ILLUSTRATION BY BEN WISEMAN.
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Source: Vanity Fair
By: KENZIE BRYAN
Will prolonged periods of conversations help or hurt young relationships at the end of this thing?
Like so many of us, Nick Clark has found himself weighing risks versus rewards often in the past few weeks. Thirty-five and living alone in Los Angeles, he’s back on dating apps after getting out of a relationship early in the year. He’d been seeing an executive flight attendant when, weeks ago, she had to take an emergency trip, and when she got back, she didn’t have groceries. So Nick put together a breakfast basket made up of ingredients he got from Erewhon. “I was just like, Hey, here’s my favorite breakfast sandwich. Like, why don’t you make it?” he said. “It always makes me feel happy.”
Then, after he had been quarantining for a month, and when she had reached two weeks from her last flight, he proposed a highly choreographed coffee date that involved a walk at a six-foot distance. She agreed and said that she wanted to “surprise” him with something. That was confusing to him. Right now in a moment of uncertainty, the last thing he wanted was to be surprised.
She ended up suggesting they write a script together. “Cue: stereotypical L.A. montage,” he wrote me after their date.
But the Hollywood cliché may have been possible to overlook if not for her quarantine manners while they were out. “She wasn’t keeping distance—not just from me, but everyone,” he said. She wasn’t up to date on COVID-19 information. She wasn’t wearing a mask even though he was wearing one. Though “sweet,” she “basically ticked all the negative quarantine boxes in 30 mins,” he said. It would likely be their last date.
Dating, which changed so much within the last decade, has morphed once again. There are even more risks to consider and potentially greater rewards—sickness and death on one end, but on the other, human connection at a time of mandated loneliness. Will the relationships that come out of all this last? Or will it be like typical dating-app use—some hits, a lot of misses, plenty of gross messages and questionable profiles? What will it be like for couples on the other side of this?
As Dr. Benjamin Karney, a professor of social psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, put it, this is another chance to negotiate. Couples new and old negotiate everything already. “Now there’s a new thing, which is how are we going to protect ourselves from the coronavirus,” he said. Is six feet okay, or should we do 12 feet to be safe? Do we get delivery only or go to the grocery store at off-hours with a mask? Do we agree to hang out after two weeks of not seeing anyone else or fudge the numbers a bit? “Couples who negotiate differences well will be at an advantage,” he said. “But couples who don’t negotiate differences well will have yet another challenge.”
Also, the type of relationship one looks for may change. In times of plenty people might want things like adventure or excitement, “but when this crisis makes our homes very salient place, it makes our need for other people very salient,” he said. And as we search for them, we’ll get deeper faster. Gone is the banal get-to-know-you conversations, replaced with discussing how you cope with a global crisis.
Therein lies a sort of expansiveness to the new rules. Clark mentioned he’s willing to entertain some possibilities that he may not have before. He built a good rapport with a woman from Florida who was meant to move to L.A., but couldn’t. The distance would have torpedoed his interest before, but he’s just trying to enjoy her virtual company now that there is less of a mandate to move forward: “Florida might as well be Silver Lake,” he said.
“Catastrophes push us to make our next step in life,” said Helen Fisher, anthropologist, research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, and longtime adviser at Match.com. “That’s what they do…. You may have been vaguely aware that you want or need a partner, but you’re busy at work, you’re busy with your family, you’ve got your weekends with friends, et cetera.” The need for another person is “going to be very vivid for an awful lot of people,” she added.
Now is the time to plot your escape from the person who isn’t working out, to move forward with the divorce, and, for many more, to seek partnership. Crisis, Fisher said, “makes you realize what you don’t have and it propels you forward to fill the gaps in life.”
The added benefit, for optimists like Fisher, is that those who are single have time and a half to foster those connections. We’re stuck at home, at once lonely, anxious, bored, curious, sad, scared, and whatever other feelings the presence of the virus has inspired if we ourselves are lucky enough to be healthy. But from home, we’re talking to each other.
Bumble reported that it saw an 84% increase in video calls in the U.S. during the week that ended March 27 compared to the prior week. Messaging in the app was up 26% week-over-week for that same week. Hinge also registered a 30% increase in messaging worldwide in March compared to January and February. The League recently launched League Live, a speed-dating platform that relies on video. Tinder made its Passport feature free to all users on March 27, so they can talk to others regardless of location. What other option is there really? Without bars, restaurants, house parties, spring barbecues, friends of friends introducing you to friends, the only way to encounter others right now is through the internet for better or worse.
