Slow dating: The online search for love during lockdown

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An English friend of mine, now in her late 70s, introduced her husband to me by saying, ‘This is Bill. I advertised for him in The Guardian.’

It was 2015, and she and Bill had been married for 12 years.

He had responded to her advertisement by letter, and over the next few weeks a correspondence ensued. Eventually, they nominated a place to meet. Their rendezvous took place two months after their initial contact outside a pub in London – she nervously watching every tall man who passed by, he circling uncertainly – until they finally introduced themselves. They shared a counter lunch and a post-prandial encounter of a different kind back at his place. She never went home.

So racy. So romantic. Soooo protracted.

Over the past two decades, the pursuit of love has evolved into a more fast-paced transaction. Online dating, once largely the prerogative of the middle aged, has been adopted by the young, who have taken it and run with it. Apps such as Tinder allow singles to be aware of other singles in their immediate vicinity. Courtship has devolved into an arched eyebrow in the coffee queue, or a swipe of the index finger. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am.

Then along came COVID-19.

Isolation has sent lonely singles of all ages to dating sites in droves. Recently single, I was one of them. Lockdown has changed the rules since the last time I found myself on the mating merry-go-round. With no immediate prospect of hooking up, young and old alike are looking for love the old-fashioned way – by corresponding. Extended courtship has been reinstated, necessitating patience on both sides.

And effort. Prospective partners have to rely on more than a photograph to attract a mate. Writing a good profile and being able to maintain a decent conversation over weeks – either written, by phone or via zoom – helps sort the wheat from the chaff. I have been corresponding with a man for almost a month now. We have discussed topics ranging from our favourite 1960s television series to our favourite breeds of dogs. In all that time, he has never once suggested meeting.

I recently wrote, ‘I’m enjoying our gentle conversation. You don’t exert any pressure and it’s like slipping on a comfortable pair of moccasins’, to which he replied, ‘A comfortable pair of moccasins, hey? Yes, my days as a dangerous pair of stilettos are well and truly over.’

Now I’m not averse to the occasional dangerous pair of stilettos, but they don’t go with COVID couture.

The idea of having to wear anything other than my standard tracky dack-stretchy top combination throws me into a mild panic. It adds to the reluctance I and many others are feeling – brought on by our now-habitual hibernation – to set foot outside simply on the strength of a nice smile or a great set of abs. And once the decision to meet has been made, the choices of venue are limited.

Takeaway coffee and a walk in the park are about as romantic as a first date can get in these times of social distancing. Restaurants and cafes are slowly opening their doors in some parts of Australia, but going back to one or other’s places in Melbourne is out of the question.

So what, realistically, are your options? If you live within 5km of each other you could meet at the beach with face masks on to watch the sunset. Before stage four restrictions were introduced, you may have noted that the car parks were surprisingly full of couples in cars busy ‘watching the sunset’. If you are of a certain age it may remind you of your misspent youth, when closed bedroom doors containing young people of the opposite sex were routinely thrown wide open by parents and the only safe place to co-mingle was in the back of a panel van.

No, I prefer to maintain my decorum and my COVID-negative status, and continue my correspondence from home for now. And when the time is right, I may even swap those comfy slippers for a dangerous pair of stilettos and go out slow dancing one more time.

Elizabeth Quinn is a writer, Francophile, mother of three young adults, writer and creator of diywoman.net. This is an edited version of a story that first appeared in The Guardian.

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