From virtual dating to meeting IRL, how the pandemic has shaped our quest for love

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin

While dating virtually during the pandemic presented its own issues, shifting to dating in real life could pose new hurdles in burgeoning relationships. Photo by Shutterstock.

Finding and getting to know a love interest was difficult enough before COVID-19. Then came the pandemic lockdown. And rather than give up on love, singles started dating virtually. With many people scared to meet face-to-face, some dating apps offered the option to video date. But can you really get to know someone virtually? The choices you made during the isolation and anxiety of a worldwide crisis — would you make the same ones under “normal” circumstances? 

Elaine Roth, a young widow and mom of two kids, turned to dating apps in 2020 to initially connect with other adults and learn how they were coping with the pandemic. 

Then she met Evan, another single parent. 

“It was like this wasn't supposed to happen. And however many months later, here we are,” she tells KCRW. “We started just texting. Then we spoke on the phone. And then … [we had] a socially distanced walk.” 

Roth’s experience is typical of dating during the early pandemic, according to marriage and family therapist Jacqueline Mendez.

“When everything shut down, it really caused quite a shift and a ruffle for them. Because there was all this energy put forward to engage and date, and suddenly that was gone,” Mendez explains. “For some people, that was a blessing in disguise. There are some people who decided, ‘Hey, I'm going to be by myself, I might as well enjoy it.’ And we noticed that there were some clients coming in really feeling pretty good about themselves —  the pressure of dating had been lifted.”

Mendez says for others, the shutdown caused distress. Some yearned for companionship, while others were concerned about the pandemic possibility interfering with them becoming parents. 

Roth points out that she and Evan were able to connect deeply because they had no distractions that would’ve come with a restaurant or bar.

“We got to know each other really well, and it ended up pretty quickly going into very deep topics together. So it was an interesting way to start, because I could tell you his favorite childhood memory, but I couldn't tell you how he treats the waiter at dinner,” Roth says.

Public vs. private

Learning how you navigate the outside world with someone is central to the dating experience, says Roth, who recently wrote about it for the Huffington Post. 

“It's just the two of them in their chemistry. But realistically, our world outside of the pandemic, life isn't like that. You also have to take the kids to soccer, and your friend has a birthday party, and you want to go and you have family obligations. All of that just naturally comes in. And maybe it shouldn't matter as much as that chemistry. But it puts a strain on relationships, I think. And so both parts need to somewhat work," she says.

The idea for the essay was prompted by a recent experience with Evan, where he did a cartwheel while hanging out with Roth and her kids.

“I was like, ‘Where did that come from?’ This was a year into dating. And he said, ‘Oh, like a couple times when I've gotten drunk, I've done it.’ And it was just a shock because I was like, ‘I have not even seen you walk out of a bar. I can't picture this happening.’” 

Mendez says couples who date virtually often face similar surprises. 

“To be in an intimate loving relationship, part of it is learning all the multi-facets of our partner. Who he is in a relationship when it's just the two of us. Who he is in relation to his family and those dynamics and the life experiences that they've had. That sometimes only shows up like Elaine said in those moments. In that moment when he did the cartwheel, it's like it just opened up another Pandora's box,” Mendez says. “I've heard from some clients who have gone and had these wonderful connections over the phone or online. And once in person, the connection, the initial attraction was gone.”

Mendez says that during non-pandemic times, it’s normal to fantasize about a burgeoning new relationship, but mid-pandemic, the fantasy can rise to a new level.

“There's so much separation, and there's such a bubble that's happened for some people early on. That fantasy gets bigger and bigger. And then there's [sic] moments when reality hits. And we're not prepared for that facet of our partner. … We haven't experienced that before. And that's when it's shocking.”

She notes that during COVID, some people hesitated to bring up issues that may arise in a new relationship, and that hesitation was driven partly by stress of the global crisis. 

“They can actually remember those moments occurring very early on [in] dating, but they didn't want to bring them up. I think the pandemic has allowed that to occur much longer than usual,” she says. “I also want to bring up one thing that I think is very important for us to remember. … The level of anxiety, the level of fear that most of us felt during the early days of the pandemic … that does have an impact on how we relate to people [and] how we relate to new circumstances.”

Physical touch during the pandemic

Roth says it took time to get physically intimate with Evan. Their first hug happened about six weeks into their courtship. “We hugged, and then both felt instantly guilty. Like, oh my god, we touched someone else not in our circle,” she recalls. 

Around the same time, they both decided to get off the dating apps and become exclusive. And it took a few more weeks to decide to become physically intimate, Roth says. 

Mendez says the pandemic has helped people become more vocal in their sexual lives and understand what they need in a partner. 

“It allowed them to practice being assertive with others, telling them what the requirements were, before any kind of sexual encounters were brought into the relationship because safety was such a big issue. And there was so much unknown with COVID that people were less likely to take chances.” 

Dating today (and the near future)

Mendez says that as the pandemic wanes and people start dating offline, new patterns have emerged. Some people will continue dating from a distance and move slowly, while others will be eager to meet new people and possibly take fewer precautions. 

And as the pandemic led people to learn more about themselves, they’ve realized some qualities they seek in a partner are more important now compared to a year ago, explains Mendez. “Other qualities that they were looking at in partnerships … also have decreased.” 

She adds, “These are things that people out there actively dating are starting to ask: What's [sic] your feelings about the mask? When do you think it's appropriate and not? Are you pro or against vaccines? … I really do love that they're having these conversations because they're getting to learn different facets of their partners. All of us have had moments of growth and moments of healing in the last 16 months. And I think these kinds of conversations only allow us to know who our partners are even more.”

Roth says she is still dating Evan, and they’re starting to meet extended friends and family, and figuring out if they can blend their families. “I think he's finding that I'm much quieter than I am when it's one on one. … We spend a lot of time with the kids. ... It's slowly integrating into real life. But that's part of the challenge — still figuring that out.”

Roth adds, “Being forced to go slow probably made it work out for us more so than if we were in a natural paced world."

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