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Unhinged, A Dating Series: Finding Connection in A Disconnected World

Just like the world outside of them, dating apps have become a new place since the pandemic—but our collective fatigue may be what brings us back together
Unhinged, a Dating Series, San Diego Mag

Dannika Underhill wants to know when we all got so socially awkward.

I met Underhill in my DMs. After reading one of my pieces, the 38-year-old whiskey brand ambassador wrote to me to share about a relationship that had started right before the pandemic and ended in a FaceTime breakup three years later (and two days before Christmas). Damn.

As she drove home from Palm Springs one afternoon, we hopped on a call to chat about her experiences dating in the city. I wanted to know if the feelings I had about dating were the same as others or if I really was on an island of my own making. We connected on something over the course of our conversation: Dating has felt different—and more difficult—for both of us since the advent of the pandemic. For Underhill, the realization occurred when she tried revisiting dating apps in 2022.

That digital space was suddenly a new world—just like the one outside of it, filled with people fatigued by years of uncertainty and isolation.

“I got on Bumble and Hinge and immediately felt 25 years older than I actually am. I felt so confused by the technology that I used to know so well,” says Underhill, a Seattle native who moved to San Diego eight years ago. “I was like, ‘What are all these premium features? What are all these new things?’”

Combing through profiles, swiping, chatting, flirting, cringing, getting left on read—it all felt strange. Underhill remembers thinking that Covid and social distancing affected how everyone communicated.  

“I was trying to register these changes. What’s different about me? What’s different about the world?” she says. “I kind of felt almost instinctively like [I wanted] to internalize it, like it was something different I was doing. Then I realized we just all went through this huge global change. I think the pandemic reframed our brains on a lot of things.”

Collectively, we’ve changed. It can’t be ignored that, four years later, we’re still somewhat socially rusty. Last year, a poll conducted for Newsweek showed that 42 percent of participants admitted to being less sociable than in 2019.

We’re exhausted. This is potentially the most don’t-talk-to-me-I’d-rather-stay-home era we’ve had in a long time, which doesn’t make for the most ideal setting to find love. I recently read a headline declaring that “lockdowns turned us into antisocial goblins,” and, honestly, that’s not wrong. 

Research also points to people withdrawing rather than seeking connection when they experience loneliness—meaning that, throughout the pandemic, as many struggled with feelings of depression, it actually began to change how they interacted with others and affected their ability to seek out relationships. 

“Connection has become so accessible that people don’t treat it as special anymore,” Underhill says. I get it. She’s hitting on something that many of us feel but can’t exactly explain. Covid took a toll on us all, and we’re lucky to be approaching some sort of normalcy these days.

The thing is, though, the internet provides a pretty cozy place to retreat to with all your “friends.” Between the parasocial sense of “hanging out” with your favorite podcasters, curling up with virtual girlfriends during a 50-part TikTok series, or getting that quick dopamine hit of matching (but never actually talking) on dating apps, we assuage our loneliness with low-stakes activities. 

These new antisocial behaviors could be a big part of why dating seems so much more difficult. Those who may have once spent their weekends at bars, sports events, concerts, or dinner parties are now holed up at home, where meet-cutes don’t really happen. (Unless your UberEats driver happens to be hot and single.) 

And, even if people are swiping from their couches, not all of them are seeking love—or even a fling. They may just want momentary connection.

Both men and women on the subreddit r/OnlineDating have complained that their matches never seem interested in actually meeting. So, how do we weed out those who are swiping just for a self-esteem boost, and how do we meet people organically in an increasingly isolated world?

If writing this column has taught me anything, it’s that being vulnerable allows others to be the same. Like Underhill, many people have reached out to me—a complete stranger—to share their need for connection. And potential dates have shot their shot knowing that I’m looking for something real.

My situation is unique; I’m not unaware of that fact. But for some, getting “out there” again may just mean hitting an Instagram social meet-up with friends and committing to talking to at least two people you don’t know. Or, it’s forgoing the standard answers on your Hinge profile and clarifying exactly what you’re looking for.

So, if you’re searching for love and the apps aren’t cutting it, or the meet-ups aren’t happening, it’s time to get up off the couch and back into the world in a pre-pandemic kind of way. Hit the bar, organize a dinner party, take yourself on a solo date with a book, or buy tickets to the next Wave FC game. Your chances increase the more you leave your house. 

Digging deeper with people is riskier than the safety of scrolling or swiping (trust me, I know!). But because of that, the rewards are far bigger, too.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and what you’re doing to help yourself return to a more sociable you. As for Underhill, she remains hopeful. She’s still using the apps, making the first move with a gif of Forrest Gump waving hello, and switching her perspective on the Covid slump.

“I was just thinking that my biggest nightmare at the gym would be me using a machine and somebody coming over and correcting me because I just feel like it would be so embarrassing,” she says. “But then I was like, I’m describing a meet-cute.”

We’re all struggling, she reminds me, but maybe that’s part of what may bring us together at the end of the day. “I do feel like there’s some reassurance knowing that it’s not me. The scene is very hard,” she says. “I’m hoping that maybe we’re just kind of like the foot soldiers, like the infantry, connecting with singles for the sake of solidarity and friendship.”

If you’re new to Unhinged, catch up on all the dating chats you’ve missed here and follow along at @monicles and @sandiegomag on Instagram to know when a new article drops each week.

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By Nicolle Monico

Nicolle Monico is an award-winning writer and the managing digital editor for San Diego Magazine with more than 15 years of experience in media including Outside Run, JustLuxe and The San Francisco Chronicle.

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