When Shelby and Wes met online, they clicked straight away. They began dating, talked regularly, drank margaritas together. Wes cooked meals for Shelby, and they went for short walks.
Except this wasn’t regular dating, because Shelby and Wes couldn’t have sex, kiss, or even touch each other. The pair met just as the COVID lockdown was beginning, so their blossoming romance has been hampered by masks, screens, and six feet of distance at all times. (You can follow their love story on Shelby’s roommate’s Twitter thread.)
This is the new normal. Coronavirus has affected the way we live and work — and dating is no exception. But what impact will the global pandemic have long-term? What does the future of dating hold? We consulted the experts to find out.
The Pandemic’s Long-Term Effects On Dating
From FaceTime dinners to drinks over Zoom, the pandemic has transformed how we connect with others. But it hasn’t put people off dating: in fact, dating apps have seen a big increase in activity. According to Vanity Fair, Bumble saw an 84% increase in video calls in the US during the week ending March 27 compared to the week before. Hinge reported a 30% increase in messaging worldwide in March compared to January and February.
But once lockdown restrictions ease off, what will the landscape of dating look like? Will the virtual rendezvous and distanced dates continue? “It is quite possible that the pandemic will have lasting effects on dating,” sex and relationship coach Dr. Danielle Harel tells Talkspace. (Dr. Harel founded The Somatica Institute with Celeste Hirschman MA.) “People may want to get to know prospective partners more before meeting or wait longer for the first kiss. It may also cause people to choose to have fewer partners.”
It’s easy to assume that the pandemic will have a negative impact on dating, but the picture is more nuanced.
Virtual Dating Has Pros and Cons
Dating online, whether it’s video-chatting through Bumble or hanging out on House Party, has its ups and downs.
“Virtual dating will impact people differently,” says Dr. Harel. “For folks who need more emotional connection and safety, virtual dating may offer a built-in opportunity to know someone better without feeling any kind of pressure to get physical. Other people, who need to feel physically connected in order to open up or bond emotionally will probably have more challenges with virtual dating.”
Talkspace therapist Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, points out that there are pros and cons of building a relationship virtually. “Internet dating allows us to learn more about a person before we meet them physically, so we can decide if we want to engage in further contact,” she says.
On the other hand, meeting someone in person allows us to “pick up on non-verbal clues to our compatibility,” which isn’t as easy through a screen.
Removing Sex From the Equation Could Mean More Connection
Not being able to have sex at the beginning of a relationship due to lockdown was understandably concerning and frustrating for many. But the lack of IRL intimacy has led to some surprising benefits.
“Online dating allows couples to communicate about substantive issues, intellectual pursuits, things of spiritual importance without the pressures of sexual interaction,” says Catchings.
Helen Fisher, an anthropologist, research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, and adviser for Match, told Vanity Fair: “In Jane Austen’s day, you did have a good deal of conversation with somebody before you went to bed with them. And during this quarantine period, we’re seeing the same thing—the emergence of a stage of courtship before sex and even before meeting the person [face-to-face]. So I actually think it’s rather positive.”
Indeed, TIME reported that “Bumble is seeing more ‘quality chats’ —based on the length of messages people exchange in the app and how long the conversations last. And studies show a longer courting period translates to a more stable marriage. Fisher is confident this quarantine period will lead to a boom in weddings.”
Without IRL sex, people have to find different ways to connect. “We can see attempts at this in some reality TV shows that were filmed before COVID such as Love is Blind,” says Dr. Harel. “Giving sexual tension some time to build can make it more hot when it actually happens. On the other hand, sexual tension has a trajectory. For some people, waiting too long to have sex may mean that they lose interest and might end up in the friend zone. Also, if you wait to have sex, you may become quite emotionally attached to someone only to find you don’t actually have any sexual chemistry once you get together.”
In the future, some may wish to continue this kind of connected courtship even when social distancing restrictions lift.
Touch Is Needed To Develop A Physical Bond
Of course, there are negative consequences to not experiencing any kind of touch. “Touch is an integral part of human existence,” says Catchings. “Research demonstrates that it creates trust and reduces stress. Inversely, the lack of contact causes both uncertainty and health issues. Therefore, we will see more people experiencing attachment problems and physical ailments. These two will affect people interested in dating because they may become too clingy, ambivalent, preoccupied about relationships, or too sick to go out and mingle.”
So while we can develop strong emotional connections without the pressure of sex, “physical contact is necessary to establish a bond,” according to Catchings.
And how we physically interact with dates may change forever. Dacher Keltner is a University of California social psychologist who studies nonverbal communication. He told TIME that “an entire generation may think twice before hugging a stranger on a first, second or even third date.”
Boundaries, Negotiating, and Health Awareness
Another positive impact of the pandemic we may see in future is people becoming more selective, says Catchings. “If a person sets boundaries — like appropriate language, behaviors, or quarantine compliance — a suitor who does not comply with these can be rejected quicker and without the discomfort of face-to-face conflict.”
University of California social psychology professor Dr. Benjamin Karney told Vanity Fair that the crisis is presenting new opportunities to negotiate — for instance, whether to order take-out or go to the store, if six feet of distance is safe, or when a mask is needed. “Couples who negotiate differences well will be at an advantage. But couples who don’t negotiate differences well will have yet another challenge.”
Moreover, both Catchings and Dr. Harel agree that a silver lining of the crisis is people will have more awareness of health and safety. “As a global society, we have become much more conscious of the possibility of getting sick, which could make using precautions such as condoms or STD screenings more likely,” says Dr. Harel.
Balance Is Key To Healthy And Respectful Dating
In conclusion, while there are certainly pitfalls to be aware of (the lack of physical touch being the primary one), there are many positive lessons to be learned from coronavirus when it comes to dating.
Virtual dating lets you get to know someone without pressure, but you miss out on non-verbal cues. Taking sex off the table means people are finding other ways to make meaningful connections. However, there’s a risk you’ll become emotionally attached to someone with whom you have no chemistry. Touch is extremely important for reducing stress and building trust; we could even see more healthy boundaries and negotiating between couples.
So maybe the best tactic for dating in the future would be to strike a balance between building emotional connections without the initial pressure of sex, but then later incorporating physical touch in order to develop a strong physical bond. A respectful, empathetic, and communicative approach stands to benefit everyone. While we’re unsure what the future holds, what we are sure of, is that there may be more lessons to take out of this pandemic than we realize.