Navigating dating throughout the pandemic

The online dating phenomenon predates the pandemic but when COVID-19 forced social isolation and physical distancing, people got creative with dating without meeting face-to-face. With relaxed mandates and an abundance of vaccines, many are now prepared to meet for dates. Dr. Yasmine Omar, a licensed psychologist at Baylor College of Medicine, provides insight on how to gain confidence, manage anxiety and create boundaries for those dipping their toes in the dating pool.

A computer keyboard with a pink key that has a red heart instead of a character..“I think taking it slow is helpful. In our clinic, we do exposure therapy to help people overcome a fear of doing something that is important for them to do. We do this by having the patient lean into discomfort or anxiety in manageable doses until something they wanted to avoid is no longer a threat. You have to anticipate that there is going to be some built-in anxiety and discomfort in getting to know people, and exposure teaches you that accepting those emotions rather than pushing them down increases your confidence.” said Omar, assistant professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor.

Self first

Before you begin dating, get to know yourself first. Omar suggests spending time with yourself to understand how you meet your needs, with or without dating, to help build confidence. Many people have an “inner critic,” or critical thinking pattern, that hinders them from seeing the positive things they have to offer. Omar encourages you to challenge that inner critic.

“If we have trouble seeing what we have to offer, it makes it harder for others to see these qualities in us as well, or for us to accept it if others do see those good things about us,” Omar said. “Challenging the inner critic, getting to know ourselves, spending time alone and really seeing what it’s like for us to meet our own needs is really helpful.”

Beyond challenging your inner critic, do the opposite of what anxious thoughts are telling you to do. You can think of this as an exercise to build your ability to tolerate anxiety so your inner strength can increase. With repeated practice, you will be much stronger in carrying your anxiety, rather than letting it weigh you down.

Set boundaries when needed

According to Omar, data shows more people in the pandemic are dating intentionally and are looking for something more serious. Getting to know someone via video calls in the beginning can open new doors for this. Video dates take the physical aspect out of the picture and force you to carry a conversation with another person. They provide an opportunity to examine what it’s like to get along with another individual without distractions that come with meeting in person.

Although video calls are a great start, especially during a pandemic, physical chemistry and other experiences that are not portrayed on video also are important when getting to know someone.

“Having the opportunity to see how they interact at the grocery store or a restaurant, how they handle conflicts in different settings and how adventurous they are offline is important, and this comes up when you’re together in person,” Omar said.

While people are happy to meet others through dating apps, taking the next step to meet in person may cause stress, as everyone has different comfort levels with visiting public places amid the pandemic. Being upfront with your date about your comfort level is a skill related to assertiveness and boundary setting. Stray away from statements such as I’ll only see you under these circumstances, or else I will never see you, because that emphasizes the behavioral aspect of your request without expressing the emotions that clarify why that boundary is there.

“I recommend saying ‘I’m really looking forward to seeing you, and I’d feel safer doing that in a place that’s not crowded/indoors as I’m concerned about COVID risks.’ That would balance how you feel on the inside while being clear about the boundary,” Omar said.

Manage differences

People with conflicting views may have trouble seeing through those differing opinions, but Omar emphasizes that communication can be simplified when we acknowledge that humans share basic needs that drive them, such as wanting to feel safe and caring for yourself and those you love. When discussing opposing views, begin with self-awareness and recognize what triggers you to react negatively.

“Focus on the sources of situations that bring you from zero to 100 and keep those in mind so you can navigate that situation without feeling triggered. Even if you disagree with someone on their opinion, their emotions and needs are still valid, as are yours,” she said. “We all have emotions we can relate to, such as what it’s like to feel sad or angry. How we get our needs met or how we respond to these emotions is what veers people off into different directions.”

While navigating opposing views on issues like vaccination status, be able to explain your side: I meet my need to stay safe and healthy by doing X.Recognize that someone else might have the exact same reason (seeking safety and health) for pursuing a different action on this issue. In discussing other hot topics, it may help to focus on feelings and behaviors, and to clarify your individual interpretation of others’ behaviors without labeling the interpretation as fact. By clearly explaining how different behaviors make you feel, contentious issues become less charged and personal, increasing the chances that the other person will empathize with you, even if they don’t agree with you.

“Sometimes we get lost in issues like political opinions. If we recognize deep down that there are a lot of similarities – but the way we dress them up and the way they translate is where things differ – it’s a good foundation. Navigate differences in a way that is productive without personalizing opinions,” she said.

Omar noted that psychotherapy with cognitive behavior therapy is a great place to delve deeper into self-awareness, emotional understanding of triggers, exposures for anxiety and assertiveness skills.

Learn more about psychiatry and behavioral health outpatient services at Baylor Medicine, or call 713-798-4857 to schedule an appointment.

-By Homa Shalchi

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