All the People We Said We'd Never Date Before

What is a "deal breaker" when you haven't been close with another human for 11 months?

Women Are Rethinking Their Dealbreakers for Post-Pandemic Dating
Photo: Alamy/InStyle

In my early twenties, I fell madly in love with a guy who ashed his cigarettes into the front pocket of his flannel shirt. When that romance mercifully ended, "ashes cigarette into pockets'' became my number one deal breaker. (Seems like an obvious one, but we all make mistakes.)

As we move through relationships, it's natural for the deal breakers we swear by to evolve — from "must not ash cigarettes into pockets," to "must love dogs," to "must understand how to use a hamper." For many, though, the experience of dating during a pandemic has shifted their deal breakers to include things they never would have imagined to be make-or-break qualities in a relationship. For others, pandemic dating has actually caused them to cut down on their deal breakers because, well, they're lonely and horny and maybe if a guy doesn't love dogs you could still have a good or at least semi-decent time?

"Covid has changed my dating deal breakers in strange ways," says Erica Russell, a comedian and copywriter in Los Angeles. For the first few months of the pandemic, she stopped dating completely. "I was highly dependent on a denim body pillow with Channing Tatum's face duct taped to it," she says of those early days and nights.

Over the summer, Russell started dating first via apps, and then in person. One relationship got serious quickly since they were spending so much time together. "I love you" was said early on, and they settled into a rhythm that would have probably taken months before masks and quarantining defined our lives. The romance ended almost as quickly as it started, though, because Russell is immunocompromised and the guy she was dating wasn't willing to change his lifestyle.

"He was going out to bars when cases were exploding," Russell says. "That spoke volumes to me. It said something about his character."

"Goes to bars" wasn't a deal breaker for Russell before, but for many, things like "wearing a mask" have shot to the top of their dating must-have list, right up there with "no cheating" or "doesn't commit major crimes." According to Austin-based relationship therapist Nicole Richardson, the pandemic has "forced people to speak more openly about their needs and what they're comfortable with," she says. "That's no small feat."

"My number one deal breaker is lying," says Nabila Lester, a filmmaker and single mom in Atlanta. "After that it's being unsuccessful in your career, and men who have kids and don't take care of them." Lester has added "doesn't wear masks" to her list, and she says she's gotten so skilled at online dating over the last few months that she can tell from "half a text" if a guy is worth meeting.

"I'm looking for something long-term and meaningful, so I have to screen dudes," Lester says. "It's difficult to find a match."

Lester has used pandemic dating as a way to weed out potential jerks, since there's so much texting before you go on a single date. She drew one text exchange out for a month and half to make sure the guy was worth her time. "If a man is genuinely interested, he'll keep on trying," she says.

Once you do go on a date, pandemic relationships can move fast. It's too risky to see multiple people, so finding "the one" can mean you're finding a person you can do everything with. But "everything" doesn't equal romantic vacations or dinners or clubs or happy hours anymore. It means going on walks, making dinner at home, and watching TV. Seduction has gotten a little simpler, since it's easier to woo and impress someone who hasn't seen the inside of a restaurant or had much human contact for 11 months.

For Fancy T. Smith, a retail shop owner in Weston, Mo., her dating needs changed dramatically in 2020. Over the summer she ended a long-term relationship, since the pandemic brought ongoing tensions to the surface. "After a couple of months of hosting my very own pity party, I tiptoed into the dating pool," she says.

She had her first ever virtual date last fall, which created its own set of challenges, like where to sit in the house to get the most flattering lighting, or what to talk about when you're not at a restaurant or bar. The conversation ended up lasting several hours, and they went on their first in-person date a few days later. Like Russell, they quickly "jumped into the relationship with both feet."

The experience got her out of her post-breakup comfort zone, and it also changed Smith's concept of deal breakers.

"Could I be stuck in a bubble with this person, and only this person, indefinitely," Smith says of her new make-or-break relationship questions. "Can they commit to being in a bubble with me? Those were things I would have never asked before," she says. "Now they are the only litmus test."

Women Are Rethinking Their Dealbreakers for Post-Pandemic Dating
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So in a sense, deal breakers have gone from a laundry list of requirements to just hoping you can be stuck with someone and not end up hating them at the end of the night. As we (hopefully, eventually) move out of pandemic dating, will these simplified needs stick? Maybe in the before times you absolutely refused to date someone who lives with their mom or has a beard, but going forward you'll be open to all types of facial hair, including mutton chops and a handlebar mustache, if only you can get along.

For example, Russell said that before the pandemic, she never imagined she'd play Dungeons & Dragons, let alone think that a guy teaching her the game would be a solid seduction technique. "I had never played before, but it seemed more fun than ordering in and watching a movie yet again," she said. The relationship didn't go anywhere, but it was her most fun date of the year. "If I hadn't been so bored," she says, "I probably would have thought I was way too cool for D&D."

For women like Natalie*, a graphic designer in Los Angeles who ended a long-term relationship in quarantine, the connection she got via dating apps was a good way to take her mind off things. If nothing else, she could scroll through and get her fill of eye candy to pass the time.

Getting back into online dating hasn't been devoid of pre-pandemic challenges, though.

"If there's one thing I've learned," Natalie says, "it's that a global pandemic won't stop a fuckboy." She says that guys who invite her, a "perfect stranger," to their place is a huge red flag for her, even more than it was before the pandemic.

"If there's one thing I've learned," Natalie says, "it's that a global pandemic won't stop a fuckboy."

Instead, Natalie has found herself going on several dates that include … walking around. She went on one socially distanced beach walk that lasted for four miles. On the second date they each brought their dogs and walked eight miles. "I never thought I'd get so much exercise going on dates, but I'll take it." If someone had suggested an eight mile walk as a first date to me before the pandemic, I would have thought they were a maniac, and possibly a homicidal one. Now, though, those types of dates seem, if not mind-blowing, then at least a little effortful.

Leslie*, an executive assistant in Denver, walked nine miles on one date. There was no romance and the small talk was draining, but, "on the bright side," she says, "I crushed my 10,000 steps that day."

For Siena*, a film producer in Denver, pandemic dating has made her feel like it's "Jane Austen times, where they didn't kiss until they were engaged." Her deal breakers have been whittled down to "must believe the pandemic is real."

Maybe when things go back to "normal," we'll bring back deal breakers like "no mutton chops" or "must love dogs." Until then, though, many women are more open to things like playing Dungeons & Dragons or going on a very long walk as a seduction technique, and maybe that's not such a bad thing.

As Russell says, "Let's face it – loneliness and standards have an inverse correlation."

That may be true, but I sincerely hope I never erase "ashes cigarettes into pockets" from my list.

*Name has been changed.

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