On 4 July 2020, 34-year-old Samantha Higdon, a tech worker in Austin, Texas, was swiping through the dating app Hinge when she came across a profile that made her thumb pause and hover over the screen.
His smile struck her as warm and somehow familiar: “He just felt right,” she says. And so it began.
Later that month, he made the 80-mile drive up from San Antonio to drink margaritas on the porch with her. “It was sweltering heat,” she recalls. “He was visibly dripping sweat. So I rolled the dice and invited him in.”
By November, he had secured a job in Austin and moved into her place.
An instant merging of lives with no obstacles is hardly romcom material. And a dating app origin story (even with a dose of slapstick – profuse sweat, deadly virus) demotes a meet-cute to … well, a meet. But Higdon’s narrative comes straight from the pre-vaccine zeitgeist, when new couples were fusing with a once-in-a-century feverishness.
“When you find someone you can have a really good conversation with, it’s exciting,” Higdon says. “In the middle of the pandemic when you’re extra lonely and you find someone you can have a really good conversation with? It was the biggest relief. I had done the impossible. I held on as tight as I could.”
Many Covid relationships started there – with a frantic holding on. Like we do to the steering wheel when trucks whiz by. Like we do to our umbrella handle when wind flips the canopy. Faced with an unprecedented loss of control, many clung to romance to feel grounded. Or distracted. Or something besides horrified. And the trajectory of those relationships followed the trajectory of all coping mechanisms: they worked until they didn’t.
In the spring of 2020, as the internet filled with stressed-out parents venting about the omnipresence of their families, the uncoupled were stuck in their studio apartments, starved for touch and conversation. The unspoken rules of dating (Don’t rush. Get to know each other. Wait three months, or at least three dates, to have sex.) went out the window as people found themselves not just single but deeply alone – the way society warns them they’ll be.
Twenty-nine-year-old Marissa Blose, who works in non-profit education in Brooklyn, met a man on an app who proceeded to ghost her and then popped back up with a world-class excuse: he had been busy donating a kidney to his sister. The first time they met in person, Blose made him show her the scar. “Then things moved very quickly,” she says. “We saw each other every day. I’ve never been in a relationship like that. We decided to be exclusive as soon as we started sleeping together, two weeks after we met.”
We decided to be exclusive as soon as we started sleeping together, two weeks after we met
“It got really intense really quickly,” says 26-year-old Austin Cole, who works at a startup in Los Angeles, about his own Covid-era relationship. “She lived in downtown Santa Monica where the riots were going on [after George Floyd was murdered]. People were breaking windows. There were police and helicopters,” he said. “I went to her place and spent the night for the first time. It was something none of us had ever felt before. It was nice to be with someone in that moment of chaos.”
Dr Lisa Wade, associate professor of gender and sexuality studies and sociology at Tulane University and author of American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, draws a parallel between the fast-and-furious Covid romances and the dating scene in the aftermath of the second world war. Because many soldiers had died overseas, married foreign wives, or experimented with men during the war, a national panic ensued – how would young women find husbands?
“It was under these conditions that young people invented ‘going steady’,” Wade says. “Prior to this, premarital monogamy was unheard of.”
Different circumstances, same musical chairs: when Covid descended and dating around was no longer safe, not to mention that conventional date venues like bars, restaurants and coffee shops closed, many singles scrambled to find a seat. And then they just … sat there.
“We were both working from home,” Higdon recalls. “We’d hang out all day. We watched 90 Day Fiancé and the spin-offs.”
“You’re like, ‘What am I going to do?’” says 35-year-old Albert Ortega, an artist in El Paso, Texas, who Covid-mated with another local artist. His answer? “The only thing I can do. I’m going to spend time with her.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise that these couples who were clinging to each other for dear life didn’t make it.
“The relationship kept intensifying because of Covid,” Cole remembers.
“We would FaceTime with her parents. My fear of commitment came up. In the back of my mind, I was thinking, when the world opens up again, will I want to be in a relationship?”
Once she broke his heart, Ortega regretted letting his girlfriend in so quickly, to the extent that he did. He regrets that he let her into his daughter’s life, for instance, and that he trusted someone who hadn’t earned his trust. “Normally relationships build up over time. With Covid it was overnight. I had to trust her in terms of Covid-safety and otherwise. I had to learn to trust real fast.”
For Blose and her boyfriend, things went south as soon as they got vaccinated. “Suddenly, he didn’t want to wear a mask any more,” she says. “He wanted to go out. He wanted to be free.”
He talked her into a trip to New Orleans for her birthday in June, even though the prospect of travel still made her uneasy. In the hotel room, they were watching baseball on his phone when a message arrived from a woman via the Hinge app. He became defensive and said something about joining Hinge to recruit women to his kickball team. Then he went out without Blose and partied with a group of bachelorettes until 7am. The relationship ended shortly thereafter.
Vaccines spelled the end of Higdon’s relationship, too. Naturally extroverted, she was thrilled to finally be able to see friends and family after the long months of quarantine. As it turned out, her boyfriend had severe social anxiety, grew moody and mean in public settings, and had no desire to conduct their relationship outside of the home. He planned his escape without telling her, admitted to her one night that he had grown unhappy, and was gone from her life within hours, leaving in his wake only what he couldn’t stuff into his car – a kitchen table, a mattress, a rowing machine.
The relationship never would have happened were it not for Covid
“The relationship never would have happened were it not for Covid,” Higdon says. “In non-Covid times, a first date would have been over coffee or drinks in a public place. And he was not the same person in a public place … I wouldn’t have seen the person I saw.”
“I learned outside circumstances impact a person tremendously,” Blose says, “but deep down at their core they don’t change. When the pandemic felt real to him, he was one person. After vaccines, he was another. Maybe the post-vaccine version was the person he always was.”
She acknowledges that she learned from the experience: “Moving quickly doesn’t mean that it’s working or that it’s going to work out,” she says. “Now I see that it’s important to have boundaries.”
“I’m aware I pushed for that relationship a lot,” Higdon says. “It felt like I was the only one pedaling. Now I’m much more mindful – they have to be pedaling too or I’m not going to pedal. Learning that is a gift.”
Because I, too, had a Covid romance that ended within two months of vaccination, I wanted to write this story, to find beauty in the unforeseen and brief connections. It’s amazing enough to live through history as it unfolds, let alone to find someone whose face you want to touch, and who simultaneously wants to touch yours, at a time when face-touching is prohibited.
Maybe that’s beautiful?
But because I attached to a stranger, and that stranger’s pod, and now don’t even speak with them, I won’t have anyone to reminisce with about the darkest year of this century. It’s as though I spent 14 months cloaked in that darkness, invisible.
As the pandemic rages on, my priorities have crystalized – to stay close to the people I’ve loved forever, the people who are mine.
“You realize how short life is,” Ortega says, reflecting on his relationship. “There could be another pandemic tomorrow,” he says. “Who do you really want to be with?”