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How to date when it feels like everyone forgot how to date

The pandemic ruined romance. It doesn’t have to be this way.

A cartoon image of two men leaning in for a kiss. Shanée Benjamin for Vox
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Nothing makes me want to date less than listening to my friends talk about how dating is going.

There’s my friend who has gone on four dates with someone who still can’t pronounce his name. Or there’s my dear pal who was on a blind date with someone who didn’t know they were on a blind date. There’s also the buddy who went on a date with a man who “has never eaten soup.” This was so mordantly intriguing that I had to follow up and ask whether it was a dislike of the concept of a watery meal or if the man had never encountered soup — I was told it was more aversion than lack of access.

This all raises the question: Why is seemingly everyone so off their game? To figure it out, I spoke with relationship experts and social psychologists. They point to — what else? — the pandemic as a major culprit.

By way of stunting social interactions and limiting experiences, the pandemic has made dating even more awkward and unpleasant for people. That’s a problem. As studies point out, the pandemic has increased loneliness all around the world. Loneliness and bad dates, in turn, become a cursed loop.

The experts I spoke to unfortunately could not give me a foolproof plan to ensure the best dates. They did, however, have good advice about how to be a better person on the dating scene — methods that we can all employ. And if we’re all better people to go on dates with, maybe eventually some of those dates will get better too.

Check in with yourself

The very first step in being a dateable person in the world begins even before filling out a profile.

Before you do anything else, you should check in with yourself and determine what you’re ready for. You need to ask yourself some pretty basic questions: Am I ready to date? Do I know what I want? Am I looking for something long-term or casual?

You might find that the answer to the first two questions is a pretty all-encompassing “no,” and that’s completely okay. Experts I spoke to said that given what we’ve all been through in the past two years, not feeling up to going on dates is a valid response. If you’re not sure of what you want, it’s a good thing to take some time and figure that out. It’s really important to be clear with ourselves about our own objectives.

If you are ready to date, the answers to these types of questions can help avoid future negative experiences. They can help set expectations. They can also help guide what kind of dates we’re going on, and make sure the person we’re going on dates with has similar intentions.

Bad experiences, as Nicole McNichols explained to me, usually happen when we’re confused about what we want. McNichols works in the psychology department at the University of Washington, where she teaches a course called “Diversity of Human Sexuality.” She says the lack of clarity can send us barking up the wrong trees.

A date between someone looking for a relationship and someone looking to hook up isn’t ideal. In that scenario, if one person sees sex as the pathway to a relationship and the other does not, that can lead to a lot of not-great feelings.

“We know from the research, for example, that hookups can lead to some very positive experiences, people can feel happy and satisfy a sense of sexual adventure, but they can often lead to a lot of misery and anger and feelings of shame and humiliation,” McNichols tells me. McNichols reiterates that there’s absolutely nothing wrong or shameful with anyone wanting casual sexual relationships.

“What tends to differentiate those two emotional types of outcomes is what the person’s aim was going in,” she adds, explaining that it’s when those wires are crossed that relationships turn sour. Of course, interpersonal romantic relationships aren’t a solo endeavor (more on this in a bit), but working out the emotions on our own end and being honest with ourselves is something we can and have the power to do.

Be communicative about what you want

Being clear and honest with the people you would like to date is fundamental to being a good dater. Humans tend to hurt each other when they aren’t clear.

And unfortunately, we’re not always cognizant of what and how we’re communicating.

“Something that I’ve been working on or talking about for many years is the low accountability dating climate,” says Alexandra Solomon, a psychologist who teaches at Northwestern and specializes in relationships.

What she means when she refers to the “low accountability dating climate” is when people treat dating as more of a transaction than a genuine attempt at human connection. And when people see other people as “transactions” that cease to provide a benefit anymore, they’re more likely to abandon them and move on. This mindset means minimal effort and minimal responsibility, especially when it comes to communication.

Solomon and other experts I spoke to explain that the lack of care in how we talk to one another is, in large part, due to the many ways we stay in touch today. The idea of waiting for a phone call is now a relic of ancient times. It has been replaced by waiting to see if someone texts or DMs, whether they viewed your Instagram story, and whether that person has posted (on social media) since you last spoke.

Essentially, there are more ways than ever to check in with someone. But those ways can be as mindless and checked out as watching Stories on Instagram while not paying attention to a TV show. We’ve leaned on low-effort social media even more during a pandemic that cut off many of our in-person, face-to-face interactions in the first year.

Being a better communicator to the people you’re dating means personally acknowledging how difficult it is to communicate in culture today — recognizing, for instance, that not responding to someone’s DMs can make them feel rejected. Knowing those pitfalls and then working to not be unresponsive or ambiguous over text, DM, apps, or maybe even a phone call (god forbid), is integral to being a better human who dates.

Clarity also means just being honest about what you want out of your connections. That could mean letting someone know very clearly that you’re looking for a relationship or getting in touch to say that the date you went on didn’t work out. Those kinds of talks can feel uncomfortably intimate or maybe too earnest, but they help avoid the hurt and shame that result from miscommunication.