“What’s interesting about it is not terribly new,” Fisher said. “I mean, in Jane Austen’s day, you did have a good deal of conversation with somebody before you went to bed with them. And during this quarantine period, we’re seeing the same thing—the emergence of a stage of courtship before sex and even before meeting the person [face-to-face]. So I actually think it’s rather positive.”
Add to that the prospect of strolling while talking six feet away from a date, and the Austenian image is complete.
Shelby Monaghan, a 27-year-old Los Angeles resident, downloaded a dating app roughly a week into her own self-quarantine. It was meant to be a distraction. She matched with a guy named Wes, who asked to go by his first name for privacy, and they began talking quite quickly. Understanding that Monaghan and her roommates were fairly locked down, he ordered them food to pick up at a restaurant he’s affiliated with. A few days after that, he asked for her address. Sensing that this was a strange question to ask a person that he had never met, he offered up his own address as collateral. She acquiesced, and then walked into one of her roommates’ rooms. “I told her, ‘Listen, we’re either getting margaritas delivered to us or we’re going to be murdered,’” she said. “‘Honestly, I’ll take either at this point.’”
They got margaritas. (The rest of these two’s story, in which they’ve continued trading leftovers from dinner always at six feet or more, is documented in Amy Kaufman’s Twitter for those who’d like to follow along at home. Kaufman is a Los Angeles Times reporter and Bachelor scholar; her thread comes complete with reality-show-like confessionals from her subjects).
In Fisher’s estimation, this is a new version of vintage dating, where the first stage of courtship is super prolonged. “There will be fewer first dates because there’s going to be more people that drop off during that initial video-chat screening process, but the first date is going to be more meaningful,” Fisher said. (Several women I interviewed, all of whom are in their 30s and living in New York, said that they too hope video screening will continue after self-quarantine—both for safety reasons and for time saved.)
For some singles, the epistolary nature of dating in quarantine has taken the pressure off—but maybe too much. Shawn Grenald, a 29-year-old Chicago resident, has used apps for about a year. He said that dating “has taken on more of a lightness to it. I think that sometimes these apps can be stressful in terms of putting yourself out there and then waiting for a response, but during times like these what you take ‘seriously’ is really put into in perspective.”
“The idea of online flirting does seem a little silly right now,” he added. “It doesn’t help that there is no real indication of when you’ll actually meet this person.”
Meeting is not impossible, though it is risky thanks to the potential for asymptomatic transmission. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the most famous doctor in America, has put it well: “If you’re willing to take a risk—and you know, everybody has their own tolerance for risks—you could figure out if you want to meet somebody. And it depends on the level of the interaction that you want to have. If you’re looking for a friend, sit in a room and put a mask on, and you know, chat a bit. If you want to go a little bit more intimate, well, then that’s your choice regarding a risk.”
Besides watching how relationships will evolve, it’ll be interesting to see whether dating apps facilitated spread of the virus. Two friends who requested anonymity for privacy agreed that “90%” of the men they talk to on various apps eventually push breaking social distancing recommendations. Many even include it in their bios. “You want screenshots?” said one, who lives in New York and has severe asthma. She started swiping and sent six or so examples over from Tinder in the next five minutes. Most of the bios had flirty language about quarantining together, and one said, “Can I take you out before COVID-19 does?” “Fucking irresponsible,” she said.
What will the future hold after this period of essential mass withholding? Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti’s “safer-at-home” order extends to May 15, and New York has canceled activities from concerts to parades through June. Every city and state’s COVID-19 rules and regulations will shift and evolve. It’s too early to say when things will be back to “normal” or what normal will even look like then. Social scientists are already collecting data to help recall how we connect right now, but, barring more research, it’s hard to say whether there will be permanent changes or what they’ll be.
But for now? As Fisher has put it, “What people will do to win at love is quite understandable actually given the payoff. I mean, you’re not just trying to get a nice supper. You’re seeking somebody who you may have babies with and send your DNA on into tomorrow, which is a step toward eternal life.”
She added, “So, no, I’m not surprised people will go out and stay six feet apart and get to know somebody.”
This article has been updated.
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