It’s been a long Hot Vaxxed Summer, and your news feed might feel like a blur of people rushing back out to socialize — and date. (Even though plenty of us, despite all the pressure, aren't ready — and that's perfectly okay.) After more than a year of Zoom dates and dating app messages, when meeting in-person might’ve been a struggle, a May 2021 study from Tinder found that more than half of respondents were specifically looking forward to casually dating this summer in light of increased vaccine access. But a year inside might've given you, as Mashable's Anna Iovine put it, FODA: Fear Of Dating Again. When many of us spent lockdown figuring out how to take care of our mental health during crises, how do we make sure a return to the dating scene also prioritizes our emotional boundaries?
Even though you might feel in a hurry to schedule IRL meet-ups with all the Tinder matches collecting dust in your app, worried about the next lockdown, letting that emotion drive your dating life might not help you keep your own best interests in mind. Experts tell Allure that resisting the urge to rush, and prioritizing having direct conversations about your wants and needs, is an important step in setting boundaries together.
"What I can see happening most often is kind of moving past your boundaries, because you want connection, especially after so long feeling disconnected from people," Nicole L. Gonzalez, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist, tells Allure. Maybe you have a first date who's comfortable with sex on the first date if you're both vaccinated, but you’re not so sure. Maybe you’re the one comfortable with it. How do you broach that conflict?
Get Familiar With Your Core Values
Gonzalez, who has expertise in couples therapy and relationship counseling, suggests that the easiest way to avoid that conflict is to fully understand your own personal boundaries around COVID, so it will be more clear to you when someone tries to cross them. If you're struggling with really defining those values, Gonzalez says, taking the time on your own to establish them will go a long way in preparing you to explain them to someone else. Gonzalez says she often directs her clients to one of the many free websites that have lists of hundreds of "core values" to consider, then write down the ones that resonate the most with them. "You kind of boil it down to values around who you are… When you're making decisions, and when thinking about things for yourself, you can look back [to reference]," she explains. That way, you're already clear on what's important to you — and consequently, what will be important for you while dating.
Keep Taking Things Slow
Maybe you’ve already started having these conversations on the dating scene. Corinne Novella, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist, tells Allure that plenty of her clients started figuring out how to date during lockdown. According to Novella, who is an expert in couples counseling, what was key then — and should be key whenever approaching the dating scene — is taking things slow.
"Naturally, because of how everyone's lives had to completely slow down or even come to a halt in certain circumstances, people have approached dating in an equally measured and slowed down pace," Novella says. Her clients routinely started new romantic relationships with FaceTime chats to test the waters of what each person expected, and opening up early on helped that process. "I'm really proud of how people were able to do that, successfully navigate this whole new realm with really taking the time, having these conversations and saying, 'What are you comfortable with? Where are you at in this?'"
Evaluate the Risks
This slowness and communication is key because, Novella points out, even if dating might be physically a little safer, it's still fraught — and we’re not even out of the woods yet, with fears about the Delta variant and breakthrough cases rising. "There are certain decisions that people have to make, that might contradict what your friend or your parents might say is the sacred, safe thing to do," Novella says. "People have to negotiate what they need, and to balance the risk that they're taking."
And after a year of difficult decisions, making even the mundane into a life-threatening possibility, it might make dating more stressful. Novella adds, "Maybe people are sick of [measuring risk]! It started with maybe the grocery store, but now it's dating. It's like, 'Okay, so what level of risk are you comfortable with?'" But understanding the risk in your decision-making is an important piece of understanding what risks you're willing to take. Novella says we're already always grappling with a level of risk: The important part is measuring the risk in your personal circumstances, and acting accordingly, while recognizing how necessary IRL meet-ups really are. "The impulse, after a year and a half, to go out and connect with people is so strong, and so important. That's the mental health piece: It's so important to connect. It's the difference between feeling like you're managing or not," Novella tells Allure.
Remember: DEAR MAN
So what do you do when you’ve reached an impasse? Maybe your date-to-be is pushing you to go out to dinner indoors and unmasked, and you’re not comfortable with that, perhaps because you live with an immunocompromised person. Gonzalez shared an acronym to refer to in these moments: DEAR MAN.
Describe the current facts: COVID is ongoing and the news on the Delta variant is making you anxious. Express your discomfort about eating indoors unmasked. Assert that you’d feel more comfortable with an outdoor park date. Give some positive reinforcement about the idea, how excited you are to spend time with them in a format that feels safe to you.
If your date-to-be isn't immediately understanding, stay mindful of any attempts to undermine your concerns. Gonzalez says it’s important to appear confident by maintaining eye contact and repeating your point without backing down. Finally, if you’re still trying to work out a compromise, you can negotiate — to a point. "Listen to the other person's opinion, and the other person's feelings, and the other person's values, and try and find the middle ground if you can, but if you can’t, know that there's going to be somebody else who has your values out there," says Gonzalez.
Only you will know which values and risks you'll be willing to negotiate on, but thinking those through before approaching that kind of conversation will help you feel secure in doing so. So go ahead, get out there and have some fun, but make sure you're keeping your own boundaries while you're doing so. You deserve to date someone who respects them.