By Ellen Lamont, author of The Mating Game: How Gender Still Shapes How We Date
As Covid-19 ripped through the United States in early 2020, governors across the country began issuing social distancing mandates and shuttering restaurants. While these guidelines were intended to keep people physically distanced rather than socially isolated, they raised the question of how “safer at home” directives shape people’s ability to date and form romantic relationships.
So what do we know about the pandemic’s impact on dating?
At this point, we still have more questions than answers. A research team at the Kinsey Institute is conducting a “Sex and Relationships in the Time of Covid-19” study, and journalists have published exploratory pieces on the topic. But given what we already know about dating and courtship, we can still make some predictions about how the pandemic is affecting the dating lives of young adults.
My book, The Mating Game: How Gender Still Shapes How We Date, examines how young adults date and form romantic relationships in a period of social upheaval. I found that heterosexual women and men tend to lean heavily on convention when dating, even as new expectations around gender equality, independence, and self-fulfillment emerge as opposing ideals. This is because dating conventions help them progress the relationship forward in ways that they know to be socially sanctioned and help them interpret the relative interest of the other person. Many also enjoy these conventions in spite of their gender-regressive connotations. In short, it’s how heterosexual people recognize romance.
But the current climate disrupts these conventional milestones of dating. How can people show romantic interest when they can’t even get close to each other?
On the one hand, this leads to a story of constraint. While a huge percentage of young adults now use online dating platforms, online dating seems to work best when people quickly move offline. It’s not clear that these platforms adequately fill the void when there is no subsequent move to in-person interaction. And even though people use dating apps in high numbers, many still feel negatively about using them. While there are always safety concerns, the present moment heightens these worries and connects them to health, leading to very slow progress when getting to know someone.
By the time people meet, they may have invested significant time in getting to know each other, so a lack of chemistry can feel especially frustrating. If the couple does find themselves ready to continue the relationship, then other questions come up quickly and perhaps more quickly than they would otherwise. How do you move the relationship forward when so many activities and experiences are off limits? What roles do people take on when partners are on equal footing, with both stuck sitting behind computers and simply talking? How quickly do you determine exclusivity given that having more than one partner can increase the chances of exposure to Covid-19? When and under what conditions is it safe to have sex? Since people are lonely and are also safer with one partner, couples may speed up relationship progression under certain conditions, in effect sliding into commitment. Much of this also depends on access to private space and whether people live alone or not, compounding challenges for those who don’t.
Now add in the fact that people are tired. And tired of being online. At the end of a long day of virtual interaction, getting back online to kindle a romance might be the last thing on people’s minds. This may end up creating some ripple effects such as a condensed courtship clock, delayed marriage, and decreased fertility. If people are unable or unwilling to pivot to more creative ways of creating connection, they will find dating in the current moment frustrating and unfulfilling. Because heterosexual young adults remain so committed to conventional scripts, they may struggle to imagine other ways of engaging with each other.
But there could also be some silver linings if people are able to rethink what they want from romantic relationships. As The Mating Game shows, queer people are often either excluded from conventional dating and relationship practices, or want to opt-out and explicitly build a meaningful life outside of the expected norms. In the process, they develop very creative and personal ways of growing and showing romance, love, and care. If the broader population can harness these lessons and let go of the constraining expectations associated with conventional dating, many may find new ways of doing things more satisfying. That includes more expansive understandings of sex, innovative ways of developing intimacy, and possibilities for dating without the price tag. And perhaps most importantly, it might lead them to discover the importance of maintaining a wider social network, rather than an intense focus on undivided couple-level commitment.