Toward the end of this strange summer, I put on a green party dress and went to my first and last celebration of the season. It was a small backyard wedding. By the time it began, I realized I was quietly sobbing, along with most everyone else in attendance. From behind sunglasses and masks, it seemed we were all due for a release. And, really, what better reason than a real-life coronavirus love story?
Lord knows we could use it.
I, for one, have been writing my own “Love in the Time of Coronavirus” over the last six months, inadvertently. I’d shacked up with an ex; become involved with a narcissist; got back on a dating app; tried to see a few people casually; contracted COVID-19; took mom’s advice and cooled it for awhile; and then met someone new (who I quite like, actually).
For others I’ve talked to, the trajectory has been a smidge less dramatic, but just as fraught with unknowns and questions. If you thought dating was complicated in the Before Times, well, buckle up, singles. It’s a whole new landscape, and the rules are quickly changing.
“I think there is a lot of loneliness,” Denver sex therapist Neil Cannon told me recently. “There’s also a desire to get into a relationship and not put that part of life on hold.” And the good news: “I’ve seen a lot of people, of all ages, do that successfully,” he said.
So there’s hope yet for us all.
I wanted to know what else is at play in this wild, uncharted new relationship space, so I talked to therapists, matchmakers, dating app makers, singles and couples. (And the couples I spoke with happen to be in heterosexual relationships, so know that these are just a handful of experiences in the wide spectrum.)
Wherever you’re at in the dating process, I hope you, too, will find these new rules useful. Just know I’m right there with you, socially distanced, and quietly sobbing at someone else’s wedding. Let’s get down to it.
1. We all meet virtually now. Get used to it.
As she tells it, Priya Shah met her boyfriend Patrick unsuspectingly and over Zoom before they ever got together in real life in Denver. This was back in April, and Patrick, who is a massage therapist, reached out to Priya, a publicist, for a virtual coffee to talk about entrepreneurship post-shutdown. They had friends in common, which made that first coffee meeting easier.
“It was great, but I was in complete professional mode,” Shah said. At the end of their first Zoom session, Patrick asked Priya if she’d like to get together again, this time for a happy hour drink. It happened on a Saturday, “and the conversation changed,” Shah explained. One virtual drink led to another or two and was followed by a homemade dinner in his backyard garden.
Theirs is the new dating progression. Across the country, the dating app Bumble reports that video calls on its platform increased by nearly 70% from the middle of March to early May. By mid-September, and just in Colorado, messages sent between matched users on Bumble were up by almost 30% from before the shutdown.
“It slows things down, but it also really propels things,” Shah said of the early virtual communication. “If you’re in a long-distance relationship, and all you have is conversation to tie you together, I think you end up in a more serious relationship quicker.”
2. Just like Victorian times, long walks are our first, second and third date options.
By the time Priya and Patrick started dating in person, their activities consisted of walking, hikes and more walking.
“That’s the thing with this virtual world,” Shah said. “You can talk to anyone virtually, but you have to have that special spark that tells you if this is going to work, or if you’re just going to be friends.”
That’s where meeting in person (safely) comes in.
Dr. Lisa Miller is a professor of epidemiology with the Colorado School of Public Health. She said that after initial phone and virtual conversations, outdoor activities like walking are good options for in-person interactions. And come winter in Denver, we’ll need to continue relying on the outdoors if we want to continue meeting new people.
“We all need to up our tolerance and maybe layers of clothing a little bit and be willing to get outside and take walks and do those outdoor activities, weather and health permitting,” Miller said. “We maybe could do that more than we have in the past.”
3. Talking about COVID-19 is the new STD discussion. We should bring it up early and often.
Another thing we’ll need to “up our tolerance” for is having the COVID-19 discussion. And, according to Cannon, this is not unlike having the sexually transmitted disease discussion. How fun.
“Just talking about safer sex is a challenge for a lot of people,” Cannon said. “And it’s the same thing now, when people are entering into new relationships. It’s important to talk about public health.”
Miller said people who are dating should be clear with their new partners about what risks they are willing and not willing to take regarding coronavirus. She says to consider that about 1 in 1,000 people could be infectious with the virus at any given time, so “the idea of exposing yourself to one other individual is a fairly low risk. But you can see how that multiplies quickly.”
And while you’re talking about coronavirus comfort levels, consider parlaying that discussion into the sex talk, eventually.
“Maybe this is a good way to start that (STD) conversation as well,” Miller said. “You’ve practiced with the COVID conversation.”
4. Religion, politics, money and now coronavirus. These are the 2020 relationship deal-breakers.
When it comes to the risks of contracting COVID-19, Miller said there are “relatively few things to keep in mind” about any interactive situation, like dating.
Going outdoors instead of indoors, being around fewer people rather than more people, finding a place that’s quiet rather than one where there’s singing or shouting, and staying away from those who are sick are all important. Then there are the safety protocols to follow, like maintaining distance, masking and washing hands frequently.
“First of all, understand what the other person’s views and values and practices are when it comes to those things,” Miller said. “Because if it seems like you can’t or don’t agree on what’s appropriate when it comes to COVID protection, it’s kind of a non-starter.”
Or consider “the mask test,” as Cannon calls it, i.e., if and when someone wears their face covering.
“If I was dating, it would be on my checklist,” Cannon said. “Depending on my beliefs, that would tell me if I even wanted to go out with this person.”
