From virtual dates to getting stuck together on a boat, here's how Chicagoans are navigating love and dating during the pandemic.
Whether you're single or in a decades-long relationship, it's likely coronavirus has had an impact on your love life. With Illinois' "stay-at-home" order and new social distancing rules in place, the pandemic has fundamentally changed how we're supposed to interact with one another, and that can include our romantic partners. Now, some couples are unexpectedly navigating long distance because of quarantine; other single folk are trying out virtual dates now that bars and restaurants are closed.
Chicago dating coach Bela Gandhi said the disruption caused by COVID-19 has made people seek out relationships and romantic encounters.
"People are craving connection more than ever because it's constrained," she said.
"I think it's heightening the feeling for a lot of people that they would really like to have a romantic partner."
Dating app data matches Gandhi's observation. The app Hinge reported a 30% increase in messages among users in March. According to Tinder, there were more than 3 billion swipes on March 29th, the highest number of recorded swipes for a single day in the app's history. People have also been turning to non-dating-specific apps and games to meet and spend time with loved ones — some people reported that they've scheduled virtual dates and even attended wedding ceremonies in the Nintendo Switch game Animal Crossing.
We wanted to get to the stories behind the stats, so we asked you how your relationships and dating lives have fared during COVID-19. From learning how to use sex toys while staying socially distanced to quarantining on a boat with an ex-flame, here's what you had to say about love, sex, and dating during the pandemic.
Virtual blind dating made me rethink my approach to love
Relationship status: Dating someone virtually through a new kind of matchmaking service
Most of Michael Gorman's dating life has been facilitated through apps like Tinder and OkCupid. So when someone in his workout group chat posted a link to a signup form for a new Chicago dating experiment called "Quarantine Bae," he figured he had nothing to lose.
"I wasn't doing anything else with my time ... why not give it a shot?" he said. "Especially right now when the world is a very isolated place, I've been living for all of the video chats and other opportunities to connect with other human beings."
Quarantine Bae is a virtual matchmaking service started by two single friends who wanted to help connect other single people vulnerable to loneliness during quarantine. Co-founder Stefanie Groner said she was jaded by most dating apps, so she wanted to create something different.
"We thought to ourselves, 'Can we design more meaningful interactions and a different way to date that's relevant for coronavirus?''
Quarantine Bae matches people based on their preferences listed in the sign-up form and sets them up half-hour-long "blind" Zoom dates. The calls are audio-only, and participants don't receive any information about each other going into the call.
Michael said he was more nervous going into his first Quarantine Bae date than he's ever been before.
"I couldn't come up with things to talk about or questions to ask him about his life," he said. "It was kind of like [being in] that new Netflix show called 'Love is Blind.'"
Despite his nerves, Michael said the Zoom conversation "never got slow or uninteresting." When his BaeMaker (matchmaker) checked in with him afterwards to ask if he wanted his match's photo and phone number, he said yes. He said he was surprised when he saw what his match looked like.
"I didn't realize he was black, and when I saw the picture, I was taken aback a bit," he said. "I was still interested in him — it didn't matter — but it did surprise me a little bit."
Since their initial Zoom call, Michael said he and his match have gone on three video chat dates. He said he appreciates how Quarantine Bae set things up because it pushed him to re-evaluate what's important in a potential match.
"When you're swiping on Tinder, it's very superficial — you're not giving people a chance to be an actual human," he said. "If you're limiting yourself to other people who meet your predefined idea of a perfect match, then you're losing out on tons of potential opportunities to connect with people."
He said he hopes services like Quarantine Bae stick around after the pandemic is over.
"I honestly wish there were more dating apps that didn't have pictures, that didn't make you predisposed to see someone a certain way. To the extent that dating has become problematic, superficial ... I think this is a great opportunity to hit the reset button and think about how we actually want to date in the 21st century."
I'm socially isolating 24/7 with a former Tinder date
Relationship status: Quarantining on a boat in the Gulf of Mexico with an on again, off again flame.
