Disclaimer: some of the quotations by Dr. Fisher have been edited for fit. None of the research is conducted on Match.com members. Dr. Fisher and her team conduct their research on a national representative sample of singles based on the US census.
Helen Fisher, PhD, is a renowned biological anthropologist who has dedicated her storied career on the study of how romantic love affects our brains. She has published six books on love, marriage and neurological gender differences and currently holds the role of Chief Scientific Advisor at Match.com. When it comes to relationships, Dr. Fisher has studied just about every aspect of sex drive, romantic love and deep attachment on more than 45,000 study subjects. Her perspective on dating sites in interesting in that she doesn’t think that they should even be classified as dating sites, “They’re introducing sites, not dating sites. Our brains are the only real algorithm capable of making dating choices.”
David Levine, an accomplished medical / scientific writer and public relations communications specialist, is co-chair of Science Writers in New York (SWINY). Each week, Levine hosts fascinating guests on his “Conversations With …” virtual series; the videos are available on the SWINY website and Science Writers NYC channel on YouTube. Last week, Grit Daily News attended the event, “Conversation With Helen Fisher, PhD: Dating and Partnerships in the Time of COVID-19” and gained so many insights on dating in a pandemic that they had to be shared.
What’s changed since the pandemic began
COVID-19 has changed everything. In Wuhan, China, divorce rates skyrocketed as soon as restrictions began lifting. In contrast, in NYC, wedding license requests boomed after getting married online became legal in April 2020 and so popular that the city had to affix a maximum daily limit. “Not surprising,” according to Dr. Fisher, “Couples tend to forge stronger bonds in times of crisis and marriage rates typically increase.”
Sales of alcohol and sex toys have increased dramatically since the pandemic began. Singles, and those who are in relationships but looking for a little variety, have gone online in droves since the pandemic began. Pre-COVID-19, research by Dr. Fisher revealed that only 6% of singles were open to video chatting for a date; last month, the number rose to 69%. On March 29, 2020, Tinder had a record-breaking day: users of their platform swiped more than 3 billion times. Geography no longer matters – people are seeking relationships far beyond their typical geographical radius limitations.
When Levine asked Dr. Fisher why we were increasingly turning to online dating sites, she offered the following explanation, “Sex and money are off the table. With that stress alleviated from a first date, couples can meet online safely and bond around something common to talk about (COVID-19). A shared crisis increases our tendency for self-disclosure which helps develop intimacy with and attachment to our new partner.”
What the data show
Singles in America is the most comprehensive and largest annual scientific study of singles living in the US. Study subjects range from urban to rural geographical locations across a broad swath of the dating population representative of all ages, genders and sexual preferences. Online dating is now clearly mainstream. Data from Dr. Fisher’s 2017 research shows that 40% of daters met their last first date online whereas only 25% met their last first date through a friend. Here’s another interesting statistic from that study of 5,000 daters: one-third of singles had had at least one one-night stand lead to a long-term relationship.
Over the last nine years of research, the percentage of singles looking for a serious relationship has remained essentially the same. Dr. Fisher mentioned a recent study of 700 singles, saying that 41% reported that they are now actively looking for a serious relationship. “We were never equipped to be around each other 24/7, confined to the same household and habits, but we do want companionship. Over 85% of Americans will marry by the age of 49. And today’s singles seek five top needs from their partnerships: i) respect; ii) trust and confidence; iii) partners to make them laugh; iv) partners who make enough time for them; v) and physical attraction.”
Despite the pandemic, lovers are still finding ways to meet in person. Fisher had the following comments around dating in the midst of the pandemic, “A mating partner is life’s greatest prize. The brain circuitry of romantic love can lead you to overlook the negative aspects of a relationship. Once a passionate romance and deep attachment have been forged, the combination of sex drive and romantic love will drive lovers to risk great dangers, including breaking social distancing restrictions.”
Dating online during a pandemic
Dr. Fisher says that research has demonstrated that our brains are not equipped to manage a plethora of choices. The dating catalogue, with its infinite options, quickly overwhelms us. Her advice is as follows, “Identify 5-9 candidates and engage with them but no more than that. After nine options, our brains go into cognitive overload and the paradox of choice shuts us down so that our brains are rendered incapable of making a choice. Identify one or more top candidates within the pool of 5-9 options, close your profile and focus on those individual. And find reasons to say yes – focus on their positive traits.”
The more churn that you have on your dating profile, the more people that you interact with, the more sites that you engage on will decrease the likelihood of you finding a true love. Regarding the question of how to have a date online, Dr. Fisher offered numerous suggestions and tips.
“Play is good for us as individuals and couples. Think about what you could do together after this pandemic subsides. That injects hope into your relationship. Dress for a virtual dinner together, then order the same food from your respective take-out restaurants and eat (virtually) together. Mix it up a little, have a Halloween or other dress-up date. Take virtual museum or travel tours on the internet together by sharing your screen. Look at photos together. This will help you identify common interests.”
She stressed the importance of creating a safe space in your household where you can have some privacy and space to meet your need for autonomy. Being immersed in a shared space 24/7 during lockdown heightens our feelings of anxiety and hostility. Having a daily ritual is essential to overcome the persistent “intolerance of uncertainty.”
What will dating look like in the near future
With video chats now the norm and individuals more likely to self-disclose and share their vulnerable side, daters can screen candidates more effectively than ever before. With the pressure of what to do and how much to spend on a first date (confused further by the open question of whether sex should be part of that first date) now off the table, couples can take the time to get to know each other first. In this way, according to Dr. Fisher, “courtship will weed out sub-optimal candidates and lead to more meaningful first dates.”
She also envisions the demise of some of our greeting rituals, like handshakes, cheek-kissing and hugging. Dr. Fisher is looking forward to gloves and ascots as new fashion statements and ways for people to creatively express themselves. She has just begun writing her seventh non-fiction book and we’re all curious to see what her insights are regarding the emerging “new norm” of dating.
Thank you to David Levine for allowing Grit Daily News to participate in your “Conversations With…” event.