Dating has always been unpredictable — like the weather in Britain or the president’s tweets. But this year, the climate for finding romance has been exceptionally erratic, says Damona Hoffman, who’s been a dating coach for the last 15 years. All the standard rules about dating have been upended: What counts as a third date when your first was a virtual meet-up, and on the second you didn't get within six feet of each other? How soon is too soon to ask someone to quarantine for two weeks, then stand in line for over an hour to get a COVID rapid test in order to possibly make out? When is it appropriate to tell your roommates that you're bringing someone new into your pod? These are questions we never had to ask ourselves before.
Pre-pandemic, we could expect new relationships to unfold according to a pretty standard formula: you meet on an app, through a friend, or while out living your life. You casually date for a month or two. You have the “making it official” talk, then you slowly get serious.
This year, those stages are all messed up. Virtual dating alone throws a wrench in things. (According to Google’s Year In Search, “what to do on a virtual date” was a top trending search in 2020.) Whether it's on Zoom of FaceTime, the process is exhausting and unsatisfying, but meeting IRL feels like a huge step. Especially since to do so, you have to trust that the other person isn’t going to infect you with a virus that’s killed over 1.5 million people worldwide. Once you do join one another’s social pod, you might find yourself seeing your new boo way more often than you would have before, since they’ve become one of your few safe people. Or conversely, maybe they’ll suddenly decide to decamp to their parents’ place for a few months, just as things were heating one. There’s no one timeline that makes sense anymore.
But Hoffman, who also hosts the The Dates & Mates Podcast, says that some new dating patterns have emerged amid the pandemic. And thankfully, she’s been able to establish a few rules of thumb while helping people find love in 2020. Here, Hoffman lays out the phases of dating amid a pandemic, and gives some solid advice for navigating them gracefully.
One of the few things that hasn’t changed much this year is how people meet each other: Much of it is happening on dating apps. After all, in lockdown, "unless it’s the Postmates delivery person or the FedEx driver, you’re not just going to bump into your ideal partner,” Hoffman points out.
Sure, an app lets you meet people who you might never run into IRL and easily screen out folks who aren’t a fit. But, we know: Swiping around can feel like trying to find a dolphin in a fish tank. For that reason, Hoffman suggests trying several different apps to land on one or two that reliably deliver matches you’re actually into.
If you’re considering trying to circumvent dating apps by starting something up with someone who’s already in your COVID-19 pod, think long and hard about that decision. It’s almost never a good idea, Hoffman says. It can cause awkwardness, and if it doesn’t work out, the people within your friend group may end up taking sides. There are exceptions to every rule, but keep in mind that your drive for human connection during a lonely time shouldn’t lead you to blow up your bubble.
After you match with someone, you’ll start chatting for a bit either via text or within the app. And what happens in your initial DMs matters more now than it did pre-COVID, Hoffman says. In some ways, just meeting IRL feels like a third date-level “big step," which means the screening stages have taken on an exaggerated level of importance.
Hoffman says you can expect to hang out in the messaging stage for at least three full texting convos before moving on to a phone call. Yes, an actual “hear their voice” phone call. “Someone can be really cute and funny when they’re talking with emojis, but if you’re in a real-time conversation, you can get a lot of actual information about them,” Hoffman says. “You can tell if they’re vibing off of you, you can hear their tone of voice, you can start to figure out what their intention is based on what they say." Basically, you can figure out if they're worth your time. Hoffman says one short call is enough to determine if it’s time to move on to the next stage. (Don’t feel like giving out your phone number to someone you don’t know? Hoffman recommends using the service Text Now, which masks your real number on texts and calls.)
2020 was the year of the Zoom date. While virtual dates aren’t perfect substitutes for in-person meet-ups, seeing someone’s facial expressions helps you get to know them better, and gives you a chance to make sure you like their look — without having to worry about whether one of you is asymptomatic. Hoffman recommends keeping the first Zoom date to an hour to limit fatigue.
She also suggests setting up no more than three virtual dates a week with the same person. “If you space the interactions out over time, it builds anticipation, curiosity, and chemistry,” she says. "Especially now when it can take a while before you see them in person." If you’re worried about awkward pauses, consider incorporating activities such as trivia, Quiplash, or Netflix Party after your first one or two virtual dates to keep things fresh and fun.
How long you sit in this stage depends on several factors: whether you're in a COVID-19 hotspot, whether you or your date is at high risk for the virus, how strict your pods are about introducing new people, where each of you are sitting out the quarantine. Of course, in some cases, things will fizzle out here. A date that you would have dubbed “bad” in person might be even worse on Zoom, which is an inherently awkward platform. If you do hit it off though, plan to have at least one or two FaceTime tête-à-têtes before considering moving into the next stage, to make sure the other person is worth the extra risk that comes with an in-person get-together.
Social distancing dates
Finally, the time has come to meet up in person. That might mean dining outdoors for a date, meeting up for a picnic in the park, ice skating, or just taking a walk or hike together. Whatever the case, Hoffman says it’s imperative to set up COVID-19 ground rules before you go: masks stay on, the date stays outdoors, you’re both responsible for keeping distance. You know the drill.
This stage will help you get to know your potential sweetheart even better — some physical cues just can’t be picked up on Zoom. The social distancing date phase can last as short or long as you’re both comfortable with, but if you have chemistry, at a certain point you may be tempted to get a little closer. Which brings us to…
Now things are getting more serious. Before adding someone to your bubble, you’ll have to have a serious talk with not just them, but the other people you see during the pandemic. Ask your potential new bubble boo: Are they willing to quarantine and get tested before your first not-distanced date? Are you each comfortable with the level of risk the other has to or chooses to take? (Maybe they take public transit to work every day, while you’re still WFH.)
This is also a good time to ask the person if they're seeing other people (and if so, whether they’re quarantining too). And heck, you might as well throw in the STI talk as well. Like we said — serious. Yes, these talks can be intimidating and awkward, Hoffman acknowledges. But they’re critical. To help make the conversation feel more appropriate for the early stage of dating you’re in, she suggests emphasizing that you’re asking because of COVID-19 safety, not in order to define the relationship quite yet. Unless you do want to DTR, that is. In which case, the next phase is applicable.
This is when things get kind of squishy. Normally, you’d date casually for a while. But few mutually-attracted people can keep up the guise of social distanced dating for long, and the bubble buddy step carries a certain gravitas that can feel premature. As a result, you might decide to jump into what’s basically a relationship sooner than you typically would. A new person in your small pod, who you’re excited about and hot for — of course you want to see them all the time. You might even decide to expedite moving in together, a major decision that can be a real pain to undo if it doesn’t work out.
On the other hand, maybe you’ve stalled out before the bubble buddy step because one of you simply can’t take on any additional level of risk. If you’ve been “talking” for months but have only seen each other in person a handful of times, it can be hard to figure out what you are.
These scenarios are both common amid the pandemic, and Hoffman’s best advice is to take it one day at a time, err on the side of cautious, and to speak up when things are going in a direction you feel uncomfortable with. The one thing about dating and relationships that hasn’t changed in quarantine is that they take honest communication to succeed — and that’s something you can work on no matter how many feet apart you are.