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‘Phantom relationships’: the lockdown loves that burned bright, then went out

What happened to all those fleeting lockdown relationships?

The first meeting never worked out.

“In 2016, I matched with John* on Tinder,” Ashley*, 29, from London says. “It fizzled out, but then when I downloaded Hinge for the first time last year, he came up again.” The pair matched and began chatting, rekindling the old flame around March 2020. “We had a two-hour phone call a few days later and then it just became this thing where we would send each other long messages and have regular phone calls. We also had a Houseparty date on a Saturday night during lockdown, which was the first time I had properly seen him, which was mad.”

Ashley and John spoke intimately, sharing details of their days and flirting casually. He was kind and curious, easy to chat to. It felt bizarre but also very real. After several weeks, they made plans to meet – just as restrictions were beginning to lift for the first time. Until John cancelled at the last minute.

“I’m not sure whether he got cold feet or whatever, but after that it just petered out. Neither party ghosted the other,” Ashley says. Communication just dropped off. “I actually got in touch with him weeks later to kind of laugh about it and we had a nice chat. Looking back, I think the relationship we had kind of took on a life of its own, taking over every one of our days without actually really having a backbone. I see that now, and I don’t regret it, but I do think about him often, and how he resides somewhere between a sweetheart and a stranger.”

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Some 18 months into a global pandemic, these kinds of relationships have become commonplace. In fact, according to research compiled throughout the pandemic, Ashley’s situation is not unusual at all. One third of British daters have uttered the words “I love you” to someone they have only ever met online and almost half of the 2,000 adults surveyed believe it is possible to find ‘love at first sight’ in the virtual world.

“The thing is that these are app relationships, not real life ones,” says matchmaker and cofounder of Select Personal Introductions, Alex Mellor-Brook. “In reality, it’s more like having a penpal than a relationship. Sometimes they work in real life, but I would say that a large percentage don’t. Look at Instagram and Facebook, they’re filled with perfect images; like Love Island, it’s not reality. You bring in real life and that’s where it crumbles. When people come to us, they might see someone who looks wonderful and perfect, but actually do they stand the test of time? You get a number of speed bumps in life – the pandemic was an enormous one – which oftentimes show the weaknesses of the relationships, which is a big reason why we saw a lot of relationships fizzling out during Covid-19. Texting someone is fine if you have great typing skills, but you have to make use of very different skills when speaking face to face.”

Phantom relationships (people that met, fell for each other, and were in relationships in lockdown but realised their relationship was based on little and faded) are everywhere, but did the lack of physical closeness during the Covid-19 pandemic mean that these interactions were never going to work?

There was an exponential uptick on dating apps throughout this time – messages on Bumble rose by about 25%, the number of swipes on Tinder broke 3 billion in a single day for the first time in March 2020 and smaller sites such as The Inner Circle saw message frequency double

Broken heart.

For Jenny*, 29, from Oxford, it started when Kate* liked her profile. She had hit so many dead ends when it came to dating people by way of apps, but Kate’s array of photos beaming with her dog and cats won her over. The likelihood of romance seemed slim, given the intense restrictions first applied in March 2020, but Jenny persisted. They had only exchanged a couple of texts before Jenny bit the bullet and asked to opt out of the app and call her instead. They spoke for upwards of two hours, coyly laughing and flirting throughout. These practices continued, with Jenny realising she had begun to fall for Kate two weeks in. 

“I’ve never felt such intensity for someone over the phone before,” she says. “I know it’s nuts, but I really felt such a connection with her, which never happens.” The dates continued, opting for ‘coffee’ over FaceTime and eating dinner together as if they’d dined out. The conversation quickly turned to sex, heat seemingly emitting from the phone. “We were just so compatible in every way. I couldn’t wait to see her.” 

As lockdown progressed, the lack of physical intimacy left both parties feeling less and less confident. “We finally decided to meet – in a park for a coffee and a walk – only for awkwardness to take over. From the get-go, I was uncomfortable and unsure as to whether I should hug her or remain two metres apart. I could tell she was feeling the same. Ironically, we had never felt further away. I could blame the pandemic, but looking back, it could have been a number of things. That meeting was the beginning of the end for us, and now I’m happily seeing someone else, but it felt like a lot to deal with at the time – building your hopes up in a hopeless time, only to realise that I had sort of made up the relationship as we went along. I’m not even sure that relationship is the right word for it.”

“During the pandemic, we found a lot of what we’re calling ’Covid cuffing’, a practice where people found their way into a relationship to feel less alone for the time that it lasted. You often see similar practices in winter, when people want someone to hold during cold, dark winter nights. It’s usually good communication, but often ends quite badly. Also, when restrictions were lifted, people found they no longer needed to continue cuffing, which resulted in them realising they no longer needed to keep those people around.”

It kicked off for Stephanie*, 24, from Peckham, when Marcus* commented on her Instagram story. She had fancied him from afar for a long time but nothing ever came of it. A week of endless chatting later, he admitted the same thing. “It was mad,” she says. “I didn’t think he’d ever like me, but I’m just so glad he shot his shot.” The pair grew closer, messaging every day and calling regularly, but as both parties lived at home with their parents, they didn’t push the idea of meeting further. “I felt so respected with that,” she says. “I’ve had experiences of boys trying to push me to do things, but he just got me.” 

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It wasn’t until Marcus sent her a message that was obviously meant for someone else that she started to suspect things were going wrong. “The message was obviously for another girl, which was something I was shocked about because I was only speaking to him,” she continues. “We hadn’t had a chat about that or anything but it was a pandemic – I just assumed! He’d also told me I was his perfect woman, more than once, so it just undermined everything he had told me up until now. Things started to topple a bit from there, especially when I realised there just wasn’t as much in it for him as there was from me. I’ve seen him once since, but it’s been fine, no animosity or anything. I just came to a realisation that for him it was one thing, and for me, another.”

“If you meet a partner who is aligned with your needs it is great,” relationship coach Annie Lavin tells Stylist. “However, if your relationship is based only on virtual knowledge of one another how do you ever get to test whether your needs can be met? If you know what your needs are, it’s possible to be closer to having them met but there are a lot of people who have no idea how to answer the question of ‘what do you want?’”

It’s important to learn how to become a discerning dater, someone who is clear on what they are looking for and aware when the person they are matching with is seeking something different and not as invested, Lavin continues. “I recommend clients meet in person with anyone they are talking to within a week – this can save a world of pain. Do not build a fantasy of who you would like someone to be, check out the reality as soon as possible.”

* Names have been changed.

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Images: Getty/ Francesco Carta fotografo

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