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How the Pandemic Fueled the Rise of ‘Intentional’ Dating

8 minute read

Zach Mazerov and Blake Crist never planned to pursue a serious relationship. When New York City began opening back up over the summer, spurred by a readily available vaccine, both eagerly anticipated a season filled with carefree flings and late nights out at newly reopened bars. Their initial flirtation was supposed to be one of many for each of them during 2021’s “shot girl summer.”

Instead, within a few months of meeting through mutual friends, Mazerov, 33, and Crist, 29, both of whom work in advertising, began dating each other exclusively. Going out to bars wasn’t quite the thrill they’d remembered—in their nostalgia, they’d conveniently forgotten about expensive tabs, overwhelming crowds and long lines. And after a lonely year of social distancing as singles, neither one of them wanted to take a meaningful connection for granted.

“One of the first things that Zach and I ever said to each other was that we were not looking for boyfriends,” Crist told TIME. “But that quickly went out the window, and here we are.”

The couple isn’t alone in reconsidering what dating looks like after the pandemic changed our daily reality. Socially distanced meet-ups and video dates became par for the course in the wake of COVID-19, while casual hook-ups and engaging with multiple sexual partners had to be reconsidered in the context of new health and safety guidelines. While intimacy in the digital age already presented unique challenges with the rise of social media and dating apps, it’s never been put to the test quite like it has during the pandemic. With the advent of a vaccine and the promise of safe in-person dating, media outlets preemptively predicted that 2021 would yield a “summer of love”—a redux of the “Roaring 20s,” the Bacchanalian time that took place after another devastating pandemic—with horny singles across the nation making up for lost time.

But if the post-vaccination dating boom is any indication, singles appear to be less obsessed with casual sex and more interested in dating with the intention of finding a monogamous relationship. According to Match’s 2021 Singles in America study, which surveyed 5,000 single people in the U.S. in August, 53% of app daters are now “prioritizing their search for a relationship more than before the pandemic.” The same study also found that 58% of app daters have shifted toward “intentional dating,” and 69% of users are being more honest with their potential partners. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that after a year and a half of fear and uncertainty, commitment is now extremely sexy.

Zach Mazerov and Blake Crist photographed at Zach's apartment in Park Slope Brooklyn in October of 2021.
'One of the first things that Zach and I ever said to each other was that we were not looking for boyfriends,' says Crist (right), sitting with Mazerov in Brooklyn. 'But that quickly went out the window, and here we are.'Matthew Leifheit for TIME

For Mazerov, the decision to pursue a relationship represented a shift in priorities brought about by the pandemic. “Things changed when Blake came into the picture—I just completely abandoned my original plan for 2021,” he said, noting that the past year made him value his close relationships and friendships much more—now rendering rowdy nights out less diverting than they once were. “I feel so much more ready to be in a monogamous relationship.”

Read More: The Coronavirus Is Changing How We Date. Experts Think the Shifts May Be Permanent

Michael J. Rosenfeld, a sociology professor at Stanford University who has studied online dating for more than 10 years, says that this trend toward intentional dating in the wake of COVID-19 is building on a shift that can be clearly seen in online dating patterns from recent years, where more people have been using dating apps to search for committed relationships as opposed to hookups.

“Online dating is the number one way Americans meet partners, and it has been for some years,” Rosenfeld told TIME, pointing out that a new feature that allows dating app users to show vaccination status, which was implemented in May 2021 on most platforms as part of an initiative from the White House to encourage vaccinations, may make using those programs even more attractive to users. On Tinder, a brightly colored “vaccinated” or “I’m vaccinated” badge appears on a user’s photo. On Hinge, vaccination status is listed along with information like age and hometown, allowing users one more way to filter their matches. And vaccination status has impacted results—when OKCupid launched its badge, the company reported that users who had said on their profiles that they had been or were planning to be vaccinated got 15% more likes and 14% more matches.

“I do think that pandemics have a way of taking some of the steam and fun out of the ‘playing the field’ strategy,” Rosenfeld said. Because many adults are choosing not to get vaccinated—and with the rise of variants like Delta—people who aim to hook up with strangers on a regular basis are still facing a major health risk. “There’s going to be some friction for the people whose strategy is to have as many partners as they can.”

Rosenfeld found that this elevated risk was already making itself known in dating trends during the pandemic before vaccines arrived. While conducting interviews in March 2020 for a survey, “How Couples Meet and Stay Together,” Rosenfeld found that some singles chose to fast-track or pursue relationships ahead of or during lockdown, in part to minimize the exposure that comes with multiple partners. While the number of couples who actually found partners was relatively small compared to those who wanted partners but were unable to find them, he found that there was a small spike in relationship formations at the beginning of the pandemic.

That urgency lived on. For Annie Rauwerda, a 21-year-old University of Michigan graduate student, a first date over Zoom in February with a stranger who DM’d her meme account on Instagram @depthsofwikipedia, turned into a serious relationship after just three weeks. Her now-boyfriend, Lucas Spain, says that their swift progression to dating exclusively stemmed partly from a desire for stability when so much in the world felt out of control.

“Subconsciously, it feels safe,” says Spain, 25, who works as a copywriter. Ahead of the pandemic, he had dated fairly casually, but now he values his intimacy with Rauwerda. “In these last two years, it’s been a big help to have that when everything else is going to sh-t.”

Read More: The Forever-Online Boyfriends of the Pandemic

While the pandemic has encouraged some to pursue partnership in a more intentional way, it has also prompted others to more broadly consider what they want out of their relationships and their lives. Ellen Lamont, a professor of sociology at the Appalachian State University and the author of the 2020 book The Mating Game: How Gender Still Shapes How We Date, says that the pandemic has forced many people to more thoughtfully consider what they’re really looking for when they’re dating.

“People got lonely and had this period of time where they reassessed their priorities and what they really wanted from relationships,” Lamont told TIME, suggesting that those who were single during the pandemic may be considering monogamy and partnership more seriously now than before, after not having the option to date casually for a long period of time.

For 31-year-old Ryan Lee, after spending months alone in his Brooklyn apartment, the prospect of aimlessly flirting or hooking up as the world opened up again seemed hollow. While a casual encounter was par for the course for him in pre-pandemic days, the constraints of COVID-19 made him reconsider.

About a year into the pandemic, Lee took a five-month sabbatical from his job at a software company. During his time away from work, he also began cutting out friendships, romantic dalliances and hobbies that weren’t serving him. He’s since moved to Los Angeles for a change of environment, explaining that the hard-partying nightlife he participated in while in New York wasn’t a great fit for the changes he made during the pandemic. And while he’s dating again, he’s moved away from using apps like Tinder and Grindr, which he describes as “volume” or “hookup” apps, preferring instead to use Hinge, which is an app generally geared more toward serious dating.

“The pandemic really forced me to rethink what’s important,” he told TIME. “The biggest change with me is that I’m much more mindful of where I’m putting my energies. I’m rethinking what I actually want from my life.”

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Write to Cady Lang at cady.lang@timemagazine.com