A solid connection: Virtual dating takes off during the pandemic

The lockdowns and restrictions on wining and dining have sent singles online in search of love connections.

The pandemic may have turned our lives upside down in a lot of ways but it hasn't stopped singles from looking for love. The only difference is that instead of parties, cafes, clubs and such, the search for love has gone exclusively online – and why not?

Dating online is not just safer during the pandemic, it's also cheaper (no need to worry about who picks up the tab) and a lot more convenient (no need to drive out and be stuck in traffic!).

All over the world, virtual dating and matchmaking sites have reported spikes in the number of people coming their way in search of love while traditional matchmaking agencies have had to pivot and take their services online with lockdowns and restrictions on wining and dining.

"We can’t deny that the pandemic has definitely impacted the way we date. During the early phase of the pandemic, dating probably wasn't the first priority in singles' mind. There were health and safety concerns, then also the uncertainty of the pandemic, job stability, etc," says CEO and co-founder of dating service, Lunch Actually Violet Lim. "However, after a while, they started to realise that the pandemic may last longer than expected, and therefore they can't put their lives on hold."

As a result, the service which has been operating for 17 years, has had to review their operations.

"We moved all our services to virtual. Our team is working from home, serving our singles virtually through virtual consultations, coaching and arranging virtual dates and virtual speed dating events. It was not easy initially, as it took time for our team to get used to virtual consultations. It also took some convincing to get our clients to go on virtual dates," says Lim.

"We cannot control when and how this pandemic will develop and end. But we adapted and turned challenges into opportunities and reinvented ourselves. It might just be a breakthrough that may continue even after the pandemic ends!" she adds.

Local matchmaking agency Dateworks also had to shift to virtual dates for their clients after the first movement control order last March – in a little less than a year, the service has arranged 5,755 virtual dates for singles who are looking for love. While a majority of those looking for love were in their 30s and 40s, there were also some in their 20s and, at the other end of the spectrum, in their 60s.

"Before the pandemic, Virtual Dates was not a service we offered but a special arrangement we make for some of our clients that are living or working in different countries.

"I think people are finding virtual dating a good way for them to continue to meet people and even form romantic liaisons that can potentially grow. There are certainly more Malaysians who are open to virtual dates now as compared to before the pandemic.

"With the safety restrictions in place during the pandemic many singles felt that their chances of meeting someone new is close to impossible and that there there was no way for them to find love. We wanted to change their mindsets and help them adapt to the change that is taking place all around us," says Joanne Ng, chief executive officer of the matchmaking agency.

"I think the MCO has really made people decide to start working on their personal goals of finding a partner. Many of them have shared with us that they don’t want to be single for the rest of their lives and the MCO made them realise they need to make time to work on their relationship goals," she adds.

Helen Fisher, the chief science advisor to match.com, says that there has been a return to “traditional wooing” or, to be more specific, daters are “getting to know someone before the kissing starts”.

In an article in the New York Times, she says that courtship has changed in the past year – for the better!

Out of 6,004 people surveyed by match.com, 69% said “Yes” to video chatting a potential partner. Before Covid-19, only 6% said “Yes", Fisher reveals.

There are pros and cons to virtual dating but the biggest advantage is that it allows singles to make new connections during the pandemic while staying safe. Photo: 123rf.comThere are pros and cons to virtual dating but the biggest advantage is that it allows singles to make new connections during the pandemic while staying safe. Photo: 123rf.com

To know me is to love me

Jacyntha Sam went on an online date for the first time last November. She didn't use a dating app or service to connect her to someone but went through the rather old-fashioned route of introduction by mutual friends.

"It was a little awkward but because we shared mutual friends, it was sort of an ice-breaker and eased us into the 'date'. We ended up having three online dates in a week and are still 'seeing each other'. I don't know if I'd call it dating but perhaps once we actually meet and go out, I'll know if this can actually work," says Jacyntha who admits to being skeptical about virtual dating prior to experiencing it herself.

"Even if it doesn't work out that way, it has been quite exciting to have that thrill and nervousness of getting ready for a date. I missed that since the pandemic," adds the 30-year-old insurance agent.

Virtual dating, says Lim, definitely has its pros and cons. Safety and time efficiency are one of the big pluses of online dating.

"Also, virtual dating offers fun and new experiences that singles can explore with their matches. They can have themed dates, virtual movie nights, virtual game nights, and so on," she says.

Lim reveals that the longest date the service arranged lasted for four-and-a-half hours.

"There was one date we arranged that got creative, where he showed her the sunset view from his balcony! The lady was pleasantly surprised.

"The findings so far are that virtual dating somehow makes conversations deeper since there are no distractions in the background like you would experience in a restaurant. But the best advantage that virtual dating offers is it helps singles filter someone they would (or would not) want to meet in real life!" says Lim.

Data from free online app Bumble affirms Lim's observations: Lockdowns have caused daters to slow down and think about what they want from a relationship. According to data from the service, 63% of daters say that Covid-19 helped them figure out what matters most; 55% are taking their time to meet their perspective date in person; and 38% are looking for a serious relationship and not just a hook-up.

Traditional dating and matchmaking services have had to pivot and arrange virtual dates for their clients since the pandemic. Photo: PixabayTraditional dating and matchmaking services have had to pivot and arrange virtual dates for their clients since the pandemic. Photo: Pixabay

Another dating site, OkCupid, reported 30% more traffic to their service last year since the pandemic.

However, there are also disadvantages to dating virtually.

"It might be awkward at first. Singles may be trapped in long silences if the date doesn’t go as well. Also, it will be harder for some couples to 'click' at the first virtual dating session as it will take time to build the connection, which means singles will need more virtual dating sessions to really get to know each other. This is because, in virtual dates, you can only see and hear the person; you can't see how he/she interacts with other people or other social cues that you would normally be able to observe when you meet in person," she says.

To ease some of the awkwardness of a virtual date, Ng suggests that couples "plan ahead".

"Be creative... plan ahead of time and have mini dates to enjoy more moments with each other. A quick video chat during a coffee break, for example or a video call while preparing dinner. Maybe even schedule pillow talk before you both turn in," she offers.

The truth is, says Lim, there is nothing like meeting a person in real life.

"You can't really replace a physical date or interaction. When you hit it off with someone on a virtual date, your next step is definitely to still meet them in person. But virtual dating is a great alternative to stay in the dating game for singles who are looking to meet new people, and also for couples, who want to maintain a strong and happy relationship," says Lim.

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