By Lisa Bonos
The first time we touched, it was an accident. We were on our fourth date - a masked walk through Georgetown - keeping as much distance as possible on narrow city sidewalks.
"I'm sorry," he said, apologising for inadvertently brushing his hand against mine. "In normal times, I would have grabbed your hand on purpose."
We laughed as we remarked at how strange it was to date in 2020. Once a week we'd talk over Skype even though we lived only a few blocks from each other. On the weekends, we'd go for long, masked walks. Oddly, I found myself feeling closer to him over Skype than in person: Over a screen I could see his whole face and neither of us were anxious about accidentally getting too close.
After a month of dating, we did hold hands (and do other things!) on purpose. This is what it's like to date amid the spread of a deadly virus: Singles are spending several weeks to months getting to know someone over the phone, video chat or socially distant dates before the masks come off. Taking that step often involves detailed discussions about whom you're seeing regularly - be it family, friends, roommates or other dates - to help determine the right time to share a hug or first kiss. And there are no clear rules on when it's safe to progress. Everyone is making it up as they go along.
It's a big change from the culture of immediacy that Tinder and other dating apps ushered in several years ago. Abiding by social distancing while getting close to someone can be frustrating, but pandemic dating offers a chance to connect in new ways.
Showing someone you care looks different than it did a year ago. Being cautious is now a sexy character trait, and planning a good date might have nothing to do with snagging a hot restaurant reservation. The Washington Post spoke to love experts about how to keep things fun, interesting, safe (and yes, sexy!) while taking it slowly.
Matchmaker Tammy Shaklee says her Type-A clients - typically very goal-oriented and driven - are having difficulty with the pandemic's slower pace. "They're having to learn patience, tenacity and duration," Shaklee says, as daters face an uncertain timeline for when it'll be safe to see each other in person and be physical.
Make your virtual dates special, but don't let them go all night
Lindsey Metselaar, host of the millennial dating podcast "We Met at Acme," has several rules for virtual dates: "First of all, you have to have good lighting, obviously," she says, adding that it's still not a good idea to get too drunk. And just because you have unlimited data or strong WiFi, don't let your date go all night.
"You always have to have somewhere to be after because it's kind of pathetic, even though you're doing nothing - and no one's doing anything! - to be on this date for all five hours of your night. So if you have to lie, lie. Just don't be too available, even though it's virtual dating. ... You still need to have some mystery around you."
"People are actually using this as an opportunity to get to know each other at a much deeper level than they were before," says Justin Lehmiller, a researcher at Indiana University's Kinsey Institute.
In his recent surveys of daters, Lehmiller reports that singles are much more willing to have deep, meaningful conversations than in the past. "People are actually using this as an opportunity to get to know each other at a much deeper level than they were before," he says. "And that has the potential to lead to much stronger relationships."
Pandemic dating is a lot like long-distance dating, Lehmiller says, as singles might be geographically close but constrained on their ability to meet. One big predictor of success in long-distance relationships, Lehmiller says, is maintaining good communication. "The people who have high levels of communication, who are really trying to get to know each other at a deeper level, are more likely to succeed," he says.
It's possible to get intimate
A 28-year-old woman in Washington has been virtually dating a man she met through Hinge in April, but they haven't met in person. They're long-distance, he's moving to the area soon, and she spoke on the condition of anonymity because their relationship is still in that delicate early stage.
Pre-pandemic, she'd never tried or felt comfortable with cybersex. But with her new beau, she wanted to try it. So they came up with a 2020 improvisation: They'd hop on a video call and then text one another, using words to describe what they'd do to each other's bodies if they were in the same room.
"We bypassed all the small talk and were able to build trust and really get to know each other on a deep level," one woman says of her girlfriend. "We both agreed that the one gift of the pandemic is that it slowed us down."
"Afterward, I couldn't believe we did it. We had a great time," she says, adding that the sexy yet silent video call made them feel closer to each other and had the added benefit that no roommates or parents could overhear.
Okay, but when can we touch?
No one has an easy answer for this.
Before meeting a Bumble date this spring, Grace Lahoud, a 23-year-old woman in Washington, asked her roommates' permission to lean in for a good-night kiss. They gave the go-ahead, she says, as they're all single and were eager to live vicariously through Lahoud's dating life.
The smooch happened around the fourth date, Lahoud reports. According to anecdotal evidence, Jordana Abraham, co-founder of the Ship dating app and co-host of the "U Up?" podcast, says the fourth or fifth date is a popular moment to make out for the first time. Others will converse for months before getting physical.
The risks and restrictions in our new reality can make looking for love seem tougher than ever.