Ahead of summer 2020, the New York Department of Health released guidelines on safer sex during the pandemic. Its advice to singles featured COVID-safe recommendations like “you are your safest sex partner” and “take a break from in-person dates.”
But by the end of summer, psychologists reported that the subsequent “touch starvation” had triggered a surge in mental health concerns such as stress, depression, and anxiety.
So now that social distancing regulations are easing, some people are predicting that summer 2021 will be a free-for-all of casual hookups. However, new research suggests that this might not be the case.
The Indiana University Kinsey Institute — in partnership with the magazines Cosmopolitan and Esquire — found that people aren’t necessarily so eager to jump into one another’s arms. When it comes to post-pandemic romance, the average person says they’re looking to take it slow and build a committed relationship. But the anxieties of the past year add another layer of stress to dating in this new era.
According to relationship experts, there’s really no “normal” when it comes to dating — and that will hold true in the post-pandemic world.
Some people love the dating process, while for others, it’s like one of the circles of hell, explains Susan Milstein, PhD, a medical reviewer at Women’s Health Interactive and a clinical assistant professor at Texas A&M University, where she teaches about human sexuality.
But what does appear to be shifting in the post-pandemic world is what people expect from their dating life.
“Some people have learned a lot about themselves during the pandemic,” says Milstein. “It’s becoming more common now for people to be looking for long-term partners.”
Surveys from the dating app Match say this is a real trend. According to its single users:
• 71 percent want to be in a serious relationship this summer — compared with only 7 percent who said they want to keep things casual.
• 65 percent say they are no longer interested in hookups or no-strings-attached sex.
• 69 percent feel more confident in who they are looking for after this past year.
Lockdown measures forced our social circles to become smaller and more insulated as the pandemic carried on. While this drove rates of loneliness to all-time highs, the American Psychological Association (APA) found that people may now be reticent about revamping their social calendars. Its research shows that about half of Americans are experiencing anxiety over the return of “normal life.”
For example, video chatting became a dating norm during the pandemic. And the Kinsey Institute says that 70 percent of people intend to continue video dating before committing to in-person meet-ups.
Milstein suggests one potential reason for this dating hesitation: the pandemic reframed our expectations of trust when we meet someone new.
She explains that before the pandemic, people could casually hang out and see where things went before worrying too much about trust. But given the risks of COVID-19, people needed to establish greater levels of trust to meet in person.
Before the pandemic, it was one thing if someone embellished parts of their life while on a first date. However, it has grown much more important to have faith in someone’s honesty about things like their potential exposure to the virus or personal adherence to safety measures.
This pattern will likely continue as more people get vaccinated. People will need to feel that they can trust a partner to be honest about their vaccination status, for instance. But the vaccine might also serve as a dating barrier itself.
“I think there are a lot of assumptions that people make about someone’s vaccination status, that it somehow indicates a set of political beliefs,” Milstein says. “Those assumptions might get in the way of getting a chance to know someone.”
There are a lot of fears circulating as people look to rekindle the romance in their lives. The experts say it’s normal to feel like you’ve forgotten how to date — or are unsure about bringing up topics like vaccines.
If you feel ready to dip your toes into the dating pool, the first step is to understand your boundaries, says Christie Kederian, EdD, MA, LMFT, a psychologist and relationship expert for dating apps like Match and eHarmony.
“Communicate your boundaries upfront,” she advises. “If you don’t yet feel comfortable meeting in person, it’s important to be clear, direct, and kind with your boundaries.”
She also says that it’s going to be an adjustment for most people to re-enter social environments — so don’t be too hard on yourself if things feel a little awkward at first.
“It’s a great idea to practice [social skills] with friends,” she says. “Social cues like eye contact, hugs, and social conversational cues are all important to practice in-person.”
But no matter what you’re looking for during this year’s summer of love, it’s as important as ever to put your own safety first — and not just concerning COVID risk.
New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in the United States continue to climb, reaching all-time highs for the sixth year in a row.
“I think in many ways [the pandemic] can open up a door to conversations about safe sex,” says Milstein. “For many people, that safe sex conversation can be awkward and is sometimes forgotten in the heat of the moment — but if you’re already talking about COVID risk, why not follow up with some STI risk questions?”
The pandemic also reinforced the importance of testing to curb the spread of contagious diseases. If you suspect that you’ve been exposed to an STD, book a virtual visit with one of our healthcare providers at Carbon Health. They’ll evaluate your risk and, if necessary, refer you to a nearby Carbon Health location.