MIT Medical answers your COVID-19 questions. Got a question about COVID-19? Send it to us at CovidQ@mit.edu, and we’ll do our best to provide an answer.
A few weeks ago, I started dating someone I met online. First, we had a few Zoom dates, then met up a couple of times, outdoors and masked, of course. At this point, I’d like to consider being intimate with him. I got a negative test a few weeks ago, and he told me that has also gotten a negative test recently. I live alone, and he has one roommate, but we’ve both been working from home since the pandemic started, so we haven’t been spending time with that many people. Still, I’m very nervous to take the leap! How should I proceed?
Thanks for your important and timely question! The events of 2020 have strained even established relationships, and casual hookups have been taken off the table entirely! Even dating has taken a hit — nurturing connections over Zoom gets old after a while, and with the colder months upon us, meeting for outdoor activities is about to become decidedly less romantic. So, if you’ve decided to head indoors and make your new relationship physical, it’s time to start thinking inside the bubble.
A COVID-19 “bubble” (or “pod”) is a way for extended families, groups of friends, and, yes, sexual partners, to safely maintain relationships with each other by limiting their outside-the-bubble contacts. Our previous article about COVID-19 bubbles for families and friends offers suggestions about establishing boundaries, including proposing a trial period for members of the group. These bubble-building processes work the same way for couples — all you need is to have a conversation about what you’re comfortable with.
But let’s be realistic; that may be easier said than done. Boundary-setting conversations are awkward even with close friends or family members. Broaching these topics when you’re thinking about entering into a physical relationship with someone you’ve just met takes courage, and maybe a little planning.
Have you ever called a customer-service number? Maybe to deal with a technical issue or cancel your cable? In any case, the person you talked with had a script provided by the company. Usually, and often frustratingly, customer service representatives are required to stick to that script.
But in your case, writing and sticking to a script will help! Start by thinking about the behaviors you are and are not comfortable with and the questions you want to ask. Begin with COVID-19 safety, including outside contacts, mask wearing, and hygiene. You’ll also need to find out if he and his roommate have ground rules about socializing and are taking proper precautions. If you plan to spend time at his place, he’s going to need to make sure that his roommate is comfortable having another person in their home — ultimately, they’re in your bubble too!
It's also important to assess risky behavior. You indicated that he received a negative test recently — you’ll want to ask about the circumstances around that test. Was it a precaution before or after a trip? Was he in a group of people where an outbreak occurred? Did he get lax with social distancing? There are plenty of reasons why someone would have taken a test, but some reasons are better than others. And if he was tested because of potential exposure, he may still need to avoid close contacts for a while longer.
If your conversation goes well and you’re ready to take the next step, there are still some important factors to keep an eye on. For one thing, make sure you’re keeping track of the prevalence of infection in your area. The positive-test rate in your community is directly linked to your overall risk.
COVID-19 has introduced anxiety and uncertainty into every facet of our lives. But when it comes to relationships, the pandemic may offer an extremely tarnished silver lining. We all know that it’s important to establish boundaries and good communication in a new relationship. But when you’re getting to know someone, it’s easy to let things slide a bit. In the age of coronavirus, those things are non-negotiable.
Most importantly, if you feel uncomfortable at any point, or if you don’t feel like you’re on the same page as your partner, say something! Entering into a sexual relationship should be fun and exciting. So if you’re ready to take the leap, fire up your notes app and start perfecting that script — with any luck, it will lead somewhere steamy — and safe.
See also: “Talking about boundaries and bubbles”