In December 2019, the height of the Tinder era, women and men were setting up multiple dates on the same day. People were sexually carefree, spinning the digital slot machine in their hands, wondering who they would match with next.
Fast forward to December 2020. People will be more careful about who they date because, now, they have to be more careful.
As I wrote in the recent IFS symposium, new relationships and casual hookups will likely decline during this pandemic because of the difficulty to enter the dating scene as bars, clubs, and restaurants have closed. But even after social distancing practices ease up, many people will continue to be vigilant about their sexual partnerships.
When people feel safe, they are willing to take more risks. But when safety is threatened, such as during a disease outbreak, people become more cautious. Indeed, research led by evolutionary psychologists Mark Schaller and Damian Murray found that in countries where pathogens are more pervasive, people are less extraverted and less open to new experiences. They also more strongly urge one another to adhere to social customs.
Furthermore, experimental evidence by Laith Al-Shawaf at the University of Colorado and his colleagues showed that people who read about a parasitic infection expressed less willingness to sleep with someone they just met compared with a control condition. In the world we lived in until very recently, more people were willing to jump into bed with a stranger. In this widely-read Vanity Fair piece about Tinder, for example, a man tells the author that he slept with “30 to 40 women in the last year.” But a recent study in The Journal of Sexual Medicine discovered that people are reporting a decline in the number of sexual partners, as well as a decline in sexual frequency. Additionally, they found that “most individuals with a history of risky sexual experiences had a rapid reduction in risky sexual behaviors.”
In the future, people may be more vigilant about coming into sexual contact with an unknown person. At least for now, Coronavirus has killed the era of ‘Netflix and chill.’
At the same time, current relationships may strengthen, as new habits form. Divorce rates will decline during the pandemic. People are spending more time with their partners and children. They are having family dinners together. As W. Bradford Wilcox noted in The Wall Street Journal, many families will grow closer as a result of the current crisis. People will become more oriented toward others. Jonathan Kay, an editor at Quillette, wrote,
I don't think people realize how much coronavrius [sic] will change our basic habits. My family has had dinner together 12 nights in a row. Our previous record over the last decade was maybe three. Even when the medical situation returns to normal, these habits will stick to a certain extent.
Moreover, I believe people will be more reluctant to end their current partnerships because the risks of re-entering the dating scene are higher. With high pathogen prevalence, people will likely become less self-centered in their relationships.
This could manifest itself in several ways, including gratitude. People in relationships will be grateful to have a partner, in part, because of the lack of alternative options. In his book The Paradox of Choice, the psychologist Barry Schwartz describes how having lots of options reduces the likelihood that a person will commit to any specific one. Choice overload also reduces our certainty that any specific choice we make is the correct one. In his book, Schwartz discusses a study in which researchers found that people were more likely to buy a jam when they were presented with six flavors compared to 30. And among those who did make a purchase, those presented with fewer options were more satisfied with their choice. In the pre-COVID era, there was more choice overload. It wasn’t as difficult to find someone new. Today and in the future, it’s harder. As a result, people may find themselves appreciating their current partners more.
Additionally, the current economic decline will have consequences for relationships. Some have claimed that the crisis will lead to soaring divorce rates. But this isn’t what has happened in past recessions. For example, during the Great Recession of 2008-2011, divorce rates did not increase. In fact, they dropped slightly. The study's author, sociologist Phillip N. Cohen, concluded that, “Compared with expectations established in 2008, approximately 150,000 divorces, or 4% of divorces, did not occur in the years 2009-2011.”
The same holds true for the Great Depression. Andrew Cherlin, sociologist at Johns Hopkins, has indicated that, relative to 1929, divorce rates declined by 25% in 1932.
In fact, the current crisis may even change our outlook on committed relationships. There are at least two different perspectives on marriage. One is that once a person has everything they need in terms of material comfort, then they can find a partner and be happy. Another perspective is that people achieve happiness in the very act of relying on another person in a partnership and working together with them to achieve material success.
For today’s luxury belief class, one must first build a life before they can even consider marriage. Only after collecting the right credentials, crashing in a few Airbnb’s in choice locations, and bedding an assortment of matches on dating apps, do they think about marriage.
The current pandemic, along with the economic slump, may reduce such activities on the path to committed relationships, and that’s a positive for the future of relationships.
Rob Henderson is a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge, where he studies as a Gates Cambridge Scholar. He obtained a B.S. in Psychology from Yale University, and is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force.