Expert Advice On Love, Dating And Pandemic Relationships : Consider This from NPR We asked for your questions on navigating love and dating during the pandemic. Therapist and sexologist Lexx Brown-James has answers. She's joined by Sam Sanders, host of NPR's news and pop culture show, It's Been A Minute. Listen via Apple or Spotify.

And University of Georgia social scientist Dr. Richard Slatcher shares some findings from his global research project, Love In The Time Of COVID.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment that will help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

Q & A: Expert Advice On Love, Dating, And Pandemic Relationships

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

As far as Dr. Richard Slatcher's work goes, there are two types of people in the world.

RICHARD SLATCHER: We really find that there are two groups - relationship haves and have-nots. And that's really delineated by how their relationships were doing going into the pandemic.

CORNISH: Slatcher teaches in the Department of Psychology at the University of Georgia. For about a year, he's been running a research project with collaborators around the world called Love In The Time Of COVID. He's found that people who started the pandemic with a romantic partner are probably headed in the same direction they were a year ago.

SLATCHER: So those couples who were really, by and large, satisfied with their relationships - we actually see them becoming more satisfied over the pandemic because they're able to spend a lot more time together.

CORNISH: Whereas, not surprisingly, if your relationship was not great before the pandemic, odds are it has not improved.

SLATCHER: There's nothing so lonely as being stuck for months with someone that you don't feel very connected to.

CORNISH: So that's one group - the relationship haves. The other group - people who went into the pandemic without a romantic partner...

SLATCHER: They're getting their other social needs met primarily through existing close friends or family members. People are really digging into their existing other kinds of close relationships more than trying to start new romantic relationships.

CORNISH: The common thread here is that for so many people, the pandemic has amplified whatever was already going on in their personal life. And that's been harder on some than others.

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LEXX BROWN-JAMES: All the therapists, all the sexologist I know who do relationships have been booked and busy since last March.

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CORNISH: CONSIDER THIS. Love in the time of coronavirus - it's complicated, so ahead, we have advice and answers to your questions.

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CORNISH: From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Friday, February 12.

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CORNISH: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. Now, before we get to your questions about relationships in the pandemic, a couple more interesting things Dr. Richard Slatcher has seen. Early on in the pandemic, you may remember a lot of anecdotal reports about divorce rates going up because more people were stuck inside together.

SLATCHER: We're just not seeing that in the U.S. In fact, we're seeing the divorce rate going down this year.

CORNISH: There could be a few things going on. Some people have had more time to spend on relationships, even for couples and families that have been under added financial strain.

SLATCHER: Which is, like, the biggest stressor on relationships, by and large, even in non-pandemic times.

CORNISH: And, in fact, that financial strain could even be a barrier to splitting up.

SLATCHER: The research suggests that financial commitment is a very important commitment that keeps people together, even when they're not in great relationships.

CORNISH: But among people who have been able to maintain social connections, and especially those in close relationships, Slatcher has been surprised to see so many people not only doing well, but getting better over time.

SLATCHER: You see loneliness going down. You see happiness sort of slowly inching up throughout the pandemic. And maybe - you know, it could be there are a lot of things that could explain that. We have more information now. I think we have a better sense - even though, you know, of course, the vaccine isn't coming out as quickly as we hoped, and there are these other variants that are making people anxious. But by and large, we're heading in the right direction - here in the United States, at least.

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CORNISH: But let's be real - it's not that interesting to hear about someone's healthy, functional relationship. So we asked you, our listeners, to tell us about what questions you need answered when it comes to your pandemic love life. Just a heads up - a few of these questions do involve sex. Now, to help us answer them, I've got two guests here right now, Dr. Lexx Brown-James. She's a marriage and family therapist and sexologist based in St. Louis.

Thank you for being here.

BROWN-JAMES: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: And a friend and NPR colleague of mine - you might know him from his news and pop culture show, It's Been A Minute, where they've also been discussing love during the pandemic - Sam Sanders.

Hey there, Sam.

SAM SANDERS: Hi. It's good to be here - although I'm still scratching my head saying, why me for romance and love questions?

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SANDERS: Because, Audie, we're friends. You probably already kind of know this. My love life is like the end of a Michael Bay movie...