Claire Oliphant matched with a guy on Tinder in the beginning of 2020. He's from Chicago and like her, he's into art and traditional music. He'd traveled to her hometown of New Orleans by boat. She says they dated for a week and a half, and "it was very fun, super intense." But after that, he disappeared.
She says she didn't hear from him until "he showed back up" a few weeks later. The two decided they would just "be friends." Then he disappeared again. Both times, Claire was crushed. "Each of the break ups and disappearing were really intense, and I was very sad about them."
But she likes to think of herself as a "pretty adventurous person." So when he turned up again and invited her to wait out the pandemic on his two-person boat in the Gulf of Mexico, she decided to be spontaneous and join him — despite the fact that the two of them "haven't gotten along for longer than a week and a half at a time."
"I thought it would be a good opportunity to have an adventure instead of sitting in my apartment at home passively reading the news."
Claire didn't know how long the stay-at-home order would last when she hopped on that small boat with a guy she'd been back and forth with more than once. Recently, they had their first big "yelling argument" since they set sail together.
But she says for the most part, they spend their days drawing, fishing, swimming, and cooking elaborate meals with dried food.
"And then at night we've been singing songs and telling stories, which is pretty fun."
She also said the two have slept together since setting sail — "Everywhere. We're very far away from many other people, so it doesn't really matter where." But she's staying realistic about their future.
"Even though it feels very domestic to be in this tiny space and to be so close to somebody for this long ... I'm not having, like, daydreams of being with him after this.''
Claire's isn't sure when she'll actually get off the boat. Currently, no ports or marinas in New Orleans are allowing people in. She hopes she'll be able to get off somewhere in Florida, but doesn't know how she'll get back to New Orleans from there.
"I keep going back and forth, like maybe I should ... try to go back now," she said. "But I feel like I've put a lot into this adventure and I feel pretty committed to it."
Regardless of what happens, Claire says this situation is changing the way she thinks about love.
"I'm going to look at people in the future and be like, 'Can I be quarantined with them for 18 months?'"
My open relationship is getting extra complicated during quarantine
Relationship status: Navigating social distancing with a girlfriend who's quarantining with her other boyfriend
Drake Stewart had never been in a polyamorous relationship before his current one with his girlfriend. The two met on Tinder last April and immediately connected on a deep level, Drake said.
"I was really into it," he said. "[But] in the back of my mind, l knew this person told me that she was in an open relationship, and I didn't really know what that meant."
In the first few months of dating, before the pandemic started, Drake said he and his girlfriend would spend two weeks full weeks at a time together. Then, she would tell him she needed to be with her other partner. Drake said it was painful each time, but that he learned to cope.
"It kind of happens in cycles, and each time I learn a little bit more or unlearn a little more and I can manage it better," he said. "I feel like we're getting healthier each time this happens and we're both very open and we talk about all of our feelings."
These cycles of being together, then apart continued until the week Governor Pritzker announced Illinois' "stay-at-home" order. Drake says both he and his girlfriend were "a bit freaked out," but that they'd decided they would continue to see one another.
But a couple of days after the Governor's order was issued, his girlfriend called him and told him her other boyfriend wasn't doing well and that she'd decided she was going to go stay with him.
"That just kind of felt like a stab in the heart," Drake said. "And since then, we've been talking, but we haven't been able to talk about how that has made me feel or impacted me."
It's been more than two weeks since Drake and his girlfriend have touched each other or been in each other's homes. Last week, Drake said they celebrated their one-year anniversary by cooking their own food separately and bringing it to his girlfriend's backyard to eat it from opposite ends of a picnic table.
"It f***-ing sucks not being able to be there and like, hold her or be held," he said. "The only thing I want to do is see this person."
Drake said this extended separation has forced him to really think about his feelings for his girlfriend and what their relationship means to him.
"I feel like, if anything, this will just show us how fragile life can be and not to take it for granted. So I'm gonna try to spend more time with this person. It's just solidified my belief [that] this person needs to be in my life, he said.
