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COVID-19 Anxiety and Shifting Relationship Standards

Did COVID-19 lead people to shift their standards for long-term mates?

Key points

  • A survey of singles examined how standards for a long-term partner changed during the pandemic.
  • Results showed that the more COVID-19 anxiety people experienced, the more they raised their standards.
  • Those who were highly anxious about being single raised their standards for stability and commitment, but lowered them for attractiveness.
Photo by Chris Blonk on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Chris Blonk on Unsplash

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, people (including me) have speculated about how both the forced isolation of lockdowns and anxiety about the pandemic may affect our searches for a mate. With people stuck at home, unable to meet people in person or go out on dates, dating websites and apps saw a surge in traffic. There is also evidence that many daters have experienced shifts in attitudes, getting more serious about their search for a long-term partner. But how might COVID-19 anxiety affect the qualities we look for in a mate? New research by Cassandra Alexopoulos and colleagues, just published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, explores this question.

There's good reason to believe that the pandemic has changed what people are seeking in a romantic partner. On one hand, the social isolation brought on by lockdowns and anxiety about COVID-19 might have people especially reluctant to be alone. This could cause them to lower their standards for a partner: A so-so partner is better than no partner when you're isolated and scared. This might be especially true for people already anxious about being single. On the other hand, a serious event could cause singles to reexamine their life priorities, including their search for a mate. In fact, research shows that thinking about death increases people's desire for romantic commitment and reduces their focus on more superficial partner qualities like physical attractiveness and social status. With the pandemic literally making people think about death on a daily basis, we might see singles get more serious about dating, and focus their search only on high-quality partners with real long-term potential.

In their study, Alexopoulos and colleagues examined how anxiety about COVID-19 and fear of being single related to changes in people's dating standards during the early months of the pandemic. The researchers surveyed a multi-national sample of 693 single adults from April 20, 2020, to May 10, 2020—a period in which social distancing measures were in place worldwide. To capture their level of pandemic-related anxiety, participants rated how often they worried about catching COVID-19 and how vulnerable they felt to the disease. They also completed a questionnaire assessing their general fear of being single. To see how their standards for a mate changed, participants were asked to rate the extent to which various qualities became more or less important in their choice of a long-term partner. These qualities included stability (financial resources, ambition, faithfulness, and health), family commitment (parenting qualities, desire for children, closeness to their family), and physical/social attractiveness (physical attractiveness, status, and sexual performance).

The results showed that overall, the more COVID-19 anxiety people had, the more they raised their standards for a long-term partner. This was true for all three domains: family commitment, stability, and social/physical attractiveness. The one exception to this was among those who were particularly anxious about being single. Those who were especially worried about being single did raise their standards for stability and family commitment, but lowered their standards for physical and social attractiveness. So, for most people, COVID-19 anxiety led them to get pickier about long-term partners on all attributes. But those who were particularly worried about being single showed a priority shift toward the qualities that are most essential for a long-term partnership—stability and family commitment—and away from more superficial qualities—physical attractiveness and social status.

This particular study found that people higher in COVID-19 anxiety raised their long-term partner standards across the board. Other evidence suggests that many people got more serious about looking for a long-term partner, rather than a casual relationship. While all participants were asked to consider changes in their preferences for a long-term partner, those with high COVID-19 anxiety may have begun to think about long-term partners more seriously than they had before, leading them to consider their standards more carefully. Perhaps this can explain why all of their standards shifted upward. Those particularly anxious about being single, on the other hand, shifted standards upward, but were more willing to make compromises on relatively superficial qualities in order to make sure they don't end up alone.

Some important questions remain open. Because participants were asked directly about how much their standards changed rather than being surveyed about their standards both before and after the pandemic, we don't know whether or not people really shifted their standards over time or if they just perceived that they had. We also don't know how much these shifts were a temporary blip caused by anxiety during the peak of the pandemic or a longer-term shift in attitudes toward finding a mate. For now, it certainly seems that COVID-19 anxiety likely caused people to rethink what they want in a long-term partner.