Listen: Will You Merge Bubbles With Me?

A guide to dating and relationships during the pandemic

On this episode of the Social Distance podcast, staff writer Joe Pinsker joins James Hamblin and Katherine Wells to discuss the new rituals and ethical conundrums of dating and socializing in this moment.

Listen to the episode here:

Subscribe to Social Distance on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or another podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they’re published.

What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.

Katherine Wells: We’ve gotten a lot of questions from listeners about two related categories of things. One is friendships and socializing. Who can I hang out with? How? And then also dating and relationships, which is particularly fraught given its connection to being physically close to other people.

James Hamblin: Let’s get specific. Do people do anything besides going for a walk on a date right now, or is that the thing?

Joe Pinsker: I think that being outdoors is sort of the main starting point for any good, safe date these days. And walking is one way to be outdoors. But there are other ways to be outdoors.

Hamblin: There is something that is communicated when we’re not speaking. As I understand, it’s known as a “vibe.” You get a vibe from someone just by being in their physical presence, even when you’re not touching or particularly close. And that’s necessary in order to establish rapport. But it’s also weird to be far apart. It’s hard to establish chemistry in that way.

Pinsker: There’s definitely something lost when you can’t have those smaller, up-close moments. But I guess the way I would think about it is that if you can’t connect with somebody over a pretty good, engaging conversation for a while, that person might not be the best partner for you in the long term.

Wells: Relationships are important to health. So this is a totally legitimate and important question: How are we going to get the social connection that we need to be healthy and sane in a time where social connection is dangerous?

Pinsker: For a while people expected that videochatting could plug that gap.

Wells: Did it for you?

Pinsker: I’m actually kind of an interesting case here, because I am in a long-distance relationship. And so, well before all of this, I’ve been doing nightly videochats with my girlfriend.

Wells: Then you have great tips on dating while not seeing someone.

Pinsker: I’ve actually interviewed people in the past about how to best connect with somebody over a long distance. One tip is that something that tends to build trust is communicating through a variety of different media. So if we’re all using videochat right now, maybe it would be more satisfying if we were also sending little links to each other, but at the same time writing letters and trying to diversify our range of ways of communicating.

Doing things together while not in the same place can feel like you’re trying to replicate something in a hollow way, but everybody uses Netflix Party now. It’s a browser extension that lets you sync up your Netflix videos with other people so you can watch “together” at the same time. When you describe it like that, it sounds a little bit sad, but I do have to say, it feels better than just watching something alone. Just hearing even the little chuckle under your friend or partner’s breath as something happens—it’s really nice.

Another thing that sounds a little bit weird, but hear me out, is quite satisfying, I find, is called background Skyping. You set up a videochat, but instead of having the express purpose of it being that you are having a direct, ongoing, active conversation, you just play it and let it run and go about your day. It’s not going to simulate somebody actually being there. But there’s this weird kind of good, fuzzy feeling that’s associated with just knowing in the back of your head that someone else is, in a way, around.

Wells: Those tips seem great for people who are seriously dating, people who are maintaining close friendships, families. Say someone was starting a new relationship. When is it okay to actually see each other? And how?

Pinsker: That is a great question. It’s a bit hard to answer, but I’ll talk it through how I’ve been thinking about it lately, based on my reporting. As I’ve talked to public-health experts about what’s safe to do on a daily basis, the things that they’ve stressed are: Outdoors is almost always better than indoors, and staying apart from somebody is way safer than being close to somebody. Those are the general principles. And if we’re going to go on a first date with somebody, the people I’ve been interviewing strongly advised against getting closer than six feet. I believe the word that one used about the possibility of kissing someone at the end of a date was inadvisable. So you probably want to steer clear of that for now. It’s an interesting gray area beyond that, because you’re getting out of the realm of strictly what’s best for public health. And some people will put their love lives on hold for however long—

Wells: Years. It’s going to be years. Let’s just start saying it.

Pinsker: Yes, but some people won’t. And I think that after several dates, if it looks like this is actually going to be a serious relationship, that’s a time when you would start having really frank conversations about who is in each of your bubbles at the moment, so to speak.

Wells: What if you both have bubbles? Do you have to merge the bubbles or do you have to choose a bubble?

Pinsker: It’s probably not ideal to merge the bubbles. And here’s where you can get into the huge number of possibilities of what somebody’s bubble actually looks like. Maybe it’s their roommates; maybe it’s their grandma. So many people have so many different living situations here. But yeah, I think you would want to figure out a bubble merger that doesn’t seem overly risky. And merging bubbles is really risky. You really want to keep them small. I would say probably only do it if it’s somebody who you really, really see yourself having a future with.

Hamblin: That’s a super analytic way to approach [dating]. Some people will [approach it that way], but other people are going to actually get a thrill from breaking these boundaries. I imagine that, for example, the act of a first kiss right now would feel very transgressive, wouldn’t it?

Pinsker: Yeah, I think so. I would also just repeat the word that that public-health expert told me, which I will remind you is inadvisable.

Hamblin: And I’m also an expert, so I shouldn’t be talking like that.

Wells: But its very inadvisability is what makes it so thrilling. That’s the problem.

Pinsker: A lot of the spontaneity that defines the early stages of a good relationship is being put on hold. And I think that does make things really hard. The thing I’d counter with is just that something that seems to sustain relationships for a really long period of time is really good communication. And if you are able to talk through all of these challenges and negotiate the bubble merger that pleases all stakeholders, then I’d say that’s, like, a pretty good sign for your relationship.

Wells: Is it before you even touch that you have to do the bubble merger?

Pinsker: I don’t know about the precise order of operations.

Wells: It may depend on your specific living situation. Or the nature of your bubble.

Pinsker: Yes. Another layer of complexity here is that one important turning point in a relationship is when you make it more public. And this adds a whole freighted layer to that decision, because it’s not just, Hey, I wanted to let you all know that we’re dating. It’s now, Hey, I want to let you all know that we’re dating. And that may put you at additional risk of contracting this virus.

Wells: Are there any useful general frameworks for interacting with other people over the next months or years?

Pinsker: Yeah. I think it’s a simple answer, and not a particularly fun answer, but I really, really think erring on the side of caution is the ultimate guiding star. That’s what I’ve come away with when talking to public-health experts recently about trying to be a social human and also trying to be as safe as you can. It’s clear as things reopen that people are going to start doing stuff. But as I watch it all happen, I become worried, as an observer, that just because there are things people can do, it’s not necessarily the case that those are things people should do. And as sad as it is to say that about socializing, which nourishes us and sustains us, I do think it’s really important to be cautious.