In COVID-19, Relationships are Everything

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The emergence of the novel coronavirus pandemic has shaken the lives of millions and brought society as we know it to a screeching halt amidst government stay-at-home orders.

Unlike previous world crises that happened suddenly and merely left the rest of us to react to their aftermath, COVID-19 is a disaster happening in slow-motion that wreaks a constant psychological assault on our flight or fight mechanisms and has no immediate resolution to look forward to.

As if living in John Carpenter’s “The Thing” story universe, we have no idea who is secretly infectious and who is truly healthy, so we are shuttered at home, isolated physically, and left with only the cold tools of the Information Age to interact with our loved ones and seek new friends.

Until now, we had convinced ourselves over the last two decades that we were a digital society and that e-mail, texts, instant messaging, and video teleconferencing made physical interaction obsolete. Ironically, now that all we have to hold tightly are our smart phones and tablets, many at home are feeling the palpable separation anxiety of not being able to talk to someone face-to-face or touch another person.

In COVID-19 lockdown, digital communications have become all many people have left to stay connected with loved ones.
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In many cities across the world as the pandemic spread, bars, clubs, and restaurants were among the first places to be closed out of an abundance of caution. For many singles, especially young professionals, this cut off the opportunity to mingle and network, and it also was the beginnings of retreating into our homes as we lost physical contact with others.

As a political scientist and policymaker, I have always believed that in moments like these, looking for top experts for guidance and actionable insights is crucial to our survival, and no one knows more about relationships and the human heart than Susan Winter, a world-renowned authority on what makes love work.

You might have seen Winter before on The Oprah Show, countless TV interviews, or on your local bookstore’s shelves as a best-selling relationship author, but this year, Winter addressed the World Economic Forum with a special presentation on data and well-being called “All Things Emotional,” and prophetically identified the challenges of digital communications and interpersonal connectivity in 2020.

If we were the president or prime minister of a superpower nation, we’d definitely want Winter in our war room as a trusted emotional intelligence advisor to help us read between the lines in a national crisis and understand what other leaders were thinking. But, even if you never make it to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or 10 Downing Street, Winter offers professional consultation services if you need help decoding a cryptic text from a love interest, finding your voice in a relationship, overcoming fear, and discovering inner truth.

I had the amazing opportunity to ask Winter some questions about this unique moment in human civilization, and how singles can navigate the seemingly impossible task of being physically separated in COVID-19, but still be emotionally connected and even fulfilled with romantic relationships. A lightly edited transcript follows below.

Danny de Gracia: We’re discovering in the midst of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders that taking the face-to-face, physical interaction out of dating and relationships in general has really put a dent in the way people connect to each other. What’s your advice, in this time, for meeting new people, staying connected with the people we care about, and just staying socially engaged when so many of us are at home?

Susan Winter: I’m excited about the advent of virtual dating. It cuts to the chase because it eliminates the misrepresentation of overly-filtered photos and the deception of catfishing. Virtual dating also encourages the prospective partners to get to know each other through verbal communication. Communication is the key to building a foundation that lasts.

Benefits of virtual dating: Though they can see each other visually, they cannot jump straight into physical intimacy. This slows the pace of dating, enabling real communication to occur.

de Gracia: Let’s talk a little bit about the “art of texting” in dating. Not everyone likes doing phone calls, FaceTime, Zoom, or other real-time forms of communication, and a lot of people, even among persons who date, prefer just to text. It seems like people right now might want to know what the rules are for texting in this time.

Winter: If you like someone and you’re worried about losing your contact during the lockdown, reach out via text. It’s a great way to check in with your crush and keep the energy — and connection — flowing.

Although you state that many people do not like FaceTime, Zoom, and other real-time forms of communication, there has been a renewed interest in old school telephone calls. Millennials, who formerly only placed phone calls to grandma, have now recently discovered the warmth of hearing a person’s voice.

Photo by Kev Costello on Unsplash

de Gracia: I can think of two possible scenarios that many singles might be experiencing right now. One is where they might have sent someone they are interested in a text, and they haven’t heard back in a while.

What should they do? I know you’ve previously discussed the concept of “double texting,” but maybe you could tell us a little bit more about whether double texting rules are the same in COVID-19 lockdown.

