Going on a first date is often nerve-racking. But going on a first-date during the pandemic can be especially so.
On top of all the usual things to worry about — like, if they like you and if you like them — now you also have to deal with certain challenges, such as whether you should meet virtually or in person.
“These are less-than-ideal circumstances to meet strangers, to put your best foot forward, to enter situations with, at times, forced positivity,” says Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in New York City.
It’s tough to feel fun and flirty during these unprecedented times, she adds.
“It’s cold, it’s winter, and we’re still in the middle of a pandemic,” says Beth Ribarsky, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Illinois Springfield and an expert in dating and sexual communication.
“That’s rationale enough to be stressed. It’s incredibly important to normalize that it’s okay to not feel okay all the time.”
The important thing, she says, is to be honest with yourself.
Are you dealing with general dating anxiety? Or is your anxiety caused by feeling unsafe about dating right now?
If it’s the latter, remember that it’s okay to wait until you feel comfortable.
“There’s no rush,” says Tammy Shaklee, a relationship expert, LGBTQ matchmaker, and president of the dating service H4M. “Preparing to date may be the only step you need to take right now.”
That said, “dating — when approached with a healthy mindset, including intentional goals — can definitely boost your mental health,” says Carla Marie Manly, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Santa Rosa, California.
“Those who are lonely and feeling depressed often feel much better when they reach out to date virtually or in person,” Manly adds.
Some people find that they withdraw when feeling lonely, which can create a negative feedback loop that contributes to depression.
“Watching Netflix or scrolling through social media may feel good in the moment, but it won’t break you out of the loneliness cycle,” Romanoff says.
Start by getting ready in a way that makes you feel mentally ready and confident.
For some people, this might mean ordering clothes they know they’ll feel good in or trying out new makeup.
For others, it might mean engaging in a self-care ritual, so they feel more relaxed and less nervous about the idea of putting themselves out there.
In other words: location, location, location.
Are you open to dating in person, or do you prefer to keep it all virtual for now?
“All decisions involve a cost-benefit analysis,” Romanoff says. “Do the risks outweigh the rewards in meeting this person? Only you can decide. You’re in charge of your own safety.”
Many experts agree it might be best to start with a virtual date
“Dating virtually allows you to get to know the other person on a more intimate and emotional level,” says Patricia Valencia, a licensed mental health counselor in New York City and chief operating officer of Refresh Psychotherapy.
“It also allows you to observe their health and health practices from a distance while you decide if you want to meet in person,” Valencia says.
Keeping it virtual might also help you relax.
“If you find yourself anxious and stressed out by the idea of going out and meeting someone, you aren’t going to enjoy the date,” Ribarsky says.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)recommends participating in virtual-only activities with anyone outside your household to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Remember: Just because you opt for a virtual first date, it doesn’t mean you can’t meet them down the road.
“Once a solid relationship has started — especially if both people know that they are COVID-free and safely within a contained ‘bubble’ — moving to safe, in-person dates can be both comforting and healthy,” Manly says.
Whatever you do, set boundaries early on
“Set your boundaries early,” Shaklee says. “Make your list [of] what makes you comfortable and have it prepared to kindly share with your date, so they can listen, understand, and process.”
“Also, invite them to share their boundaries,” she continues. “Expectations lead to disappointment, so communication is key at this time and in this situation.”
Don’t let someone pressure you to do something you don’t want to do
Don’t let anyone push you into an in-person date if you don’t want one. If they really insist, cut your losses and cancel the date.
“If a person you’re talking with doesn’t respect your boundaries virtually, chances are they’ll be disrespectful in the long run,” Manly says.
“If a person isn’t willing to honor a request to move slowly and respectfully, this is a serious ‘red flag’ issue that should be given careful consideration,” she adds.
Planning ahead can help make a virtual date feel less awkward or strange. Here are some tips.
Prep your space
“A virtual date can be made special by ‘setting the stage’ as you would for an in-person date,” Manly says.
A tidy background, for example, can communicate a strong first impression. This may mean making the bed or clearing a sink full of dishes that are in view.
And, if you’ve been working from home, you may find that taking the video call from somewhere other than your workspace adds to the ambiance.
Then, consider your lighting. Maybe you want to light a candle or turn the lights down low.
“You should prepare for the virtual date as though you were literally having the other person for a glass of wine,” Shaklee says. “What vibe would you have set to make your space and your environment feel like a date?”
Go for a walk before and after the date
“Create your own commute to and from the date,” Romanoff says. “After getting ready, consider a walk around the block. It’ll recalibrate your mind and build excitement for the date.”
Then, do the same after the date is finished.
“This will help you unwind from the date and assist with the transition from the date back to the living space,” she says.
Put away distractions
If you’re constantly checking your phone, you may give them the impression you’re not into the date.
Switching your phone to silent and putting it out of sight can help reduce any temptation to check it.
It’s also easy to get distracted by what’s happening around you, so do whatever you can to keep yourself focused.
This could mean putting your pet in the other room, or going to a room where you won’t get as distracted by outside noises.
Decide on a theme for the date ahead of time
“If you think about it, dates always have a theme,” Valencia says. “Because they’re built around a shared activity.”
And these shared activities serve as great icebreakers. For example, you could:
Order the same type of food
If you live close enough to each other, order delivery from the same restaurant.
