Doc Talk: Dating During COVID with Molly Shipman, DO

The past several months have been a trying and frustrating time. As Americans adapt and settle into a “new normal,” we are all figuring out new ways to find joy and fulfillment. For most of us, intimacy and companionship are vital parts of a happy life. However, for those who are single and looking for love, the challenges posed by the COVID 19 pandemic add a whole new layer of anxiety, confusion, and awkwardness to the dating scene.

Despite this new reality, getting to know new people can still be fun and rewarding. These circumstances offer a unique opportunity for us to be honest and frank with potential partners about safety, our needs, and our values. We sat down with Molly Shipman, DO, of Woodland Women’s Health Associates to discuss how dating has changed during COVID.

Is it safe to go on in-person dates at this point?

It is not impossible to date, especially when precautions are taken. Before starting to date in person, I recommend spending some quality time communicating online or over the phone. A silver lining of “remote dating” is that it inadvertently mandates communication prior to getting physical. Fortunately, technology allows us to get to know someone before ever meeting in person.

At the beginning of any potential coupling, create a safe space to engage with the other person through conversation and communication. Many find unique ways to explore sexual intimacy through phone conversations, emails, or texts. As we say- the brain is the biggest sex organ. This pandemic really lets us test this out! (Just be wary of images you send and your privacy.)

When you’re both ready, remote conversations can move towards walks with 6-foot distancing and progress to closer proximity outdoor get-togethers such as picnics. Masks should be worn. Eventually you can consider time together indoors or without masks once you feel you are both on the same page and at low risk for any exposures.

What questions should I ask before agreeing to meet up?

Not unlike inquiring about sexual history to decrease risks for sexually transmitted infections, it is important to have these sometimes difficult conversations to ensure everyone’s safety. 

It's worth asking about a potential partner’s travel history, work exposures, and if they or their loved ones have any health conditions that might put them at increased risk in the setting of COVID 19. Remember that asymptomatic carriers can still transmit the disease to others. A unique feature of this virus is that the clinical severity differs drastically in different individuals. This means that even if we and our date are “symptom free,” we must be cognizant that anyone we may have been exposed to could have passed the infection to us. We might unwittingly pass it to a friend or loved one who might develop severe disease. It’s safest to avoid close contact, wear masks, and practice very careful hand hygiene.

It’s also a good idea to ask if your date is meeting up with other potential partners in person. Even early on in a relationship, it’s safest to be “exclusive” right now, in that you are only meeting one new person at a time between quarantine periods. Knowing you and your new friend have self-quarantined for two weeks or have had a recent negative COVID test can offer an added layer of security before beginning more intimate or in person contact. 

What advice would you give to people who might be embarrassed to have the ‘COVID safety talk?’

It can be awkward initially (most daters will admit to moments of awkwardness even BEFORE COVID) but it’s important to advocate for yourself and speak up about what you are comfortable with.

If your potential partner pushes you to ignore safety rules so sex can happen sooner, they are probably not someone who will respect your needs in other scenarios. Interestingly, this aspect of COVID might help you weed out narcissistic people who don’t have your best interests at heart. 

 Are certain meet-up spots better than others?

 When we don’t yet know someone very well, it is prudent to be in an open setting with other people present for your initial encounters until trust is established. It is also smart to watch alcohol intake and/or avoid recreational drugs which can lower your inhibitions and negatively impact your decision making. (Inebriated people can’t social distance.)

Though it might sound desirable to avoid exposure to more bodies by meeting in a secluded place, I do not recommend jumping too quickly to being alone with a new person. Just like some groups of friends have created “pods” during COVID as a way to socialize more safely, work towards making your love interest a member of your pod. With caution and clear communication, they may be able to safely join the small circle of people you allow yourself to see in person. 

Canada's top doctor recently recommended wearing masks during sex. Would this step make things any safer, in your opinion?

When sexual intimacy is considered, there are some experts who recommend avoiding kissing and suggest sexual positions where couples are not facing one another. My feeling is that if sex is happening, exposure is happening. My bet is masks have limited protection. Don’t have sex with someone unless you feel safe that they are COVID free. Condoms/barrier methods are still recommended to prevent sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancy. 

Suddenly there's even more pressure and anxiety surrounding finding a partner and starting a family before natural fertility declines. Some women may feel like they don't have the luxury of waiting until the pandemic has passed. What advice would you give them?

Know that you’re not alone. The pandemic has thrown a wrench in thousands of people’s lives. There have been cancellations of weddings and parties. Numerous trips have been postponed. Pregnancies have been delayed.  

Even following the healthiest of lifestyles, fertility decreases with time. Women are born with all the eggs they will ever have. Through the normal process of living, our egg stores decline as our natural hormone rhythms cycle through the months. Many women may experience a more difficult time conceiving in their later 30’s or 40’s. Adding the anxiety and social isolation of a pandemic can complicate this further. For individuals who are worried about their fertility while waiting for the virus to be less of a threat, there are some options:

  • See your Women’s Health Connecticut provider for a fertility assessment. Your provider can test your ovarian reserve (do I have enough eggs left?), confirm your fallopian tubes are open (will the fertilized egg find its way safely to my uterus?) and ensure that you are ovulating (after all, we need an egg available to fertilize to get the baby-making process started!). A pelvic exam or ultrasound can help assess for normal anatomy. Knowing the results of these studies can help put your mind at ease.
  • Egg freezing can allow a woman to preserve her reproductive potential and postpone pregnancy until a later time. This process doesn’t guarantee that a woman will have a live birth, but it does offer a backup plan if time is of the essence. It involves procedures and medication and is not without financial cost and time. However, it can offer peace of mind to those who worry the pandemic might rob them of precious fertile years.

Do you have any advice for managing anxiety as we brave the pandemic?

All of these considerations in addition to financial, social, and health stresses have made 2020 emotionally and mentally draining. As always, it is important to reach out to your health care providers if you are feeling depressed or if your anxiety is significantly negatively impacting your quality of life. Though we unfortunately don’t have an immediate resolution to the pandemic, there are excellent ways of dealing with the repercussions. Including, but not limited to talk therapy, relaxation techniques, exercise for stress reduction, support groups, and medication.

We are all unique and require an individualized approach to reach our best selves. We at Women’s Health Connecticut are only a phone call or email away and are available to assist you with any concerns related to your wellbeing. Even if what you need falls outside the scope of your gynecologic or obstetric needs, we can certainly collaborate with colleagues, as needed, to help you achieve your goals and optimal health. Women’s Health Connecticut is here for you and we are committed to our patients and this community. We look forward to working with you through and beyond this pandemic and into a safer, better future.