From Plenty of Fish to Survival Dating

How COVID-19 is changing dating and hooking up

Before the pandemic people were swimming in a pool of what felt like endless possibilities on dating and hook up apps. The downside of such abundance has shown up in my research, as people report experiencing what psychologist and professor Barry Schwartz refers to as the paradox of choice which manifests in an inability to make a decision when faced with too many options. In addition, when “plenty of fish in the sea” is operating below the surface daters are likely to worry about missed opportunities when forced to choose one option out of many — thus creating a dating environment in which many people are afraid to commit to potential relationships as they are constantly on the lookout for someone better.

Prior to COVID, people could go on dates almost every night of the week if they wanted — and many often did, but with stay-at-home orders choices have become limited as perceptions of risk and stranger danger have become a real concern for millions of people around the world.

It’s no longer about finding the perfect person, but rather to find someone who meets their basic needs for safety and emotional nourishment to ride out quarantine with. When resources are scarce, we are more flexible and willing to try things that we otherwise would not.

And while plenty of people have not made any changes to their dating practices on account of the pandemic, my research shows COVID-19 has created a shift that reflects a back to basics approach that I am calling survival dating.

Why survival? In the face of a global pandemic brought on by an easily transmitted novel Coronavirus with no vaccine yet, the world is perceived by many as a dangerous place that needs to be navigated with caution. The survival acronym found in the U.S. Army Survival Field Manual is especially helpful for contextualizing pandemic dating.

S — Size up the Situation
U — Undue Haste Makes Waste and Use Your Senses.
R — Remember Where You Are.
V — Vanquish Panic and Fear.
I — Improvise.
V — Value Life.
A — Act like the Natives.
L — Live by Your Wits or Learn Basic Skills.

Here is how I break down the acronym and apply it to what I see happening during these times of social distancing and stay-at-home orders.

S — Size up the Situation

Hide yourself from danger and determine who and where enemies are

Considering that this Coronavirus has a 2-week incubation period and people can be asymptomatic carriers, anyone can be a threat. With stay-at-home orders, people are literally hiding themselves from the threat of COVID exposure and when out in the world, taking precautions such as wearing masks and gloves, maintaining physical distance from others, and sanitizing hands often.

COVID has made dating and hooking up a risky proposition for everyone, not just women and sexual minorities (who tend to be more cautious about meeting strangers for safety reasons). For those who are deciding to connect with others, people are assessing risk of exposure by having consent conversations in which they openly and honestly share information about contact with other people in the world during previous weeks and any potential risks so they can make informed decisions based on their own COVID risk tolerance (see chart below).

U — Undue Haste Makes Waste

Use all your senses, take note of any red flags, and then plan and prepare for the next

In terms of dating, this means once people have had a conversation about health and risk, it’s time to plan for how to move forward.

R — Remember Where You Are

Identify the safe areas

For many people, communicating through technology (such as text, video chat and phone calls) is the safest space to connect at this time — especially those who fall in high risk categories. Figuring out ways to meet in person safely is the next step. With the closure of bars, cafes, and restaurants, public parks have become the place for people to do their first meet and greet date with social distancing.

V — Vanquish Panic and Fear

Fear leads to poor decision-making so stay focused on the tasks at hand

According to my research, many people are using consent conversations about health and lifestyle during COVID to manage fear so they can make informed decisions about whether to move to intimate connection.

I — Improvise

Use your imagination and be creative

What I am noticing in my research is that regardless of stay-at-home orders, many people who are single, living alone, and/or were involved with multiple people prior to the start of pandemic have found creative ways to get needs for physical contact and touch met. I use the term COVID-bonding to describe scenarios in which people choose to share space and air with others they do not live with by spending time together without barriers (such as masks or gloves) and foregoing physical distancing mandates.

I have adapted the concept of fluid bonding, which is when people agree to share bodily fluids with each other by engaging in sexual relations without barriers (such as condoms), to highlight how people are engaging in social interaction by making conscious decisions about health by using harm reduction models regularly applied to sexual health largely made popular in response to the AIDS crisis.

Psychotherapist Esther Perel has pointed out how disasters, like a global pandemic, can be a relationship accelerator, which is evident by the number of people who have decided to commit to someone during quarantine and see where the relationship goes. Many are reaching out to exes because an ex is seen as a known quantity.

V- Value Life

Remember that whatever future happiness life has to offer is worth living for. Never lose hope.

My research has shown that while this time is difficult in so many ways, people are finding silver linings. Many who are looking for long term relationships (LTR) have welcomed the slower pace of dating that includes an extended getting to know you period between matching and meeting. Not surprisingly, dating apps are reporting increased traffic across the board, with people messaging and photo sharing more. According to Bumble, people are having more “quality chats,” meaning conversations are lasting longer with lengthier messages.

Many daters have come to appreciate saving money by using COVIDEO dates rather than going out as mentioned by Jami Goldfarb Shapiro. Negotiations about who picks up the check and when to have sex (or not) have also disappeared with stay-at-home orders.

Many people who are un-partnered and/or living alone are reporting depression, social starvation, and the need for human contact. In the face of loneliness, dating apps are becoming an important venue for social interaction and finding ways to feel alive and remain hopeful during an uncertain time.

A — Act Like the Natives

If you’re stranded in unfamiliar territory, watch the natives

This global pandemic is unfamiliar territory and I hasten to say that there are any natives to learn from. This is further complicated by the fact that people are quite divided about what to do during this time.

Do we stay inside? Do we get back out there?

Countries around the world are trying to find creative solutions for balancing public health with individual needs for interpersonal connection. The Netherlands made an exception to the stay-at-home law for people who live alone to travel to connect with a friend or “sex buddy” within a certain distance from their house to combat mental health concerns that can result as a consequence of isolation. Canada recently instituted a law that allows two households to pair up — creating a double bubble — as a way to increase people’s social contact circles slowly.

Unfortunately, people living in regions of the world with strict stay-at-home mandates have reported experiencing social shaming for choosing to COVID-bond with intimate partners because they are “breaking the law” For those who are already struggling during this time, the added stress of being stigmatized for “breaking quarantine,” especially by friends and family, exacerbates the situation.

L — Live by Your Wits

Figure out your priorities and develop your “pattern of survival”

Since we have been told to expect that this situation will likely continue for at least another year –or until a vaccine is created, I expect that people will continue to find ways to connect with others in a variety of ways and with varying levels of risk taking.

When it comes to dating and hooking up during a public health crisis, most people are employing a back to basics model of decision-making to ensure survival for themselves and their community. People fall into a few categories: take cover and wait till the pandemic is over to date again, face the danger head on and keep swiping as usual, or make a risk/reward assessment and develop a pattern of survival dating.

Digital communication scholar and certified word nerd. Researching how people find love, lust, and connection in the digital age. www.connectingdigitally.com

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