It’s that time of year again. There’s a chill in the air, peppermint mochas are back on the menu and the countdown to New Year’s Eve is on. That can mean only one thing: it’s beginning to look a lot like…cuffing season.
Beginning in the fall and lasting until the start of spring, cuffing season comprises the coldest and darkest months of the year, when the lure of partnering up is too strong for many singles to resist. And when you combine that desire with the increased boredom and loneliness that many of us are feeling after months of COVID-induced isolation? That’s a recipe for an especially potent urge to snuggle up with someone—anyone!—in order to make it through the second wave of the pandemic. While it’s understandable that you’d want to find someone to get cozy with for the winter (that cheesy movie marathon is definitely better when you have someone to watch it with), you may want to reconsider. If you’re choosing a partner because of heightened feelings of isolation or pandemic ennui, or you’re just plain scared of being alone, then you’re likely emotionally dating. And that can be trouble.
It’s natural to want to take part in “corona cuffing”
In times of crisis, people tend to act with heightened urgency. That can mean stockpiling toilet paper and hoarding hand sanitizer, but it also applies to dating. As registered counsellor and relationship coach Edel Walsh explains, it’s hard to take a truly balanced approach to dating in a pandemic, especially when it can feel like there’s *still* pressure to have a date for New Year’s Eve (even if said New Year’s Eve party is virtual this year).
“Balanced dating means we’re using data from cognition, from our thinking, we’re using data from our feelings, our emotions, and also using data from our bodies, which is our sensations,” Walsh says. Typically, all of that cognitive, emotional and sensory data would help us make sound decisions about who to date and for how long. Those gut feelings you get that someone is sketchy? Walsh says with experience in the dating world, and a bit of maturity, those instinctual responses are part of balanced dating. They help us avoid bad situations. But few of us are that in tune with our senses most of the time, let alone in a year like 2020 that’s thrown our emotions—and plans—for a serious loop. Plus, many of us are starved for touch right now, which Walsh says can heighten all of our emotions. This is something Walsh has seen with her own clients this year. “This can be a very scary time, it can feel very daunting,” Walsh says of the pandemic. “The thought of spending all those nights alone with Netflix is very painful. And so it makes sense that people are seeking out comfort, and seeking out someone to get through the long winter with.”
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Seeking out that comfort can turn on our survival instincts, Walsh explains, and that’s when we start emotional dating. A lack of touch and connection can make folks desperate to fill that void, which can lead to emotional dating. That often means swiping right even if it’s the wrong person for you.
Emotional dating might not seem like a huge deal (all dating involves emotions, right?) but jumping in recklessly can lead to heartbreak—for both you and the other person. When dating emotionally, and ignoring all the other data involved in a more balanced approach to relationships, you might overlook traits in your partner that would otherwise be turn-offs, or you might end up falling hard when your date wants to keep things casual.
There are ways to tell if you’re emotionally dating
So how do you know if you’re succumbing to the pressure of COVID cuffing season? Walsh says that if you have found a new love interest recently, first think about how strong the impulse to spend time with them is. Thoughts like “I have to see this person despite restrictions, we have to meet in person,” or “we have to get involved sexually despite the fact that nobody’s had a COVID test,” can be signs of *potentially* questionable motives, Walsh says, because that aforementioned sense of urgency is overriding the voice of reason in one’s mind. It’s one thing to be into someone new and crushing hard. But if you’re willing to ignore safety protocols or rush past your usual dating timeline just to be together physically, those are red flags.
According to experts, it’s also important to examine your motivations before you even get started with a new partner. Kavita Ajwani is a dating expert and the owner of Dashing Date, a speed dating service; she urges her clients to take a beat before they jump into something new. “How are you feeling, generally speaking? Did you just lose your job? Are you financially stressed? Are things good on the home front? Are you in a good place?” Ajwani says asking yourself these questions up front can help reveal your motives for pairing up. If you recently lost your job, or are going through a stressful time with family, Ajwani says that is a sign you might be using dating as a distraction. And since everyone is experiencing more stress than usual during the pandemic, it’s OK to grade your own answers on a curve—just be honest with yourself.
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Plus, she adds, it can be liberating to avoid the pull of commitment and just enjoy the process of dating in general. “I’m a huge advocate for enjoying your single life—enjoying dating, enjoying the process of getting to know somebody, enjoying the butterflies, and being able to sit back, relax and go along for that journey.”
But if you are considering becoming exclusive with someone right now, Logan Ury, director of relationship science at Hinge, suggests taking a moment to think about what’s driving you. “Reflect on your dating journey with that person and think to yourself ‘what are my real motivations? Do I want to be with this person? Or do I just not want to be alone? Am I running to this person? Or am I running away from being single?’” If you’re not sure where you stand, Ury suggests going on (or logging on for) that second date, to help clear things up. “This has been an especially anxiety-provoking year for people. When you’re stressed and anxious on a date, you may not come across the way you want to.” And if you realize you’re not in this for the right reasons? That’s a sign that you can spend this winter snuggled up solo, working on yourself.
Ajwani seconds that advice, and notes that sometimes it can help to share your feelings through meditation, journaling or talking to a friend. Those can be good ways to get in touch with what’s happening inside your head, both when it comes to determining your motivations in an existing relationship, or figuring out whether or not you’re actually in a place to start dating healthily in a pandemic.
And, as important as it is to assess your own motivations, it’s similarly important to do the same with your partner’s. Ury says the rush of cuffing season often pushes people to speed through a few relationship milestones. “If this person is introducing you to their friends, or their parents too quickly for your comfort or rushing you into being exclusive, just be honest with yourself and say ‘is this moving at a natural pace, a pace that feels right for me? Or does it feel like this person just wants to lock the relationship down for the cold winter months?’”
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But dating during COVID cuffing season also has *some* upsides, Ury says. Among Hinge users, dating this year is up 17% from last year, while ghosting is down 27%. That could mean daters are using the pandemic to break their bad habits, and have spent some time evaluating what they really want. About half of Hinge users have also tried video dating, and Ury says the majority plan to stick with it as a way to start casually dating after the pandemic is over. “We see this as a change in dating culture. It’s this low-pressure vibe check, where you get to see if you have a connection with someone.”
And if you’re just looking for a fling, go for it (safely, of course)
But what if, after all the meditation and reflection, you decide you really do just want a seasonal fling? Our experts say go for it—as long as you’re honest about what you want with your partner from the outset. Which means: Don’t assume everyone is on the same page about keeping it casual without having a discussion first. “’Here’s where my head is at right now, and I’m not really looking for something long term,’” is a conversation Ajwani recommends you have. And, of course, as the COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing, it’s imperative that—if you are just hooking up, be it emotionally, physically, or both—that all parties do so safely.
Once you figure out what you really want, and how to communicate those needs, you’re ready for COVID cuffing season.