I'm not giving up my sex life even during quarantine
Relationship status: In a new relationship but quarantining apart
Max Dinerstein had their first date with their partner, who works as a cook, on January 24 of this year. They say it had been going "really well," so when Max's mother's birthday rolled around on March 20, and Pritzker had already shut down the city's restaurants to dine-in customers, their partner came over to help cook a special birthday dinner.
Then, the Illinois "stay-at-home" order went into place the next day, and Max hasn't seen their partner since.
"We're two months into a brand new relationship. We've said 'I love you' to each other; he's met my parents; and now I can't see him indefinitely."
While the enforced distance is tough on a new romance, Max is looking forward to the ways social distancing will change how they'll need to communicate with their partner — about all aspects of their relationship, including when it comes to virtual sex.
"I'm not saying we're going to go all the way back to Jane Austen when you wrote each other like 12 letters and then you're like 'cool, we've had one dance and we're in love.' I don't want that," Max says. "But I do think that communication of [one's] needs and wants in dating is going to change."
With no ability to indulge in physical activity, partners and love interests have no choice but to really communicate their desires, Max said.
"Everybody is now kinky for long distance sex, unless they live with their partner ... [and] sex while social distancing is still possible."
Max recently ordered a sex toy that allows you to control your partner's toy from a distance through an app. Max has used these kinds of toys before, but never with their current partner. They say they're excited about giving it a try — even though they know it could feel awkward the first time around.
"We're just doing whatever we can to get that sweet, sweet serotonin."
Max, who considers themselves an expert on sex toys, said some friends reached out to them asking which toy they should invest in to keep their sex lives active during quarantine.
"And that's information I'm happy to give people, because if it means they're staying inside, great — that's my public service. I think people are trying non-traditional approaches to dating. And people are really open to things that they might not have been [before social distancing]."
My ex and I reconnected for real
Relationship status: Rekindling lost love through virtual space
When Ellen Mayer, a former Curious City intern, created an OKCupid profile in 2017, she said she was "just looking for something casual." But her first time on the app, she found a connection she hadn't expected. She decided to meet up with this person for a date on a Rogers Park beach.
"It was very romantic, and we clicked very quickly," she said. So quickly, in fact, that she says she was falling in love by the third date. "He took me to a poetry night at the Hideout and read a poem that knocked me off my feet."
She said the first six months were so good she almost couldn't believe it. But things took a turn after that. Both Ellen and her partner were dealing with mental health issues, and their relationship became strained.
"A lot of it had to do with outside forces," she said.
After a year of dating, they decided to part ways even as they both acknowledged that someday they wanted to try again. Ellen said she got back on the apps, but the lack of closure kept her from moving on. So at the end of last year, she decided to cut things off with him completely.
Quarantined alone in her apartment, contemplating what seemed like it could be the end of the world, Ellen said she began to rethink her decision to end things last year. With all that time to think about what really matters, she says she couldn't stop thinking about him.
"I would joke about it and be like, 'I'm not going to call my ex,' and lots of people would be like, 'Yeah, don't do it!'" she said. "But then I started thinking about it more and started thinking that maybe I did want to be in contact with him and maybe try to reopen that relationship."
Just as she decided to reach out, Ellen said her ex called her up. "We were both on each others' minds."
Like everyone else, Ellen and her former ex are taking things day by day as they adapt to a changing reality under COVID-19. They have been going on virtual dates and working their way through the New York Times' "36 Questions That Lead to Love." She says the pandemic has made her reevaluate things that had been making her hold back.
"I had all these rules in my head of what the timeline should look like and when I would be ready, and living through a global pandemic puts things in perspective," she said. "There's certainly a piece of it that's like, 'It's the end of the world. Be with the one you love.'"
Now, after a week of what she calls "rekindling," she said she's thinking about what it will mean to be together if social distancing remains in place for months or even a year.
"It's a little bit all or nothing if we decide that we want to be sharing space physically," she said. "But I'd be lying if I said I don't like the idea of being able to share space with a partner in this time. We'll see how it goes."