How Coronavirus Is Changing the Dating Game for the Better
Video chats are in. Small talk is out. You don’t have to fret about who picks up the check. And maybe the biggest plus: You’re forced to take things slow.
By Helen Fisher
May 7, 2020
If you’re single and dating, you’re no doubt facing special challenges during this horrid pandemic. But as a biological anthropologist who has spent some 40 years studying romantic love around the world and the brain circuitry of this ancient and universal human passion, I’ve come to recognize that in some ways, coronavirus has given you a gift. For the last 15 years, I’ve also been the chief science adviser to Match.com, the dating site, where I’ve had the opportunity to collect and analyze data on singles across America. And the data here, too, suggest that this pandemic is actually changing the courtship process is some positive ways.
Foremost, coronavirus has slowed things down. This pandemic has forced singles to return to more traditional wooing: getting to know someone before the kissing starts. I’m hopeful that these rediscovered and emerging modes of dating will give singles additional time to select a truly appropriate mate as well as enable romance and attachment to develop slowly — even flourish long term. Let’s look at some of the ways in which coronavirus has changed the dating game, and how those changes might provide some lasting benefits.
Video Chats Are In
During the second weekend of April, Match asked members several questions about how they’ve changed their courtship habits since the world shut down. An astonishing 6,004 men and women replied. And they are doing something new: video chatting. Before Covid-19, only 6 percent of these singles were using video chatting to court. Now, 69 percent are open to video chatting with a potential partner, and a third already have an individual with whom they’d like to talk — via video.
And there are some real advantages to seeing these potential partners on FaceTime, Zoom or some other internet platform. We are walking billboards of who we are. Your haircut (or lack of haircut during these pandemic times); your tattoo; your preppy shirt; your revealing blouse: all these and many more visible traits signal your background, education and interests. Indeed, specific brain regions respond almost instantly to assess two things about a likely mate: their personality and their physical appeal. We do this within seconds of seeing him or her.
Sex and Money Are Out
This pandemic has solved, if temporarily, two of the most challenging aspects of contemporary dating: sex and money.
When singles meet in person, they’re obliged to navigate this nether world: Should I kiss him or her? What if they invite me back to their pad?
Before this virus hit, some 34 percent of American singles had engaged in sex before an “official” first date. That’s over — at least for now. You might have some sexy banter during a video chat but real sex is off the table.
Money is off the table, too. On an in-person date, singles must negotiate who pays: Should we meet in a cheap cafe or an expensive bar? Must I offer to split the bill? In the age of corona, these money negotiations are history.
Time to Talk
With the coronavirus lockdowns, many of you now have more time. You aren’t dressing in the morning, commuting to work or meeting pals after office hours. Many of you have more time to talk. Moreover, you have something important to talk about. Chitchat and small talk have become far less relevant.
Instead, during this pandemic, singles are likely to share far more meaningful thoughts of fear and hope — and get to know vital things about a potential partner fast. Psychologists report that this self-disclosure — the process of revealing one’s innermost feelings, attitudes and experiences — spurs intimacy, love and commitment. These are the foundation stones of a sturdy partnership. And research shows that men are just as likely to disclose their secret feelings as women.
Stop at 9
Before coronavirus, many abused the new technology of online dating. On and on, singles dizzily tapped, swiped, clicked and binged — seeking the perfect partner. But the human brain isn’t built to handle so many choices.
For decades researchers have assiduously studied how we choose. Some have found that after being offered about six options, we burn out — a condition known as cognitive overload or the paradox of choice. Other researchers note that our short-term memory system can’t embrace more than five to nine stimuli at once.
But all agree that when faced with too many alternatives, we choose none.
So after you’ve actually conversed with nine people who you think might be appropriate — stop your search. And get to know at least one of these people better. The more you get to know someone, the more you are inclined to like them.
Also important: Think of reasons to say “yes.” We have evolved a large brain region linked with what neuroscientists call “negativity bias.” We are built to remember the negative — a knee-jerk response that was adaptive across our human past, as it is today. So overlook that he likes cats and you like dogs. Focus on what you do like about him or her. Resist this negativity bias and concentrate on the positive.
There’s a long-term payoff to this current lockdown: It’s extending the “getting to know you” process. In past centuries, marriage was the beginning of a relationship. Today, it tends to be the finale. No longer do most of us marry very young. And this quarantine is continuing this worldwide trend toward what I call slow love.
From the evolutionary perspective, slow love is adaptive — because the human brain is soft-wired to attach to a partner slowly. My brain-scanning colleagues and I have found that men and women who’ve been madly in love for up to 18 months show activity in brain regions associated with intense romantic passion. But our teammate Bianca Acevedo found that those who’ve been in love for two to 12 years and had recently decided to marry showed activity in an additional brain region associated with pair-bonding and attachment in other mammals.
In short: romantic love can be triggered rapidly, whereas feelings of deep attachment take time to develop. We were built for slow love — and this pandemic is continuing to draw out this courtship process.
This virus is probably delaying matrimony, too. Another plus. Data on 80 societies that I’ve collected via the Demographic Yearbooks of the United Nations between 1947 and 2011 indicate that the later you wed, the more likely you are to remain married.
Further, a study of over 3,000 married people in the United States found that, compared with those who dated less than a year, couples who dated for one to two years before wedding were 20 percent less likely to divorce. Couples who dated for three or more years before marrying were 39 percent less likely to break up.
And despite common belief, we can remain “in love” long term. A functional M.R.I. study of 17 men and women married an average of 21 years, led by Dr. Acevedo, has shown that the primary brain systems for romantic love and attachment can remain active for many years.
Surely singles will get back to meeting in person when this pandemic subsides. We’re mammals. We’re built to court face to face. But today more singles are talking via video chatting before they meet in person. A new stage in the courtship process is flourishing— saving singles time and money as well as enabling many to kiss fewer frogs. Bizarre as it sounds, this pandemic may lead to happier and more enduring partnerships in the post-corona age.