I was catching up with a friend the other day when she mentioned she had recently downloaded Coffee Meets Bagel, a popular dating app. Her confession took me aback, for this friend has always been extremely wary about meeting strangers, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Catching my look of incredulity, she explained, “I simply want to talk to someone, even if I don’t end up meeting them.” She paused, then added more quietly, “I’m just so lonely these days.”
Now, that I understood. Cabin fever, boredom, skin hunger—call it what you want but they all boil down to the same thing: loneliness. When I bring this phenomenon up in our Zoom call, Wendy Tse Wulff, founder of matchmaking agency Society W, nods knowingly. “I think people have gotten a wake-up call about what it means to be single,” she muses. “Living in a densely-populated place like Singapore means always being surrounded by people. It wasn’t until this pandemic happened and we were all stuck at home that we realised what loneliness means.”
Society W is an elite matchmaking agency that counts CEOs, billionaires, and celebrities among its clientele. Wulff describes herself and her team of matchmakers as head-hunters: “Unlike a dating app where you find potential partners among the other members, how my agency works is that our clients tell us what they are looking for, and then we go out and find the right match for them.”
“People have gotten a wake-up call about what it means to be single”
While Wulff’s clients tend to be among Singapore’s elite, she believes people from all walks of life have been affected in similar ways by the pandemic when it comes to dating and relationships. Over our chat, we touched on serious topics such as breakups and mental health issues, but as Wulff concludes optimistically: “The pandemic has forced more people out of their comfort zones to try new things, and I think that’s refreshing and wonderful.”
Read on to hear what more she has to say about the new face of romance in this era.
On how COVID-19 affected people’s outlook on relationships
Before the pandemic, many of my clients were simply filling up their free time with casual, short dates. They didn’t feel lonely then because they were entertaining themselves by meeting good-looking, interesting people all the time.
But during the pandemic, it really struck many people how lonely they are without a life partner. The younger ones who still live with their family could still talk to their parents and siblings, but for my older clients living alone in huge houses, the loneliness was really staring them in the face. In fact, after circuit breaker lifted last year, we received a surge in sign-ups, especially from men looking for serious relationships. Even guys we’ve known for several years, who were never ready to bite the bullet and commit, suddenly came to us after being locked down for months and said they are ready now to find a partner.
On how mental health factors into dating
Mental health issues during the pandemic are very real and definitely affect relationships. There is still a lot of stigma surrounding mental health in Asia, so I think people are suffering in silence. For some clients, I could see that their enthusiasm is gone; they didn’t want to meet anyone or do anything so they turned down all the matches we offered them. It felt like there was a lack of joy in their lives.
“There is still a lot of stigma surrounding mental health in Asia, so I think people are suffering in silence”
One client is the CEO of a big company, but the company went bankrupt during the pandemic. It was obviously very tough on him and because I knew him quite well, I could detect something was amiss even though he didn’t say anything. He was always very nice but kept turning down our matches and saying he was very busy. And when the time to declare bankruptcy neared, he actually gave us the news first before it hit the press, and that was when his recent behaviour made sense.
On how lockdown affected relationships
One couple who had only been dating for a month and half before circuit breaker began were trying to decide whether to move in together. The girl was quite scared and asked me what to do. Normally, I would advise against it because they hadn’t been together that long and moving in together is a huge step. If I knew the guy was very peculiar about cleanliness, for instance, I might have discouraged it and recommended they build a stronger foundation first before living together. But I had a good feeling about those two because they are both nice and easy-going people. Besides, what is love and life and dating if you don’t take some risks? So they decided to take the plunge and they are actually still together—they are even talking about marriage now.
But we also have cases of couples who spent lockdown together and drove each other crazy and moved out the very first moment they could. We also know many couples who broke up during the pandemic. If the connection isn’t very strong, it’s hard to withstand lockdown when both parties aren’t seeing each other. You have to put in a lot of effort to make up for the physical distance, and as long as one side isn’t willing to put in the effort, then it becomes very hard for the relationship to make it.
On how dating arrangements have changed
Initially, there was a lot of resistance to virtual dating. I think most people had no clue COVID-19 would last this long, so a lot of our clients decided to just put their membership on freeze and wait until they could meet with people face-to-face. But my team worked very hard to persuade clients about the positives of virtual dating. For instance, if there’s no chemistry, you don’t have to waste time beyond one conversation. You also don’t have to pay for expensive dates.
People are often afraid of making the first move, but in a pandemic, if you don’t want to be lonely, you have to develop a thicker skin and make the effort to schedule social interactions. So over time, once people began to accept things weren’t going back to normal anytime soon, they started asking for Zoom dates—we didn’t even need to convince them anymore. Now, virtual dates are the norm and a couple will only meet up after they are sure they have chemistry.
“People are often afraid of making the first move, but in a pandemic, if you don’t want to be lonely, you have to develop a thicker skin”
In the past, we would meet with our clients in person to find out what they are like. But now, we just meet them over Zoom, which also gives us an idea of how they behave on camera. My agency is very bespoke so we customise the process for each person. If a female client needs help with Zoom makeup, we give them a lesson. If the gentleman isn’t so good with talking on camera, we provide assistance. We even tell them to pick up their laptop and walk around their house so we can see which spot has the best lighting or background for a Zoom call. We also offer recommendations for how to arrange the background so that they can convey their personality better. For instance, if we know a client plays guitar, we will advise him to display his guitar in the background so that his Zoom date can ask about it.
Once global lockdowns eased, some clients wanted to use private jets to meet up with dates overseas, but they decided against it in the end since they still had to serve hotel quarantine at the destination. When dining-in was prohibited, clients would hire private chefs to cook a romantic dinner at home. We also have clients who would go to restaurants and book private rooms or book up all the tables around them so that their date was isolated. Or in a cinema, they would buy up the seats around them. And because they live in big houses, they have lots of space and privacy, so they can invite their date over. The more established couples will also do extravagant gift deliveries, usually from the male to the female.
“What is love and life and dating if you don’t take some risks?”
People have become more willing to try new date ideas. They are asking us to arrange dates outdoors, be it cycling, walking, or even just sitting in parks. It’s unlike dates pre-pandemic which would usually be in some bar or restaurant. I also notice more couples wanting to learn things or attend workshops together.
On how the matchmaking business has changed
My team used to headhunt for matches for clients in real life. Back in the day, it was easy to find people in restaurants and bars. But during COVID-19, we obviously can’t go out and talk to people anymore, so everything has moved online. We hunt on LinkedIn, Facebook, and a little bit on Instagram. We even tried using dating apps, but we kept getting kicked off so we’re always creating new profiles.
COVID-19 has also pushed my agency to innovate our product offerings. We launched digital-only memberships for the first time, which is a package that offers virtual programmes and date options. Society W’s cause has always been to help people build connections and we are still 100 percent committed to that. So during the pandemic, when we observed our clients’ morale sinking, we started organising free Zoom parties. Up to 30 people would show up on those calls and we would host games or fun discussions about topics like ghosting and paying on dates. We only launched Zoom dates during circuit breaker but I think we will continue to offer it as an option even after the pandemic ends. Our clients are already used to virtual dates and they are usually so busy that Zoom is a great way for them to meet people even if there isn’t a pandemic.