I Just Want to Date Like Every Other 20-Something

An illustration of a red heart over crossed bones.
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

Two months into the pandemic, I gave in and tried Zoom dating. After a few days of chatting on OKCupid, I found myself across the screen from a perfectly nice match. It was one hour in hell: Trapped in a two-way-hostage video, I was hyperaware of everything that was missing—the smell of her perfume, how she moved through space, seeing the way she ordered a drink.

If I was going to date, it had to be in person. But for me, that requires endless considerations to make sure I’m not putting myself at risk. Restaurants were out of the question. I thought about outdoor dining, but just how safe is sitting in a sidewalk cafeteria full of strangers? In August, I met a first date in the park and we balanced canned cocktails on the grass between us, estimating for six feet. It was nice and normal enough, something one of us might have thought up even before the pandemic. But whether we were doing the right thing, I had no idea.

I have complex cardiac disease, a series of intersecting heart defects and circulation issues that puts me at a far higher risk from the virus than nearly all other 27-year-olds: If I am hospitalized with COVID-19, my risk of death is somewhere between 25 percent and a coin toss. The illness robbed me of a youth spent tangled up in back seats and kissing under the bleachers, so my 20s have served as a deferred adolescence, in which I’m finding my way through casual dating for the first time. Even during a global pandemic, I can’t bear to defer that again.

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Everyone has to account for the risks of pandemic romance, at least in theory. Early on, local health departments recommended work-arounds to sex, such as masturbating together across a room, that amounted to comedy as much as abstinence. And as is the case whenever any kind of abstinence is preached, young people have still been dating and having sex during all of this.

But the young and sick are playing a different game altogether. Many people in their 20s or 30s who live with chronic or terminal conditions experience sickness as both a permanent and transitory state: We may or may not be actively, critically ill at any given moment, but we’re still living with underlying conditions that can mark every aspect of our lives. We’re stuck between two impulses: the need to be as cautious as elderly people and the urge to act our age. The constant balancing act can make dating unbelievably difficult, especially now, but it also fundamentally changes how we think about romance: If anyone understands just how important love is, it’s us.

Many young, sick people have spent years, if not their whole life, wading in the waters of restriction. For some, close contact has always been a hazard; for others, hospitalizations burn up whatever free time might go toward dating. And even for those who are able to date, disclosing an ailment to a partner can be awkward and thorny. Some of us were just gathering momentum after years of an underdeveloped social life before the pandemic introduced a frustrating new layer of restrictions.

“I have definitely had plenty of days during COVID where it’s like, Wow, did this catastrophic public-health event maybe just seal my fate as somebody who is not going to meet someone?” Callie, a 26-year-old grad student from Maryland, told me. (Callie, a heart-transplant recipient, asked to be identified by only her first name to protect her privacy.) Because of her illness, she didn’t really start casually dating until a few years ago, and she’s sharply aware that the pandemic has delayed her love life once again. She’s chosen not to date during the past year for fear of what the coronavirus might do to her. “I don’t want to add anything else to the pile of shit that is my body dysfunction,” she said.

Since young, sick people have experienced restrictions before, many of us are skilled at making calculations to maintain some version of autonomy in the face of all the risk. “You grow really good at adapting and establishing new normals,” says Kendall Ciesemier, a 28-year-old liver-transplant recipient who lives in Brooklyn and is a friend of mine. During the summer, she experimented with going on dates at restaurants with outdoor seating, but her prospects never panned out. In the fall, Ciesemier got sick (not with COVID-19) and temporarily moved back in with her parents in Chicago, but over the winter, she started seeing someone new. So far, all of their encounters have been over Zoom or FaceTime because he lives in New York, but Ciesemier will soon be fully vaccinated, and so will the person she’s been not-exactly-dating for the past few months, bringing closer the possibility that they might meet in person.

This is typical of life with a serious, chronic illness: Barriers can be real and frustrating, but also manageable. Emily Barker, a 28-year-old based in Los Angeles, lives with paraplegia and an inflammatory condition that requires them to take immunosuppressant drugs. “I’ve already been doing kind of COVID-safe dating, regardless of COVID,” Barker, who uses they/them pronouns, told me. They were already wearing a mask in much of their daily life before the pandemic and taking precautions like asking for a potential partner’s sexual-health tests. After recently getting out of a relationship, Barker’s dating again with even more rules: They make sure that a potential date has been quarantining and has tested negative for the virus before they meet—and ideally they’ll be vaccinated. But rather than keeping Barker from dating, these measures are easy enough for them to factor in. “I’m a huge romantic,” Barker said. “Being in a wheelchair has not stopped me from participating in relationships and sex.”

Having to be more intentional about dating can sometimes serve as a perverse kind of benefit. After a few more park dates in the fall, I could tell that things were plateauing with the person I was seeing. After a month and a half, we hadn’t yet kissed, and generally tried to stay at an arm’s length whenever we saw each other. The company was nice and all, but if we weren’t going to pass that threshold, then what exactly were we doing here? We discussed the subject in circles, and I assumed the decision to kiss or have sex would feel sterile, that it might wring all romance out of the encounter. Instead, I found everything suddenly charged and exciting. Acknowledging the risks made everything we did undeniably hotter.

I asked Richard Schwartz, a psychiatrist at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts who studies loneliness and social connection, what he made of the different ways people calculate risk when pandemic dating. “The central love story through all of human history is someone risking life and limb, either to find their beloved or to rejoin their beloved,” he told me. Even though “risking a virus doesn’t have a swashbuckling feeling to it,” he said, the infusion of risk still has an appeal.

Many aspects of life during the pandemic have mimicked experiences already common to those living with illness, including extended periods of isolation, the failures of the medical system, and the need to reconsider how love functions in our lives. The fear and excitement of risk follow us everywhere, infusing not just dating but all daily joys with greater stakes. Surviving serious illness is often a negotiation between doing what’s necessary to stay alive and maintaining enough of yourself that the life you’re protecting is still worth living. While love and sex are essential for most people, for the ill, romance can be a way of refusing to let the mere saving of your life be the end in and of itself. Deprivation has given many of us a special understanding of the value that love contributes to life.

Since my date and I escalated things, we’ve made sure to contain our risk to ourselves as much as possible. We’re mostly seeing each other inside our own apartments or sitting outside at cafés when the weather is nice enough, and we have a policy of getting tested before we go on a date and being open about our other human contact until we’re both fully vaccinated. Still, I know that all of these protocols don’t cut my risk to zero. Dating through the maze of risk is challenging, but it can also be liberating and fortifying. Even when sickness intrudes, I’m reminded that I’m still alive.