CORNISH: (Laughter).

SANDERS: ...Lot of explosions, destruction...

BROWN-JAMES: Oh.

SANDERS: ...And ultimately unfulfilling.

BROWN-JAMES: (Laughter).

CORNISH: That's true. I mean, you have tweeted about your commitment issues, so I thought this - you were a good person...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

CORNISH: ...To be on the program.

SANDERS: You did this whole episode just for me.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Well, now that Sam has established his credentials...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

CORNISH: Dr. Lexx Brown-James, can I just ask you briefly, have you been getting a lot of romantic questions, issues coming up in your therapy?

BROWN-JAMES: Audie, we - all the therapists, all the psychologists I know who do relationships have been booked and busy since last March. Lovers are rededicating to their relationships. I've had people say, I want to stop cheating on my partner. Can you help me do that? I've had...

CORNISH: Oh, that's nice.

BROWN-JAMES: I'm, like, well, my first question was, are you quarantined with them? And is there a safe place to talk?

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BROWN-JAMES: Do we need to have sessions in your car? And then there are folks who are, like, I don't know if I want this, and we might need to do a stop on the therapy train to see if we need to get off this ride.

CORNISH: Well, then, with that in mind...

BROWN-JAMES: (Laughter).

CORNISH: I want to bring you the first question. This is actually from Jack Gentille (ph). He's only 21. He's from Illinois. And he says that dating has understandably been unusual, but he's trying. He recently joined Tinder - which I don't know how he's 21 and only now joining Tinder. But he went on his first date since quarantine started. Here's how he's feeling about it.

JACK GENTILLE: Everyone has spent last year trying to get more comfortable being alone or being by themselves. And so now that the vaccine is starting to come out, how do you start to feel comfortable being with other people?

CORNISH: Dr. Lexx Brown-James, I want to start with you because in a way, this is a hopeful question, right? It's about looking ahead.

BROWN-JAMES: I would say for Jack and for everybody, learning to be by yourself is actually integral, and I want him to hold onto that. And for them to hold onto that means that when they start to date, they're not going to lose themselves in somebody else's ish (ph). Whatever their emotional ish is, whatever their baggage is, it's, like, well, I don't really like this. I can be by myself and be OK. That is an integral tool to have when starting to seek out relationships. Now, to start ***

BROWN-JAMES: to build relationship. I want him to not, like, scuba dive so deep into risk taking of vulnerability. I want them to dip their toe into vulnerability, share a little bit that feels a little bit risky. And that's going to give you a gauge of how you can start to learn to trust this person. So very small risk taking is a key to start building up trust.

CORNISH: Sam, to you, this question of how one starts to feel comfortable being with other people.

SANDERS: Yeah. Well, I got to say, as someone who has been living with just my dog and working remotely at home for several months now, I've seen myself change. And like, we can't expect it all to just be like it was dating in the before times or living in the before times. It will be different. And how do I make peace with that and forgive myself in being different myself?

CORNISH: All right. Now I want to move to a question from Rachel Krug (ph). She got engaged last fall, and to her surprise, the pandemic actually brought her closer to her fiance. They aren't sick of seeing each other, but there is some monotony.

RACHEL KRUG: So my question is, after a year of shutdown and living in sweatpants, how do we keep our friendship fun and special and fresh when we see each other every day in kind of our laziest selves?

CORNISH: I love getting this question at the start of their marriage. I don't have the heart to tell her that...

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CORNISH: ...This question is relevant in the pandemic age and not. But, Dr. Lexx Brown-James, you've been seeing couples. What are you telling them?

BROWN-JAMES: So one thing - and some people hate me for this, but I'm going to go ahead and say it because I tell everybody to do that - I take sex off the table. So we purposely withhold, like, being sexy for a while so we can build up arousal. And also, we plan things in our household. So let's plan to get dressed up in whatever we want to plan to get dressed up with. Let's plan to do something funny every day, so we're laughing together. We're touching. And remember, like, you're seeing each other hanging out. You're being - you're friends. You wouldn't judge your best friend for coming over with no makeup and sweatpants and, like, holy draws (ph). So why are we judging our lovers, too? It's like, well, yeah, I see you. And you can still be really sexy in these sweatpants because you're just comfortable and you're you.

