. Coronavirus stay-at-home orders began a few weeks later.
At first, she said, she felt “screwed” by the universe. She’d been single eight years — and it was this particular moment, just as she felt ready to move forward, that a date could send her to the hospital with a deadly virus?
She has used the time inside to paint. On her hands and knees in her living room, she squeezes her acrylics onto paper plates and swirls her fingers around. As she smears the colors on the white canvas, she says, she imagines whatever food she happens to be craving at the time: tacos, chicken, fried noodles. Whenever people ask where she gets her inspiration, she laughs. She doesn’t think too hard, she tells them. She just paints.
During the pandemic, Noor says, her children have become her “love advisers.” Hearing that her mother was lonely, Noor’s 13-year-old had some advice.
“You can get a boyfriend.”
“Really, I can?” Noor asked. “How many?”
“Only five. We are not that wild.”
Noor nodded. As soon as the pandemic was over, she promised, she’d get busy.