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What’s sexy in a pandemic? Caution.

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)
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Martin Valderruten didn’t expect to meet anyone special while waiting to get a swab up his nose.

At the New York City coronavirus testing site, his friend started chatting with a man with beautiful blue-gray eyes. Although Valderruten, 25, didn’t think much of it at the time, two weeks later, they all ran into one another again. This time, Valderruten and his masked acquaintance exchanged Instagram handles, and they’ve been FaceTiming for a month since. Just as hot as the blue-gray eyes: This man’s request that Valderruten quarantine and have two more coronavirus tests before they share an igloo for an outdoor meal this weekend.

It’s the most precaution Valderruten has taken before a first date, and it’s a sign of how much the singles scene has changed in the past year. Now Tinder matches want to know where you’ve been, who you live with and whether you’re willing to get tested.

Valderruten says it’s been “challenging” to talk for so long without being physical. Just six months ago, he was having casual sex with men he met on dating apps. But after his father was hospitalized with covid-19 in the fall, Valderruten deleted the apps and got a lot more careful.

Now, he finds the delayed gratification of dating to be exciting. “He’s making me work harder,” Valderruten says of his upcoming date, who’s a nurse practitioner. “It’s his life and his job on the line, and I want to make sure that I’m protecting his values and everything that he’s doing.”

In the Before Times, singles often swooned over good looks and a spontaneous spirit. Dating profiles boasted about being well-traveled and always up for adventure. But the risk of contracting and spreading a deadly disease has overshadowed such desires. And our vulnerability and isolation has forced daters to rethink what really matters. It’s become more important to find someone you can really talk to and count on than someone who knows all the trendiest bars in town.

Our new reality means that, for many daters, caution is sexy. Also hot: good hygiene, respect for others’ boundaries, the ability to make plans in advance, and the creativity to improvise when those plans are thwarted. After all, the pandemic has made clear that nothing is certain.

Ask a dater about their pandemic turn-ons, and you’ll hear things like: When someone has hand sanitizer in their pocket. When someone offers you an extra fresh mask they brought, even if you already have one. When someone gets tested or agrees to stay home for days before a date. When someone seems like they could hold their own if they were dropped in the woods and needed food and shelter.

Pandemic turnoffs: Partying, unnecessary travel, complaining about wearing a mask, not wearing a mask, wearing a dirty mask. One woman said she was appalled that someone she’d been out with a few times said he had eaten inside an Olive Garden. Risking your life for Inn at Little Washington she might understand. Not Olive Garden.

The past year has quickly taught daters many of the lessons that love professionals have been trying to impress upon their clients for years. Jess McCann, a dating coach in the Washington area and author of “Cursed?,” says she often has clients “wondering why Mr. Fun and Adventurous isn’t also able to be Mr. Predictable, Stable and Reliable.”

McCann adds that while “women will be really attracted to a guy who’s so spontaneous … the relationship they’re signing up for is unpredictable.” The man who takes you for a Saturday afternoon of rock-climbing on an hour’s notice probably isn’t the type who will also check in daily and make plans in advance. Similarly, McCann says, men often tell her they want a woman who’s “super-sweet and kind” but also sassy. McCann has tried to tell daters these contradicting traits generally don’t come in the same package.

Now that the pandemic has stripped away the flashy parts of dating, singles “only have the communication and the connection to really base a relationship on,” McCann says. She often tells daters: “The relationship that a person has with their own life, that’s the relationship they’re going to have with you.”

Love at six feet: Stories of pandemic romance

For Kaitlyn McQuin, a 29-year-old single woman in New Orleans, this message really hit home in the past year. Before the pandemic, she dated a lot of “life is an adventure” types whom she describes as not so emotionally intelligent or aware. “They were really funny and fun to banter with. They were just a good time,” McQuin says.

She knew she didn’t have the same long-term goals as these men — and at that time, she didn’t care. However, the pandemic has shown her “that grounded energies keep me calm during times of crisis, and now that I’m dating with intention, I’m finding myself drawn more towards men who are stable, down to earth and secure.”

Of course, a good relationship can still be fun, even in these difficult times. In a pandemic, “fun and adventurous” might translate to being creative with the constraints we’re living under, McCann says, such as redecorating a room or camping in the backyard.

Amid the stress of the pandemic, some daters are also finding that it’s easier to see who someone really is: whether they’re reliable, trustworthy, kind, or just not worth their time. Theresa Causa, a nurse practitioner in San Antonio, tried a new dating app called S’More, which reveals matches’ photos only after a pair has exchanged several messages. Before the pandemic, Causa had a tendency to ignore red flags. “Now I pay attention to them and I home in on them,” Causa says.

She recently met a woman in Nebraska who doesn’t appear to have any glaring warning signs. “Not having her picture on the app and having a conversation first was really awesome,” Causa says, noting that she and her now-girlfriend messaged for two weeks before their first FaceTime call. Now they talk every day.

Logan Ury, author of “How to Not Die Alone” and director of relationship science for the dating app Hinge, notes that one silver lining of the pandemic is that “people are being forced to have hard conversations earlier,” such as discussions of coronavirus protocols before a first meeting. It’s helpful to know how a potential partner navigates a challenge, Ury says. “You learn earlier on if this is the type of person with whom you can make difficult decisions.”

In the past year, Tinah Ogalo, a 22-year-old woman in Hoboken, N.J., has gotten a lot more selective. Before the pandemic, if a Tinder match wrote to her with just a simple “hey” or a cheesy pickup line, she’d respond. Now, “I’m more cautious and more critical of what someone’s saying in their bio,” Ogalo says, adding that any comments making light of the coronavirus are automatic left-swipes.

Ogalo, who hosts the podcast “In Your Twentys,” wasn’t used to having deep conversations on Tinder. So she used her roommate as practice. “We’re always chatting all the time anyway. If we’re talking about something or we’re watching a show … I’ll use conversations that we’re having as fodder for date conversations.”

In the fall, one of those Tinder matches blossomed into a relationship — but first, they talked for a month and a half before meeting for a meal outside. Among his key selling points: He’s easy to talk to. “We could be on FaceTime for five hours. I’ll look at the phone and be like: No way,” Ogalo says. “It’s nice to have a person in quarantine to vent. I’m very dramatic and having him be the voice of reason is very helpful.”

In Valderruten’s month of FaceTimes with that cute guy from the coronavirus testing site, they’ve gone deep in a way that’s new for the 25-year-old. “We’re both wearing our hearts on our sleeves in terms of vulnerability because we can’t be physical,” Valderruten says.

He has opened up about his fears surrounding his dad’s health, and his date has discussed some of the rough stuff he’s seen while caring for patients with covid-19. “It’s good to talk … instead of putting so much pressure on the physical,” Valderruten says. “He’s getting to know a real side of me.”

An earlier version of this story misspelled Kaitlyn McQuin’s last name. It has been corrected.


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