I’m so clueless about relationships that I leave all decisions to the highest power I know: star signs. I think that’s a testament not only to my ignorance but to my desperation for an answer as direct as a smiley or a frownie next to “Sex & Love” on a horoscope app, and a carefreeness that’s both romantic and reckless. Maybe we’re not fated—or it’s not you, it’s the fact that you’re an Aquarius.
At the beginning of quarantine I found myself between two Cancers: one who was cute and tall but had no semblance of a personality at all except being cute and tall (thank god he’s those things), and another who sustained my interest in conversation but often teetered too close to platonic, thanks in part to my preoccupation with the first guy’s cuteness and tallness. I didn’t have the energy to sustain multiple quaranflings (boys are boring), so I had to choose. With star signs failing me, I turned to tarot cards.
“You know you don’t actually have to choose,” my good witch friend told me after the reading, where (of course) the cards knew exactly what I was going through. And he was right. I broke things off with the two of them. (No ghosting—I may be noncommittal but I’m not a Gemini.)
A Venn diagram of the moment you tell yourself you’re happy being single and the moment you meet someone Actually Good is often a circle. I hadn’t opened Bumble in a week and when I did, I swear—I swear—it was for five minutes. I matched with a few people, and I only messaged one (another Cancer), just for kicks. Five minutes turned into a day, then a week then three months. It’s consistent; it feels safe, reassuring, and so, so weird that I would find someone like this in the middle of a pandemic. I didn’t really take dating seriously (and that’s on emotional unavailability!) and I told him this as early as I could, and he said whatever. He’d take whatever I could give. We had just started talking, after all.
It’s always a bit surprising to my friends—and honestly, to me as well—how Serious we are becoming. They always ask, “Oh, do you guys do this? Have you talked about this?” And yes we do, yes we have. It’s so liberating to be with someone who doesn’t need to be taught how to actually date a person, who asks about my boundaries and respects them, who knows to just ask and communicate; things I never experienced with people who saw me just as a body, or worse, as an idea (please stop sending me playlists with The Walters in them).
But as much as I bask in our Seriousness right now, it took me a while to even define “serious.” What does it mean, for people who met online and can’t take it IRL because of a pandemic? For a while the two of us were shrouded by insecurity; it’s such a vulnerable time and everyone’s extra sad and anxious, and we wondered how we could separate what we are feeling now from what we feel for each other. The answer, it seems, is always communication. I asked him about previous relationships and why they ended. We constantly asked where we stood, and we told each other when we stopped talking to other people. Because online dating is built on talking, it can be a petri dish for effective communication, especially now when meeting up is not a possibility. Obviously the stakes of online and face-to-face conversations are different, but right now it’s like the two of us are being trained to verbalize what we feel and need—we learned early on that our partner is not a mind reader.
Of course it took a while to get there. Navigating this weird time and the weird feelings it brings isn’t easy, especially if your partner isn’t willing to do it with you. Ghosting still does happen—the quarantine may have weeded out the hookups, but the people who are just bored and looking to kill time still run rampant. It pays to make your intentions clear, even if you just want to see where things go. “I would put my heart on my sleeve but she wouldn’t do the same,” my friend Basil said about an ex-girlfriend. They met through a mutual friend and dated online for four months, never meeting. “She’s a Virgo and I’m a Libra. You can do the math.”
Basil adds that it was hard to be limited to just messaging, and that it was awkward when they tried calling. “Online dating is nice because you get to think of witty things to say without sitting there [in] silence as if it were IRL,” they explained. After all, it’s easier to be vulnerable to strangers online (take it from me, a personal essayist), and it can be mistaken for intimacy. There is a tendency to put your partner on a pedestal; because you don’t see who they are outside of you, you fashion this whole dream life where you fill in the blanks. This just sets you up for heartbreak—the people we want are never just as we desire them, especially those whose personhood never belonged to them but to you.
