April 30, 2021 — After more than a year of near-constant solitude in his New York City home thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, actor/model Robb Sherman is more than ready to start dating again.
There’s just one potential hiccup: He thinks he may have forgotten how.
“People are weird right now — myself included,” says Sherman, 39, whose recent gigs include starring in a Match.com commercial. “I’m ready to settle down with the right guy, but I’m honestly concerned that I’m a little socially inept after all this time alone.”
As it turns out, Sherman’s experience isn’t unique. Many singles are emerging from the pandemic equal parts eager and reluctant — craving intimacy more than ever but feeling woefully out of practice.
In a recent survey of 1,000 single women from Nurx, a telehealth platform, many reported that same dilemma. While 58% said they hope to date and have sex more than they did before the pandemic, 44% worry they’re out of practice with dating and sex, and 25% are still worried they’ll catch COVID-19.
And realistically, many people are indeed out of practice. According to the survey, 35% didn’t date or meet new partners at all over the past year, 7% dated but didn’t have sex, and 28% did date and have sex but less than they did pre-pandemic. Health officials even recommended wearing face masks during sex.
COVID-19 has left many people deprived of romance and partnership, and as a result, dating experts foresee a relationship tsunami once restrictions lift. After all, people have had ample time to reflect on their priorities and are tired of seclusion. But because the pandemic has made many people wary of unnecessary contact, singles will likely be taking a minimalist approach, says Erika Kaplan, vice president of membership for Three Day Rule Matchmaking, which promotes customized matchmaking.
“People really get what loneliness means now, what isolation means,” she says. “But I get a sense that people will be dating fewer people at a time. Gone are the days of going on dates 7 nights a week.”
To many people, it may seem like common sense to cut back on dating partners during a pandemic. But to evolutionary psychologists, this is the “behavioral immune system” at work — an unconscious set of behaviors that protect us in the face of an infectious disease threat.
A pre-COVID study from Montreal’s McGill University found that people who felt most vulnerable to disease showed lower levels of interest in prospective dates, regardless of how desirable they were.
There are other obvious and expected changes that arose during the pandemic. For example, Kaplan often sees the “I’m vaccinated and ready to go!” mentality, and those same people are also looking for vaccinated partners.
“People want someone who shares their values and shares the appreciation for freedom that comes with being vaccinated,” she says. “So much about dating is exploring together.”
And there will likely be a large dating pool for singles getting back on the scene, says Martie Haselton, PhD, a professor of communication and psychology at UCLA.
“We’ll see a lot of relationship turnover — some people stayed in their relationships because they were in need of somebody to be with while in lockdown,” she says. “Now that things are opening up, people’s options are opening up.”
For Detroit-area resident Kristin Drago, a 37-year-old single mom of two boys, the idea of meeting someone is exciting. Dating, on the other hand, not so much.
“I’m getting to the point where I’ve had my year away from everything, and I’m super lonely when the boys aren’t here,” she says. “I’d love to have a partner, but I don’t know how excited I am about the process. Post-COVID, my social skills are completely gone.”
Once she decides to get back on the apps, though, she says her approach will be different from pre-pandemic days. Rather than run-of-the-mill topical dating questions, she will focus more on how well potential partners dealt with COVID-related stressors like working from home or being furloughed, and what their pandemic practices were.
“Those questions tell you how they were raised and secretly dives into who they really are,” Drago says.
That may be one of the silver linings: A focus on more meaningful and telling qualities in potential partners, Haselton says.
Over the course of the pandemic, people were forced to whittle down their personal bubbles, forgo life’s fancy nights out, and take stock of what was really important to them, she says.
“By not doing some of those extra things, we realized we didn’t actually need them as much,” Haselton says. “Maybe dating will be a little less superficial and not so focused on appearance or the clothes you wear or car you drive, but real things we had to confront over the past year.”