The potential effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on physical health, mental health, and the economy are vast. But there are also effects on our relationships, as we are socially isolated and many of our normal social activities are closed to us. Previously, I wrote about how this crisis may cause people to contact ex-lovers. It is also affecting how singles date. Not surprisingly, with social venues, schools, and workplaces shuttered, online dating websites and apps have seen a 20-30% increase in use. So how successful will these newly formed relationships be, and what might this mean for the future of dating?
How might these dating experiences be different?
Just because people are stuck at home doesn't mean that their need to connect with other people and their desire to pursue romantic relationships is gone. While some people might be experiencing depression, which frequently leads to social withdrawal, many people still have a strong desire to connect with others. And the forced isolation may have them feeling especially lonely and eager to connect with someone.
Maybe people will get more serious. The urge to connect may be especially strong now—and not just because people are lonely and isolated. This pandemic has people literally thinking about life and death on a regular basis. It very much represents an existential crisis for many people. When that happens, we often seek out sources of meaning in our lives. That means that people focus on what matters, which can include work, religion, family, and intimate relationships. This kind of angst can motivate you to look back on past relationships, as I discussed in my previous post, and also to look forward to new relationship opportunities. Singles who have been on the fence about whether or not they want to invest in a romantic relationship may be re-prioritizing and getting serious about their relationship pursuits. So they might enter into online dating looking for real commitment.
Maybe people will get less serious. While some people may be re-evaluating their priorities in life, a lot of people are just bored. Online dating may simply be a way to inject some interest into what has become a dull routine of barely going anywhere and not meeting anyone new. If that is a common motivation behind online dating, then many of these new romances will fizzle as people return to their normal routines.
What might be the consequences of lockdowns for online dating?
Some in the popular media have heralded this forced dating shift as the return of old-fashioned courtship and the end of hook-up culture.
Maybe this experience will teach people to put more value on developing emotional intimacy when dating. Many people are in a more serious mood at the moment, consumed with stress or sadness about the current situation. As I mentioned previously, this may cause some people to avoid casual flirtation and turn to exes instead, with whom they already have some level of intimacy. However, that might not be a desirable option for many people. Those who do choose to date online will find themselves meeting others who are coping with the same stressors—and this could be a bonding experience.
Normally, when we meet new people, we take it slow and start out with relatively superficial conversation. However, sometimes we may find ourselves pouring our hearts out to someone new. This has been referred to as the "strangers on a train" phenomenon, where people reveal intimate information to a total stranger whom they are unlikely to see again. In fact, a large body of research shows that the same thing can happen online, where people disclose more to strangers than they do to people they know in their offline lives. This could allow people to develop emotional intimacy quickly, and to do so before getting involved sexually. That has the potential to set up a long-lasting bond.
Maybe this whole thing is a temporary blip. There are also reasons to believe that when people return to normal, dating will return to normal as well.
When we meet others in a romantic interaction, the best and fastest way to know if there's chemistry is to meet in person. An emotional bond will not always turn into a romantic or sexual one. So if you're only dating at a distance, it might be harder to know if that romantic spark is there. This is especially true if you're interacting in the absence of a full set of nonverbal cues. So virtual dates via video chat apps will give you a better sense of your romantic compatibility than text-based communication or even phone calls. But even then, you might find that once you meet in person, the chemistry fizzles. Initial romantic passion is more important for some people than others, and such people might have more difficulty successfully turning an online-only relationship into an offline one.
One potential pitfall of extensive online courting is that it might mask certain incompatibilities. Two people communicating online and separated from the rest of their lives are lacking context for their burgeoning relationship. When things return to normal, they may find they're not as compatible as they originally thought. For example, if one person is very active and their new paramour likes to play video games all day, that might not be apparent when their relationship is online-only. You also don't know how well this person generally fits in with your lifestyle and gets along with your friends or family members. It's easier to idealize someone when the relationship exists somewhere outside of your everyday life. Until the relationship goes offline, it may not really be put to the test.
Will these new online romances turn out to be more or less serious than their pre-coronavirus counterparts? Will people rediscover the importance of emotional intimacy in forming romances, or will the inability to assess physical chemistry doom these relationships to failure when they go offline? Only time will tell what the true effects of this dating experiment will be.