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Pandemic dating is making us more honest

As first dates move online, the rules of engagement are changing — maybe permanently

By Jenni Gritters

The COVID-19 pandemic has had one benefit for Kelsey Simpkins, 29, of Boulder, Colorado: It’s helped her figure out which men she doesn’t want to date.

As Simpkins exchanges long texts with romantic prospects, she says she’s gotten a better-than-normal sense of who might not be a good fit, based on how they react to the pandemic. Recently, someone messaged her with a groan-inducing pick-up line: “This pandemic thing is hard. I can’t seem to find Charmin Ultra anywhere. Luckily, you seem ultra charmin’.”

The next day, another man followed suit: “If COVID-19 doesn’t take you out… can I?”

Simpkins didn’t even want to try to get to know them. “I’ve found it’s easier to connect with someone else who also takes staying at home really seriously,” she says, “and I can cut off conversations with people who don’t take it seriously. So it’s like a litmus test.”

For Simpkins and millions of others, COVID-19 hasn’t stopped the dating process. But a shift to social-distanced dating, facilitated by a vast universe of dating apps, has changed the way people engage. In budding relationships mediated by the phone or video, daters are developing new deal-breakers, new rules for engagement, and a new, more candid tone. Some experts and daters think that even when we emerge from the pandemic, the rules of early relationships will have changed forever.

Partly, that’s a function of the medium. As the shutdown funnels more and more people into video calls, it’s little surprise that video chat first dates are on the rise. Representatives of the dating app Bumble say video call usage within their app spiked by 84 percent during the last week of March. And early video dates have obvious appeal, even beyond the pandemic: You can meet a person from the convenience of your home and find out what they look, sound, and act like, all without having to negotiate tough issues like who’ll pay for the date.

“I suspect an entire generation of people will come to see virtual chat prior to meeting up as an easy no-brainer,” says Steve Dean, a New York-based dating coach. He says he expects dating apps to invest more in their in-app video chatting services and offer new tools to make those conversations more efficient.

But an early date mediated through a screen changes the contours of the relationship. Video dates can feel cold and distant. Nothing can replace the chemistry you feel (or don’t) when you meet someone. Paradoxically, video dates can also be more intimate than meeting up, because the other person sees into your home, which usually happens later in a relationship.

“Welcome back to courtship…Welcome back to talking to a gal for WEEKS prior to meeting. We’re pen pals now, my dude.”

Kaitlyn McQuin, a New Orleans-based comedian, actor, and writer

Seeing someone’s face before you meet in person could increase trust and transparency, Dean says. He thinks widespread video chatting could also reduce the phenomenon of catfishing — when people hide their true identities on dating apps — since deception is much easier when people only speak briefly online before setting up an in-person meeting.

That transparency is especially important to daters now because they’re having accelerated, serious conversations about COVID-19. Daters have long referred to “the talk,” a conversation casual daters have as sexual intimacy develops, to try to decide if they can trust each other to not pass along disease. Now, there’s an earlier talk — not about STDs and sex, but about the virus exposure and risk, and whether to meet up at all.

One woman in Geneva, Switzerland, who’d been dating a new guy for just a few weeks before the shutdown, initiated such a conversation before deciding to trust him. “Even though I had the impression that he was not seeing other people, I still thought it best to clarify and be explicit, for the sake of my own health,” she says. (She asked to remain anonymous, because she doesn’t want her new partner to see her skepticism.) Though the decision was hard to make, she says, she decided to spend time with him daily during the shutdown for bike rides and at-home dinner dates.

Daters also say there’s a new sense of candor that was missing in online dating before COVID-19. Stuart Palley, 31, of Newport Beach, California, is sticking to dating apps and the phone because a socially-distanced first date in early March — a walk 10 feet apart — felt too risky. Palley says many people he’s talked to lately on dating apps have been honest that they’re struggling with isolation’s effects on their mental health. Dating apps aren’t usually a place for these kinds of authentic interactions, so Palley says he’s been grateful for the change.

New Orleans-based comedian, actor, and writer Kaitlyn McQuin predicted online dating’s serious turn in what has become a pandemic-era meme. “You know who’s really gonna suffer during this social distancing? Dudes on dating apps,” she wrote in a March 15 tweet that has attracted nearly a half-million likes. “Welcome back to courtship, Brad. Welcome back to talking to a gal for WEEKS prior to meeting. We’re pen pals now, my dude.”

McQuin, 28, posted that tweet in response to her own experiences on dating apps during the pandemic, which she says often feel like a waste of time. “I’m at the point in my life where I am ready to nurture something long-term,” she says. “Also, what is the deal with most men being so afraid of commitment? They can pick teams for their fantasy football leagues, right? Pick a team — Team Relationship or Team Playing the Field — and let us know upfront, I beg of thee.”

Simpkins agrees with McQuin’s call for courtship. She quit dating apps out of frustration for a few weeks of the pandemic, then rejoined and decided that using them to have authentic connections was helping her during isolation.

“Then I connected with someone on Bumble who seems great,” Simpkins says, noting that she’s feeling newly optimistic about the whole thing. They’ve talked on the phone, and they hope to eventually meet.

Will this online authenticity last? Dean, the dating coach, thinks so. “My hope is that this crisis leads us to learn better forms, styles, and textures of connection,” Dean says. “COVID may just humanize us.”

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Jenni Gritters is a writer based in Seattle.


Illustration by Mar Hernández

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