How to Start a Healthy Relationship When All Dating Norms Are Out the Window
Ask a Doctor is PEOPLE’s series getting you the answers to the medical, health and personal questions that you always wanted to know but weren’t sure who to ask.
Beginning a new relationship during non-pandemic times can be overwhelming, but right now it can feel downright unbearable. Not only is COVID-19 making it all but impossible to be physically close to people, it’s also taking a toll on our collective mental health - which can make it seem even more daunting to make yourself vulnerable with someone new. But thanks to the wonders of technology, there are still ways to search for your soulmate from the comfort of your couch.
“Finding love and companionship may look different now, but it hasn’t been canceled or postponed!" says Kelly Houseman, MS, LLPC and host of the podcast Kelly’s Reality.
Dr. Terri Orbuch, professor at Oakland University in Michigan and author of Finding Love Again: 6 Simple Steps to a New and Happy Relationship, agrees. “Back in March and April, people didn’t really know what to do. Now that it’s been several months, I think people are starting to [date] again, but they’re getting creative,” she says.
In other words, the dating world may have been flipped upside down, but it’s still vital — and possibly even making some improvements. “There are some benefits to the pandemic in terms of forming new relationships, because it’s slowed down the dating process,” says Orbuch. Not only does it give single people more time to focus on themselves — which can be beneficial, for example, in helping move on from past relationships — but it also gives new couples time to get to know each other on a deeper level.
As unpredictable as these times may be, there are ways to improve your odds both in finding a significant other and maintaining that relationship in the long-term. Here’s how, according to Orbuch and Houseman.
Think Outside the Dating Apps
Because meeting people at the usual spots like bars, parties or the gym is essentially off the table right now, people are turning to dating apps more than ever. Luckily, it wasn’t a huge transition. “Even pre-pandemic, a large portion of dating would begin online and quarantine has not slowed this trend down,” says Houseman.
And although dating has shifted to be more virtual, Dr. Orbuch stresses that you can still utilize your personal network to make potential connections. “It can be through a friend or family member, or even a matchmaker,” Orbuch says.
Ask the ‘Big’ Questions Earlier
This extra time doesn't just provide more time to get to know each other, it also puts the spotlight on your priorities. "Couples should focus on core compatibility — kids, marriage, values, life goals," says Houseman.
To build on that foundation, there’s another set of questions to ask — this time more tailored to the particular stresses of the pandemic. Orbuch suggests asking everything from "How are you spending your days?" to "When a friend thinks they’re exposed to COVID-19, how do you react?" and "How often do you talk to your family?" to get a sense of how they handle stress both now and in "normal" times.
“Asking them how they have been handling the [lifestyle] changes, and their thoughts on the future can give insight into how they think and cope with challenges," Houseman adds.
Ask, What Would Chris Harrison Do?
One of the biggest questions you'll face is when to take your relationship from virtual to reality. Ultimately, the answer comes down to a few variables, most important of which is your comfort level. “I recommend virtually playing ‘Bachelor’ or ‘Bachelorette’ and only meeting up with your most compatible [dates],” says Houseman.
Adds Orbuch, “I know that this is not the answer that people want, but it really depends on the couple, and it depends on [both] people, not one or the other." Then, once you both decide you want to meet, then you face — you guessed it — more questions.
“Number one is probably, are we both symptom-free? Then, are we going to wear masks? Are we social distancing?” Orbuch says, conceding that this is new territory for everyone. “We never used to have to ask these questions before we met them. We typically asked about other kinds of sexually transmitted infections, not, you know, Do you have the flu?”
Embrace Outdoor Dates — and Netflix
“Dating is now a game for the great outdoors,” says Houseman. “As we move into autumn, there are still activities new couples can do outside to get to know one another. Even better, it challenges daters to think outside of the dinner-and-a-drink formula for dating.”
“It’s all about being creative both virtually and for outdoor dates,” adds Orbuch. For the former, transitioning out of the texting phase is key. “Seeing the person and interacting on video is the best,” she adds. “Texting is great, but seeing them and observing their non-verbal communication is vital.”
As the weather gets cooler, keep in mind there's more than just FaceTime if you can’t spend time together in person. “Try taking online classes together, watching a Netflix movie together, cooking a meal together or playing games,” recommends Orbuch.
And when you do take your dates to the “real” world, make sure to do so as safely as possible, checking in often with your partner to take their temperature (so to speak) on the arrangements. “New couples should have an understanding around what activities each is comfortable with and what dating during this time will look like,” says Houseman, adding, “Following local and national health guidelines and being smart is key no matter what you ultimately decide.”
Set Yourself Up for Long-Term Success
Love having long, deep conversations about your hopes and dreams? This is your time to shine. If not, there’s no time like the present. “Share your fears and anxieties — that builds trust. Revealing those things actually leads to happy, healthy relationships over time,” explains Orbuch.
Exploring those topics can also help you discover deal-breakers before you get too far into a relationship. “Dating is a time to ensure this person is compatible with you, especially on your ‘hard lines,’” says Houseman, who adds that you shouldn’t ignore red flags that may come to the surface.
Finally, when you come to a comfortable place in your new relationship, maintain your respective "me" times. “It’s ok if they don’t want to Zoom, or if they sit and read or watch football,” says Orbuch. “Giving each other space is good.”