Nothing is certain in the world of dating. But for Poornima Ravishankar, a lawyer from northern New Jersey, the coronavirus pandemic has brought an unexpected twist.
A boyfriend. Whom she’s only seen in person once. And whom she’s never touched.
The duo met on Bumble, and their courtship started slowly. First came FaceTime drinks — whiskey for him, Champagne with a bourbon chaser for her. Then they graduated to watching the “High Fidelity” on Hulu, he in his place and she at hers. Along the way they’ve texted and chatted for hours on end.
Finally, more than two months after meeting for the first time, Ravishankar and her new “(sort of) boyfriend” finally agreed to meet up in real life for a hike at Garret Mountain Reservation in Woodland Park, New Jersey, just outside of New York City. The two hiked a few miles. They talked. The entire three hours they were together, the lovebirds stayed 6 feet apart. And they had a blast.
“Of all the guys I’ve met online, he’s the only one I took months to meet in real life and the one [with whom] I connected most,” Ravishankar, 43, said. “The conversations carried us through.”
Ravishankar isn’t the only person to find this slower pace fulfilling. Many single people around the world are experiencing unexpected benefits of social distancing, too. Following US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other countries’ guidelines of staying 6 feet from others has forced suitors to focus on getting to know each other instead of getting drunk or getting naked.
Ines Vaniman, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Lafayette, California, likened the phenomenon to an unexpectedly chaste Victorian romance for the modern age.
“It’s like going Victorian, only with a millennial twist,” said Vaniman, who counsels patients about dating. “You can’t touch but you can use your other senses as you get to know someone and gauge how well that person might fit into your life. The situation requires you to be brave. And I’d bet the relationships that come out of it will be really strong.”
Why distance matters
In a sense, the trend makes perfect sense. The pandemic brings all sorts of uncertainties, which can be scary in an existential way. Faced with this potentially life-threatening future, single people are seeking comfort in camaraderie, in togetherness, in connection.
In fact, at a time when common sense might suggest people would be less inclined to date, traffic on various online dating services has picked up.
Match, which is owned by IAC (InterActive Corp) and has become one of the biggest players in the dating space, rolled out a special microsite for the occasion: “Dating while Distancing.” The site brings together ask-an-expert Q&A with easy-to-access information about staying safe from Covid-19. It also shares suggestions for distanced dates — including sharing a virtual glass of wine and co-watching a TV show over FaceTime.
Rachel DeAlto, Match’s chief dating expert, said members are flocking to the app to meet other eligible singles, and noted that conversations are lasting twice as long as they did before the pandemic.
DeAlto said this behavior suggests singles meeting through the app are having more meaningful chats.
“Our desire to connect with others will never change, and apps like Match allow people to [do it] even when it’s not possible to be face-to-face,” DeAlto wrote in a recent email to CNN. “Nothing will ever completely take the place of in-person dating, but messaging, texting and video dates are great ways to meet new people and get to know them on a deeper level when physical contact is off the table.”
Video has made a splash in particular. Before the pandemic, roughly 6 percent of Match members indicated a willingness to date someone exclusively over video. Now, thanks in part to a recent survey from the Dallas company, almost 70 percent of surveyed members said they’d be open to doing it.
There are many benefits to getting to know someone over video at a time when social distancing is the norm.
For starters, you can see them, which means you can observe their reactions and non-verbal cues. Second, in the absence of sharing space with someone physically, video enables you to feel close by. Finally — and not to be downplayed — are the chemistry and attraction factors. We’re all driven by these ephemera on some level, and when you can see a potential boyfriend or girlfriend clearly, you can tell if you think he or she appeals to you and proceed accordingly.
Bela Gandhi, founder and president of Smart Dating Academy, a dating coaching service in Chicago, said that for all these reasons video is a perfectly viable substitute for meeting up in real life.
“Online dating is so two-dimensional with six photos and 200 characters [of profile]; video brings a ‘two-dimensional’ person into three dimensions,” Gandhi said. “You can see this person’s facial expressions, tone of voice, style and so much more on video.”
Gandhi added that video dating also can sift less-serious daters out of the market.
“They’re not necessarily going to invest in doing video and getting to know you if they just want to get on you,” she said. In this case, “the screen provides a metaphorical (and literal) barrier to entry.”
Ravishankar, the lawyer, said another benefit is not having to get dressed up for a night out.
In the past, she admitted she might spend 30 minutes getting ready for a first date with someone she met online. Now that she is dating someone virtually during a global public health crisis, she unapologetically wears whatever she feels like wearing.
“This guy at this point has seen me at my worst — post-workout, no makeup, most commonly in sweatpants,” she said. “Ordinarily this wouldn’t happen this early on in a relationship, but anything goes in Covid time. My philosophy has been, ‘You get what you get, feel free to tap out at any time.’ And there’s some sense of freedom in that.”
