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What Do Singles Want in the Second Year of the Pandemic?

A new survey examines how singles' dating priorities have changed in 2021.

Key points

  • A survey of singles finds that they are more likely to be seeking a serious relationship and marriage than in the recent past.
  • This year saw a major decline in singles reporting that finding a partner who wants children is a priority.
  • Singles are reluctant to get physically intimate within the first few dates.
Source: sasint/pixabay

The dating website, Match, just released the latest data for its annual "Singles in America" survey, where singles answer questions about their dating lives. These past two years have been unique, as the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the dating landscape. Last year, there was evidence that singles were getting more serious in their search for a partner. This year's data, from a sample of 5,000 singles, suggests the trend is not over, but there were a few other surprises.

Prioritizing Serious Relationships

The survey suggested that most singles are hoping to get serious. Only 11 percent reported wanting to date casually. A full 62 percent said they were looking for more meaningful and committed relationships than in the past. Singles are also prioritizing the search for a potential spouse. In 2019, only 58 percent of singles said they were looking for someone who wants marriage, but in 2021 the percentage rose to 76 percent.

When faced with a crisis of meaning — an existential crisis — people may rethink their priorities and what it means to live a meaningful life. Reminders of death can prompt these kinds of existential thoughts. In fact, studies have shown that simply reminding people about death can increase love and commitment to their current partner. With the pandemic causing people to think about life and death on a regular basis, people may prioritize getting serious about their romantic relationships.

Of course, this greater desire for a serious relationship may not be completely driven by internal motives, such as a desire for a meaningful relationship. The changes to our pandemic social lives, where we've been housebound and spending less time in large groups, have made it more socially desirable to be in a relationship. In the survey, about 20 percent of singles (and more than 30 percent of singles in their 20s and 30s) reported that they feel more pressured to find a relationship since the pandemic.

Reprioritizing What They're Looking for in a Partner

One finding unique to this year's data is that singles were less likely to list physical attractiveness (78 percent now vs. 90 percent in 2020) as one of the top characteristics they are seeking in a partner. For their top priorities, singles listed qualities that are much more relevant to the success of a relationship, like trustworthiness, communication skills, and emotional maturity. These traits are actually the most closely linked to long-term satisfaction, so putting less emphasis on looks is probably a good thing for singles. However, one recent study found that the more COVID-19 anxiety people had, the more they raised their standards for a romantic partner on all domains, including physical attractiveness. It was only those who were especially anxious about being single who lowered their standards for physical attractiveness.

Deprioritizing Children

Interestingly, singles are reporting a substantially lower interest in having children. In their 2017 survey, found that 80 percent of singles under 40 were looking for a partner who wanted kids. In just four years, that percentage has declined to just 61 percent. And the decline was greatest for women, with only 56 percent, compared to 68 percent of men, saying it's important to find a partner who wants children. At first glance, this seems contrary to the findings that singles are seeking serious relationships and marriage at higher rates than in the past. However, another finding from this survey may shed light on this sudden downturn in desire for children. A whopping 73 percent reported reprioritizing their lives within the last year with 66 percent saying they were doing more to care for their mental health and 53 percent doing more for their physical health. Is it possible that the self-sacrifice involved in having children would interfere with these goals enough to make people deprioritize having kids? Another possibility is that between the pandemic and greater political unrest in the United States, people are more pessimistic about the future that their children might inherit.

Taking Sex More Slowly

The survey results showed that more than half of singles are not comfortable making out within the first three dates, and 70 percent are not comfortable with having sex within the first three dates. These data certainly fly in the face of the familiar "three-date rule," which states that the third date is the appropriate time to have sex with a new partner. After more than a year of seeing our fellow humans as disease vectors to be avoided, the idea of getting up close and personal with an unfamiliar human may seem inappropriate, or even disgusting. In order to have sexual contact with another person, it is, in fact, necessary to get over cues, like bodily fluids, that would normally lead you to feel disgust. Historically, in societies with higher rates of infectious disease, people report a lower desire for casual sex or multiple sexual partners. Therefore, it's not surprising that, despite widespread vaccination rates, the months of focusing on the pathogen-spreading abilities of everyone we encounter has limited people's desire for getting physically intimate quickly. In last year's survey, 20 percent of singles said they would insist on wearing masks on the first date, so a move to physical intimacy within the first few dates would be a big leap from a masked first date.

In Sum

The desire for a more serious relationship that emerged among singles last year seems to be continuing this year. This move toward more serious relationships is paralleled by a lack of interest in casual sex and a desire to delay physical intimacy beyond the first few dates. With the pandemic still not over, it is yet to be seen whether these trends will reverse, or if they constitute long-term changes in how people think about their love lives.