Winter: Double texting occurs when we’re dating someone who has kept us anxiously awaiting their response. There’s been a gap in the communication. Hours go by, and they have not responded to our text. Out of fear and confusion, we send another text. This is double texting.

Unless your crush is a first responder, there’s no excuse for massive text delays. We’re all sequestered and have fractured work schedules. Though you hate to double text, it may be necessary to shoot off another text to check in. The false excuse is that you’re worried about them, or their family. But, if they reply in a half-hearted manner that fails to satisfy, consider moving on.

Everyone is busy in their normal day-to-day lives. During COVID-19, there are far fewer excuses for lags in communication. This is the ideal time to initiate a relationship. Both parties have ample bandwidth to spend on learning about each other and building a solid connection.

de Gracia: Is it okay to double text and not feel guilty? Sometimes people feel like they’re losing the initiative or appearing weak if they double text.

Winter: My philosophy is that we must get resolution in order to feel satisfied and move on. And if a double text is what it takes to realize that you’ve been put “on read,” (ignored) then your answer is clear.

Silence speaks volumes, as does purposeful delay. Rather than feeling guilty about double texting, clarity is the goal. Though unfortunate, it provides the necessary realization that you and your date are not on the same page.

There’s another kind of double texting that requires caution. Manic texting due to anxiety, insecurity or fear is the action that makes us look weak and needy — because we are. We are so insecure that we need immediate confirmation.

In a case like this we have either chosen the wrong partner, and/or have inner work to do on our self-worth.

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de Gracia: The other situation is the “fishing expedition” where an ex, or someone who ghosted a person previously, suddenly comes back out of nowhere and drops a line, asking to chat or talk. Do you handle that the way you would under normal circumstances, or, given the isolation of COVID-19 lockdown, do you entertain that?

Winter: The lockdown has prompted a staggering number of exes to reach out to former partners. The question we need to ask ourselves is, “Why?”

True, we’re in a critical time of ill-health. One would hope the reason for contact is to check in. However, the unexpected message from an ex always begs discernment: “Are they concerned about my well being? Are they bored and curious? Or, is their intention to rekindle our love affair?”

These are important distinctions that affect our emotional stability. It may take a few exchanges to come to the center point of the truth, but it must be done.

de Gracia: In the past, you’ve mentioned how people should utilize “the talk” where if a person wants something more out of a relationship, they should consider telling the person they’re interested in their feelings. Now that communication is mostly remote, how would one have “the talk” in lockdown?

Winter: I am an advocate of having “the talk.” I believe that each partner should be clear as to what they’re looking for in a relationship, and in a partner.

This type of communication is vital for your happiness and for shaping the direction of your interaction. If you’re at that juncture in your relationship, then speak up. You need to share your feelings and your romantic goals regardless of external factors.

de Gracia: Psychologists do warn about how during periods of crisis or stress, feelings of tension and anxiety can be misinterpreted as attraction. This is definitely one of those times. What would be your advice for people who get in a relationship now, in terms of what their expectations should be for the long-term outlook?

The person you partner with him during the pandemic may not be the person you want when we come out of lock down. You may have been desperate, lonely, and needy when you made your romantic selection. Same could be true for your partner.

The urgency to not feel alone is astounding during this time period. Sequestered individuals in New York City are posting ads on Craigslist for lockdown lovers. There are very few requirements stated, only a willingness to share a bed to cure their loneliness.

de Gracia: What’s your thoughts about the future of dating in America once COVID-19 is over? Do you think things may have changed for good even in this short time, or are the rules still the same?

Winter: I think people will resume their dating lives with the same behavior as before the pandemic. It would be lovely to imagine that modern daters will have slowed their pace in search of greater connection. Certainly, some may adopt that strategy, as communication has been the primary form of attraction and engagement.

I’d expect a robust desire for hookups and dating sprees when we can finally return to active socialization. The excitement of being free again could start a cycle of furious dating, as a counterbalance to being isolated and deprived of human contact.

Dr. Danny de Gracia is a political scientist and former adviser to the Human Services and International Affairs committees at the Hawaii State Legislature.

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