Granted, telling someone that you no longer want to see them can feel especially bad given the circumstances that we’re living in. Ghosting, maybe more than ever, seems like the tempting option.

But as Logan Ury, a behavior scientist-turned-dating coach and the director of relationship science at the dating app Hinge, explains, skirting outright rejections isn’t actually sparing anyone’s feelings.

“If you don’t tell me what’s going on, then I might be holding out hope for you,” says Ury. In Ury’s dating taxonomy, ghosting happens when two people go on at least one date and there’s unanswered follow-up. Ury concedes that everyone’s definition of ghosting is different, but the general idea is that one person is investing emotions into another who has already moved on. She doesn’t consider it ghosting when someone you’ve never met goes quiet on the apps, or if there’s a date and no follow-up from either party.

“We’ve done research on this. It hurts in the moment, but people would rather be rejected. Ghosting can hurt more because it makes people feel like they’re swimming in ambiguity,” she says.

“I think we have to start normalizing just being clear with ourselves and upfront about what it is that we want, because I don’t think people are intentionally misleading each other,” McNichols says.

This, obviously, is a problem that predates the pandemic and likely will be perpetrated until the end of time. But since the pandemic has, for many of us, made us worse communicators, there’s no better time to be better.

Remember that we’re still re-learning how to be social

The pandemic completely changed our social lives. The interactions we had at work or school or even the gym or our grocery stores were all affected by Covid-19. Some of those social interactions are maybe just now getting back to pre-pandemic rhythms, or maybe they’re not close at all.

Multiple experts mentioned that young people, especially those who graduated from high school or college over the last two years, didn’t have the same kind of social experiences that adults before them had. The pandemic changed how these people made friends, how they kept up with existing friendships, and may even have altered how they bonded with new coworkers at their first jobs.

“Young adults especially have maybe missed out on a couple of really developmentally important years in terms of learning to navigate courtship and romantic relationships and sex,” McNichols tells Vox, and explains that those experiences are integral to how we interact.

She also says that, to some degree, it’s reasonable for any adult living through the past two years to feel like some of their in-person communication skills might be a little clunky — dating included.

“Even though we’re slowly entering back into a more normal world than we’ve been living in for the last two years, I think everyone’s just a little out of practice,” McNichols says. “Everyone kind of became less comfortable and less used to speaking with other people live and, you know, actually being out and meeting new people.”

The takeaway here is not to be hard on yourself for being nervous or awkward or not saying the right things. Keep in mind that the person or people you’re going on dates with probably have the same feelings; extending yourself the grace you give other people is really crucial.

Treat people with grace and compassion

Perhaps the best thing daters can do is remember that the people they want to date are human beings.

“I want people who are dating to lead with tenderness and compassion. And expect the same in return,” Solomon, the psychologist based at Northwestern, tells me.

Solomon explains that dating, for the last decade or so, has shifted toward being something like a consumer mindset. That’s in large part due to apps that have framed dating as more like a game in which “matching” feels like a win or maybe even a dopamine rush. The more matches you have, the more desirable you might feel. The more someone ticks off certain boxes, the more appealing they seem. The people who don’t stack up, then, are perceived as disposable.

Seeing and treating people as means to an end rather than actual humans with human emotions isn’t good (even if that end is a relationship). Negative feelings will occur. But coupled with the circumstances of the pandemic, i.e., long stretches of isolation, and the gamification of online dating, our tendency to forget that others are as real as we are gets even worse.

So what does treating someone with compassion and kindness mean?

“It means keeping in mind, from the very first swipe, that there’s a human being on the other end of the app,” Solomon says, explaining that it means being clear about intentions, honest about your feelings, and treating everyone with kindness, regardless of whether you’d like to see them again.

“You’re interacting with a human being — a human being who’s possibly been through some heavy stuff over the last two years.”

The “stuff,” as Solomon points out, can be just the daily emotional toll of living through Covid-19, or even something more serious like the death of a loved one or PTSD from working the front lines. People were already lonely before the pandemic, and the isolation it caused for singles couldn’t have helped.

There’s that saying about how we don’t know what personal battles people are going through. Treating someone with grace and dignity — especially as they look for a romantic connection — is crucial in this moment. You also deserve to be treated with kindness — and it’s best if you treat yourself with kindness too.

To be clear, compassion and kindness are not interchangeable with being a doormat or putting up with someone awful. If someone is belligerent or offensive, being compassionate does not mean sitting through or toughing out a date.

It’s also worth noting that you could feel like you’re ready to date, get there, and realize pretty quickly that it doesn’t feel right. That’s perfectly normal too. There are no deadlines on how we should feel and how soon.

“I think perhaps the pandemic has created a sense of urgency about life being fragile. I think that can make people feel like, ‘I have to go out there. I have to try to find somebody right now,’” Solomon, the psychologist at Northwestern, says.

That kind of pressure isn’t helpful. It may only lead to more anxiety and undercut the connections someone makes. As real as that urgency can feel, the key here is to trust ourselves and what feels right for us in this moment and time.

“We also should keep in mind that people have really different on-ramps when it comes to getting there,” Solomon says. “We don’t need to be pressuring ourselves on top of all the rebuilding that we’re already doing in our lives.”

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