Dating and Relating During a Global Pandemic
One of my favourite TV shows when I was in my 20’s was Sex and the City. I loved how relatable the show was at that period in my life as it explored the complex dating scene in the late 1990’s-2000’s. In one memorable moment on-screen, Charlotte expressed the frustration a lot of people feel around dating and the difficulty of finding a “forever person”. She famously said “I’ve been dating since I was 15. I’m exhausted. Where is he?” (see actual clip here). This is a sentiment I have heard repeatedly from not just people who identify as women but, men and non-binary people of all sexual orientations too. In the age of Tinder, Grindr, Plenty of Fish and Bumble where we have much greater access to an enormous pool of potential romantic or sexual partners, it seems as though it is getting harder and harder to actually make a longstanding connection. Even when we do, sustaining our intimate relationships can also require a lot of emotional effort and time as we go through the various phases towards a lifetime together. COVID-19 has been a massive damper on the romantic lives of many single people which has showed up in my virtual therapy room as loneliness, frustration and despair.
It is clear that there is a lot to unpack when we look at love relationships in the 2020’s. In 2020, we could not ignore the adverse effects of COVID-19 on our relationships. Since March of 2020 when the number of cases worldwide resulted in the WHO declaring a global pandemic, lockdowns, mask-wearing and physical distancing have become a standard feature of the current “normal”. This has showed up in our most intimate relationships in sometimes alarming ways. As a therapist, I have seen increases in intimate partner violence as people are stuck at home with partners who tend towards volatility. I have also seen otherwise functional relationships become strained as people struggle to work from home, teach their children from the dining table and struggle to maintain some degree of autonomy. What I have also been hearing with alarming regularity is the frustration of single people trying to date in a period of uncertainty where the concern about disease is not restricted to Sexually Transmitted Infections.
As we finally approached the end of 2020, the year that has been widely described as “a dumpster fire”, many of us were re-thinking our lives and how we plan to live going forward. Most of us have started to realise that the truly valuable things in life are connection and community rather than material possessions. Being isolated in lockdown has made many people re-think their romantic status and has brought to the fore the needs for companionship and physical intimacy. However, we do have to re-think what this looks like during a pandemic.
Regardless of how we meet someone, if there is a spark, the normal response is to want to explore the connection. In this early phase of a relationship when hormones dictate our behaviour, we are very intrigued by everything a new partner brings. This phase of relationships is characterized by the fascination with a new partner without any understanding of their negative traits. We are also more likely to take risks based on our desire for connection and sex.
In 2020, we have the added concern about COVID-19 and the potential exposure that comes with sexual contact with another person. One of the consistent themes that has come up for my single/dating clients is how on earth they are to manage meeting people and enjoying a healthy, normal sex life if merely breathing on another person can make them ill.
The issue of whether or not we can trust that someone is honest with us about the size of their “bubble” and if they are taking precautions to avoid getting exposed to COVID is huge. As we ponder what safety and consent look like now, it is clear that even the act of kissing someone is now potentially dangerous. Consent and discussions around HIV status and contraception should always be a feature of new romantic engagements but, we now have to ask about occupation, (to determine if the person is in a high-risk job), hygiene practices, when was the last negative COVID test, what types of sex acts are “safe” etc?
In the province of British Columbia, Canada where I currently live, this is clearly a consideration for those in the health care sector since there is now a page on the CDC’s website specifically outlining guidelines for sexual activity during the pandemic. It suggests wearing masks during sexual activity, avoiding face-to-face sexual positions to avoid breathing on the other person and, recommends the use of “glory holes” whenever possible. Naturally, this means an entire paradigm shift in how we meet and get to know other people.
However, what I have seen is that some people are moving away from “hookup culture” out of necessity and are now meeting for socially distant walks, Zoom dates and other “safer” ways of meeting. We are now utilising technology to help us become more discerning in whom we choose to give our attention rather than going with the proverbial “flow”. This can be rather confusing for most people since text messages and other mediated forms of communication do not clearly convey the nuances of subtext, tone or intent.
As we face hope on the horizon of the use of vaccines, it is a relief to those who want to get back into the dating pool. However, it is important to remember that some of the COVID lessons around hygiene, discussions about consent and STD’s should continue even after COVID is a memory.
To make things a little easier for people, here are some helpful tips to remind us to account for changes in dating circumstances:
1. Social distancing is important. If you are going to meet someone, please try to do it in a manner that does not expose you to the potential of catching COVID. Taking a walk, meeting in the park, on a restaurant patio etc. are all “safer” ways of interacting with a new person. Yes, we understand that you are lonely and in need of connection but, your safety should always trump your hormones.
2. Get to know someone a little better before rushing to meet them. The instant gratification model most of us use in this situation can literally get you killed. It is absolutely reasonable to make sure you have a connection before rushing to meet someone simply because the higher number of people you expose yourself to, the more likely you are to contract the virus. Time wasted with multiple people with whom there is little in common is not just an irritation anymore, it can literally become an issue of life and death.
3. Remember that some people are indeed better “in person” than they are on social media and video conferencing platforms. Only time will tell on this one so I would encourage not placing too much emphasis on how someone comes across in an unnatural setting. In our desperation for connection, sometimes we miss the fundamental truth that not everyone feels comfortable with a digital existence. However, when you do decide to meet in person, practice safe interactions according to the most up to date health guidelines. It is also important to let the other person know what that will look like. For example, if you want to agree to stay 2m apart at all times, please say so. This avoids a lot of awkwardness and lets the other person know exactly what to expect.
4. When in need of sexual release, remember that the safest sex you can have as a single person is the sex you have with yourself. Invest in some adult novelties so that you can continue to balance physical needs with current safety practices. Should you decide to engage in sexual activity, please remember that barrier methods like condoms and dental dams do not protect you from COVID-19. In addition to the previous link from the CDC in Canada, this article has excellent recommendations for sexual activity during the pandemic.
5. See this period of solitude in your life as an opportunity to re-examine how you date and show up in relationships. Being discerning is not a bad thing. It also needs to be said that looks, appearance and illusions of financial stability are not actual reasons to give someone our time right now. What would be helpful to us in the long run is to start clarifying what we are looking for in an intimate partner and filter people based on those attributes.
6. Be very clear about what you actually want. This is not the time to play mind games. In another time and space, vague pseudo-relationships, (although they tend to be selfish and hurtful), may not be as dangerous as they are right now. If you don’t want a serious relationship, that is fine. What is not fine is lying to someone who does while potentially exposing both them and yourself to a serious virus
7. Remember that not everyone has as strict an adherence to public health guidelines as you. It is quite possible that the person you are meeting has flouted recommendations so, it is up to you to keep yourself safe with face masks, avoiding touch etc.
8. For those of us who are more comfortable with online communication, phone sex and video sex are always options but, be aware that there are potential dangers regarding privacy related to these activities too.
9. Finally, when you are on a date with someone, be PRESENT. You can’t see half their face already so you will need to maintain eye contact and listen to their voice so you can build connection. This is obviously not the time to scroll through your social media feed.
COVID-19 has forced the over 7 billion human inhabitants of earth to examine the manner in which we live our lives, what we focus on and whether the priorities we had before 2020 are still priorities going into 2021 and beyond. Should you desire a more in-depth look at tips for dating during a pandemic, please check out this article.