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The Dating Chronicles: Pandemic Edition Part 1

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Dating is one thing, but dating during a pandemic? This is a completely new experience for all of us, and it’s definitely one we did not see coming. Let’s be honest, even if we did see it coming, how do you prepare for something like this? What is dating like when there’s a contagious virus floating around the world? Well, though it sounds tricky, many people are finding crafty ways to make it work! 

In our series The Dating Chronicles: Pandemic Edition, we interview women and men, asking them how their dating experiences have been during the pandemic and the challenges they face. Today, we spoke with Katie about her experience with dating during the pandemic, the challenges she has faced, and the lessons she has learned.  

Q: Help us set the stage for your dating story: at what point during the COVID-19 pandemic did you start dating, and what has been your general approach? Had you recently experienced any recent life events that were motivating you to date? 

Major life events: I am in the middle of a divorce. I started dating last November on the apps, which felt kind of like the beginning of my dating experience post-marriage. Then COVID hit in March, so I had been dating on the apps for five months—but it felt like I was very new to it. And right as COVID hit, I had started dating this one guy, and I was really over the apps, so that continued monogamously and ended my dating app journey during COVID for a little while.

It was really just useful to have somebody around. My biggest fear post-divorce was being alone. I was living alone facing that fear for the first time and was flooding my life with people and experiences—and then all of a sudden COVID hits. And then you don’t have the opportunity to have people and experiences in your life anymore. I was terrified. I was so scared. So, having somebody, even though my feelings for him weren’t very strong—having somebody available and willing to give me love and affection when I was really facing this huge fear in my life was so useful and I’m so grateful that was there. And I think I could say all of this to him now, after-the-fact. I think he was kind of on the same page and, in hindsight, we both understand a little bit better where we were at the beginning. I was trying to be as honest as I could be, but it was nice to have companionship in a way that I wasn’t really ready for romantically.

After that, I ended up on the apps again, during COVID—which is weird and it’s sucks and it’s stupid. But I think it’s different every time. I think the genesis of COVID has really colored the experiences, for example, if there’s a huge spike in numbers then the social consensus is that people are being more conservative and the dates are more conservative. Then as the numbers went down and as precautions became a little bit less restrictive, things got a little more casual in dating. But it’s different depending on the person and everybody has a different experience. I went on a couple dates through friends and so in those experiences I think I was less concerned about the person and how they approach COVID. I even met someone in person, which, especially during COVID, basically never happens. 

But the main story is that I have a huge crush on a guy I met on the apps who lives across the country. We’ve been trying to figure out how to do travel during COVID and then he got injured and can’t travel anymore. There have been all kinds of dating experience and all kinds of roadblocks and they all feel unique.

Q: How have you gone about discussing COVID risks, testing, meeting up in person or virtually, and comfort levels around contact?

Conversations on dating apps are hilarious these days because there’s just no assumption of what life is like for anybody right now. I think that there’s a huge heterogeneity in how people are experiencing all of this.

I’m continually experiencing online dating for what feels like the first time, even though it’s almost been a whole year, which is just so crazy. I’m now learning what is typical, what is a normal response on these things, introductions, and now with things during COVID, or BLM, or the election— how do you not address all of that? So, the introductions of these conversations feel like there’s a new normal and it does feel like, at least for me, you can tell where someone is at in terms of dating. For example, some people want to make sure that they are really, really excited about somebody before they do an in-person date with them, versus other people who are really down to go out right off the bat. There’s a whole spectrum of what people are comfortable with.

I was really nervous when I first started dating after I broke up with my companion from the beginning of quarantine, my first COVID boyfriend situation. When I started dating after him, I went on a couple of dates, those were in the park sitting 12 feet away with masks off and maybe one beer while it was freezing outside. One time I went on a walk with a guy and we kept our masks on for the first 20 minutes because it felt like he was uncomfortable taking it off—and then we sat on a bench 12 feet apart. It’s weird; it’s all just so weird.

So, on my first COVID dates, we were sitting 12 feet away from someone outside in the park, because nothing was open and everyone was extraordinarily concerned. Now, I’m tested a lot more frequently, and it’s also just becoming more and more typical compared to the beginning of COVID. For example, you go to dinner outside, and maybe you don’t wear masks while within five or six feet of each other, and then by the end of the date maybe you’re deciding whether or not to give each other a hug or a kiss.

Q: Dating during a pandemic has its obvious challenges. But have you noticed any silver linings that you haven’t yet mentioned? Any moments of self-discovery, growth, humor, or understanding to share? 

I think pre-divorce, and still for a bit post-divorce, I was such a downer and a rule follower. I just didn’t get my carefree moment, and I’m trying to cling to a carefree moment in my life right now while also trying to be a public servant. As a healthcare practitioner, I have dedicated my life to the good of public health, and I genuinely believe that I should not throw that aside so that I can get laid during COVID. That being said, I also don’t want to be locked in my house, celibate, during this moment where I’m feeling ready to play. I want to go out, I want to do fun things, and I want to be a little more carefree than I’ve ever been in my life. I’m feeling energy for that and—especially after divorce and feeling very very depressed—I’m just so thrilled that I’m feeling energy, because I hadn’t felt that in a long time. So, being able to act on that feels igniting in a way. It does feel a little selfish at times, but I think so much of my life up until now has been for the benefit of other people and so now I’m trying out being a little selfish and seeing what that’s like, while still realizing I have made a life decision to have a value set that is consistent with like the good of public health. I really don’t want to get COVID—I really don’t want to get it and I don’t want to spread it—so how do I live my life in a safe way, while also taking the small amount of risk necessary to date, play, have fun, and see people?

