Parks, picnics, bicycle rides and walks are the new normal for a first date, rather than the traditional bar or restaurant meet-ups.
It is a Saturday night in September and you are in your favourite bar with a gin sling in your gloved hand. Sitting across the table — and at a safe distance — a man you have been video calling for weeks is removing a face mask to sip his Martini.
Welcome to the wonderful new world of dating in post-Covid Northern Ireland. Back in March when we were all placed in lockdown many aspects of life radically changed, almost overnight.
While it may have killed off the one-night stand, Covid-19 could be the catalyst for the rebirth of true romance.
Despite temporarily saying goodbye to going for coffee and cinema trips and hello to social distancing and support bubbles, the local dating scene has still been booming — it has just gone virtual.
Many are still swiping left or right but far more are playing a completely new game of sussing each other out online without actually meeting.
And as lockdown restrictions ease, this new way of courting that takes real life first meetings off the table and confining interactions to separate screens could be here to stay.
Bars and restaurants may have been the bread and butter of dates for decades, but with many feeling uncomfortable at the prospect of returning to them anytime soon, it was time for a rethink.
Meeting your match in 2020 now involves embracing the great outdoors, with parks, picnics, bike rides and walks fast becoming the new first date choices.
Jennifer Johnston and her friend Viv Chestnutt have previously organised face-to-face singles nights for love seekers in their 30s to 50s with their events firm, Belfast Singles Connection.
She believes singletons will be “very cautious” in the future and does not envisage meet-ups in bars again for several months.
“For the last six months of our dating site we ran it as activity only events such as cycling, barbecues and bowling.
“We would have just one event every month that involved going to bars, because not everybody wants to do that.
“From my perspective, if we were to bring people out on dates now I think the numbers would be limited.
“I don’t think people would be as up for it compared to pre-Covid, when we would have had groups of between 60 and 70.
“I think we might see a return to the days when people really got to know each other before taking the next step.”
A new survey by dating platform eHarmony and relationship charity Relate looked into the minds of singles across the UK, highlighting some new trends including a transformational change in love lives. eHarmony says sign-ups were up 50% year on year across April and May while communication rates online tracked a third higher on average.
‘Relationships in Lockdown’ also found that 40% of singles have felt lonely in lockdown while 35% claimed that the past few weeks have been bad for their mental health.
Loneliness has affected single men slightly more than women and pushed many to develop romantic relationships online.
Virtual dating has been considered a welcome break from ‘real life’ for 18% of single people, while 15% said they plan on dating or finding a relationship as soon as possible after lockdown.
Duane Farrell, chief executive of relationship counselling service Relate NI, said the findings highlight how Covid-19 has been a game-changer for dating.
“You can see that as people adjusted mentally to the changes in lockdown, they moved away from instant gratification towards having to take a more measured approach,” he said.
“Rather than just testing for physical connection and chemistry through video calls, you are testing other aspects.
“You are finding out if you share interests or have a connection through how you communicate.
“I think this takes a lot of pressure off dating couples where there is perhaps an expectation in terms of where it will all lead, and instead allows them to chat and have connections.”
Duane does see some disadvantages to this new way of dating, adding:
“There is a loss around physical connection in terms of being in the same room and reading body language.”
The award-winning Soirée Society has always offered a “holistic and bespoke” approach to matchmaking instead of “soulless” dating apps, according to its retired bank manager founder Claire Hughes.
Claire, a Co Tyrone native, established the company in 2014 to help unattached people looking for a long-term relationship and now boasts a clientele ranging in age from 25-82.
With the help of her sister-in-law and chief matchmaker Rhoda Hughes, she has helped engineer many long-term relationships including seven engagements, four weddings and a first baby due at the end of this month. Soirée has been forced to accelerate plans to diversify into online lockdown offerings but is now thriving as a result.
“It was apparent in the first few weeks of the pandemic that actual dating was the last thing on a lot of people’s minds,” Claire explained.
“However, as the weeks went on we became aware that people were feeling increasingly lonely, isolated and starved of social interaction (more so generally than actually looking for a date).”
The company started by easing its members online meets to create “isolationships” and hosted Northern Ireland’s first internet quiz nights for singles. It is also about to launch virtual speed dating and professionally matched blind dating services for its younger clientele.
As part of its diversification, Soirée has even recruited its first male relationship adviser, Paul Clarke, who will teach clients venturing out for actual meet-ups how to dress and talk, in conjunction with Belfast tailor Chris Suitor.
“What we are doing now is adapting to changing times and human behaviour by introducing new services to attract a wider audience, whilst also giving our existing clients more choice should they want to avail of the opportunity,” added Claire.
“Some of our clients are open to socially distanced dates and this weekend will see the first of them, with a number of couples meeting up for the first time in forest parks or at the beach for a picnic or to simply share a bag of fish and chips from a carry out.”
'You can take time and get to know a person'
Blogger Nicole Quigley (29) from Irvinestown in Co Fermanagh has been single for around a year.
She launched her blog ‘Diet starts on Monday’ in May 2017 to share her weight loss journey on social media.
Nicole shares the view that Covid- 19 has completely changed the whole dating scene and with actual meet-ups for dates out the window, like many during lockdown she has had to embrace video calls.
“I do a lot of video conferencing in my work as a digital marketing specialist so I’m used to talking to people I’ve never met,” she said.
“For me it felt normal, but I understand that others might find it strange.
“The concept is weird, but once you’re actually forming a conversation it’s good.
“I think people are a lot more chilled online and those who moved too fast have had to slow down by getting to know people through conversation.”
Nicole believes virtual vetting will become quite prevalent in the future before any face-to-face dates take place at a safe distance.
“I think people will Facetime to see if the person actually looks like they do in their photo or to see if there’s any kind of conversation before they think about going on a real date.
“Obviously it’s not ideal, as you don’t really get to know the other person properly.
“I mean, you could think that they’re the most funny and romantic person in the world, but then when you actually meet them they could have the chemistry of a door.”
Nicole says socially distanced dating has allowed single people to slow down and take their foot off the gas.
She said: “In our culture, we’ve got very much used to instant gratification. If you don’t become a success
overnight then you’ve failed at whatever it was you were doing and I think the same thing has happened with dating in a way.
“I’ve heard people brag about getting a few hundred matches on an app in a day or two, but I bet they couldn’t tell me one of those matches’ favourite pasta dish.”
She added: “I went to one or two outdoor socially distanced dates in recent weeks, which I found really took the pressure off.
“You don’t have to worry about things like whether or not to hold hands, as that’s not going to happen.
“You can actually take your time and get to know a person with zero pressure, have a chat and a bit of craic and then just wave goodbye at the end.”