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One year ago, I enjoyed being part of a clique of friends at a co-workspace. We sat closely together, sharing worktables, afternoon snacks and personal stories: their spouses and children, my single life with no kids.
Then came COVID and my daily social connections unraveled. While I reorganized my home as an office-gym-home theater, my friends left their cramped city apartments for an Airbnb down south, a rented house up north, and a permanent move out east.
Who could blame them? As much as I wanted my own family, I was relieved I didn’t have the COVID stress that was wearing down so many parents. As early as March 2020, New York City divorce attorneys like William D. Zabel, a founding partner of Schulte Roth & Zabel, reported a 50 percent increase in calls from people seeking to split from their spouse.
But, at the same time, the effects of isolation have also taken their toll on the singles who make up 56 percent of New York City’s residents. When even the accidental touch of gloved fingers putting change into my bare palm at the produce stand felt good, I knew something was wrong. You don’t realize how much human contact affects your well-being until it’s gone.
“Couples have had it so much easier than singles” during the pandemic, Jon Birger, author of the new book “Make Your Move: The New Science of Dating and Why Women Are in Charge,” told me. Couples “may be getting sick of each other, but they at least have each other. Our brains are not wired for this much alone time.”
The Institute for Family Studies found that the “loneliness gap” between those who are married with children and singles who are childless grew wider in 2020. In fact, people who describe themselves as “single with no kids” were the loneliest cohort in 2020. And the journal Health Affairs reported that for the 28 percent of Americans who live alone, loneliness increased by 20 to 30 percent and emotional distress tripled within the first month of the pandemic.
In New York City, that is partly because the singles scene totally evaporated. Masks, social distancing and restrictions on restaurants and bars during lockdown made dating nearly impossible. And while some used dating apps and video dating to connect, setting a place and time to meet in person was too challenging for many.
Tamara, a 50-year-old who spent the past year living and working alone in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, simply gave up on dating.
“Between it all being weather dependent, having to sit down for a dinner reservation [instead of] a casual, first-date drink, not-to-mention that 10 p.m. restaurant curfew, dating was just too complicated,” she told me. “COVID took the romance out of dating.”
Meanwhile, David, a 45-year-old divorcee with no kids, had his last in-person date nearly a year ago.
“The women I meet on dating apps don’t feel COVID-safe meeting in person, so I’ve been Zoom-dating — which isn’t the same, obviously,” said David, who moved from Brooklyn to Westchester to be closer to his aging mother during the pandemic.
Sex is even more elusive. A fall 2020 survey by Match found that 71 percent of American singles hadn’t enjoyed a single sexual encounter during the pandemic.
For Jodi, 51, who lives on the Upper East Side, it’s been even longer. After losing her husband in 2017, she announced on New Year’s Eve 2020 that she was ready to date again. Then, COVID struck. She tells me her sex life is “nonexistent.”
“COVID has been a painful reminder of what I had with my late husband — and what I’ve lost.”
Experts have long studied the impact of loneliness on a person’s wellbeing. Asim Shah, M.D., professor and executive vice chair of the Menninger Department of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine, refers to this phenomenon as “touch-starvation” and reports that it increases stress, depression and anxiety, and triggers a cascade of negative physiological effects, too.
“When someone is [touch] starved, it’s like someone who is starved for food,” Shah said in a report last May.
Diana, 38, who lives in Hoboken, NJ, and had commuted daily into Manhattan for work before COVID, admits she’s had several breakdowns since the pandemic began.
“Not being able to do anything for a year makes me feel like everything I had was taken away from me, while other people are home with their spouse and kids,” she said. “In my darkest days, I feel like I’m the only one who has nothing that matters.”
It’s no surprise that COVID has made the desire for a family more urgent for the singles I spoke with. After holding her first nephew last summer, Erica, 35, living in Connecticut, knew she wanted to be a mother more than ever. Now she is set to freeze her eggs next month, as part of a sweeping post-COVID trend. Fertility clinics reported an uptick in egg freezing in 2020, with NYU Langone claiming a 41 percent increase from 2019 and Shady Grove Fertility a 50 percent increase nationwide.
Still, Elena, 30, of Brooklyn, fears she’s lost a full year of finding love and marriage — and may have missed out on motherhood altogether.
“People are saying ‘it’s just a year,’ but when you’re 30, a year is a big percentage of your fertility window,” she told me.
Elena is now seeing a therapist to help her cope.
“She told me that most men will take relationships more seriously post-COVID. They’ll want to find someone they can count on and have a meaningful life with,” she said.
We both hope that’s true.
As more New Yorkers get their COVID vaccinations, and restrictions on dining and socializing loosen up, singles are more eager than most to get back to “normal life” — and, hopefully, a life they can share with someone they love.
Melanie Notkin is the author of “Otherhood: Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness”
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