If you are single and dating, you are no doubt facing special challenges during this horrible pandemic. But as a biological anthropologist who has spent some 40 years studying romantic love in the world and the brain circuits of this ancient and universal human passion, I have come to recognize that in some ways the coronavirus gave a gift.
For the past 15 years, I’ve also been the chief scientific adviser to Match.com, the dating site, where I had the opportunity to collect and analyze data on singles across the America. And the data here, too, suggests that this pandemic is actually changing the courtship process in a positive way.
First and foremost, the coronavirus has slowed things down. This pandemic has forced singles to revert to more traditional seduction: getting to know someone before the kissing begins. I hope these rediscovered and emerging ways of dating will give singles more time to select a truly suitable partner and allow romance and attachment to slowly develop and even blossom in the long run. Let’s take a look at some of the ways the coronavirus has changed the dating game and how those changes could provide lasting benefits.
Video chats are underway
During the second weekend of April, Match asked the members several questions about how they had changed their dating habits since the world shut down. An astonishing 6,004 men and women responded. And they’re doing something new: video chat. Before Covid-19, only 6% of these singles used video chat in court. Today, 69% are open to video chatting with a potential partner, and a third already have someone they’d like to talk to – over video.
And there are real benefits to seeing these potential partners on FaceTime, Zoom or another Internet platform. We walk around billboards of who we are. Your haircut (or lack of a haircut in these pandemic times); your tattoo; your preppy shirt; your revealing blouse: all of these visible features and many more signal your background, education, and interests. Indeed, specific regions of the brain respond almost instantly to assess two things about a likely mate: their personality and their physical attractiveness. We do it in seconds seeing him or her.
The sex and the money came out
This pandemic has solved, even temporarily, two of the most difficult aspects of contemporary dating: sex and money.
When singles meet in person, they are forced to navigate this underworld: should I kiss it? What if they invited me back to their pad?
Before this virus hit, some 34% of single Americans had had sex before a first “official” meeting. It’s over – at least for now. You might have sexy banter during a video chat, but real sex is off the table.
The money is also not on the table. When dating in person, singles have to negotiate who pays: should we meet in a cheap cafe or an expensive bar? Should I offer to split the bill? In times of corona, these money negotiations are a thing of the past.
It’s time to talk
With the coronavirus lockdowns, many of you now have more time. You don’t get dressed in the morning, go to work, or meet friends after office hours. Many of you have more time to talk. Besides, you have something important to say. Gossip and small talk have become much less relevant.
Instead, during this pandemic, singles are likely to share far more meaningful thoughts of fear and hope — and quickly learn vital things about a potential mate. Psychologists report that this self-disclosure—the process of revealing one’s innermost feelings, attitudes, and experiences—stimulates intimacy, love, and commitment. These are the cornerstones of a strong partnership. And research shows that men are just as likely to divulge their secret feelings as women.
Stop at 9
Before the coronavirus, many abused the new technology of online dating. On and on, the singles tapped, swiped, clicked and dizzily binged – in search of the perfect partner. But the human brain is not designed to handle so many choices.
For decades researchers have diligently studied how we choose. Some have found that after being given about six options, we become exhausted – a condition known as cognitive overload or paradox of choice. Other researchers note that our short-term memory system cannot encompass more than five to nine stimuli at a time.
But everyone agrees that faced with too many alternatives, we choose none.
So, after having actually conversed with nine people you think might be suitable – stop looking. And get to know at least one of these people better. The more you get to know someone, the more likely you are to like them.
Also important: think about the reasons for saying “yes”. We’ve developed a large region of the brain linked to what neuroscientists call “negativity bias.” We are built to remember the negative – an instinctive response that has adapted through our human past, as it does today. So forget that he likes cats and you like dogs. Focus on what you To do like about him. Resist this negativity bias and focus on the positive.
The coronavirus pandemic: essential things to know
There is a long-term gain to this current lockdown: it prolongs the “getting to know you” process. In centuries past, marriage was the beginning of a relationship. Today is more like the final. Most of us don’t marry very young anymore. And this quarantine continues this worldwide trend towards what I call slow love.
From an evolutionary perspective, slow love is adaptive – because the human brain is wired to slowly attach to a partner. My fellow brain scanners and I found that men and women who had been madly in love for 18 months show activity in brain regions associated with intense romantic passion. But our teammate Bianca Acevedo discovered that those who had been in love for two to 12 years and had recently decided to get married showed activity in a additionalbrain region associated with pair formation and attachment in other mammals.
In short: romantic love can be triggered quickly, while feelings of deep attachment take time to develop. We were built for slow love – and this pandemic continues to prolong that process of seduction.
This virus is probably also delaying marriage. Another advantage. Data on 80 companies that I collected through the United Nations Demographic Yearbooks between 1947 and 2011 indicate that the later you get married, the more likely you are to stay married.
Additionally, a study of over 3,000 married people in the United States found that, compared to those who dated for less than a year, couples who dated for one to two years before marriage were 20% less likely to divorce. Couples who dated for three or more years before getting married were 39% less likely to break up.
And despite common belief, we can stay “in love” for the long term. A functional MRI study of 17 men and women married for an average of 21 years, led by Dr. Acevedo, showed that the primary brain systems of romantic love and attachment can remain active for many years.
Singles will surely start meeting in person again when this pandemic subsides. We are mammals. We are made to appear face to face. But today, more and more singles are talking via video chat before meeting in person. A new stage in the courtship process is blossoming – saving singles time and money while allowing many to kiss fewer frogs. As bizarre as it may sound, this pandemic could lead to happier and more enduring partnerships in the post-corona era.