Emily Audsley wonders how different things would’ve been, if that first Covid lockdown had never forced everyone onto dating apps and glued them to their screens. Would single people be braver at approaching each other in real-life? Would she still meet men on trains and in bars like she used to, pre-pandemic? "Everyone's got so lazy since the pandemic... it's like they've forgotten how to meet people in-person now," says Audsley, 30, a recruiter from Balham who fears the pandemic took away prime years she'd have liked to have been going out and meeting a future partner.
Meehika Barua, 26, a writer from north-west London, feels lucky that she was a few years younger than Audsley when the pandemic hit — "I don't know any single friend who met someone on the dating apps during the pandemic and is with them now," she says. She's not worried about meeting potential partners in-person because everyone she knows has deleted their dating apps since the lockdowns. But Covid still lingers in her romantic life in other unexpected ways, like prolonging how long it took her to get over her lockdown breakup, and her inability to share a bed with potential partners after a full year sleeping on her own.
Richy Johnson, 30, a sales manager from Wandsworth, and Francesca Baker-Brooker, 36, a PR and marketing consultant from Hoxton, ask themselves this 'what-if' Covid question all the time, but for very different reasons. In Johnson's case, it gave him the time he needed to get to know his then-housemate and now-girlfriend Laura, 31, an audit manager, who he might have dismissed on an app or a brief date because of her opposite political views — a fact he and Laura discuss in episode four of London Love Stories with Katie Strick, a new podcast from The Standard re-telling some of the most extraordinary tales of romance from across the capital, released today.
In Baker-Brooker's case, it was probably more a case of lockdown accelerating the inevitable; of helping her to realise she'd been in love with her best friend Andy, 38, an accountant, all along. "I'd been dating someone else who with hindsight was a bit of an idiot but Andy and I would chat every day, always texting, always there for each other," she reflects. "Then one day I was walking around the park and was like 'F***, I love Andy!'. We moved in at the start of the second lockdown and three weeks later we'd nailed a Baker-Brooker sign to the front of the house. Lockdown definitely helped me to realise what was important. It's funny to wonder how things might have played out if it had never happened. Where would we be now?"
Where indeed. As with most what-ifs in life, Baker-Brooker and her now-husband will never know the answer to those questions — which is exactly the wonder of the whole thing. Would those Covid breakups have always happened, eventually, just further down the line? Would any singletons today have met a partner by now? And what of the success stories — would those couples have made it if it weren't for Covid? And, three years, how many of them survived that ultimate test?
An astounding number of them, if you ask Melissa Cook, a relationship expert and sex therapist who's worked with many pandemic couples over the last few years. Covid brought its challenges and downsides for relationships, of course — fewer opportunities to discover physical chemistry, fear around intimacy, added external strains — but Cook believes the overall outcome was a positive one when it came to Londoners and their love lives. "It emphasised the importance of communication and trust" — two qualities that are some of the most fundamental to successful relationships.
"Lockdown really was the making of our relationship. It made us stronger and made us realise we could spend time together doing nothing and still enjoy each other's company," says Zakera Rahman, founder of sustainable candle company Chaya Candles. "I think Covid made our relationship what it is... We joke about how it would be weird not to be together all the time," says life coach Jacquelynn Cotten, 34, whose partner decided to work from home with her full-time after enjoying that lockdown period so much.
Katrina, 28, a social media manager from west London, was just getting together with her now-husband when Covid hit – and credits their long walking dates around London to help them get to the big topics faster than they might have done in a normal year. "I lost a close friend during lockdown and he helped me grieve," she says.
Richy and Laura say it was their conversations in the kitchen and on the sofa that helped them discover a similar level of intimacy. Their getting-together period coincided with a time the country was more politically divided than ever, over Brexit and the lockdown restrictions, and they had opposing views — Richy was a Remainer, Laura voted for Brexit. But perhaps there was something to be said for ironing out all the arguments and tackling the big issues early on.
Having that time to really get to know each other first during lockdown really made the difference for us
Laura, who speaks about getting together with her then-housemate Richy in episode four of London Love Stories with Katie Strick
"I think we were both products of our backgrounds, really, so I think we made each other think differently," says Laura. "A lot of things we are really aligned on but I think if we'd met on an app and just went on a quick date, those things wouldn't have come out straight away. Having that time to really get to know each other first really made the difference for us."
Anna, 32, an accountant from south-west London, agrees that time was the ultimate gift Covid gave many couples who were in the early stages of dating back then. Her now-husband Chris, 36, was working abroad a lot before the 2020 lockdown, but the restrictions forced to stay in London.
The couple were only a few months into dating at the time and she only had a bag packed for two nights when they heard then-PM Boris Johnson's announcement. She ended up moving into his flat and never leaving. "It was nice to have that complete focus – but also with no FOMO [Fear Of Missing Out]," she says. "Normally in the early stages of a relationship you're still balancing dating with your old single life, but we had the great benefit that I never had to sacrifice weekends with my friends before moving in, because I wasn't able to see them anyway."
For couples like Anna and Chris, Covid didn't necessarily change the eventual outcome of their love story — but it certainly accelerated it. "I would say it probably accelerated us by about a year," says Anna. "By the time we'd got engaged it felt like we'd done quite a lot of life together," says Chelsea Snell, 31, a communications manager from Brentwood who met her now-husband Ted, 30, a lawyer, at the end of January 2020.
