The first time we touched, it was an accident. We were on our fourth date — a masked walk through Georgetown — keeping as much distance as possible on narrow city sidewalks.
“I’m sorry,” he said, apologizing for inadvertently brushing his hand against mine. “In normal times, I would have grabbed your hand on purpose.”
We laughed as we remarked at how strange it was to date in 2020. Once a week we’d talk over Skype even though we lived only a few blocks from each other. On the weekends, we’d go for long, masked walks. Oddly, I found myself feeling closer to him over Skype than in person: Over a screen I could see his whole face and neither of us were anxious about accidentally getting too close.
After a month of dating, we did hold hands (and do other things!) on purpose. This is what it’s like to date amid the spread of a deadly virus: Singles are spending several weeks to months getting to know someone over the phone, video chat or socially distant dates before the masks come off. Taking that step often involves detailed discussions about whom you’re seeing regularly — be it family, friends, roommates or other dates — to help determine the right time to share a hug or first kiss. And there are no clear rules on when it’s safe to progress. Everyone is making it up as they go along.
It’s a big change from the culture of immediacy that Tinder and other dating apps ushered in several years ago. Abiding by social distancing while getting close to someone can be frustrating, but pandemic dating offers a chance to connect in new ways. Showing someone you care looks different than it did a year ago. Being cautious is now a sexy character trait, and planning a good date might have nothing to do with snagging a hot restaurant reservation. The Washington Post spoke to singles and love experts about how to keep things fun, interesting, safe (and yes, sexy!) while taking it slowly.
Matchmaker Tammy Shaklee says her Type-A clients — typically very goal-oriented and driven — are having difficulty with the pandemic’s slower pace. “They’re having to learn patience, tenacity and duration,” Shaklee says, as daters face an uncertain timeline for when it’ll be safe to see each other in person and be physical.
Christine B., a 27-year-old executive assistant in New York who, for privacy reasons, spoke on the condition that only her first name and last initial be used, finds the restrictions have taken a lot of the pressure out of dating. “It’s nice to talk to someone once a week and get to know them over a course of several months,” she says, adding that she thinks the slower burn makes her less likely to make snap judgments about a potential match. “Instead of writing someone off the second you see something you don’t like ... you get to know someone first. Once you meet them [in person], if you didn’t like something about them, maybe that doesn’t matter as much.”
Make your virtual dates special, but don’t let them go all night
Lindsey Metselaar, host of the millennial dating podcast “We Met at Acme,” has several rules for virtual dates: “First of all, you have to have good lighting, obviously,” she says, adding that it’s still not a good idea to get too drunk. And just because you have unlimited data or strong WiFi, don’t let your date go all night. “You always have to have somewhere to be after because it’s kind of pathetic, even though you’re doing nothing — and no one’s doing anything! — to be on this date for all five hours of your night. So if you have to lie, lie. Just don’t be too available, even though it’s virtual dating. ... You still need to have some mystery around you.”
Human beings have an inherent need for novelty and excitement, says Justin Lehmiller, a researcher at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute and author of “Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life.” “So the couples who are pushing themselves to try new things together right now are probably more likely to succeed ... because they’re fulfilling that need for novelty at the same time as their need for belongingness and connection.”
When you’re tired of Skyping or FaceTiming from the same spot on your couch, Shaklee suggests taking your virtual date outside — to a place that’s special to you. She had two clients who each cycled to their favorite spots (one went to a national monument in D.C., the other was on a trail in Minneapolis). Once you’ve identified common interests, plan virtual dates around them, the matchmaker says, such as attending a service streamed by your church or viewing a virtual concert.
In his recent surveys of daters, Lehmiller reports that singles are much more willing to have deep, meaningful conversations than in the past. “People are actually using this as an opportunity to get to know each other at a much deeper level than they were before,” he says. “And that has the potential to lead to much stronger relationships.”
Lehmiller and other dating experts brought up the 36 questions that lead to love, a social science experiment popularized in a New York Times “Modern Love” column, as an exercise to try right now. But daters are bringing their own big questions to the table, too. Shawn Williams, a 69-year-old woman in Detroit who’s been virtually dating a woman in Minneapolis since March, talks to her girlfriend every night. Each time, they alternate asking each other questions that lead to a larger discussion. By doing this, “we bypassed all the small talk and were able to build trust and really get to know each other on a deep level,” Williams says. “We both agreed that the one gift of the pandemic is that it slowed us down. It would have taken us much, much longer to get to know each other if we were hopping on a plane each weekend to see each other.”
Pandemic dating is a lot like long-distance dating, Lehmiller says, as singles might be geographically close but constrained on their ability to meet. One big predictor of success in long-distance relationships, Lehmiller says, is maintaining good communication. “The people who have high levels of communication, who are really trying to get to know each other at a deeper level, are more likely to succeed,” he says.
As my walking buddy and I dated for over a month without touching, I marveled at what a good communicator he was. After every date, we discussed wanting to see each other again. Whenever we wished we could lean in for a hug or a kiss, we vocalized those desires. It wasn’t the same as the real thing, but continually talking about how things were going and what we were looking for was such a welcome change from the ambiguity of dating during the Before Times, when I would wonder: Sure, we had a nice time, but will we see each other again? How many other people is my date seeing?
Now, surrounded by the severity of a deadly disease, it’s necessary to discuss where you stand and if you’re exclusive — for your safety and your partner’s.
It’s possible to get intimate
A 28-year-old woman in Washington has been virtually dating a man she met through Hinge in April, but they haven’t met in person. They’re long-distance, he’s moving to the area soon, and she spoke on the condition of anonymity because their relationship is still in that delicate early stage.
Pre-pandemic, she’d never tried or felt comfortable with cybersex. But with her new beau, she wanted to try it. So they came up with a 2020 improvisation: They’d hop on a video call and then text one another, using words to describe what they’d do to each other’s bodies if they were in the same room.
“Afterward, I couldn’t believe we did it. We had a great time,” she says, adding that the sexy yet silent video call made them feel closer to each other and had the added benefit that no roommates or parents could overhear.
Shaklee calls virtual intimacy “the safest sex you’ve ever had.” And it can take many forms, whether that’s enjoying a shower together (separately), or a bath and a glass of wine. “A lot of people are reporting that they’re sharing [sexual] fantasies with a partner for the very first time,” Lehmiller says, which can help partners feel closer. In his research for his book, Lehmiller found that “the people who were sharing their fantasies were the most sexually satisfied and developed the happiest relationships.”
Okay, but when can we touch?
No one has an easy answer for this. Even Anthony Fauci has been vague about when it’s safe to get physical. It’s a decision that can affect more than the people holding hands or locking lips: Before meeting a Bumble date this spring, Grace Lahoud, a 23-year-old woman in Washington, asked her roommates’ permission to lean in for a good-night kiss. They gave the go-ahead, she says, as they’re all single and were eager to live vicariously through Lahoud’s dating life. The smooch happened around the fourth date, Lahoud reports. According to anecdotal evidence, Jordana Abraham, co-founder of the Ship dating app and co-host of the “U Up?” podcast, says the fourth or fifth date is a popular moment to make out for the first time. Others will converse for months before getting physical.
The risks and restrictions in our new reality can make looking for love seem tougher than ever. But they also present an opportunity to strip away the trivialities and flashy distractions and focus on what really matters: Do you have a connection? Are you compatible? Can you listen to and support one another? And is your life better with this person in it?
Lisa Bonos writes about dating and relationships for The Washington Post.
Design by Michael Johnson.