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Isolated Too Long?

Here's how to cope with re-entry dating anxiety.

Dating in the era of multimedia technology is a challenge in and of itself. But navigating the limitations that the pandemic has forced upon relationship-seekers has not been easy.

Now, with the tentative re-emergence of venturing out there again, it is even more complicated. Many people have not only become rusty at those skills but have lost touch with how others have been affected, and how those differences can successfully mesh.

Many of my patients have told me how nervous they are about moving out into the dating world again. Virtual reality, no matter how accurate it is in representing the real world, cannot fully prepare people for what they will experience.

In addition, going too long without connection creates deprivation, which can lead to unsafe risk-taking. Where the availability of multiple possibilities helps accurate discernment, the lack of those opportunities can lead to more dangerous choices.

When people spend too much time isolated from reality, their conversations have mostly been with themselves. That can lead to making assumptions that are not checked and conclusions based on suppositions and/or fantasies. Transitioning from self-to-self to self-in-the-presence-of-others is both a challenging and anxiety-producing process.

All people learn how to successfully adapt from consistent feedback in real-time. Even though dating on a regular basis may not always yield successful results, it does provide the opportunity to rethink and reset. The limitations of the pandemic and the fears of becoming infected have limited the exchanging of views that have always helped people understand whether there is possible compatibility.

As a result of this unnatural situation, this re-entry dating anxiety is totally understandable and shared by many others. Without the continuity they have depended upon, they must now start over without knowing what new skills they will need.

Navigating successful re-entry into the dating pool

There are five steps to this process:

  • Honestly and non-judgmentally assess who you used to be before you were cut off from the natural exploration of relationships.

  • Fully understand how you feel about who you’ve become during your dating isolation.

  • Thoroughly re-educate yourself as to how the dating world has actually changed while you’ve been absent.

  • Prepare to re-emerge as your best self.

  • Re-enter with a cautious spirit of adventure and the courage to be a novice again.

Step 1: Who were you before you left the dating scene?

When you were an active dater, what were your most attractive qualities, and what didn’t seem to work? What would you like to leave behind now that you’ve had the chance to reflect and can start anew? Were you hanging around with people you’d like to know again, or have you found out that you need new stimulation, new places to frequent, and different kinds of fellow travelers? Don’t fall into the comfort of returning to people who did not make you happy or ask the best of you.

How did you feel about your physical appearance, your personality style, and what you had to offer? How was your attitude towards meeting new people? Were you disillusioned and defeated, or were you enjoying the dating scene and eager to participate again? Did you still feel interesting, or were you becoming a little too predictable or stale? Were you attracting the kinds of people you wanted to be with or discouraged by those who did show up?

The time you’ve spent without active interaction has given you the opportunity to reflect, redefine, and rechoose without the pressure of actual, in-person dating experiences. You’ve had to keep your faith in a better future. Even though reemergence is a little anxiety-provoking, you can now be more forgiving of your past errors and can present yourself as more desirable than you were before.

Step 2: Who have you become during your isolation?

Many of my patients are unhappy with how they’ve let themselves go during their periods of isolation. They’ve gained weight or lost muscle tone. Without continuing feedback, they’ve lost knowing how others experience them. They’ve been relying on media information, often watching endless YouTube tapes, or exhausted from the political and social stressors that have increased distrust and decreased comfort with others.

Without the opportunity to exchange thoughts, feelings, opinions, news, interests, and discomfort with new audiences, many have become too locked into their own thinking and reactions. Unless people share and explore other ways of seeing the world, they are more likely to distrust what they don’t know and lose the openness to welcoming others’ experiences.

Also, many people who have lived in isolation have become more anxious and depressed. Those disparaging feelings destroy confidence and make it much harder to trust. They tell me that they feel too lost, too needy, or without the energy it takes to make good impressions on others. Often cut off from reassurance and the feelings of social and family support, they may feel too vulnerable to potential rejection and fear taking the chance of that happening.

Step 3: Reeducating yourself about the current dating world

Not having the opportunity to mix with others in real-time, many people re-entering the dating world have only virtual experience to compare who they are from what is currently available and successful behaviors in the dating world.

Social media, in its staggered time, too often is largely two-dimensional representations of individual experiences, still-life moments in other people’s lives. So many people have shared with me that they feel envious of those who seem happier and more connected than they experience in their own lives. Those who have stayed connected in real-time, even by Zoom or the like, have endured less damage, but touch and intimate contact to others cannot be replicated by those experiences.

The fears of contracting the virus and the lack of trust in the accurate representation of reality by others have created an unnatural apprehension of making fatal errors. Where once people felt free to mingle with many different kinds of people to compare and contrast, they now fear the unknown. Who is it actually now safe to be with, and in what capacity?

Many also have not had the courage to share their negative experiences with others for fear of being seen as less successful in adapting. They often don’t realize that so many are feeling the same way, similarly fearful of being vulnerable.

Step 4: Getting yourself ready to emerge

Becoming a person you are proud to debut again will be a challenge for anyone who has been absent from a rapidly shifting dating environment. You’ll want to be at your best, and that may require changing your physical appearance, becoming aware of new trends, understanding and feeling compassionate towards yourself and others, and working to heal whatever emotional and physical damage you may have endured during your isolation.

One of the examples people have continually shared with me is wondering how they are going to navigate sexual interactions when they have lost touch of the difference between self-pleasuring and love-making with a partner. I often hear the same question: “What will it feel like to be intimate again, to talk with another without distrust or fear of being uninteresting?” It is important that people feel they have interesting things to share. In lieu of talking about relationships that they have been unable to experience, it helps for them to be up on current events, recalling wonderful movies or books, and being able to relate to how relationships have changed in the absence of face-to-face connection. If you feel you can be proud of what you are bringing to the party, you may find that others are more fearful than you are, and you may need to reach out to help. On the other hand, if you feel too vulnerable, too anxious, too fearful of failing, reach out to a qualified professional who can help you get back on track again. It is a truism that people who are in love with life will always be the most successful in attracting others. Isolation too often takes away those positive feelings. You will need to find ways to look forward to what is possible, rather than being defined by what has been lost.

Step 5: Stepping courageously into the unfamiliar

I can assure you, from the many inquiries I receive every week, that you are not alone. Everyone re-entering the world in general, and the dating scene in particular, is anxious and nervous about whether or not they will fit or can regain their prior social standing. What is important is to not let those fears stop you. Courage is acting in the face of fear. It is the willingness to take risks, to reach out for help, to authentically share, and to take pride in your newly emerging self.

Think of yourself as a person who, by living in deprivation, may also have less baggage to bring into new experiences. You know yourself better because you have been your most intimate companion. You’ve also had the opportunity to observe from a little distance, so you are not so encumbered by being personally involved. That experience can provide perspective in ways that upfront interactions cannot. Turn your anxiety into changing your perspective from “nothing ventured, nothing lost” to “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Help others in their discomfort by sharing your own. Create your new friends with more compassion and more joy to be together again. Be the person who shines the light for others to follow.

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