Two years ago I wrote a column on why my love life was flourishing under the newly imposed lockdown. I wondered if I should be offended when my editors asked me to write a follow-up about why I was still single.
I suspect it might have something to do with dogs.
In 2020, online dating offered some respite from the isolation of early lockdowns, and participation on apps such as Hinge, Bumble and Grindr surged. But despite the record number of weddings log-jammed into 2022, more Americans got dogs during the pandemic than life partners.
In general, I view dog ownership as a pro — proof a potential partner can keep something more complex than a houseplant alive. If a dog is well trained, I can extrapolate cathedrals of meaning about the strength of the owner’s character. The reverse applies to rascals.
But a lot of dogs are not very good at dating. They have little understanding of personal space or boundaries. Recently, a date tried to kiss me at the same time that his dog began to lick my ear. No one but seemed to me to think this was too much.
Date a dog owner and there is no “your place or mine”. It will always, always, be their place. A single friend notes that park meet-cutes are also doomed. Two dog owners means twice the logistical complexity. Spontaneity is extinct. Someone is always rushing home to take the dog out.
There are the dogs who don’t want to let dates through the door. Some people who adopted dogs for emotional support have become emotional-support humans to anxious pets with Prozac prescriptions. Dog trainers in New York can charge upwards of $400 per hour to help your dog let you date.
A highly informal poll confirmed my suspicions: numerous pandemic puppies are accused of sleeping in their owners’ beds. Two’s company. But three, when one of those is a 90lb working breed used to stretch out on a king-size bed, is a crowd. Friends report distress: how many dates before you can say, “It’s me or the dog”?
For many, a pandemic puppy is their most serious relationship of the past two years. It is the architecture they have built their new normal around. Our sanity is tied to our strange new equilibriums and safe routines. I know I’m not alone in feeling that mine is a bit precarious.
Things might look as ordinary now as they did before everything changed, but they’re not. Everyone is trying to bounce back. But I suspect many of us are re-entering the world with a lot more Band-Aids pasted on our hearts than we care to acknowledge.
These plasters might take the shape of a dog, or something else entirely.
In April 2020, the pandemic felt like a chapter in a book I would some day earmark with a before, but also an after. In what I would generously call athleisure, we moved our first dates online, and for a moment, forgot the rules. I briefly mused in this paper that Zoom first dates might stick around to streamline the chemistry-check process.
Now most of us would rather jump in front of an Amazon delivery truck than spend more time online. But we have not had the exuberant collision of in-person socializing we once imagined. A malaise has set in. It turns out that life doesn’t work in neatly bookended segments. It is cumulative.
“People are burnt out seeking out relationships and burnt out in relationships,” says New York-based relationship therapist Jane Hammerslough.
I have become so accustomed to uncertainty that it can feel foolish to get excited about the possibility of anything new. Or anyone.
Dogs were a grab for certainty in an uncertain time. So is the rising trend of going back to old flames. An ex might be a narcissist, but at least he’s a narcissist you know. This helps explain why every man I have dated since the age of 13 has asked me out for a drink in the past 12 months. They are all unchanged, a strange comfort. I will note—most of them now have dogs.
Part of what makes familiar people, even familiarly wrong people, so appealing is what I am coming to understand is a widespread fatigue with online dating.
Dating apps began as a fun tool to supplement a dating life, but they have since shifted the burden of finding a soulmate entirely to single people. Forget luck and timing. You have an app with every single person in your city in the palm of your hands, so why can’t you find someone to love you?
A friend of mine used to have an annual New Year’s resolution to ‘be more dog’. It is about being brave, enthusiastic, eating everything, appreciating the good
At the start of the pandemic, dating apps offered some respite from the loneliness of early lockdowns. They were also the only option. Despite absolutely no one wanting this, their monopoly seems to have stuck. The apps have impoverished the long tradition of set-ups and bad blind dates. This has been good for venture capitalists, bad for romance. Trying to source dates offline as our friend groups contract “is like scraping the barrel of your existing social network”, one single said.
The dating pool in the established apps is enormous, and the algorithms poor. It’s not like meeting someone in a bar. It’s like trying to find them in a stadium.
Hinge has adopted a particularly charming new feature. It extracts the people it identifies as most attractive and compatible with you, and holds them hostage behind an additional paywall. After a time sifting through a sea of frogs, these people will look like princes. Hinge users already pay $30 a month to subscribe. But if you want to shoot your shot with just one of these people, it costs $3.99 per person.
But what is the alternative?
Friends tell me they’re lonely, that the pandemic was clarifying on the value of partnership. But the thought of sifting through a puddle of two-dimensional profiles makes them want to lay down on the floor and give up.
Dating apps “are not working as effectively for anyone”, Hammerslough says. No one wants to double down on searching online just as life should be moving off it.
Relationship experts say the tonic for dating fatigue is, paradoxically, to throw ourselves at in-person interaction with wild abandon. And, maybe, stop swiping for a little while.
In-person dates have returned, which is much more fun (physical attraction is a balm for all manner of incompatibilities). But we are re-entering the dating world a bit more vulnerable and precarious than before. Little disappointments sting a bit more when you’re trying your best after two years to trust things can be good. Like getting dumped by text, with a little croissant emoji. He was sorry for being flaky, but too busy with his dog.
Dating now requires resilience. A friend of mine used to have an annual New Year’s resolution to “be more dog”. It is about being brave, enthusiastic, eating everything, appreciating the good and bouncing back like you’re a rubber band.
I am trying to be more dog.
Most important to bounding forward, Hammerslough says, is to be curious. Everyone has been upended and pieced together the best they can. A date’s dog might not be your favorite. It doesn’t have to be. But if you can be curious and compassionate about what that dog — or sourdough starter or loud banjo music — has come to mean to that person, then you might find what we all want most: real connection.
The dog might also sleep in their bed, but that’s a conversation you can have later.
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