What It’s Like to Start a New Relationship During the Pandemic
As a single person at the start of the pandemic, I didn’t envy my friends living with long-term partners. They reported quickly growing weary of the constant contact. In the trade-off between loneliness and conflict, I was happy with my choice. (Well, technically, it was my ex-boyfriend’s choice, if we’re being precise.) But as time continued to pass, isolation settled in, and I began to crave romantic intrigue.
Initially, I hadn’t planned on making any major life changes during the pandemic. I could keep my life on hold for a few months, I thought. But by May, it didn’t seem like COVID-19 would be under control anytime soon. I began to accept that if I wanted a partner in the near future, I’d have to start dating. I redownloaded Hinge for the first time in five months.
While the pandemic couldn’t change the quality of the men on the app, it did make the conversations easier. Instead of searching for topics that would hopefully elucidate our compatibility, my matches and I now had an all-encompassing shared experience to discuss. I tried to steer the early dialogue away from the magnitude of our global predicament, and we were able to find common ground over topics such as how we were keeping ourselves busy at home. The men were more responsive, likely because the shutdowns had left all of us with few obligations, clinging to any social connection we could find. If it took a global pandemic to get a guy to respond to my messages, so be it.
Unlike in the Before Times, nearly every Hinge match I spoke with suggested a date, typically via FaceTime. FaceTimes are cost-free and come with almost no risk of wasting an evening—it’s much easier to politely end a FaceTime after only 45 minutes than it would be an in-person date. The only time commitment I made outside of the call itself was the five minutes it took to apply mascara, and I often scheduled two dates in a night to maximize my lashes.
I felt more in control on FaceTime because I could choose how my dates saw me. Initially, I feared that the ability to see myself would be distracting. Instead, I was better able to concentrate on what my dates were saying, as I didn’t self-consciously wonder if anything was stuck in my teeth or if my arms were held at an unflattering angle. The men seemed looser too. Previously, the unwritten rule of first dates had been to never say the word date, but the virtual dating experience was so unusual that we were quick to openly debrief. I felt vulnerable admitting to strangers that I was worried about my FaceTime dating skills, but we were all equally inexperienced, and many of them shared my insecurities.
FaceTiming had its downsides. Some men seemed to think that they didn’t owe women the same amount of respect virtually as they did in the real world, which was already a relatively low bar. One man didn’t show up to our date and never explained why. Another asked immediately if I’d be comfortable having sex during the pandemic. Yet another drunkenly called me in a towel and tried to flash his genitals. Fortunately, I could hang up and blame the Wi-Fi. Overall, though, because of the convenience and safety—COVID-19 is not the only risk women face when dating in person—I might recommend that daters always start with a FaceTime, even when the threat of the coronavirus has diminished.
After a successful FaceTime with someone, I’d schedule a masked and socially distant date. I felt stiffer and more awkward in a mask—I hadn’t realized how crucial a smile was until I tried to flirt without one. And when one man talked only about himself for two hours, I couldn’t deliver my most withering “Your words—they bore me” glare (the frown is crucial).
My dates and I had to navigate each other’s rules for this new normal. I’d had similar conversations with close friends, who were divided over how much contact was acceptable, but it was significantly more challenging with guys I barely knew. My desire to seem “fun” and “chill” on dates was incompatible with expressing my social-distancing boundaries. I seemed to offend one date by asking him to stand farther away from me. I apologized, as I’m often too quick to do, and then felt ashamed—I should be prioritizing safety.
After a few misses, I caught a good one. Sam and I FaceTimed for hours. He came over for a socially distanced date on my lawn, during which I called a doctor friend to ask about the safety of him using my bathroom. Sam patiently held his bladder during the call, and I gave him the okay. Near the end of May, we went on our third in-person date, and he brought up sex. He seemed to think it would be fun, and I agreed. But we got COVID-19 tests first.
I suspected we were defaulting to monogamy, but I didn’t want to assume. I asked Sam if he was sleeping with anyone else. He seemed taken aback, and I understood his reaction. I was really asking not only whether we were exclusive, but whether he was exposing me to additional risks of contracting the virus. What was once a question I’d use to gauge whether a relationship was casual had become a deeper critique of his character. In a world in which going to the grocery store can kill you, is there even such a thing as “casual” dating or “casual” sex? Is anything casual anymore?
COVID-19 had ushered in a heaviness that conflicted with the fragility of our nascent romance. While sex always comes with risks, early love affairs are typically free from questions about whether one person’s daily behaviors threaten the other’s health. My coupled friends had no issue fighting openly about each other’s precautions for avoiding the coronavirus, but they weren’t in new relationships. Unlike in my previous relationships, I had to decide immediately if I trusted Sam. I didn’t yet feel comfortable asking him to change his behavior. It would be a binary choice between accepting or rejecting him. If I had thought Sam was completely irresponsible—which he wasn’t—I probably would have ended it. I didn’t plan to monitor his comings and goings or the company he kept.
We entered the relationship with different protocols for staying safe. I didn’t see anyone indoors but interacted with many people outside. He had a small pod of people he saw indoors, including his parents. I never even considered asking him to see people less often or outdoors. Instead, I began getting tested before visiting his family at indoor gatherings. Sam once declined an invitation to a friend’s outdoor pool because of COVID-19, but he didn’t suggest I should skip the outing. He has never commented on my Uber usage (I don’t have a car), and I similarly said nothing when he picked up a friend from the airport. Because of our desire to make the relationship work, we did something we perhaps shouldn’t have done, given the severity of the situation: We accepted each other’s choices without pushing back.
I had friends who were suspicious of my new relationship, and for good reason—there could be no denying that we’d taken a risk by choosing to date. As selfish as I worried dating was, the value of a joyful day had shot up in quarantine, and Sam gave me so many—did that count for nothing? The United Nations has warned of the mental-health crisis lurking as the pandemic wears on, so we should be wary of dismissing the value of happiness. This extends beyond starting new relationships. I’ve had many conversations with friends about the trade-offs between having fun and minimizing social contact, and the answers are unclear to me. The guilt lingers, though. If I were a perfect social-distancer, I would have stayed home. But I wouldn’t have Sam.
Once Sam and I settled into a committed relationship, a new wave of anxieties emerged. There was so much I couldn’t know about him, because of the circumstances. What was he like in groups of people? Was he anxious about flying? What if he’s that guy who grunts loudly at the gym? That’s just not the type of dealbreaker you want to learn about a year into dating someone.
Similarly, I worried that a dealbreaker about me was waiting for Sam on the other side of the crisis. Unfortunately, our pandemic selves are ourselves now—the metrics of commitment I’ve always used don’t work anymore. For example, asking Sam to fly to London to visit my family over the holidays seems like an unreasonable expectation. I don’t even think I’ll be able to go myself. But how can I know he’d be willing to spend the holidays with my family if he doesn’t actually spend the holidays with my family?
The pandemic has forced me to find alternative signs of stability. While I can’t know if Sam would spend the holidays with my family, I know he hasn’t hesitated to integrate me into his. We don’t know how the other person would behave at a crowded party, but we know how we treat each other during a crisis. COVID-19 has taken so much from us, but not the joy of my new relationship. Despite what we can’t know about each other, I see a future with Sam, which is significant in a time when I can barely see a future at all.