Long before Covid-19, Sofia*, a 30-year-old entrepreneur based in Cape Town, South Africa, hated dating. She spent years frustrated by the superficiality of swipe culture and the guessing game of early dates.
But when coronavirus reached her city and forced her inside, Sofia turned to a tool she previously considered a “horrible experience”: Tinder. From home, Sofia was liberated to explore potential partners without the expectation of having to meet up, and possibly hook up, in real life.
Curiously, it worked. Two weeks ago Sofia connected with Joe*, a 28-year-old videographer. He lives 8,700 miles away from Sofia, in Ireland. After daily video calls, Netflix binges, and morning meditations, Sofia and Joe are happily committed and eagerly planning Joe’s visit to Cape Town “as soon as the borders open.”
“I think it’s so cool that you can be on the other side of the world and you meet someone who is a complete match for you,” Sofia tells Inverse.
Finding — and keeping love — during a global pandemic isn’t easy, especially for the couples thrust into a long-distance relationship with no end in sight. Still, psychologists Angele Close and Mary Jo Rapini argue that the current moment offers the opportunity to reinvent relationships and make them healthier and stronger than ever before.
"This is the best thing that's happened to dating in forever," Rapini tells Inverse.
Love in lockdown — Limited to communicating through technology, daters are now building a foundation of friendship, rather than participating in the "meat market" of the dating pool, Rapini says. They're gauging interest based on their values, not a gut attraction.
Close agrees that dating has changed — in ways she predicts will last long after social distancing is over.
"Our modern fast-paced world is now stalled," Close. She views the present as a time to "go inward and cultivate deeper self-awareness." Once people do that, they can be a better partner in a relationship.
"For every long-distance relationship I've ever seen, it's not the distance that messes it up."
The pandemic also hasn’t stopped Charlie*, a 27-year-old consultant based in New York City, from looking for love. He’s been on weekly virtual dates since social isolation began but says there’s one problem: Because of the lack of physical cues "it's a little bit more difficult to flirt."
“If I'm sitting a foot away from someone I can better judge the situation — what this person thinks is acceptable in terms of flirty banter and how far you push the boat out on that," Charlie says.
Without subtle in-person signals — like body language, eye contact, or someone's "vibe" — it can be difficult to interpret an interaction, Rapini explains. But that doesn't mean it's impossible to build a meaningful bond.
"When I first thought about social distancing, I thought, 'Oh, my God, those poor people — you won't be going on any dates,'" Rapini recalls.
But in reality, social distancing is not emotionally distancing, she says. Rapini anticipates that the relationships that are cultivated now will end up being strong.
"The one thing I think virtual dating might do is drive vulnerability and being more open," he reflects. "It's very much focused on conversation and getting to know each other."
Navigating emotional landmines, physically apart — For couples trying to keep their relationship alive over video chat, the lack of physical connection can make it harder to support each other.
"Without face to face contact, we're more sensitive to over-analyzing and misinterpreting," Close explains.
Even outside of a pandemic, people frequently fall into the trap of cognitive distortions — aka jumping to conclusions.
"One of the challenges of long-distance is people can really get carried away with stories that aren't based on reality," Close says.
Now, more than ever, it's crucial for people to validate, not judge, their partners' or their own emotions, Close says. It's also especially important to communicate honestly.
"Nobody can read your mind," Rapini says. Use this time to become more self-aware of your needs and trust that you can share them with your partner, she advises.
"For every long-distance relationship I've ever seen, it's not the distance that messes it up," she reflects. "It's a lack of trust."
The pandemic may also activate emotions from the past, or unresolved conflict. When these emotions ignite, they might be misinterpreted as an irrational reaction, Close explains. One's instinct might be that they shouldn't share, but that would be a mistake.
"If you suppress emotions, rather than acknowledge them, it's unlikely the feelings will dissolve," Close says.
That's true generally — and especially true during a global health crisis. Because anxiety and fear can trigger explosive emotions, it's crucial to pinpoint where these feelings are coming from, and not pass them on.
Case in point: Christina* and Ben*, who have been together for two-and-a-half years, say these seven weeks of quarantine have dredged up some odd and unfamiliar feelings. Christina's advice to other couples is to not put too much pressure on the relationship, or worry about how much, or how little, you're talking.
"You have to recognize a lot of the pressures and stress are from this pandemic," she says.
Instead of projecting onto your partner, take responsibility for your own happiness. When they're driving you crazy, pause before you react.
"We're not very emotionally literate or clearly expressive, yet we have these unwritten unstated expectations that the other person should just know what we need," Close says. "So then they disappoint us all the time."
If you're struggling to stay connected at a distance, Rapini suggests scheduling more virtual dates or starting a project together. This could be a book club — really anything that can "give the relationship some glue."
"Just have fun, be transparent, be kind," Sofia advises. "It's a very sensitive time. Everyone's just trying to look for genuine human connection."
Ultimately, remember it's all temporary, Close says. We will all be together, eventually, and just imagine how good that will feel.
*Names and identifying details changed.