The lockdown forced the couple to move in together in Canary Wharf just six weeks after meeting and before they'd met each other's friends or family. She credits him seeing her at what Ted calls her "poorly Victorian child" worst with bringing down any façade of perfection that couples often put up in those early days of dating.
"We had to bypass all of that traditional 'presenting your best self' stage," she says. "When I caught Covid while staying at his, I had a weekend bag with me with two going out outfits, one set of comfy clothes and a toiletry bag, so in those first few days when I felt dreadful I was wearing his extra-large clothes and looking like a rather poorly Dobby from Harry Potter. It really burst that bubble of him thinking I looked put-together all the time... Being together constantly meant we couldn't do anything but be ourselves."
Covid lulled me into a sense of wanting to connect but not with the right person. I'm far more choosy now when it comes to dating
Lynn Anderton, therapist and life coach
But theirs was certainly not the universal experience of the three years since that strange Covid period. While many couples credit the pandemic's intensity for their success stories, others say it was exactly that intensity that ended up breaking them — spending 24/7 together exposed the cracks that had probably been there all along.
Lindsey Hall, 36, a Dating After Divorce coach with Kindling Dating, feels lucky that her own marriage broke down two months before the pandemic hit. It was hard — seeing friends and many of the other usual coping mechanisms weren't available — but the upside was that she had space to process the breakup and wasn't stuck living with her ex-partner.
Some Londoners say Covid only lengthened what they now realise was a toxic relationship; put a decelerator the inevitable breakup. "There was definitely a slight sense of panic; to grab hold of the first person you came across," says Lynn Anderton, a therapist and life coach who blames the pandemic for choosing to stay in the wrong relationship for far too long. "Covid lulled me into a sense of wanting to connect but not with the right person. I'm becoming far more choosy now when it comes to dating."
Eliza, 30, a primary school teacher from Tooting, agrees. She stayed in a strange situationship with the wrong man for too long because it was better than having no one to text from her childhood bedroom. "It's ridiculous, looking back," she says. "Lockdown meant that something that never even materialised into an official relationship felt like one of the worst break-ups of my life. I found myself having therapy for something that might have been over in a matter of weeks if Covid had never happened."
Barua agrees that her eventual breakup definitely hit harder during that strange semi-lockdown period. "Not being able to spend time with my friends or see my colleagues at fun events definitely made me spiral," she says. "Even though the relationship was barely three months, I had nothing better to do than dissect and micro-analyse every interaction to the point that it drove me mad."
Barua is over that ex now, and embracing the idea of meeting men at events like silent discos, meditation classes and archery lessons. She feels lucky she and her friends still – hopefully – have many young-free-and-single years ahead of them, unlike those who were her age when the pandemic hit.
"I feel like Covid took away our prime years for going out out with friends before they all settled down. That part of our twenties became so condensed," says Georgina Winfield, 30, a surveyor living in Balham. "I know that's what happens as you get older but it definitely feels like Covid accelerated the process."
Audsley isn't exactly envious of Barua and her fellow mid-twenty-somethings embracing a new chapter of singles events. She'd rather just be meeting people organically, in real-life, but when she raised the idea of approaching people on the Tube or in coffee shops with a few male friends in their 30s the other night, they looked at her like she had two heads. "I refuse to go on the apps – so no wonder I haven't been able to get a date... Can we just go back to the Fifties and bring back some good old-fashioned may-I-have-this-dance dating again please?"
Eimear Draper, a dating coach and founder of Kindling Dating, says this is a common complaint she sees among her single clients. "There's a feeling that they missed out on these crucial years of dating, and that it's somehow set them even further back against what can already seem like a pressurising ticking clock."
I feel like Covid took away our prime years for going out out with friends before they settled down. That part of our 20s became so condensed
Georgina Winfield, 30, a surveyor living in Balham
Draper says many of the clients she speaks to say they've become happy and comfortable in their own bubble, and that taking themselves out of that bubble is a bit daunting – especially when the dating landscape looks so different now.
"There's this sense that if you're going out, it's to have fun with your friends and not to check out who's in the room because you can do that on the apps when you get home. Apps are a bit of a Catch-22 because most people hate them, but equally they feel a bit safer than going up and trying to chat someone up in a bar because you don't have to face the rejection quite so coldly."
Draper recommends that all Londoners try something she and her husband did a couple of years ago, and list everything they do and do not want to take forward from that strange semi-lockdown period. For them, it was realising they both enjoyed working together from home, so they started their own businesses.
One client realised she was more introverted and comfortable with her own company more than she'd previously thought. Another client faced up to the fact that he was in fact quite lonely and did need to put more effort into dating seriously after all.
Cook seconds Draper's suggestion of looking at the positives as well as the negatives from that time. Whatever people's experience of these three rollercoaster years, it's certainly taught most of us a lesson or two about our love and sex lives. What life might have looked like without those lessons we'll never know, but we've certainly all got our own story from it, good or bad. Save that one for your next date, if you need a good conversation topic. The answers might just surprise you.
London Love Stories with Katie Strick is out now, wherever you get your podcasts. Click here to listen to episode four with Laura and Richie and make sure you follow the podcast channel, so you don't miss an episode.