Covid-Era Dating Anxieties
How is the world of dating changing in the wake of the pandemic? In what ways might vaccine status be interacting with relationship values and attachment patterns? Psychosexual and relationship therapist and author Silva Neves surveys the new preoccupations facing single clients, and considers how core dating concerns around safety and autonomy have been further complicated by Covid-19.
Now that social restrictions have lifted, many people who endured a long lockdown in isolation are desperate to embrace the world and date again. Pre-pandemic, I already found that dating brought up much anxiety for my clients – the topics of love, relationships and sex are shrouded in myths with distorted messages, images and examples of what a successful relationship ‘should’ look like.
Conversations about dating usually involve exploring a client’s attachment styles, hopes and fears, perhaps some distorted relationship ‘scripts’ they learnt in childhood, and becoming clearer about their wants and needs. Now there is often an added dimension, as the pandemic forces people to challenge their values and priorities in reconfiguring what they deem as attractive or a viable date.
Relationships are not easy at the best of times, because people have to navigate opposing desires and competing needs: wanting a sense of safety and security as well as a sense of freedom and fun (as Esther Perel so eloquently explains in her 2006 book, Mating in Captivity). When people date, the central enquiries they make for themselves, consciously and unconsciously are:
- Will I be safe?
- Will I be looked after?
- Will I be autonomous and free?
- Will I have fun?
In the Covid era, the sense of safety, autonomy and fun is taking on a different dimension. For instance, feeling safe may mean knowing a partner’s whereabouts in order to assess if they have been at significant risk of exposure to the virus – which in turn can impede the other person’s sense of autonomy. Pre-pandemic, it might have been perceived as controlling. Now, it may be a conversation about public health.
Relationship therapists recognise that one of the essential ingredients for a good and sustainable relationship is shared values. Human beings hold our values dear. For example, it is rare that vegan people who have strong animal rights values will date people who love eating meat. Now, a new value to consider is the attitude regarding vaccinations.
The ‘double vaccination’ status interacts with clients’ attachment styles, their sense of safety and their ability to trust. Someone with an anxious attachment style may be soothed to be dating somebody who has been double vaccinated, taking it as a sign that they are safe and trustworthy (even if the reality of being with them is very different). Someone who suffered an attachment rupture because of a betrayal may not trust anyone’s vaccination status unless they see the proof. Equally, those who are against vaccination may perceive the status of double vaccination as undesirable and screen these people out.
There may be an interesting parallel process here in how we choose to begin a therapeutic relationship with clients. Do we disclose that we are double vaccinated, as a way to communicate that we’re safe? And of course, as many of us return to face to face work, our own sense of safety and trust is also being challenged. Should we ask our clients if they have been double vaccinated? Should we only offer online therapy for those who are not vaccinated?
The lifting of restrictions poses difficult questions for all of us, and it may be possible to use new dynamics in the therapeutic relationship as an opportunity to notice and explore some of our client’s new anxieties around dating.
But maybe not everyone will be returning to the therapy room – or to the world of face to face dating. Some clients might not want to give up their attachment with technology. Some single clients, particularly those on the introvert range, may prefer to remain in a tech-based dating sphere. The pandemic is also likely to have accelerated the emergence of a new sexuality called Digisexuality. This describes people who enjoy interacting sexually with others mostly through technology. Research in sexology demonstrates that it is as normative an expression of sexuality as any other, and as therapists we may increasingly be challenged to hold our own judgements.
As the world transitions into a ‘new normal’ of connections and relationships, our clinical thinking needs to adapt, too. At the same time, we need to be kind to ourselves if we make mistakes or if we have new blind spots. After all, we are still living through the major shifts of the world-changing pandemic.