For Singles: Sex, Dating, and Intimacy During the Pandemic
How can you get close to someone when you’re socially distancing?
Posted Nov 01, 2020
Carol* and her husband separated before COVID-19 hit. “I wasn’t ready to date in those early days,” she told me in a recent therapy session. “But now I’d like to. I’ve met a couple of guys through dating sites, and I’ve even gone out once or twice for a socially distanced glass of wine and a walk. But I’d like to start having sex again, and I don’t think that’s in the cards. I mean, before I got married, we used to worry about getting pregnant or getting an STD. But now that seems like small change compared to the danger of getting COVID. And now that winter’s coming … I have no idea what dating is going to look like this winter, but I don’t think it’s going to be pretty.”
Elizabeth,* in her early 20s, said, “I’m not interested in a serious relationship right now, but I want to go out and see friends. I want to date and to have sex if I want to without feeling like it means I have to get into a committed relationship. I’m young and healthy, so maybe I shouldn’t worry about getting COVID. But I’d rather not get sick if I can help it, and I definitely don’t want to spread the disease, or give it to someone more vulnerable, like my parents or grandparents.”
Dan,* who was in a serious relationship for several years, said, “I’ve been serially monogamous since my girlfriend and I broke up. Right now I’m between relationships. Normally I think of sex as part of getting to know a woman, but I’m not willing to put my own—or a woman’s—health at risk. So dating’s a completely new experience these days.”
These questions are coming up regularly in therapy sessions, and not just for singles, but for parents of adolescents who want to be out socializing with friends and flirting with potential first loves. Interestingly, the questions singles have to ask are good ones for parents to be teaching their teens to ask as well—not only now, during the pandemic, but going forward into the dating world after the pandemic is over. How do you decide what’s safe and what’s not? How do you let your potential dating partner know what you are comfortable with? And how do you cope with differences between what you think might be safe and what your date thinks?
I spoke with NYC psychotherapist Alessandra Mikic, LMSW, who runs a single women's support group for women between 35-45 that focuses on building community, connection, and collective care as they attempt to date during the pandemic. She told me, “Singles are facing all of the same issues they were pre-pandemic, only now there are the added complications of social distancing, masks obscuring one's facial expressions or simply making first-time meetings slightly awkward.” Some of the issues singles faced pre-COVID involved questions of safety and health, including potential dangers related to being alone with someone you don’t know (or are just getting to know) as well as concerns about catching an STI from a new partner.
But it’s no longer just a question of having protected sex or getting tested before having sex without a condom—now, says Elizabeth, only half-joking, “you have to discuss whether or not you’re willing to kiss.” Dan said, “Some of my buddies have been talking about whether or not you have to wear a mask when you have sex these days. And I don’t think they’re joking.”
In a recent post about dating during COVID on NPR’s Goat’s and Soda blog, Isabella Gomez Sarmiento notes that questions that are coming up for singles during COVID-19 “probably never made it into Cosmopolitan magazine's dating advice columns.”
Mental health professionals know that relationships and intimacy are a crucial part of our mental and emotional health. On a YouTube podcast Dr. Sue Johnson, a British clinical psychologist, couples therapist, and author known for her work on adult romantic relationships, noted that many of us are feeling more vulnerable and more aware of how much we need other people during the pandemic. And sex therapist Sari Cooper, who is the founder of The Center for Love and Sex in New York City, said in a television interview that research has found that during COVID-19 54% more people are describing themselves as lonely than before the pandemic.
So whether you’re the parent of a teen starting on the road to adulthood, an adult of any age who is looking for dates but not to settle down, or a single looking for a life partner, you are probably looking for some kind of social connection right now. Even some of my clients who define themselves as introverts and who have enjoyed being able to stay home without pressure to socialize are expressing a desire to make some kind of relationship-related contact.
So how do you date safely and comfortably during this time of the pandemic?
1. Communicate. Start talking about what you need to feel safe from the very beginning. Ask questions about who the other person is in contact with and how they protect themselves and others and share the same information yourself. In some ways, the pandemic has made it easier to do the very thing that relationship therapists encourage in couples: communicate from the beginning. Elizabeth, who is not interested in a long-term relationship, says, “I want to make sure I’m not going to get my parents sick if I visit them after I’ve been with a partner. So I ask questions—lots of questions, like who they spend time with, where they spend time, and whether or not they’ve been tested for COVID—before I meet up with someone.”
