The Greatest Lesson of the Pandemic Is Commitment

What a woman in her seventies has learned from dating in the time of Covid

Photo: Thomas Tolstrup/Getty Images

In March, when the stay-at-home order came down with a thud, I found myself in a relationship that quickly became more intense and consuming than any I’d had for a decade. In my seventies, I’d recently met a man on a dating site who seemed “possible,” if not a perfect match. In other times, we might have had a few dates and found a reason to drift away. But this was dating in the time of Covid. It was as if we were the only two people on an island. We looked for common interests, shared some laughs, and, most surprisingly, found the physical chemistry was off the charts.

After quarantining for 14 days to make sure we didn’t have Covid, we came together for our second date. It lasted three days.

The same thing happened to my friend, Jackie, who’d met a guy the day before the shutdown. Now they’re sheltering together. When the four of us met at a park, Jackie and I were both a little shocked. I’m tall, and my guy, Adam, is a head shorter and weighs 10 pounds less. We’re an odd-looking couple. Jackie’s an opera singer, and her guy has never heard of Madame Butterfly.

“The music stopped, and this is where we landed,” she said with a laugh. But it was working and we were happy.

In our culture, divorcing and living single have never been easier, and coupling has never seemed more elusive. A number of TV shows are trying unorthodox ways to address the problem of commitment. Love Is Blind on Netflix and Married at First Sight on Lifetime show people who see each other only after they’ve agreed to get married and walk down the aisle. Netflix’s Indian Matchmaker and Love on the Spectrum are using outside advisers to help people — in the latter case, people with autism — commit. The shows are currently hitting a nerve, showing us how quickly we may pass on someone after a brief meeting, because of the illusion fostered by dating sites that there’s a limitless pool out there.

Perhaps the pandemic is teaching us there’s a different way: that we can learn to work with what’s in front of us. To appreciate and even come to love someone who’s right there, in close proximity, instead of holding out for something better.

Commitment has always been slippery for me. I’ve been married twice, and I’ve had other long relationships, but I’ve never, in my heart, been all the way in. I could always see what was missing, the flaw, and I’d wonder if there wasn’t someone better around the corner.

Most of the people I met on Match.com had the same tendencies. They said in their profiles they want “a partner, a best friend, a lover,” and most of them, consciously or not, were terrified of intimacy and the pain of rejection. We decided, at first sight, if it was a “possible” or not. And even if the encounter was fun, full of promise, and we parted with a kiss that was electric, one of us would immediately disappear.

I decided I was finished with all that. Right before the pandemic, before canceling my subscription, I made one last sweep of the men of a certain age range and location, sent out a bunch of messages, and got four replies.

The first showed up at a coffee bar with a flea-bitten dog who had a protruding collar around his neck because of an infection. Both of them looked as if they hadn’t bathed in weeks. Number two turned out to be a hoarder who hadn’t let go of a shoe since high school. The third canceled the date after looking me up online.

Then it came down to number four. “Possible,” I thought, when I spotted him in the restaurant. He was well-read, lively, loved the same music as I, and at the end of the meal, we agreed to have a second date.

But the shutdown happened before that date. For two weeks we exchanged a flood of texts, discussed safe sex on WhatsApp, and when we finally met up, it was better than we’d allowed ourselves to hope.

I’d had a long drought of intimacy before the shutdown, and feared I might never be touched again. Neither Adam nor I had conceived of the possibility that we would have, at this late stage, the most thrilling physical relationship of our lives.

We felt amazed at our luck, grateful for the sex and companionship. I didn’t see Adam as a life partner or envision living together, but when I expressed this, he became upset and pulled away. I had to cajole him back to me with long conversations — and in the process, I began to realize that I very much wanted him in my life.

I’d like to say two things. One: When the body is happy, it’s easier to coax the mind to shut up and stop kvetching. Two: For most women, at least for me, it’s impossible to have great sex without a sense of emotional connection and feelings of, yes, love.

At one point, Adam asked, “Is it hard for you to say, ‘I love you?’”

“Yes.” Then I tried, haltingly, “I love you.” But I was thinking, I can always change my mind.

Meanwhile, all around us, disaster was raging. People were losing their jobs, their homes, their lives. Folks who were single, especially in New York City, were coping with excruciating loneliness and touch deprivation. Grandparents were in agony if they don’t live near their grandchildren. I haven’t seen mine — four kids under age seven — since January, which is like half a lifetime for them. They’re growing and evolving fast, and there isn’t a day that my heart doesn’t ache because I’m missing that.

The widespread pain underscored the importance of holding close those who are near. People we may have once dismissed too quickly could be potential partners, or at least friends, a support system.

Most of us long for people who share our values, ideas, and habits. At times when I become painfully aware of the differences between Adam and me, I’ll start to think, this is ridiculous, it can’t last. I come from a culture where people talk fast and off the cuff, interrupting, laughing, and you have to fight to hold the floor. He sometimes lapses into silence in the middle of speaking, which unnerves me.

At such moments, I tell myself to take a deep breath and try to let go of the issue. How important is it, truly? I’m trying to focus on the positive, to cultivate acceptance of our differences, and practice patience. These are great lessons, even if they’re coming late. Some of us just have to be put on a desert island — or be subjected to a pandemic — to learn them.

Sara Davidson is the N.Y. Times best-selling author of Loose Change, The December Project, and JOAN: 40 years of life, loss, and friendship with Joan Didion.

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