The Best Tip for Finding Love in a Pandemic

Forming new relationships is complicated in an era of social distancing.

Posted May 30, 2020

In a May 2020 New York Times column, Nayeema Raza highlights an issue of key importance to the mental health of people seeking new relationships in the era of social distancing. Citing an as yet unpublished study from the Kinsey Institute, Raza notes that “while everyone is lonelier now, single people are the loneliest.” This loneliness, she suggests, is leading singles who wish to be coupled to extremes, from responding to outreach from “former flames around to world” to swiping endlessly through online dating apps. Raza’s panic was accentuated by the realization that “I was relishing being alone. I just wasn’t planning to be locked into it forever.”

Memory might smooth over the rough edges of a past relationship that went sour, but what do you do about a relationship that's in its early online stages? Again, turning back to Raza’s observations, the transition from online to in-person relationship initiation in the COVID-19 era will face one very real, physical obstacle: Kissing with a mask on is not very feasible. Kissing a person you’ve just met for the first time in person has its own hazards. If, as Raza notes, “kissing is the most effective way to gauge chemistry” it also, unfortunately, is “the most efficient way to contract the coronavirus.”

With the Kinsey study still in prepublication status, it’s clear that it will take some time for peer-reviewed research articles on this fascinating new chapter in relationship history to make it to press. Studies on coronavirus fears have been fast-tracked to publication, but this perhaps less obvious public health concern has not yet been sufficiently addressed. A pre-COVID study from 2019 by West Virginia University’s Liesel Sharabi and colleagues provides some insights into how the transition from online to face-to-face dating relationships might proceed with the constraints suggested by Raza’s observations.

Underlying the West Virginia study is a theory known as the “hyperpersonal model,” which proposes that online communication can lead to more positive impressions than the ones you make in face-to-face situations. You have undoubtedly experienced this phenomenon in your relationships, romantic and otherwise. People can say anything they like in an email or text message in order to get you to respond favorably to them, whether or not any of it is true. As Sharabi et al. note about computer-mediated communication (CMC), “CMC relationships can become exceedingly intimate due to the ability for message senders to selectively present themselves and for receivers to fill in the blanks in their impressions by overattributing positive qualities to those they interact with online."

To test the hyperpersonal model, Sharabi and her colleagues recruited an online sample of 105 participants (72% women) ranging from 18 to 63 years old who submitted for analysis all of their online communications with an individual who they later met in person. Participants responded two times, once before the first date and once afterward. In that second testing, they were asked to indicate their likelihood of wanting a second date with that partner on a 0 to 100% certainty scale. The average among the 69% who responded to that second survey was 62%, supporting the idea that an actual date can provide the litmus test to which Raza refers.

The West Virginia researchers sorted systematically through the content of the pre-date emails, identifying the strategies that participants used to initiate relationships and then tracking which strategies resulted in the highest likelihood of wanting a second date. Before getting to those findings, you might be interested in learning the 7 main categories of initiation approaches. As you read about these, see which most closely matches the ones you would choose (or have chosen) for yourself:

  1. Pick-up lines. The beginning of any relationship with a new person lays the groundwork for what is to follow. Most people used what the authors call “innocuous" lines, which signify no clear degree of romantic interest.
  2. Attracting and selecting a mate. Among the ways in which to make themselves desirable, participants used methods such as indicating their resources (i.e. wealth, occupation) and revealing their online dating goals. Two of these strategies turned out to matter when it came to second-date probability: The first is making known your partner preferences (e.g. tattoos vs. no tattoos, an active/healthy lifestyle or not). The second is to refer to your past experiences on the dating site, or what the authors call “relationship alternatives.”
  3. Establishing authenticity. This strategy would seem closest to the hyperpersonal model. You could either try to show that you’re being honest by referring to some external validation about yourself, or use self-deprecation—otherwise known as the “humblebrag.”
  4. Creating a shared context for interaction. In this strategy, you try to show how much you’re like or unlike your potential partner as a way to establish common ground for a future meeting.
  5. Revealing and seeking personal information. Almost all participants used what the authors call “incremental disclosures,” in which they proceeded from peripheral to intimate confessions about themselves. Additionally, many volunteered information about themselves not in their profile and sought similar cues from their potential partners.
  6. Adapting to the reduced cues environment. In an online situation, a conversation could theoretically go on indefinitely, so participants needed some way to stop and start (e.g. “goodnight”). They may also read signals from a potential partner’s writing style. If a person’s messages are full of typos, that might suggest that the individual is sloppy, a quality that could infuriate you in real life.
  7. Transitioning to offline meetings. In a non-COVID world, this phase would seem to be key, but social distancing can lead to a lengthy postponement of a face-to-face meeting. As a result, the “pivotal moment" of a new relationship changes considerably in meaning. Indeed, Raza suggested that if people who don’t respect social distancing suggest a non-socially distant date with someone who’s a conscientious face-mask wearer, the relationship could come to an end right there and then.

Turning now to the strategy that proved most predictive of wanting that all-important second date, the research team’s crunching of the data from the 207 pages of emails provided by participants signified that the two that mattered most fell into the category of partner preferences and relationship alternatives, but in different ways.

By a score of 88% to 60%, those who wished to carry on the relationship were the ones who made their partner preferences clear prior to that first date (e.g. those tattoos vs. no tattoos). Conversely, only 38% of those who used email to communicate their relationship alternatives were likely to go on that second date. This means that when you want to convert a virtual into a real relationship, your best bet is to lay out, honestly, what matters most to you in a partner. Do this before you meet in person, and your path will be set for a deeper relationship.

You’re probably wondering whether that second date option would be agreed to by the partner and not just seen as likely by the participant. However, given that the decision to continue a relationship in person would reflect whether a potential partner shows interest, it’s possible that the self-presentation strategies used by the actual participants did have an effect on a relationship’s possibility for continuation.

You can also see from the various relationship strategies that some would apply more than others when social distancing prevents the normal escalation from online to offline interactions. An implication of the Sharabi et al. study is that being honest about what you want in a partner from the start could prove to make that meeting successful if and when it occurs.

To sum up, COVID-19’s effect on everyday life clearly extends to the interpersonal as well as hyperpersonal domains. The ability to find new relationships in this climate may indeed suffer some setbacks, but if a relationship can withstand those tests, it may be one that proves most fulfilling over the long haul.


Sharabi, L. L., & Dykstra-DeVette, T. A. (2019). From first email to first date: Strategies for initiating relationships in online dating. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36(11–12), 3389–3407.  doi:10.1177/0265407518822780