Update: I’m a lot less scared of being alone—which somehow invites so many more beautiful relationships into your life, not just romantically. So, things are good and I’m finding that balance. It’s not always a perfect balance, of course, but it’s good. It’s homeostasis.

Q: Any pleasant surprises? If you did meet someone you hit it off with, do you feel like the circumstances of the pandemic and social distancing have affected the pace and progression of your relationship at all?

I was really excited about a date with a guy who was only in town for two weeks, which was exactly the type of mood I was in. I was ready for a two-week situation—expiration dating, which was something that I had never done. I was so excited about this hot guy in town and all of our texts were very flirty and that was what I was looking for. You know, I don’t know how to do the long thing right now, I don’t know how to set boundaries for myself and keep them; I know what would be best for me, but I don’t know how to like keep to that, so the idea of him leaving was such a great one. But on the first date, the whole time I was so consumed with thinking, “How do I show him that I want to make out with him??” So, I got up to go to the bathroom and I didn’t put a mask on and I kind of touched his arm, but he didn’t make any moves towards me. So I’m wondering, “Are you comfortable with this?” We were hanging out outside, luckily in his backyard, so it wasn’t an awkward thing in a public park, but it was still kind of uncomfortable because I didn’t want to make him feel uncomfortable or broach any boundaries that should be established.

That’s the other thing, we assume that there’s a way to do this, what I’ve realized is that there isn’t one way to do this. Luckily, at the end of the date he was pretty forward, but not until the very end, and we ended up with a big kiss. And it was delightful. It was amazing. I think once there’s a seal broken, it’s a lot easier to have those conversations, because you’re in the same bubble. There’s no going back, that’s the nature of COVID. From there, you can be a little more forward and say, “I would like to smooch you again. How and when can I do this?”

He was a very pleasant surprise. Unfortunately, the boundary that I thought was going to be there via circumstance—the fact that he lives in New York City—didn’t end up keeping me from having a big crush on him and figuring out how to see him. So, I got my COVID test, I got my N95 mask, and I got a first class ticket so that I didn’t have to sit next to anybody. And I flew my ass to New York to get laid during COVID. And it was so worth it; it was so great. Sometimes you’ve just got to follow the cheese.

What has dating (during the pandemic or in general) taught you about yourself? What are some of the lessons you’ve learned?

I wonder if COVID changed what I learned or how I learned things about myself; I had already started learning so much about myself, just with dating in general, so I wonder if COVID sped up or slowed down any of these processes. For me, the experience of COVID, even outside of dating, compounded every fear that I had and, as a result, I actually think it sped up my own processing and habituation to those fears. The intensity of my feelings around those fears were extraordinarily high, and I can only assume they were compounded by COVID. In the same vein, I also needed to figure out how to deal with them a lot more quickly. I feel like I fit five years of fears of being alone into eight months, which, being on the other end of that now feels really great. But I cannot explain to you how terrified I was when I heard about the Shelter in Place Order—and that was with thinking it would only be for a week or so. The idea of being alone in my apartment for one week without seeing other people sounded impossible. I thought, “I can’t. I will not survive.” Compared to how I feel now, where I feel like I could make it three months. In fact, a month feels good. More than that would be upsetting, but I know it would be OK. That drastic difference must be because of the intensity of this situation that was forced upon us; I could have never have simulated that in my own life. Also, let me be clear that this is not only COVID’s doing, this is all supplemented with a ton of therapy and there was a lot of intentional effort here for all of this exploration.

With dating, inevitably, being comfortable being alone is going to allow you to be more specific and intentional with who you’re dating. I was dating people as a necessity to supplement my fear of being alone and I think now, because that fear is subsiding and I’m able to manage it better, I trust myself more with who I want in my life. I’m able to prioritize people that have things that I really love and benefit from—and it’s not just with dating but also with friends. It’s being able to say no to a date because I want to hang out with my friend when my fears would have previously told me otherwise. I now feel so optimistic about my ability to choose a partner, either temporary or long term. I don’t feel confident yet, but I feel optimistic—those are slightly different.

That is a silver lining, the speed of recovery and being able to find “love” or even just feelings for someone. Real feelings. Before, what I thought were “feelings” were tied up in my fear of loneliness and not wanting to be married anymore and was more the result of a breaking-down rather than building-of something. During all of this, I actually got to feel real feelings for somebody, and that’s tremendously exciting for me. Now that I’ve had these experiences, I know I can achieve that. And if I can have feelings for someone during COVID, if I can find somebody that I want to spend time with during COVID, if I can face my fears during COVID… When all of this ends, you better watch out! No one can stop me. It’s all good.

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