CORNISH: All right. Sam Sanders, do you have any thoughts on this?

CORNISH: I have no real parallel to this, but I think about like my dog. I have been walking my dog more than ever in this era of pandemic. And about a month or two in, I was like, I can't keep walking this dog on the same path. And so I just began to research different walks for the dog. And it's been better for her and better for me. And I don't know if there's any kind of love parallel here but, like, maybe what some of these couples have to do is research some new paths to walk to mix it up.

CORNISH: I admire you trying to jump in on this one.

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SANDERS: I know. That's all I got.

CORNISH: That's OK.

BROWN-JAMES: I support that. I support it.

CORNISH: Yeah. We support the energy you're bringing to this. OK. All right. So staying with the theme of keeping a relationship exciting, our next question comes from someone in a long-distance relationship. Clark (ph) is from New York. He asked that we use his first name only because his question has to do with sex. All right. So he lives a few hours away from his girlfriend. He has just started dating her, and they're only able to see each other once a month. So here's his question.

CLARK: How do you navigate - as much physical relationship as you can over Zoom? What are some resources, what are some things to try? What - like, what's out there to kind of spark that when it is a month between each time we see each other?

BROWN-JAMES: So, yeah, there are a couple of ways we can do this, right? Yes. It can get monotonous through Zoom. And we can spice things up. If you have the affordability to do it, there are long-distance sex toys that you can use that will send the vibration.

CORNISH: I'm sorry. What now? This is...

BROWN-JAMES: Yeah.

CORNISH: This is news you can use.

BROWN-JAMES: There are long-distance sex toys that - they connect to an app so you can send a, hey, how you doing, boo, to your lover, right? And that's a lot of fun. And don't forget, like, what it's like to send fantasies. Write a sexy story. Tell them about the greatest time that you've had with them or things that you wish that you could do with them and send that. And then when you're together, you have all of that arousal built up so you can do what you want to do. And you can be just a regular couple and hang out. Like, we've done all the sexy things. We're tired. Let's just eat pizza and watch Netflix and hang out.

CORNISH: Speaking of which, we got quite a few questions about virtual dates, how to make them less awkward, more fun. I feel like we should end there because we're heading into Valentine's Day weekend, and people won't be able to rely on some of the kind of typical ideas of just going to the nicest restaurant you can afford and that sort of thing. Could either of you jump in here with some creative ideas for virtual dates?

BROWN-JAMES: Sam, I'll let you start.

SANDERS: I mean, you could...

CORNISH: OK. It sounds like Sam's going to need some help for Valentine's Day weekend.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: I'm sensing a theme here.

SANDERS: I should have just brought my questions for the good doctor.

CORNISH: You should have just brought your questions.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: I'm going to hit you up offline.

BROWN-JAMES: So Valentine's Day is hard. I've even been thinking about this for my lover and myself, right? Do I order them something nice? Do I put on like something sexy and lacy? And I don't feel like it. We tired over here. So what do we do? Look for things that you can do together like in a group. So there might be like a Zoom quizzo where you go and you answer random questions. Try and maybe send somebody a meal. Maybe you have the same meal together. Maybe you take a cooking class. But you can do things even though you're individually separated, but you're still sharing an experience and working towards the goal. It's a fun way to start to revamp what dating looks like now.

CORNISH: Sam, I should have asked you this earlier. What have you learned in the last year about love in the time in COVID? I know you do a lot of interviews with people. You've been following the art scene deeply. How have you started to think about this time?

SANDERS: Yeah. You know, we had an episode on my show all about how to date in the time of corona. We've talked to mental health experts all throughout the pandemic about how to just deal with life as well. And the one universal theme I've been hearing from all kinds of folks throughout this whole pandemic year is the only way to get through this is to forgive yourself and to be kind to yourself. All of this is new. We're doing the best we can. Give yourself a hug and just push forward. I guess, like, that's my generic advice for everything right now but especially for the love life.

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CORNISH: Thanks to Sam Sanders, host of It's Been A Minute. Check out his show at the link in our episode notes. And thanks to Dr. Lexx Brown-James. she's got some relationship tools and resources on her website, which we'll link to as well.

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CORNISH: You're listening to CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.

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