By Ceci Browning
Another national lockdown. A lockdown that looks like it will last for months. For single people all over the country, this seems like bad news. No dating, no meeting people, no chance of getting into that shiny new relationship they’ve been waiting for. As public spaces empty, the stacks of profiles on dating apps build up, and yet, especially for those living alone, love, or even just company, seems further away than ever.
First time around, in March last year, I must admit, I was one of these people. I understood this enforced dating hiatus as the end of the world. I couldn’t cope with the thought that for weeks and weeks and weeks, endlessly, my single status was set in stone, simply because the government had said so. I felt as though I was running on a treadmill, desperate to move forward but going nowhere, watching as all these months of singledom passed me by, as my affections went to waste, with nobody to aim them at.
So, as much as I hate to write the word, let alone say it aloud, I turned to Tinder. Just looking at that sentence on the page makes me feel ridiculous. If you’re on Tinder, you’re just looking for casual sex. If you’re on Tinder, you’re not interesting enough to find someone in real life. If you’re on Tinder, you’re desperate. These are the assumptions that are made, and that it is impossible not to label yourself with as soon as you press the bright pink button which says ‘create an account’.
I have deleted and redownloaded each of the dating apps on my phone more times than I can count. There have been successful dates of course, second dates, and even third dates, but there have also been numerous failures, some of which have been so horrifying I have sworn to never speak of them again. It’s not that I hate dating apps. Quite the contrary, I think I am more of an advocate than most, and very often find myself defending the swiping community in the face of criticism. I would also not claim, however, to like dating apps. They are not really an enjoyable experience. They are superficial, tiresome, and repetitive. They are a plaster, slapped on top of a bruise.
However, on this occasion, stuck in my lockdown rut, the cheap thrills of a dating app were exactly what I needed. I got talking to a guy who lived in Amsterdam, just by chance. We spoke for weeks, almost every night of the spring, and then, once the restrictions were finally lifted and the summer was rolled out ahead of me, I hopped on a last minute flight over to the Netherlands to meet my lockdown lover in person. I think perhaps I went because I was desperate for some kind of adventure, to get away from the town I’d been stuck in for so long, but I tell myself that he was the reason. That I went for him. Yes, the guy I met on a dating app.
He would come and go for work, my Dutchman, while I’d waste away the warm hours of the day wandering through the city’s many museums, peering at paintings and historical artefacts, or finding waterside cafes to sit outside of, making a single glass of fruit juice and a pastry last for hours. When the sun began to go down, I’d dip in and out of shops, gathering up paper bags heaped full of groceries, and then we’d come back together in the early evening, to cook and drink red wine with a handful of his friends, before stumbling back to my hotel room, where we’d collapse exhausted onto the huge mattress, and then talk and kiss and run our fingers over the outlines of one another until we fell asleep. It felt refreshing to love in real life again.
Like all holiday romances, it was short-lived. I knew that it was unsustainable, that when I came home it would all be over, and then I’d be back at square one, exactly where I was when the lockdown started. Single. But something had changed. Now being on my own didn’t seem quite so bad. Now I didn’t want to swipe through endless photos of men with new glossy haircuts, hands gripped round pints, gladiator sunglasses hanging from the necklines of v neck t-shirts, big grins, Nike trainers. Now it seemed like the alternative, the being on my own, without regular pings from handsome strangers – new match! new message! new match! – this was better. I’d still get lonely sometimes, I knew that. With a long empty summer stretched out ahead of me, I knew there would be nights when I’d lie alone and all I’d be able to focus on would be the sort of empty feeling at the bottom of my stomach, the ache of an empty bed. Even with my eyes closed, I’d be able to see the space next to me. I’d see the blue-grey gap where another person should be and it would hurt. Some nights, knowing that I am still on my own, that would hurt me.
However, travelling solo for the first time had made me realise that actually I wasn’t lonely. I was just alone. And that was totally okay. Being alone is not a terrible fate. In fact, it gives you a chance to reflect on what it is you’re looking for, to think about what it is you’re really missing and work out how you might fill those gaps all by yourself: the big questions that dating apps distract us from. Although I’d had company while I’d been away, and while it had certainly been a Tinder success story, I’d known throughout that it was all temporary. Ultimately, I reminded myself, I was a single entity, roaming the streets of a foreign country on my own. Flying back, using my single ticket to get to my single seat, eating my single packet of nuts off my single tray table, I felt fulfilled. I was no longer convinced that being alone meant being lonely, as I had believed when the first lockdown was announced. I was alone, yes, but I had people who loved me on both sides of the sea I was crossing. I wasn’t lonely.
This time around, regardless of how long the lockdown lasts, I am determined to resist the pull of dating apps, which so easily convince us that it is totally awful and irrational to be on our own. Why are we single when there are so many options at our fingertips? How awful must we be to still not have anyone? Or at least to not be talking to anyone, sowing the seeds of a relationship. This lockdown, I am committed to remembering that being alone does not have to mean being lonely. They are not the same. In fact, being alone might just give us the chance to work out what it is we really want. Being alone for a little while longer, maybe, just maybe, is going to make all the difference.
Picture taken by the author