#onlinedating | All’s fair in love and 2020 | #bumble | #tinder | #pof

John Garcia knew he liked Anais Saenz even though he hadn’t seen her entire face yet.

Garcia, 28, and Saenz, 25, met virtually on Instagram over their mutual love of Houston and roller skating. One September day, she posted a question: “Who wants to go trail skating with me today?” Even though they had never met in real life, or interacted on the social media app, Garcia shyly responded: “I’ll meet up with you.”

Saenz hesitated. She didn’t know Garcia and was worried about meeting him alone, so she asked a friend to accompany them at Brays Bayou Park. Garcia arrived first and wondered if he was going to be stood up.

“I hadn’t even asked for her phone number because we didn’t know each other like that,” Garcia said. “It was funny because we had our masks on, and we had to look at each other and think ‘It must be her, it must be him.’ It was kind of awkward.”

Awkward does not begin to cover what 2020 has done to the dating world.

The pandemic has shifted how people meet each other, their expectations for in-person meetings and the pace of any fledgling relationships. Online dating trends show that new couples are waiting longer to meet face-to-face, but rushing into bigger relationship decisions, such as being exclusive or moving in together, said Maria Sullivan, relationship expert for Dating.com.

New Years Eve will be different for both singles and people in relationships. Large gatherings are still discouraged to stop the spread of the virus, not to mention that kissing strangers has become a life-threatening decision.

The rules have changed

Dating coach Tera Stidum said it took many of her clients realizing they were no longer able to make connections the traditional way to discover they craved them.

“The minute you can’t do what you usually do, you want to do those things,” said Stidum, whose clients range from Millennial to Baby Boomer. All have embraced online dating this year, she said — whether they want to or not.

On HoustonChronicle.com: This dating expert says COVID-19 is death knell for hookup culture

Stidum quickly realized casual dating — chatting for a few days through a dating app or text message before meeting for a coffee or a drink — was not a safe option during the pandemic. She started hosting webinars on how to people online, and go on virtual dates.

“I have clients who have done virtual dates who haven’t felt comfortable meeting up with someone, and I have ladies who have been meeting in-person at the park,” Stidum said. “When it’s time to meet up, you have to ask ‘Do you wear a mask? If you don’t wear a mask, and I do, we are not going to meet up.’”

One of Stidum’s clients met a potential partner on Facebook Dating, a feature that matches people with mutual friends. She said the couple has been “way more active” than her other clients, meaning they have gone to family events, weddings and traveled by plane.

They had been dating exclusively for a little more than two months when they attended a Thanksgiving dinner together, where they were exposed to someone who later tested positive for COVID-19.

The woman isolated. When her boyfriend did not, she felt she could no longer trust him, and considered dumping him.

“Sometimes, we shut down and pull back instead of saying ‘Hey, I don’t like that you know you were exposed to COVID and you chose to do X-Y-Z, and it makes me me question if you’ll be responsible with other things,’” Stidum said. “But he took what she said to heart, slowed his roll and they’re back on track. They like each other.”

The pandemic pushed Saenz and Garcia to have multiple discussions about what constitutes a date. For their first, they masked up to see the “Body Worlds” exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science before having a picnic lunch and drinking two bottles of wine.

Since their first date in November, they have spent most weekends together. Eventually, Garcia asked how many dates until he made it to “boyfriend status” saying he was confused and didn’t know if they were “dating for the hell of it.”

On HoustonChronicle.com: The pandemic has tripled the number of people who say they’re lonely. But there’s hope.

Saenz blames modern dating and hookup culture on the unsteadiness of new relationships: When do you move from casually seeing someone to dating them? Both 20-somethings had recently come from difficult dating experiences, which pushed Garcia to be straight-forward early on.

The skinny on relationships

The dating world has changed for singles, but the pandemic has affected longterm and semi-serious relationships, as well.

Many live-in couples were faced with spending 24/7 with their partner during lockdown, putting an unprecedented strain on their relationship, Sullivan said.

Sullivan said the pandemic may be one of the best times to move in with a significant other, but the couple must first be on the same page on personal future goals and relationship expectations.

However, spending day and night with one other person has its setbacks: There has been a 34 percent in divorce agreements during the pandemic compared to 2019, according to the AARP.

Hajera Naveed, a student journalist at Rice University, interviewed her peers for a story about how students were managing their sexual health during the pandemic. Sex became more than a physical necessity, but a tool in combating isolation-induced depression, she found.

“Students’ mental health was at a low point this semester; freshmen didn’t know anyone, and it was really hard for them to have connections to people or things to look forward to,” said Naveed, 19. “A lot of them used sex or dating as a way to fill a void.”

On HoustonChronicle.com: COVID-19 gives single Millennials the chance to see the world while working remotely

During her reporting, Naveed met students who were not ready to start a relationship, but wanted the stability and benefits of a regular partner.

“There are a lot of people who would have that ‘not-partner, but not-friend’ who would give them comfort, physical touch or whatever, but not necessarily have to be emotionally available for,” she said. “When you’re in a rough mental health state, it’s hard to open yourself up to people, but it’s also not easy going from hookup to hookup.”

To kiss or not to kiss at midnight?

New Years Eve will look different for many this year.

Last year, Saenz was working at the now-defunct Prohibition Theatre downtown when the night turned into a mass champagne-infused celebration. She started the new year eating Parmesan-truffle fries from the theater’s kitchen.

“That New Years was the best New Years I’ve ever had,” she said.

The final night of 2019 was less successful for Garcia who had set up a romantic evening for a woman he was seeing. She left early, he got drunk by himself, and started 2020 feeling like he was “kicked in the stomach.”

This year, the newly minted couple don’t know what their New Year plans are. They could choose a skate at one of their favorite spots or maybe an open-air get-together.

Either way, they have their somebody to kiss when the clock strikes midnight on the bright new year.

julie.garcia@chron.com

Twitter.com/reporterjulie




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