Or, if that’s not possible, order delivery from the same type of restaurant. (Think: Chinese food, Thai food, or pizza.)
Try cooking together
Decide on a recipe together, order the ingredients, then make it virtually at the same time.
“It gives you meal-sharing experience but also plenty of time to talk while honing your culinary skills,” Ribarsky says.
Do a virtual escape room
Just like in-person escape rooms, a virtual room gives you a fun activity.
“It encourages you to communicate and learn how to work together,” Ribarsky says. “And it provides a sense of accomplishment.”
Do an online tour
“Many places are now offering virtual tours that you could embark upon,” Ribarsky suggests.
“Try to choose one that isn’t just a lecture, otherwise you’ll spend more time listening than talking and getting to know the other person.”
Be sure to follow
- wearing a mask
- practicing physical distancing
- meeting in an outdoor setting
- minimizing or avoiding physical contact
“Although these practices can sometimes feel awkward, they do set the stage for showing mutual consideration and thoughtful boundaries,” Manly says.
Physically distant date ideas
Have a picnic
Bring your own picnic and blanket, and choose a public park that isn’t overcrowded.
“This allows each party (wearing a mask) to space their blanket under the same tree, and enjoy their own food and bevvy,” Shaklee says. “Your blanket allows you to set your own distanced boundary, too.”
Go for a walk or hike
This is an activity that can easily be done 6 feet apart, in masks or face shields, without feeling awkward.
And it can still feel romantic, especially if you pick a scenic trail.
Go ice skating
A fun winter activity is to go to a public, outdoor ice rink. Just make sure you don’t go at a time when it’s really busy.
It’s okay to say you’re nervous
It’s easy to get overwhelmed or feel shy during a date. But rather than letting that clam you up, consider letting your date know how you’re feeling.
“If you’re feeling anxious or scared, it’s absolutely appropriate to share that information with your date,” Manly says. “Honesty and thoughtful, appropriate self-disclosure are terrific icebreakers.”
Be curious about them
“Asking thoughtful questions, especially about another person’s dreams, is always a wonderful idea,” Manly continues. So ask them about their career goals, their favorite hobbies and interests, or their travel dreams.
In fact, according to Shaklee, travel is a great conversation starter — even if we can’t actively travel right now.
“Folks light up when they talk about the interesting destinations, experiences, and places they’ve been,” she says. “And we all love to share and compare our bucket list of what to see once we can travel freely after [receiving] a vaccine or [when] the pandemic ends.”
Don’t turn it into a job interview
It’s good to ask questions, but only if you use them as a jumping-off point for a conversation.
So ask your question, listen to their answer, then share something about yourself.
It’s important that the conversation goes two ways and that both of you are opening up to each other.
Remember to actively listen
“Ask follow up questions about the things they say in order to show you were listening and interested,” Ribarsky says.
Just like asking too many questions can make a date feel too formal, talking on and on about yourself — without asking them questions or letting them speak — can be a huge turnoff.
If they’re up for it, consider a game
Party games, like Trivia or Scattergories, are great icebreakers, because they take the pressure off having to think of a topic to discuss — and they can be played virtually, too.
“If time goes by quickly, it’s a great sign that you’ve made a good connection,” Ribarsky says.
Other positive signs include:
- The conversation is easy and two-sided.
- You both show kindness and respect towards each other.
- Things feel authentic.
Keep an eye on body language, too, because that can often be a clear giveaway if someone is into you. Signs to look for: eye contact and lots of laughter.
“Consider how you feel after the date, too,” Romanoff says. “Do you want to know more about the person and find your thoughts returning to them? There’s often little doubt when you’re excited about a potential new partner.”
Taking the next step
If you think it’s going well and want a second date, let them know before you end your first date. If they agree, they’ll react positively to the idea.
Set loose plans for a second date, but give it a few days before you plan something concrete. This gives you both time to be sure you really want another date.
If they don’t reach out first, follow up in a few days to see if they want to start planning that second date.
Try not to panic if they don’t respond right away — people get busy, even during lockdowns.
It’s okay to reach out one more time if you don’t hear from them right away (sometimes people don’t see your message). But if they don’t respond, it’s probably best to leave them alone after that.
Try to be aware of red flags while you’re talking, like:
- judgmental attitudes
- disrespectful behavior
For example, someone who constantly interrupts you usually isn’t listening to what you’re saying. Similarly, a person who puts you or your interests down probably isn’t a good match either.
Sometimes, it can be tough to know how you feel in the moment, so it’s okay to sit with your feelings for a little while. If you feel down, icky, uncomfortable, or sad after a date, that’s not a good sign.
If you aren’t feeling it, bring it up
It can be tough to turn down a second date, especially if you’re not feeling it but you don’t want to hurt their feelings.
However, it’s far better to end the date by saying “I don’t think this is going to work out” than lead them on or get their hopes up.
It’s also definitely better to say something now than disappear on them.
So, be kind and considerate, but also be honest and let them know that you aren’t interested in pursuing things. It can save you — and them — a lot of heartache down the line.
Dating during the pandemic can be nerve-wracking, but it can happen.
“Pre-pandemic, many people felt pressured by the fast, overwhelming nature of the dating world and the pressure to move quickly,” Manly says.
“The pandemic has given us the opportunity to slow down and move at a pace that feels right.”