Esther Perel, renowned couples therapist, speaker, and author of numerous books on relationships said in one interview that the pandemic is operating as an “accelerant” to relationships. In the face of all of this uncertainty, we are eager to move relationships forward faster than usual, “to get married, to make babies,” to find some kind sense of stability and certainty.
Because of this push to move quickly, Mikic encourages clients to get clarity about safety and well-being right away. She says, “You are fully justified in asking someone you are interested in spending more time with what sorts of precautions they're taking—whether that's regarding COVID-19 or STIs. And if something doesn't feel right or safe, trust that intuition and act on it.”
Communication about small things—like whether you prefer sushi to Mexican, or whether you’re more comfortable reading a book than going to a movie—is crucial to making a relationship work. But often we keep those small things to ourselves, thinking that being cooperative or “going with the flow” will make the relationship move forward. Unfortunately, as the small things that you never talked about accumulate over time, they can create big ruptures in the connection.
Dan, for example, told me, “I think if my girlfriend and I had talked more about what we liked and didn’t like from the beginning, we might have had better tools for getting through the hard patches that ended up breaking us up. We were just both so eager to please each other that we left ourselves out of a lot of things.” And Carol said, “If my husband and I had talked more about what we each wanted ... if we’d allowed ourselves to know one another better, I think we probably never would have gotten married in the first place.”
Communicating about the difficult things from the beginning of a relationship can make it easier to talk about the small, seemingly insignificant things that make up the bedrock of any relationship as you go forward.
2. Recognize that intimacy is about more than sex. Intimacy is about closeness, and while sex can enhance a connection, it can sometimes also actually interfere with finding out whether this person is someone you can be emotionally close to. Genuine intimacy involves feelings and thoughts and time together. It’s about having common memories and personal jokes. It comes from watching movies together and talking about what you like and don’t like. It’s about liking and caring for one another as people, not just as sex partners.
But the experts remind us that sex can be an important part of intimacy. Cooper says that there are many ways to be sexually intimate. Although in the interview she was talking about how existing couples can be more intimate during the pandemic, some of what she was talking about applies to dating. She explains that sex is about much more than penetration and that it does not have to have a particular goal (like an orgasm). She describes it as a “buffet” of possibilities that can bring joy and pleasure and fun to a couple. So when you're ready for sex, get creative, and encourage your date to be creative as well. Interestingly, many of us have a lot of inhibitions about non-penetrative sex, but like Spencer and his girlfriend Susan in several of Robert Parker’s “Spencer” series, you might be surprised to find that sexy phone talk can bring you closer.
But again, what’s important is that you communicate. If you’re not ready for sex, or if you're uncomfortable with anything at all, say so. And don’t feel pressured to do anything you don’t want to do. The point is to find out if you enjoy one another—without putting yourselves at risk.
What you may discover is that you learn a great deal more about a new potential partner by asking them to join you in a playful discovery of possibilities than you ever did when you simply “had sex.” And who knows—maybe you’ll even learn something new that you can keep doing after the pandemic is over!
3. Pay attention to emotional needs—yours and the person you are trying to bond with. Suzanne Iasenza, a psychologist who specializes in sex therapy for individuals and couples, writes in her book Transforming Sexual Narratives that sexual relationships can be dysregulating, that is, they can upset our sense of comfort, security, and balance. We have different needs and experiences around sexual connections. Sometimes sex brings us closer to a partner, and sometimes we feel less sexual when we get close to someone. So it's important to be attuned to your own emotional needs as you consider sexuality in the context of any relationship.
In an interview about coupling in the pandemic, Johnson said that while people are worried about contracting coronavirus, they are also struggling with all of the uncertainty related to the pandemic. She said, “during such times of uncertainty, people turn to their partners for emotional support—and their partner's response can determine the future of the relationship.” For instance, if a potential new partner doesn’t know how to give you what you are looking for, or if you don’t know how to ask for what you need, there is the potential for problems in the relationship. But the same is true in reverse. If your potential partner feels unsupported by you, they may not feel inclined to move forward.
Again, there is good news among the bad. Mikic put it this way: “There will be disappointment and frustration, as always, but my feeling is that there are silver linings to dating during a pandemic—many people are more earnest in what they're willing to discuss and reveal, and how people respond to the precautions you're taking gives you meaningful information about them and how well matched you might be.”
So if you and your date work on finding ways to talk honestly and openly and listen to one another from the beginning of a relationship, you will have created an excellent base for going forward. And even if you don’t eventually become sexual partners, you may find that you have established a close, meaningful friendship. Which is another important tool for managing the uncertainty and vulnerability of the pandemic—and life in general.
*Names and identifying info changed to protect privacy.