This can be true for yourself as well: Basil said they felt the need to be witty and flirtatious in online dating as opposed to being more natural when face to face. Personally, especially on dating apps, I project a certain nonchalance that I don’t necessarily possess in real life. When things got Serious between us, there was a reintroduction of the kind of people we were outside the peacocking. It’s a gradual process, inasmuch as vulnerability in real life is also a gradual process. While the majority of people believe others lie on dating profiles to appear more desirable, being in quarantine trims down the disappointing dates because your chemistry is put to the test before you ever meet. The gratification of lying is delayed, so if you want to sustain the relationship (or the Talking Stage, or whatever nomenclature kids use these days), you have no choice but be yourself.
Between the two of us, tearing down walls was easier for him (Cancers, amirite). I’m more guarded: things that come naturally to him, like updating and checking up on me, took me a while to get used to. I told him I’ve grown accustomed to being on my own. “I get that, and I’m not asking you to change,” he said through FaceTime, when I called him sensing he was getting frustrated with my standoffishness. He has a habit of explaining relationships through analogy, because he knows I get defensive of my agency every time we talk about ours. “It’s like this: I invite you to study for an exam, and you turn me down, saying you’ve already studied for it. That’s okay; that’s why I asked. But then you go home and you haven’t actually studied. You just wanted to do it on your own, to retreat into your own world.” He was talking slowly, being careful with his words. “I’m not asking you to share a toothbrush with me. I just want to study with you, and if you want, I can go home right after. I just want you to let me in.”
There was never any pressure for me to immediately wear my heart on my sleeve, but I had to put in the work to meet him in the middle. (“That’s called ‘dating,’” I can imagine him chiming.) It was after this conversation and the many more that followed that I realized knowing someone IRL doesn’t always mean knowing them better. Of course there’s always that voice in my head that tells me what I feel isn’t valid because it’s just online, but even with the people I’ve previously quasi-dated (what is it with the youths and our obsession with not-not-dating?) whom I all met offline, the getting-to-know stage still happened via text.
But that’s the thing—these not-not relationships still had parts that were offline. Even though this is the most emotionally secure I’ve felt, I still struggle with the complete absence of physical contact. I express by touch, and saying “sending u hugs!!!” gets old fast. There are times when we say we miss each other despite having spent the entire day talking, because we understand that there’s a lack; a longing that we can’t collapse. Video calls, no matter how frequent, are still no match for the real thing.
I have my reservations, because our relationship existing only in this virtual plane makes it difficult for me to grasp him; to say with confidence that this is “real.” When friends ask if I see this going anywhere, I say absolutely, but right now we both understand that there’s a stagnancy with only being online. In a way, I feel like we exist in this utopia, because our relationship is in a vacuum. I’ve never been in a Serious Relationship, so I always ask him what it means if we choose to adhere to that label; we’ve decided that it’s a label unfit for something with parts we haven’t seen in full.
That doesn’t mean we’ll never get there. Skepticism at such an unprecedented time is a natural response; it’s not automatically a rejection. Love, after all, is often at the mercy of so many other forces, and recognizing that it’s not the be-all and end-all is a sign that you truly care about the relationship. It’s inevitable to question the validity of online dating, but we must still acknowledge that it can affect us in very real ways. That’s why the internet has such a strong hold on us—we always underestimate its power to permeate the lives we have outside of it. “Maybe I was too eager since it was my first time [being in a relationship], but it felt real. I cried a lot when we broke up,” Basil tells me. “I had a hard time grasping what I would do without her, but here we are now, right?”
If you currently have a quaranfling, allow yourself to feel what you feel, regardless of the level of seriousness. This includes the companionship and security and solace and all the good stuff, but you also have a right to your reservations. In fact, I encourage you to explore those reservations: ask yourself why you have them, ask your partner if they have them too, ask if there’s anything you can do to soothe them for now. And if you still have them, then have them. Of course it’s different for every person and every relationship, and I’m in no place to police how you choose to date at this time. What I wish to offer is the liberation to command your emotions, both good and bad. And if there’s one thing I want you to take away from this piece, please, please—no more Aquarians.
By Andrea Panaligan
Illustration by Abby Silverman for Cosmopolitan