Special Report: Single in 2021

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Between online dating apps and pandemic issues, being single in South Florida is no picnic

Once upon a time, we went steady, carried little black books, got busy necking in the backseats of cars, nervously dialed the number of our crush’s home phone—hoping their roommate wouldn’t pick up.

Today, we text, swipe right (or, yikes, swipe left), FaceTime, and when things are going good, tell friends we’re “talking” or “hanging out.”

For more than 25 years, the modern landscape of dating has been shaped by the intervention of online dating. Match.com hit the internet in 1995, followed swiftly by JDate, eHarmony, Christian Mingle and even more niche dating sites. Once taboo or potentially even embarrassing, now online dating has become the norm.

“It’s interesting because earlier on, some of the clients that I met, they would lie to their parents and to their family members about how they met,” says Sten Garcia, who used to shoot wedding videos. “And over the years, I’ve had couples that are open about it, and as a matter of fact, they talk about it during the wedding speech and the reception.”

According to a study at Stanford University, in 2017, a full 39 percent of heterosexual couples met online. That was up from 22 percent in 2009. Today, some of the most popular free dating apps are Hinge and Bumble, with paid services like Match.com still drawing singles looking to meet a partner.

In a 2020 poll by Pew Research, one in three Americans say they’ve used a dating app. However, among 18- to 29-year-olds, the number goes up to 48 percent. LGBTQ people are also more likely to use a dating app; according to the study, 55 percent of LGBTQ respondents had used a dating app. And with the pandemic forcing us to interact with one another with social distancing, online dating has almost become the only way to date. Almost a year after the lockdown started: What is the state of modern dating?

Study of Love

A friend joked that since Sten Garcia, 38, of Miami, was so good at listening, he should start a dating podcast. A few days later, another friend excitedly told him that he had just built a podcast studio in his office. Garcia saw the writing on the wall and started recording “Sten on Men and Women” in early 2019, now in its third season. With a different theme each season, guests come on the show to talk about dating and relationships.

Single himself, Garcia uses dating apps and says that just like anything else, there are pluses and minuses that come with them. People don’t seem to take dating as seriously since they have so many options available to them, he noticed. Eager to sample the menu of men and women, they seem to spend less time actually getting to know someone before writing them off. Or, people aren’t clear with one another what their intentions are.

“We’re living in a culture of instant gratification,” he says. “People feel like they have so many more options now because of dating apps or the ease of the internet, or even just sliding into somebody’s DMs (direct messages) and picking up a girl.”

When he first started his podcast, he conducted an experiment. He put away the apps and asked friends to set him up on blind dates. On both sides, they would not investigate each other on social media or receive photos or any background information. He went on five or six blind dates. They didn’t lead to anything serious, but what he took away from the experiment was how excited people were to try dating offline.

“A lot of people were really intrigued by it,” he recalls, of the blind dates. “That in itself allowed the beginning of the daters to lose some of the nervousness of going on a first date. We started talking about it immediately.”

Dating is Work

When it comes to online dating, it reminds Caleb Kerins, 28, of his job in human resources for a maritime company. Some prospective employees will interview well on the phone or on Zoom, but as soon as they come into the office for an in-person meeting, they can’t hold up a conversation. The same thing happened to him with a woman he was talking to—after texting nonstop for days, they met up and the chemistry completely evaporated.

“It’s not the true person that’s behind the screen,” he says.

For Tatiana Lora, 37, director of public relations for a luxury hotel company, dating is also like a job hunt. “It’s almost like vying for a job—who’s got that great resume? Who stands out the most?” she says.

While she feels like meeting someone “in real life” can lead to a stronger foundation when the relationship starts, online dating has proven to be a better fit with her busy work schedule. Lora is able to filter through a number of men at one time and narrow down who she wants to talk to—much like women at a bar, who will take in a man’s clothing, height and other attributes at first glance, too.

After years of dating, she’s made a rule for herself: no in-person dates until they’ve at least talked on the phone or by video chat. If the conversation is spark-free there, it won’t improve in person. For the first date, she also purposefully chooses activities with a time limit so she has an easy out if the date is not going well—her go-to is a round of TopGolf or bowling. If the conversation is flowing and she’s enjoying herself, she’ll suggest another round or to go to the bar for a drink.

“That way you’re not just sitting there looking at each other. It’s fun, it’s lighthearted and you’re moving around,” she says. “I’m living my best life. I very much would love to find a partner that I can share that with and have those memories with. I believe what’s going to happen is going to happen, and it’s going to be meant for me. The UPS guy isn’t going to just drop me off some great, good-looking man.”

Unfriendly in South Florida?

Like many singles, Kerins goes through phases of deleting and downloading dating apps onto his phone; with his job, he wants some privacy. However, at the end of the day, he prefers to meet people while he’s out and about. While meeting in person is more difficult with social distancing, during the lockdown he still has been able to meet women through mutual friends at small gatherings. However, since he moved to Fort Lauderdale from Pittsburgh two years ago, he immediately noticed a difference in the dating scene.

“Living in Pennsylvania or the Midwest, everyone is friendlier and more willing to have a conversation you strike up at a bar,” he says. “Here, you want to go chat with somebody, they’re probably nine times out of 10 going to walk away.”

