The COVID-19 pandemic has seemed to flip the world of dating and romantic pursuits on its head with both beneficial as well as challenging consequences. It has inspired creativity in the search for connection whether it was going on BYOB dates through teleconferencing software or virtual cooking classes. It has also caused many to feel disconnected and distant because trying to attune to feelings can be hard when interacting with a screen. Whatever your story is with regards to dating in quarantine, you may be beginning to feel relieved that some degree of normalcy has returned to the dating world with in-person meetups and restrictions slowly lifting. While the future around COVID-19 remains uncertain, your experiences may be having you reflect on your life path and pursuing relationships more seriously. Here are 10 relationship practices that you should begin implementing in your life if you desire to build strong and lasting relationships.
1. Set realistic expectations for yourself and for the relationship - When you are beginning to pursue deeper and more intentional relationships, it’s easy to develop unrealistic expectations. You may tell yourself that you need to find the person you’re going to be with forever, or that you have to be perfect to be enough for your future partner so they don’t leave you. The majority of the time, these messages only serve to raise the stress and anxiety you feel and may become a self-fulfilling prophecy because who you are when you’re stressed is often a far cry from who you really are. Instead, set realistic expectations such as making the goal of dates to be curious, having fun, and remaining open to what the connection and relationship can offer.
2. Stay present - Present-mindedness is a great antidote for our anxiety because it asks questions like, “What if they don’t want to be with you?” or “I can’t be loved because of the things I’ve been through.” The anxious part of us, while attempting to be protective, often takes us out of the moment and gets us worried about the past or future. If you focus on the present and take note of the place you are in, how you are feeling currently, and are able to tell the anxious part of yourself that you understand why it’s afraid but that you want to enjoy the moment, you may just find that you can feel lighter.
3. Don’t get consumed by the search for red flags in the relationship - Dating may make you anxious, and for good reason! It’s vulnerable and painful at times, but when you get over-fixated on trying to predict every possible painful outcome, your relationship becomes a minefield for your partner where one wrong step equals the end of the relationship. It’s important to identify maladaptive relationship patterns such as abuse or manipulation, but if you are always looking for the confirmation that your partner will hurt you or do something wrong then it will be difficult to form the trust and commitment a healthy relationship needs.
4. Be honest with yourself and your dating partner about how you feel - This is especially pertinent if you tend to people-please or sacrifice your wellbeing so others can be comfortable. Open and honest communication, while possibly painful up front, is much more compassionate and ethical than passive-aggressive or indirect communication. A helpful tool is to write down what you will say beforehand so that you can ensure your communication is clear and accurately reflects how you’re feeling If you plan on having a difficult conversation.
5. Don’t ghost people - Ghosting, simmering, or icing, happens when you end all communication with someone without warning and refuse bids for communication. This may occur because the person has not respected your explicit communication that you aren’t interested, but more often than not, it happens because we are afraid of someone being angry or disappointed with you. You may justify it as being more compassionate than telling them how you feel, but in reality this causes the other person to fill in the lack of communication with every anxiety and insecurity they have. Choosing not to ghost a person is a courageous statement that your discomfort will not supersede your partner’s humanity and right to respect. You may also be surprised to find how much you can learn about yourself in an open conversation about ending the relationship.
6. Identify your own values and the values you are looking for in a partner rather than just personality traits - Don’t get me wrong, knowing what kind of personalities you like is important for the chemistry of the relationship, but values reflect the underlying compatibility of two people in more effective ways. For example, while your partner may not be as humorous as you, they may align with the value of helping other people. Values are better predictors of our behavior, and being aligned in values means that you have a common ground when you disagree that preserves the foundation of the relationship. To extend the previous example, you and your partner may disagree on whether to volunteer at a nonprofit or donate money to charity, but the underlying value of helping others allows you to respect and understand your partner’s desires and actions.
7. Don’t try to mind read or assume intentions - Everyone is guilty of doing this sometimes because we are social beings and most of us possess empathy that allows us to step into the shoes of someone else. However, when you begin to mind read or assume what your partner is feeling or intending without checking with them, then you open the relationship up to all the anxieties and insecurities you have leaving your partner to be the villain in the story. This often occurs because you may feel hurt by something your partner did and work backwards to deduce that they just don’t care about you when they may not even have been aware how their action impacted you. To be clear, your pain is not invalidated because you decided to clarify your partner’s intentions or your partner tells you that they didn’t mean to hurt you, but it does protect the relationship and our understanding of our partner rather than undermining the trust you share.
8. Communicate what you need to feel fulfilled in the relationship - This is heavily interconnected with the previous idea because it often happens that people expect their partners to intuit what they need, and you think “surely they must know what I want because of all the hints I’ve given and they are just choosing not to give it to me.” While you shouldn’t try to assume or mind read when it comes to your relationship, you also shouldn’t expect your partner to do so either. Talking about your needs and receiving your partner’s needs in an open and honest way prevents resentment and creates the conditions needed for the highest likelihood of relationship health.
9. Balance being vulnerable with boundaries based on the evolution of the relationship - This is a difficult skill to learn but immensely important for relationship health. The reality is that you will need to be vulnerable in order to build trust and commitment in a relationship because authenticity and acceptance provides you with relational safety and invites your partner to do the same. That being said, boundaries are also very important in the formation of a relationship to protect against unhealthy power dynamics, resentment, and broken trust. In the formation of healthy relationships, boundaries are likely to be higher at the beginning of it because you are seeing if this person is trustworthy and allowing you both to establish trust. Greater security in the relationship will naturally lead to vulnerability most of the time, but being too vulnerable early on risks manipulation and pain while being inflexible with boundaries later on often leads to disconnection and mistrust.
10. Know and own your family story of relationships - Your family relationships are the roadmap and modeling that you will use to build and engage in relationships. There’s the relationship between you and each parental figure (even in absence), the relationship between your parents, the relationship between you and siblings potentially, and the relationships across generations. These are just some of the familial bonds that socialize you, inform you, and shape your relational self. Understanding how these relationships have done so can provide you with insight into why you may feel or behave a certain way with your partner, but it may also help you to change your behavior and open up opportunities for healing through your relationship.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we engage with our communities, friends, and families and the lockdown has left us yearning for a sense of belonging and connection. We do so because we are social creatures and we deeply desire to know and be known by others who accept us wholeheartedly. Dating calls us to great courage because it opens us up to vulnerability and pain, but if we can use some of these relationship practices, we just may find the connection we are looking for, or at the very least, we may make the world a kinder and more authentic place.
Brandon Liu, LMFT
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
CORE - Center of Relational Empowerment, PC