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Love and other antibodies: coupledom in Covid

Pondering the value of platonic love in the pandemic.

Image credit: Gustavo Fring/Pexels

For singles around the world in the past year, the beginning of each lockdown has been marked by a flurry of dating app -downloads. 

As the chance of real-world romance shuts down, the realms of Tinder, Hinge and Bumble glint on the horizon. They are love-affirming and expansive, well-lit like shopping centres with rotating glass-doors of potential. They are welcome distractions from the monotony of lockdown, wherein love becomes a socially constituted fantasy, a vapid form of escapism for those without a sanctioned ‘partner’. 

Of course, the appeal of these platforms is transient, the dating experience is cheapened by the sterility of online interaction and mandated physical distancing. The reality is that most of us aren’t really expecting to be struck by love— that transformative, serendipitous and mysterious force as it is mythologised by our culture— on an app.

Yet we still re-download, swipe, small-talk and ghost. 

Lovesick, it seems, is the only type of ‘sick’ we would happily be right now— but it’s the only kind we can’t catch. 

“How did love come to be established as the core feeling of life and being?” asks Lauren Berlant in their essay Love: a Queer Feeling (2001).

The triumph of passionate romance as a social norm is concurrent with the evolution of the individual, and the rise of the novel in the nineteenth century. Berlant argues that love itself is figured as a commodity in a late-capitalist era. “The notions of personal autonomy, consent, choice, and fulfillment so powerful in love discourse seem to be the same as those promised by national capitalism.” As such, love comes to refer to the ideal of romantic, sexual, and monogamous coupledom – as much an economic power (through marriage, conjugal property, capitalisation off it in the media, etc) as an emotional commitment.  

Extended periods of isolation during the pandemic have intensified our desire for and glorification of love even further. 

One’s ‘singleness’ becomes pronounced as physical contact is restricted, and the socially-constructed value of romantic and sexual partnership is magnified by lockdown restrictions. 

During the first quarter of 2020, Tinder, Hinge, OKCupid and other dating apps reported a 15% increase in new subscribers, and 2020 ended up being Tinder’s busiest year ever. Many singles have reported developing ‘pandemic crushes’ on unattainable strangers during lockdowns. And Google searches around the question “Why am I dreaming about my ex?” increased by more than 2400% during the first half of 2020, according to research by the digital-marketing agency AGY47. 

Further, the rules of NSW’s current lockdown only allow intimate partners to visit the home. After substantial public outcry, five weeks into the lockdown, ‘singles bubbles’ were introduced. They allow single people living alone to mutually elect one person to be part of their social bubble. In the Victorian outbreak of 2020, it took months to introduce similar policy, whereas in South Australia it only took a day. 

Ultimately, these decisions highlight the kinds of relationships that society deems essential: Those that are sexual, monogamous, romantic and often coded as ‘productive’ (heterosexual). 

Scholar Eleanor Wilkinson uses the word ‘mononormativity’ to refer to the prioritisation of such bonds in modern society. That is, “the presumed desirability of coupledom, and discrimination against those whose intimate lives do not fit this conventional dyadic form.” 

She says that society creates ‘intimate hierarchies’ wherein couple culture is elevated, permeating heteronormative, homonormative and queer spaces. While ‘liquid love’ and ‘cold intimacies’ have been used to describe the non-commital, fast-paced, and transactional character of modern love under technological capitalism— where heterosexual monogamy is allegedly supplanted by the diversity of gender and sexuality — ‘compulsory sexual romance’ is still widely privileged. Even online dating sites like Hinge are marketed with by-lines like ‘made to be deleted’. 

Notably, the idealisation of sexual romance is more prevalent for woman-identifying individuals. Modern Western culture is usually accepting, and even praising of, a woman’s singleness in her youth, labelling her as ‘independent’, ‘career focused’ and feminist. Nonetheless, a woman’s singleness is pathologised as she ages; she is figured as tragic, or as if there is something fundamentally wrong with her, reinforcing monogamous coupledom as her ultimate destiny.

As such, mononormativity shapes the relationships our society deems essential, leading to the emotional exclusion and neglect of many during COVID lockdowns. 

Specifically, those in single or lone person households in Australia have reported the highest levels of loneliness and depression during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to research from Swinburne University and Monash University

Now, as NSW braces itself for another four weeks of lockdown, it can be frustrating to again seek human connection through the cold intimacy of our screens. 

Optimistic studies show that many individuals are more willing to form genuine connections on dating apps as a result of lockdowns; in a survey of nearly 400 Australian Bumble users last year, about two-thirds said their dating behaviours had changed, with many embracing a longer courtship period and setting the trust bar higher before meeting. Increased use of online communication may also reduce general feelings of isolation during the pandemic

But despite the ways coupledom is epitomised by our society, the interactions that constellate the fabric of social normalcy are often everything but romantic or sexual. The things that we miss the most, that sustain us, are simple human contact— embracing our friends, brushing shoulders with people in clubs, conversing with strangers in public bathrooms. 

Alongside the history of sexual romance is one where friendship is at the heart of human experience. For the Ancient Greeks, ‘eros’ or passionate, sexual love, was a disordering, intense and brief emotion, while ‘philia’ or friendship was virtuous, loyal, and between equals. Hannah Arendt, who famously said that “the world lies between people”, argues that “humanity is exemplified not in fraternity but in friendship.” 

While ‘love’ is an island we have stubbornly moored ourselves to, friendship is the water we float in. 

For now, the fantasy of romantic love, transmitted through fiction and dating apps, may temporarily placate our loneliness. Society and governments should’ve sooner recognised the value of all relationships, not just romantic and sexual partnerships. They must work to satisfy those needs for the wellbeing, and indeed the wider cooperation, of people across the state in future.