Once you start a dialogue, of course, the necessity of distance can pave the way for more meaningful connections. Logan Levkoff, a relationship and sexuality educator, said suitors can lean into the current situation to build emotional intimacy and really work toward getting to know each other on issues that matter.
Doing this doesn’t necessarily have to feel like an interrogation; instead, you can make a mental list of subjects to cover and strive to discuss them naturally over the course of a virtual courtship.
Some of these topics might be exes, family, self-reliance, work goals and life philosophy, to name a few.
“This only works if people are willing to get to know each other, to be honest and authentic about their expectations and desires, and not run at the slightest bump in the road, so to speak,” said Levkoff. “Relationship building takes time, and right now, that’s all we have.”
Britney Blair, a psychologist who runs an outpatient mental health clinic in Northern California, agreed, adding that the current crisis has made all of us much more willing to get real with someone quickly.
“In the current environment, we are way more likely to talk about the ways in which we’re hurting,” said Blair, who also is co-founder of the sexual wellness website, Lover. “When that’s authentic, it’s the kind of thing you want to hold on to. It’s also really sexy when a potential partner is willing to be so vulnerable and real.”
Amy Conkling, a 45-year-old in Northern California, has been dating a man who lives about 125 miles away since before the pandemic started, and said the relationship has benefited from the deeper connections they’ve been able to make over video chats and the telephone.
Conkling met the guy on a site named Zoosk and saw him once before shelter-in-place orders began.
“Yeah, he’s great looking, but I’ve found you have to ask yourself: Can he talk to you or make you laugh?” she asked. “Those are the kinds of deeper things most people usually skip. When you don’t have constant options like having sex or watching movies, you have to dig a little deeper. What do we have in common that we can talk or argue about? What can we learn from each other?”
As well as FaceTime and video chat work as alternatives for in-real-life courtship during these crazy times, there are challenges to getting the new approach to work for you.
First, let’s be honest: Nothing can replace the in-the-moment experience of getting to know someone face-to-face — that one-of-a-kind electricity generated by learning someone else’s story and sharing your own, warts and all.
Physical connections are important, too; sometimes there’s nothing like rearing back and planting a kiss.
Vaniman added that in-person interactions sometimes can provide an environment in which it’s easier to pick up on warning signs that might indicate your new partner is bringing anxiety or other mental health problems into the equation. In these cases, short and sterile video chats may not tell the entire story.
“It’s a stressful time and many people are feeling very lonely,” she said. “A vibe you might be able to pick up on an [in-real-life] date could be lost or overlooked on a date over video or FaceTime.”
Gandhi, the dating coach in Chicago, said that when the pandemic is behind us, she’d like to see video become part of a process that gets single people from matching with a potential suitor to an in-person date.
The way Gandhi explained it, the new protocols would be a four-step process.
“I call it my ‘Get to the Date’ plan,” quipped Gandhi, who has appeared on Steve Harvey’s talk show and has earned the nickname The Fairy Godmother of Dating. “First is messaging, second is a quick, 10-minute phone chat. Assuming the phone chat goes well, the third step is a video date. Finally, step four would be in person.”
Bridging the gap
Considering the rules of sheltering in place, the ultimate level-up moment for a budding relationship these days is when a couple consciously violates social distancing in a push to break quarantine together.
Some refer to this process as “un-distancing,” and say it can be a powerful declaration of commitment.
For Rachelle Tratt and her new boyfriend, the decision proved to be the moment of truth that has defined their relationship to this point.
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As Tratt explained it, she met her boyfriend through an online dating app in mid-February and was smitten immediately. At the time, he lived in San Francisco and she lived in Santa Monica about 400 miles away, but the distance didn’t deter them. They talked by phone. They interacted extensively on FaceTime. Finally, they planned a meet-up in Los Angeles for mid-March.
Within 24 hours of getting together in person, the couple received shelter-in-place orders like millions of other Californians. Instead of riding out the pandemic separately, however, they decided to do it together.
“We had a three-day date planned but the three days haven’t ended,” Tratt said, looking back. “After the connection we had made, we weren’t about to let social distancing get in the way.”
Tratt’s advice? Seek authenticity from dating experiences and lean into it whenever you can.
“Everything is so intense right now, you never know who you’re going to meet and where it all might lead,” she said. “If ever there was a time to put yourself out there and talk about things that really matter, that time is now.”
Matt Villano is a writer and editor based in Northern California. While he has not been single in 19 years, he has found himself leveraging the shelter-in-place experience to forge deeper connections with his wife and three daughters at home. Learn more about him at whalehead.com.