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Hoping to dip your feet back into the dating world after a prolonged period of practicing social distancing? If matching with a potential new partner in the "before times" was complicated—adding a global pandemic to the mix has made it even trickier to find that spark or connection. During this new normal, flirting with potential paramours over an online dating app might be the best way to get to know someone.
Seventy years ago, the Yale sociologist John Ellsworth Jr. Though the internet allows us to connect with people across the globe near instantly, dating apps like Tinder prioritize showing us nearby matches, the assumption being the best date is the one we can meet up with as quickly as possible with little inconvenience. A year and a half ago, I was 23, single, and working as an engineer at the online-dating site OkCupid. The site held a similar philosophy when it came to distance, and we employees would sometimes joke we needed to add a special filter for New Yorkers that let them specify, Show me matches under 10 miles, but nobody from New Jersey.
At the time, I loved the concept of online dating and went out with other Manhattanites almost every weekend. But I quickly came to hate first dates themselves.
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I found myself always distracted, thinking more to myself about how to make a graceful exit than about whatever my date was saying. Then one day I had my wisdom teeth pulled and my cheeks became grapefruits.
Figuring this was not a great first-date look, I made no weekend plans. Lonely and alone on a Saturday night, I started scrolling through OkCupid and, out of boredom and curiosity, expanded my search options to include users anywhere in the world. That weekend I talked to a neuropsychologist from Milwaukee; a software developer from Austin, Texas; an improv instructor from Seattle; and an economics masters student from London.
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For the next few weeks, I called the Austin programmer often. I wondered what it would be like going on a first date with him, now that I sort of knew him. But I had no plans to visit Austin and we lost touch. I read stories of couples who chatted online for months before flying from California to Georgia, Michigan to Washington, Ohio to Peru, Cyprus to Lebanon to see each other for the first time.
Maybe it was the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon —that effect where, when you first learn about something, you see it everywhere—but suddenly I learned that lots of people I knew had this same story.
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My childhood neighbor from New Jersey, recently divorced, met her Syracuse boyfriend through the phone game Wordfeud. He was a software developer living in Australia. They messaged online for more than two years before he booked a flight to meet her in Maryland and eventually moved into an apartment with her in Brooklyn.
Online-dating companies are privy to the fact that people use them for travel. Last year, Tinder launched a paid feature called Passport that lets people swipe on members anywhere in the world. And Scruff, a dating app for gay men, has a section called Scruff Venture that helps users coordinate travel plans and connect with host members in foreign countries. To me, someone who hates first dates, this sounds great.
I like the idea of going on a date with someone after you get to know them. Another benefit of long-distance online dating is that flirting starts in brain space, not physical space. Four years ago, she got fed up with the men in San Francisco, where she lived. She found them too distracted, work-obsessed, and unwilling to commit. An introspective introvert, she found she liked dating like this because it let her form an emotional connection with men before the complications of a physical meet-up.
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One explanation suggested by his work is that long-distance daters tend to idealize their relationships. But having the distance could open up new relationship opportunities. I like this conversation-first style of dating and wish it were the whole story: You fall in love with someone across the world, plan a first date in Bali, and wind up with an adventurous, international relationship.
She saw him in person for the first time in the basement of a teahouse, where he was sitting in lotus position, waiting for her, meditating. But Ben never had. They made awkward conversation. One common way nevermet relationships fall apart is that the couples, well, never meet.
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She knows this because often the ghosted partner will write a breakup post on Reddit begging for a second chance. Yet of the nine nevermets I talked to who did eventually meet up, almost all describe to me a feeling of connecting the dots. It might not necessarily reflect reality. Meanwhile, his girlfriend would stay seated.
When they finally met at an airport in Brazil a week before we spoke, they kissed and felt instantly connected. This is common among nevermets—height is especially hard to judge over video. Yet however surprising or uncomfortable a nevermet first meeting might be, the cost of flaking is at least a plane ticket.
But on their third date—during which Ben blindfolded Mikka, massaged her feet, and hand-fed her chocolate and mango—they connected and have been dating ever since. Now Mikka flies to Portland to stay with him most weeks.
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Yet just as traveling a long distance might incentivize couples to give each other a chance—like Mikka did with Ben—so too does it act as a hurdle in staying together. But then, neither is finding an instant physical connection with someone on a first date only to discover weeks later that you have nothing to talk about.
But more and more people are willing to go as far as it takes. Popular Latest.
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The Atlantic Crossword. In Subscribe. Judith Shulevitz.