In times of crisis, grave concerns tend to intersect with more mundane ones. The coronavirus pandemic has created a series of global shockwaves, from unprecedented strain on the healthcare system to economic instability, exacerbated inequality, and xenophobia. Some of us, due to health vulnerabilities, economic precarity, or housing instability, are more severely affected than others.
But between grim news reports, and moments of collective solidarity, it’s normal for our thoughts to return to more personal concerns: Did my roommate really just leave his dishes in the sink again? What’s the deal with Tiger King? And, a topic on my mind: is it possible to have a socially distant hot girl summer?
Intimacy Keeps Us Healthy
It can feel superficial to worry about dating at a time when many of us are more worried about keeping our loved ones well and making rent. But intimacy is a vital part of our lives. For people who are partnered, social distancing can reveal new levels of intimacy — and new kinds of conflict.
For those of us who are dating, social distancing presents a different challenge. In the past few years, with 30% of American adults dating online, we’ve contended with new dating challenges, namely digital harassment and the potential superficiality of a “swipe-based” approach to love. Indeed, usage of swipe-based dating apps have been shown to correlate with increased likelihood of depression and anxiety.
At the same time, many of us — up to 12% of Americans — have found committed relationships or marriages on dating apps. These intimate relationships are integral to our mental health and physical wellbeing. All to say, while there are certain downsides to hitting the apps, cultivating connection, wherever we find it, is fundamental to who we are. As many aspects of social life move online, our dating life naturally follow.
The Perils of Dating Online
It’s ironic that, just before COVID-19 forced even more of life online, reality television began probing the possibilities of distant dating. Popular shows like The Circle and Love is Blind, both of which aired in early 2020, posed the question: is who we present ourselves to be remotely — either through a wall or through an app — really who we are?
Now, it seems these experiments have become reality. Many of us can only chat and call with potential love interests, and it remains uncertain when we’ll actually return to flesh-and-blood dating. Thus, we navigate how to present ourselves online. We may worry about how much to disclose about ourselves to strangers, and whether our online selves match up with our “real” selves. We may also worry that, when we finally meet online dating matches in real life, there won’t be any chemistry — or worse, they won’t be who they say they are at all.
The Benefits of Taking it Slow While Dating
Dating from a distance, however, can force us to slow down and pay attention not only to our dates, but to ourselves. We can take time to focus on what we want from intimacy, and use extended conversations to explore who potential matches are and whether they might be a good fit for us.
“There’s no upside or silver lining to this pandemic,” said a friend of mine. She is, like me, looking for love while staying at least six feet — and, most of the time, several miles — apart. “But I have a pattern of jumping into relationships or intense things at the first sign of anything that I like.” (I feel you, girl!) “Being forced to be pen pals or just walking buddies, while frustrating, is actually probably helping me figure out what I do or don’t like and want.”
Her words apply to many of us who are dating in unstable times. Here are several ways we can use socially distant dating to connect with ourselves, and develop healthier connections with others.
Get to know yourself
For many of us, basic worries about paying the bills, staying safe in a volatile home situation or a dangerous job, and dealing with a potentially lethal illness are more pressing concerns than self-introspection. At the same time, cultivating self-love and self-awareness will always be beneficial. Self-love can make us more resilient, reduce stress, and help us develop healthier interpersonal relationships in the long run.
If you’re at home with others, or on the front lines, it can help to take time alone — even just a few minutes a day — to connect with yourself. Journaling, talking on the phone with close friends, or connecting remotely with a therapist can all be ways to remain resilient now, and build healthier relationships in the future.
Of course, there’s more than one way to get to know yourself. As the New York City Department of Health recommends, solo sex is the safest sex in the face of the coronavirus crisis. We may not be able to become sexually intimate with new dates, but we can discover more about our own pleasure.
Focus on emotional connections
If you’ve been experiencing frustration in your dating life, and particularly if you’ve found yourself stuck in a cycle of emotional unavailability, socially distant dating can be a good time to focus on developing deeper connections through chats and calls.
We all deserve healthy, fun, and fulfilling sexual experiences, if we want them. But it is true that sex can sometimes cause us to confuse physical chemistry with emotional compatibility. This is particularly the case if we have a history of unhealthy or abusive relationships, which can often include searing highs rivalled only by brutal lows.
The necessity of social distancing can give us an opportunity to go more slowly, look out for potential red flags, and focus on finding partners who align with our deepest values. If, when you eventually do meet a love interest in person, you find you aren’t sexually compatible, at very least you’ve potentially made a great new friend.
Keep expectations realistic
While dating from a distance can lend itself to slower, more deliberate connections, it can also lead to unrealistically high expectations, as we confuse our fantasy date with the reality of who they are.
Of course, certain things — like someone speaking disrespectfully to you, or sending unwanted sexual material — are always red flags, and you should never push yourself to interact with someone you’re just not into.
But keeping an open mind, and keeping expectations realistic, can help us date with more intentionality. Dating is a process of learning about ourselves and others. Thinking of our remote connections as a time to explore, rather than as a rush to pass a definitive verdict on a relationship, can help us put less pressure on ourselves. Who knows: you may even enjoy dating this way.
Physical Distancing With Social Solidarity
“Social distancing” may not actually be the best phrase for what our societies are doing to fight the coronavirus pandemic. In actuality, commentators argue, what we should call this is physical distancing, with social solidarity.
The beauty of technology is that we can remain emotionally close with people down the street and on the other side of the globe, even while not leaving our homes. At the same time, those working on the front lines or facing job loss can connect with others in similar positions, in order to learn, lean on each other, and develop solidarity.
This emphasis on social closeness with physical distance can also apply to our dating lives. Online dating isn’t without perils. Then again, risk is inherent to all forms of intimacy, and dating always includes vulnerability. While the present is difficult and the future remains uncertain, we can choose to recommit to ourselves and to healthier forms of love and intimacy. And yes: even in a global pandemic, it’s okay to want a hot girl summer.