5. Normal timelines don’t apply. COVID relationships will either be fast-tracked or DOA.
So here’s where we’re at: (Not) wearing a face covering is a non-starter; meeting people out in the wild is a hazard; and walking is the new foreplay. You can see how starting anything with anyone now could seem impossible.
And, yet, there is an upside to all of these new and different barriers. Brittany Molnar is a matchmaker with Three Day Rule, a national service that’s just starting to scout clients and matches in Denver. (Full disclosure: She found me on social media and did try to set me up with someone before we settled on this interview.)
But Molnar said she’s noticed something over the last six months or so: The pandemic seems to be bringing out more single people who are looking for a real connection.
“This time has kind of hushed away a lot of the game-players and, pardon my French, (expletive) boys,” she said. “There’s really no games to be played right now.”
Shah gave a concrete example: As she and Patrick gear up for their first winter together, there is the possibility that another shutdown could happen. If so, “Do we quarantine together?” she wondered. “And that’s almost like, ‘Do you want to do a mock of what life would be like if we (lived) together?’ Because that’s what it is.”
6. Prepare to date our partner’s pet(s), and vice versa.
I’m wracking my brain, and I can’t think of a single person I know who has arrived at this point in the pandemic and doesn’t have a fur child.
“I can’t tell you how many people say, ‘I’m afraid for when I go back to work, that my cat (or dog) is not going to know what to do,” Cannon said. “It’s a thing.”
Because not only are the pets at home now, but the pets are used to their people being at home, too, which can lead to separation anxiety as well as the need, maybe now more than ever, for pets to be present earlier in a dating scenario.
Denverite Michael Olive said that when he met his new girlfriend Amy on the dating app Hinge, they both knew they’d have to introduce their dogs in very short order after meeting each other.
While their first date was a socially distanced one for the two of them only, “Our second date was another park date, but it was the first time our dogs met,” Olive explained. “With us being huge dog lovers, them getting along was crucial. The dogs got along just as well as Amy and I did, and it was a huge relief.”
7. Sex: It’s happening. And we singles can have it, too.
Tory Johnson and Rose Kalasz co-own Awakening Boutique, a Denver shop and community resource for sex-positivity. Throughout the pandemic, their business has focused more than ever on helping people “feel good in a time with so much uncertainty and anxiety,” Johnson said. They’ve helped couples explore their sexuality virtually and with the help of Bluetooth toys. And for singles, “we’ve been helping them explore sensuality on their own,” she said.
“We always tell our customers (and women especially) that the best way to understand their bodies and desires is to do it on their own before trying to learn it with a partner. It’s the safest way to figure it out, and that’s especially true right now.”
According to Cannon, people are still looking for a whole range of commitment levels — from casual to serious — but it will take more work during the pandemic to find someone on the same page, “and it takes a lot of intentionality and time,” he said. This process also tends to be harder for straight men than others: “Broadly, it’s just so much easier for women to connect with the men they want to connect with on blind dating than it is for men.”
Holden Kushner of Denver, who is recently divorced, said he’s not looking for anything serious yet. But he is looking to connect and hasn’t had any luck. “It’s horrible,” he said, explaining how he was in a relationship for ten years before the pandemic and “missed the whole Tinder thing.”
“My target is to go have some fun for the first time in a decade and then hopefully meet someone special through that,” he said. “I just need to go out and meet people in person, and that’s the biggest challenge right now.”
8. Long distance = anything more than a mile away. But some singles are becoming more mobile.
When Kelsey Stamm came across Charles on a dating app, she was intrigued, but more as an unofficial Fort Collins tour guide, she said. Charles had disclosed on his profile that he would only be in town for a couple of weeks, and Kelsey immediately kicked into “ambassador mode.” Only later did she find out that he was visiting to decide whether or not to move permanently with his remote job.
For awhile, Kelsey had been struggling with Fort Collins’ small dating pool, where she’d too often find out on a first date that the guy had inevitably dated another one of her friends. When Charles did decide to move to town permanently, “it solved the problem for me of having any overlap,” Stamm laughed.
Since then, she says the relationship has probably moved faster than it would have outside a pandemic. The pair even drove cross-country together to finish Charles’ move. Before that trip, they used a half-serious qualifier — “for-all-intents-and-purposes boyfriend and girlfriend.” Afterward, they let the qualifier go: “He’s my boyfriend,” she said.
9. Consider those who have it worse than us, i.e., a lot of people, including but not limited to married couples and anyone home-schooling.
I don’t want to be too flip about this subject. The last wedding I went to before this September’s was my middle sister’s, and I cried at both events for similar reasons. On the one hand, I couldn’t help but feel like I was losing my best friends. On the other, I was so happy about the partners they found.
But I am exhausted after a wedding weekend, especially one during the pandemic, with all of its connotations and concerns. As a single person, at the end of the day, I can go home and take a nap, play with the cat, cook (or, let’s be honest, order) dinner, put on a rom-com and question everything, all of my dating choices and more.
I think about my friend and sister in their new marriages, my other sister at home with two kids, my parents still working on their 40-year relationship. I don’t really envy any of them.
I like the way Stamm put it in our conversation. She said that after a couple of shallow relationships during the pandemic, she stopped looking for distraction and finally asked herself, “What do you want? What’s important? What are you willing to take risks for?”
“These are things that I didn’t spend as much time thinking about before,” she said, “and now it’s hard not to think about them.”
And I’m hopeful from something that Cannon pointed out. “For some, there’s going to be beautiful love stories ten years from now, where they look back at meeting during COVID, and it’s an amazing love story … . Just two resilient people who made really intentional choices during this.”
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