March 3, 2021

Lovers in a dangerous time: How COVID-19 complicates dating

Will new dating behaviours brought on by the pandemic become permanent after life returns to normal? The verdict is out

A year ago, Sonja Kathol was completing her third year of kinesiology and musing over her future. Frankly, it was looking a bit lonely as her boyfriend, a Schulich engineering student, was bound for Zurich on a one-year internship.

Flash forward to today and you’ll find the Kathol household consists of Sonja; her boyfriend (who never did make it to Zurich); her older sister Katja and her boyfriend (both back from McGill); her dad and mom; two dogs and a rabbit; and, until very recently, her younger sister, Nyla (who, in January, decided to live in residence at UBC) and her boyfriend.

Boom — parents think they’ll be empty-nesters and, instead, wind up with eight adults living under one roof!

Sisters Sonja, left, and Katja Kathol

Sisters Sonja, left, and Katja Kathol weren’t convinced they’d ever live together again. COVID hit and their family grew to eight adults who have survived — they say, thrived — under one roof.

For recent poli-sci grad Jake Scott and his partner, 2020 was also a harbinger of change. While Scott was studying at UCalgary, his partner was working in Edmonton. But, since October, the couple have found jobs in Calgary and have moved into a downtown condo. Together.

Boom — a long-distance romance gets fast-tracked.

Katelyn Collin, a third-year biological sciences student, met her current boyfriend on a dating app last June. After five weeks of phone chats they finally met, mask-to-mask, and went on a walk. That led to a summer of golf games, drinks on many a patio and more walks. They’ve been in the same bubble since last fall.

Boom — the masks come off.

If you’re in a permanent relationship (or haven’t been out much since last spring), it may be news to you that, despite the pandemic, people are still moving in, meeting up, cuddling and, yes, some are even making out with new partners — sometimes weighing their emotional and physical needs against safety concerns.

The new rules of dating

Going out on dates in the COVID-19 era has involved a mental calculus not seen, since ... well, some experts say the rise of AIDS: Will I feel safe? What is the likelihood of infection? How many people could this hurt? Do I bubble up?

Of the 11 people we interviewed for this article, all admitted that maintaining relationships in the time of the COVID has come with heavy freight: expectations, judgments, slippery slopes — in other words, dating has become a polarizing dance. A clumsy one, at that.

“There are so many factors at play right now,” explains registered provisional psychologist Dr. Robert Roughley, MC’06, PhD’14. “There’s a deep desire to connect for there is profound loneliness out there — but there are so many unknowns. We may flirt with the possibility and then, all of a sudden, we’re in lockdown. Again. Then there are those who are in professions where exposure is real, while others have been vaccinated, which brings up the element of privilege, doesn’t it?”

As people negotiate these new terms, rules and levels of comfort, experts say one of the silver linings is that people are talking, texting and calling each other more than they did pre-pandemic. Besides getting to know each other before there’s any physical contact, the key to dating now is what it’s always been: trust.

High-tech, low-touch dating

As a relational therapist with Insight Psychological Inc., Roughley applauds old-school dating: “It is not uncommon for me to see individuals on ‘first-dates’ ... walking along the Bow River, wearing masks and maintaining social distance. For many, dating has become a form of high-tech, low-touch,” he says. “First and foremost, individuals who are starting a relationship should explore within their comfort zones and establish boundaries before moving forward.”

Adds Dr. Ted Jablonski, MD, associate director of student advising and wellness at the Cumming School of Medicine: “If there is a positive to this pandemic, exclusivity is it! I have definitely seen relationships solidify and move forward (in a healthy and safe way). Exclusive sexual relationships are definitely safer from a medical point of view if all involved are healthy and ‘negative’ for whatever could be transmissible — whether that be STIs, COVID or anything else.”

But, for lovers in a dangerous time, when, exactly, should the mask come off?

Let’s get physical

Although health experts advise everyone to mask up in all indoor public places, when it comes to personal bubbles, individuals are exhibiting different boundaries of comfort and safety.

“It’s tricky,” admits Scott, who, before moving in with his partner, lived at home and talked with his mom every day. “When I hear of people going to big parties, I think that’s horrible and, I admit, I am judgmental. But could I not have seen my parents for an entire year? No. I know it’s 100 per cent against the sanctioned rules, but I admit I have bent this rule ... a bit.”

Alumna Lauren Phillips, BA’18, doesn’t condone the slippery slope, but understands the dilemma. Having moved to the U.K. last March to work for an international development program and to live with her partner, Phillips admits there’s bias in our risk assessments. “Sometimes, it’s important to practise compassion over judgment,” she writes in an email.

“While I don’t agree with all of my friends’ dating decisions and am at times worried about their likelihood of contracting or spreading the virus, it’s more important for me to provide a safe space where they can feel safe to disclose violent experiences, talk through red flags and get support, instead of fearing that I’ll chastise them for dating during a pandemic.”

Tough subjects on the agenda

Lauren, like Sonja, Jake and so many others, jumped from a long-distance relationship to living together under lockdown. Fast-tracking a relationship comes with its own inherent risks, but what most people agree upon is that basic communication skills about tough subjects such as boundaries, safer sex and consent have improved.

With so many conversation formulas online, more people seem to be taking cues from professionals, those who say: Share the risks you’ve taken, then ask about the other person’s risk level and interest in getting closer. Getting comfortable with the uncomfortable can lead the conversation to other scripts where people ask: “What do you want? What’s on the table and what’s not on the table?” 

Scott also suggests starting a conversation with, “What does social distancing mean to you?”

And then there are those comfortable enough to be more direct; that camp is asking for proof of a COVID-19 test or suggesting that both parties get tested before a meet-up.

Dating apps add helpful features

Even dating apps are trying to ease the process. Last spring, Bumble implemented a new Virtual Dating Badge feature that users could include in their profile to indicate whether they were open to “video dates, socially distanced or socially distanced with a mask.” By summer, one million global Bumble users had added the feature to their profiles.

In a study conducted last summer by another dating app, Hinge, a majority of LGBTQ2S+ users — 55 per cent — shared that using the app had been helpful with fighting feelings of loneliness or isolation, especially by being able to get in touch with people in their city.

Mention the power of touch — whether that’s physical or social — and Roughley says that skin-to-skin touch, “is imperative in human beings’ daily lives and often assists in the conveyance of reassurance in times of distress.” In fact, without it, research has terms for the condition ... “touch starvation” or “touch hunger.”

For Katja Kathol, who is working remotely on her master’s degree in educational psychology from her crowded family home in Calgary, her answer is not a substitute for the power of touch, but she and her boyfriend have worked out a “constant stream of communication. That means we’re on FaceTime for ...  I don’t know, seven-plus hours a day. We’ll both be working on our essays or whatever and the phone will be on and we’ll help each other out and just pretend the other is there with us.” 

The future of dating

As vaccinations roll out and the world begins to relax quarantine guidelines, will the rules for dating during a pandemic stick?

Some predict that COVID-19 has prompted a new stage in the courtship process and that the kind of physical intimacy we once knew will be severely curtailed for at least a year or two.

Others, like Jablonski, believe the collective “we” has a very short-term memory and, although he’s quick to not condone white-hot hedonism, is predicting “an amazing time of unbridled debauchery.”

Scott laughs and says of the possibility of a new Roaring 20s: “I am so excited for this to happen. I think the clubs will be full and people will be thrilled to be out dancing again for a very long time.”

As for a post-pandemic fantasy, Scott dreams of being on plane next November, bound for some far-flung “exotic island.”

“The day I wake up really early and order an Uber to the airport ... that’s the day I am most looking forward to,” he says.