Michael Kuang, who moved to Fort Lauderdale from Dallas a decade ago, also noticed the difference. The 39-year-old owner of Syphon Fitness says that meeting women at bars has not worked out for him—people just don’t seem as friendly. And after using more popular online dating apps, he says he just doesn’t enjoy it—he’d prefer to meet women through friends or through activities.

“Even if there is an interest, it seems like it’s just a lot easier to ghost somebody. People’s interest will diminish pretty quickly as they’re going through the dating site because it seems like it’s just really easy to swipe left and right,” Kuang says.

However, he did find MeetMindful, which has introduced him to more spiritual women. During the pandemic, he has signed up for virtual improv and acting classes, joined a tantra group that offers online speed dating, and also has enjoyed some Zoom dates.

“I’ve met people from different parts of the country,” he says. “I’ve also been thinking about moving to L.A., and so I’ve been trying to maybe at least connect with some people out there. … I’ve had much better success in meeting people. I don’t know what it is about South Florida that I haven’t really been able to meet anyone, even to have a conversation.”

Hiding Behind the App

On the other hand, Jacqueline Bayliss, who has lived all over Florida, says dating is hard no matter where you are—full of “the typical douchebags.” The 36-year-old landscape architect in West Palm Beach says before online dating, she was approached at bars all the time by men. Now, it’s a rare occurrence.

“People hide behind the comfort of swiping,” she says. “You don’t have to have the ego stroke or your ego let down when you approach a woman and you get rejected. But if you’re swiping, comfortable in your bed or your couch, that fear of rejection isn’t there.”

In her experience, people dating online haven’t taken it seriously. In one instance, she dated a man she found out was married only after they parted ways. She also recently got a text message from a number she didn’t know she had saved—it was the live-in girlfriend of a man she was dating, telling her they had children together.

Something Bayliss thinks is missing from dating is the romance—she misses talking on the phone instead of texting back and forth all day. On multiple dates, men have suggested she pay for the meal.

Or, the new “Netflix and chill” is inviting a woman over for dinner. Once a romantic gesture, now “he just wants me in his house,” Bayliss said.

“I’m losing hope. I’m losing hope and I’m thinking that I just might be a spinster,” she says with a laugh. “That chivalry is dead.”

Tamika Bickham, 33, agrees. The founder of TB Media Group, a marketing and public relations firm, Bickham first moved to South Florida to attend the University of Miami, moved to Alabama for work, then returned in 2012. She feels like online dating is just not as organic as meeting “in real life.”

“It’s like, hey, I’m shopping, which is very intentional, which can take [away] the spontaneity, the romance, the natural spark,” she says. “We all in general still have this desire to have a spark, a connection when you meet someone.”

While “shopping,” Bickham says she tries not to be what she calls a “window shopper” and is instead more intentional. She tries to devote time in the morning and evening to focusing on the dating apps. With that, it feels like she’s the one making most of the moves—starting conversations, giving out her number, asking if a man she’s interested in would like to go out. When South Florida was under a stricter lockdown, she went on FaceTime dates, where they would pour a drink and talk for an hour to get to know each other.

“It’s a weird world, but I just honestly feel like I need to be committed to it if I want to date during this weird COVID time,” she says.

She also started her own podcast during the pandemic, Lift U Up, where she interviews people with inspiring health stories. This, Bickham adds, has introduced her to a lot of new people, including a few attractive men. “I still feel optimistic,” she says, about finding love. “If I didn’t, then what am I doing trying to online date?”

Love in the Time of Corona

Online dating has almost been forced upon us as opportunities to meet at a bar or even a grocery store have diminished. For Chad Carter, 39, of Delray Beach, the odd circumstances helped him find someone special. In the past he had met women through friends or classes and didn’t really enjoy online dating. But that all changed during the lockdown while using the dating app Hinge: He met his girlfriend Libby.

The two messaged each other, moved on to talking on the phone, then decided to meet in person—a bigger deal than normal since the state was on lockdown.

Without the typical options of meeting up for a drink at a bar or getting dinner downtown, Carter suggested that the two of them go for a walk on the Palm Beach Lake Trail.

“I thought it would be maybe a mile or two and just walk around for an hour or so and chat,” he recalls. “We walked for 7.5 miles and it was a three-and-a-half-hour date. And then we went on four more dates the next week.”

Again, because of the coronavirus, they were forced to come up with more creative—and perhaps even more fun—ways to spend time together. On another date, they ate fast food on the tailgate of Carter’s truck and then went to a drive-in movie. Since they weren’t surrounded by other guests, and could talk as much as they wanted during the movie.

Carter likes that he got to know Libby a bit before they actually met in person, a typical step in dating today. While things have changed with dating, he does think other things have stayed the same, even though it might look a little different.

While someone can suddenly stop responding to messages after a great conversation, how is that any different from someone no longer taking your phone calls after a date?

However, some things haven’t changed at all—Carter still gets flowers for his girlfriend and opens the door for her. To celebrate their time together, they went back to the Trail and drank Champagne.

“We just matched well, we go together pretty well,” he says. “A little bit of luck, a little bit of good fortune from the way dating is kind of working these days, and then also the good fortune of being a good match for each other.”

This story is from the February 2021 issue of Boca magazine. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine.