Wherever you are in the world, it is likely that you’ve been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in some way.
If you are dating or sexually active with a partner who you aren’t living with, one of those ways is probably going to be how to navigate this really intimate part of your life. That can feel overwhelming at a time when being physically close is so hard, and when even things that are usually considered safer, like hugging and kissing, can be risky for COVID-19 transmission. To complicate matters even more, if you are a teen or young adult who lives at home, there is also the extra issue of adding your parents’ opinions, and their rules, into the mix. Needless to say, things can get intense fast!
Sometimes, everyone sees eye-to-eye on the matter. As one 17-year-old said in an online discussion about dating during the pandemic, “I have a girlfriend that I love to hang out with…Our parents let us hang out, but we have to stay 6 feet apart.”
For others, there is more tension about the issue at home. An 18-year-old looking for advice on Quora wrote, “I want to quarantine with my boyfriend. Living with him would make my life a little bit better in these horrible times. I mentioned it to my mom and she basically just got mad.”
Still, whether or not you and your parents are on the same page, or in a heated battle, a lot of households and families are having to negotiate what the new dating normal looks like. So here are some ideas about how to help make those discussions smoother.
1. Prepare to compromise
Right now, everyone is trying to figure out how to get together safely in real life. But since there isn’t a clear playbook, it is pretty common to disagree about the details. For example, if your parents want you to only see your partner online and you want to meet up in person, then you might propose a compromise. I wouldn’t advise suggesting a sleepover, which will be easy to nix on COVID grounds alone. But many parents will be open to a physically distanced outdoor hang-out.
Obviously, if you have a physical or sexual relationship with your partner, staying apart can be incredibly hard, and for some people, being close to a partner they can’t touch is excruciating. I don’t want anyone to beat themselves up if they aren’t always totally diligent on that front. But since being physically intimate with someone you don’t live with can be risky for both you and your household, you really want to think through your decision. That is something people of all ages have had to figure out and many are choosing to take a break from their partnered sex lives right now, even if that is the last thing they want to do.
2. Be responsible
Prove that your parents can trust you. If you say you will only hang-out with someone outside, do. If you commit to wearing a mask, don’t take it off the second you are out of sight. If you agree to see just one specific person, don’t go to a party. If you realize you have done something risky, voluntarily quarantine or physically distance as best as your household will allow. It can be hard to be honest when you’ve done something you know could put others at risk, but if at all possible, right now if it crucial to be truthful and then to work out how to deal with the situation together. The more trust you build with parents, the more flexible they are likely to be.
I know at first I was nervous about letting my own teen see friends, but after she took some distanced bike rides and had some distanced picnics in a way we were both comfortable with, I stopped grilling her about how far apart she’d been sitting and how many times she’d put on hand sanitizer. I actually started encouraging her to get out of the house when she could.
3. Go for open communication
My friend Ilana is a midwife and mom of a teen in Victoria, BC. Her 15-year-old, Eva had a first date planned before the pandemic hit. Ilana says, “My partner and I debated what to do. In the end we just said to Eva, why don’t you go for a walk but stay six feet apart. I explained it felt weird to tell her not to touch, and it was literally just because there was a pandemic. Otherwise, obviously, physical contact would be fine as long as she was comfortable and there was consent.”
This approach seems to be paying off. Eva has now gone on a few distanced dates with the same person and has been open with her parents about the challenges of having a relationship right now. That’s something which her parents have been more involved in than she would have anticipated under normal circumstances. As she explains, “I’ve had to go to my parents for dating advice multiple times during the pandemic because my friends aren’t helping me and my parents are home.” And as to whether or not she’s followed the advice they’ve given? Eva says while her parents’ ideas about things like flirting can miss the mark, she’s taken some of their suggestions about navigating dating right now and about the difficulty of connecting when that is primarily happening over devices.
Though a lot of us groan about being stuck in such close quarters with our families, for some young people that proximity has also opened up the door to conversations that might not have happened otherwise.
4. Correct misinformation
Not all parents are up to date on current safety recommendations. For example, in the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of cities closed parks and beaches to keep people home. Now, more and more research is showing that being outside at a distance from others is much safer than was originally believed. If you think your parents don’t have the right information, find out what is advised where you live and share that with your folks. Of course, you want to be thoughtful when having these conversations. Though it might be tempting to push back the second parents set a limit that seems unfair, try to start by asking them to explain their decisions. There are always those who are going to just take the “because I said so” approach. But there are many others who will at least explain their rationale and listen to the information that they don’t have. Some parents may be vary of information presented by their children, but will listen to people the see as authorities on the matter. So if you know of articles from trusted sources offer to share those with your family and then to read them together.
And, if their issue is that they think young people can’t be trusted or are driving the second wave (or continuing the first wave) of the virus, you might want to let them know that intergenerational family parties, religious gatherings and political rallies, which skew much older, have also been found to have contributed to the recent uptick in new cases. Plenty of young people are perfectly capable of following public health guidelines.
5. Get an outside adult advocate
If your parents refuse to have a rational conversation, or if you just keep hitting dead-ends on coming to an agreement about socializing, try to think of a supportive adult whose opinion they might value.
This can be especially important if their decisions aren’t due to a legitimate difference of opinion about safety and risk, but are instead driven by other factors, like racism or trans- or homophobia. For example, if your parents let your brother see his girlfriend but don’t let you see a same gender partner, there might be some serious bias at play. Now obviously, there could be a totally different reason for their decision, say if they suspect abuse, or if your partner is much older or uses substances. But when it is clear that something like that isn’t the issue and rather your partner’s identity is, then you might need some help getting through to them. In those situations, enlisting allies who have your parent’s ear can make a huge difference.
You might also be interested to know that Scarleteen has done parent/teen mediation via the message boards. If that sounds like something that could help in your situation, you can come ask about it on the boards here.
6. Nosiness is part of the new normal
Lots of young people feel like their parents are too involved in their social lives and dating experiences. But these days, our choices have an impact on those around us like never before. If you are seeing someone who you don’t live with, you could potentially be exposing your household or your partner’s household to a really dangerous virus. So while I fully believe that teens and young adults need privacy, if you live at home, you also need to understand why your parents might be grilling you about your activities. It is more important than ever to be truthful with them about what you are doing so they can know whether your actions are putting anyone else at risk. And if it isn’t safe for you to be honest about your dating or sex life, that might be a sign that – at least for the time being – you need to rethink some of your choices.
There are so many obvious downsides to dating during a pandemic. But Ilana, my midwife friend from Victoria, thinks there could be one silver-lining. “I had a long-distance relationship in my twenties and I thought one positive effect was that it made our communication really strong before we were physically close.” She is hopeful that young people who are new to dating and who are now doing so much of their socializing virtually, might also benefit in that way.
I’m hopeful for that too. Everyone is struggling to figure out how to connect at a time when any human contact can be so risky and when so many young people are experiencing painful separation from partners. So I’d like to imagine that if nothing else, your generation will come out of this messy time in history equipped with some very important new dating skills and insights.