I Learned to Date in the Middle of a Pandemic
After a life spent avoiding dating and intimacy, I started to figure it out while the rest of the world was falling apart
It is June 9, and in another world not far from my own, people are continuing to protest over the death of George Floyd. People are continuing to die of Covid-19. Other people are enjoying brunch on a popular local restaurant’s patio, seemingly oblivious to the world on fire around them.
As for 31-year-old me, for the past two months, I’ve gone on more dates than I ever have before. After a lifetime spent avoiding dating and intimacy, the irony — and recklessness — of starting to date in the middle of a global pandemic is not lost on me. On this particular night, I am experiencing a very common — but no less awful — case of misread signals. I met Justin at a recent Black Lives Matter protest. Afterward, when I learned he had also been tear-gassed, I messaged him. We commiserated together and made plans to attend other protests. This particular evening — our first time hanging out alone — started with joking and gin and lots of music from our high school days. It ended with him awkwardly telling me he wasn’t interested in dating me and the realization that all those “signals” I thought I was getting from him were, in fact, nonexistent.
A little more than a year before that night, I was sitting in my therapist’s office. Dr. Hollingshead was holding up a sheet of paper where, in the top left corner, it said, “Situation: Dating.” Under it were four sections: “Thoughts,” “Feelings,” “Behavior,” and “Physical Symptoms.” Each is full of my own words that Hollingshead had written down as quickly as I dictated them. I still have the paper, filed away in my medical folder in my desk. Under the “Thoughts” section, I’m struck by one in particular: “This is too much work.”
If you’re afraid of elevators, the only way to get over that fear is to get in as many elevators as possible until it’s no longer terrifying. Dating is my elevator.
I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder as a teenager, but I had only ever done short stints in therapy. As I got older, I started to notice my OCD was manifesting more often as anxieties, one of them being my long-held issues around dating and intimacy. If I had to distill my issues to one point, it’s that dating is hard work.
Hollingshead often uses an elevator analogy: If you’re afraid of elevators, the only way to get over that fear is to get in as many elevators as possible until it’s no longer terrifying. Dating is my elevator. It just so happened that I was ready to get in as coronavirus was consuming said elevator and everything around it.
In many ways, learning to date in the middle of a global pandemic was the best time to start for me. I didn’t have to worry about thinking of a fun first date idea or finding the perfect outfit. My first date with Erik was a FaceTime date. I reveled in the fact that I didn’t need to shave my legs. We had several other phone dates before meeting for a socially distanced walk in the park. I was still nervous, but less so. At this point, I had seen his face (at least through my phone screen), and we had talked for several hours. By not rushing into a dinner date or drinks or physical intimacy — none of which were options in the early stages of Covid-19 — I was able to take my time. When I realized I wasn’t interested in pursuing anything further with Erik, I was confident in my decision because I had the time and space to come to that decision.
For April and most of May, I felt great, like I had finally figured out dating. I joked with my friends that I was made for quarantine dating. So when I met Brandon in mid-May, I was excited, confident in my abilities even. So this is what casual dating is, I thought. This isn’t so bad.
Turns out, global pandemic or not, it’s still possible to get your feelings hurt.
I recount the night and the days leading up to it in one matter-of-fact breath: He seemed great. We had a lot in common. He was cute and funny, and he liked collecting records. We had both been social distancing, so when he asked me out, I immediately said yes. (This could turn into something, I whispered to myself at the time.) He made me dinner. We listened to records. We talked about therapy and our families and politics and our favorite record stores. And then I lost my virginity to him. Three days later, he called me and told me about the “immense guilt” he felt and how he realized he was nowhere near over his ex.
It doesn’t take me long to completely botch my “no crying in therapy” rule.
“It sounds like you liked him. And now you’re really hurt,” Hollingshead said.
“Yeah, I did,” I said. At that point, I’d given up on trying to stop crying.
“Give yourself time to wallow in how much this sucks,” Hollingshead said.
At this point, it’s been almost four months since coronavirus upended my state of Ohio. I’ve gone on virtual dates and real dates. I’ve downloaded, deleted, and redownloaded several dating apps. I’ve had conversations that went nowhere with men. I’ve had some that have been better than others. I’ve misread signals, drank too much, and cried a lot. It turns out that the Brittany from one year ago was right about something: Dating is work — in times of calmness and chaos.
Coronavirus meant I no longer had an excuse. My worries about not feeling smart enough or pretty enough or worthy enough suddenly seemed embarrassingly small when I considered that some people were risking their lives by simply going into work. In the age of social distancing, everything from hugging a loved one to going to the grocery store became a risk. But sending a cute guy on OkCupid a message? Saying yes to a FaceTime date? Those no longer felt like terrifying, life-shattering risks. They felt like chances.
How many times had I wished for things to slow down? For a minute to breathe or think or focus on myself? Coronavirus gave me that. It gave me the space and time to evaluate what I wanted. I learned that I didn’t want to be alone forever. Could I have started dating at another point in my life, one free of a global pandemic? Perhaps, but I know playing the “What if?” game is useless. It always has been, but it feels even more fruitless in today’s climate. These are uncertain times. But dating in the time of coronavirus taught me to lean into the uncertainty of growth.