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Illustrations by Esther Lalanne

When Tiffany Woo reconnected with her ex-boyfriend last year, she thought maybe this time it would work.

“I’ve been thinking about you a lot,” he texted her one day, early in the pandemic.

It had been more than two years since they last spoke to each other, and as the world headed into lockdown, she thought fate was bringing them back together. “I thought this time was the real deal,” said Woo, a 30-year-old publicist in Los Angeles. Over the past year, she helped him cope with his dad’s death, and he met her family. “It was good having a companion,” she said. “It was good having that person that you could trust.”

Then, a few months ago, he disappeared. “As soon as things started opening up in the beginning of April, he like completely ghosted me,” Woo said.

She was crushed. The two had agreed that they would be upfront with each other if they met someone else or decided to part ways, “but he obviously didn't give me that courtesy,” she said.

Now, as the prospect of a “Hot Vax Summer” heats up in the United States, Woo is trying to navigate the pressures of dating even as she grapples with learning how to trust someone again. And she’s not alone.

From struggles with social anxiety to concerns about personal space and boundaries, women told us they’re trying to figure out what returning to dating looks like for them — or if they’re even ready.

To help women work through these, our mental health columnists, Dr. Andrea Bonior and Sahaj Kohli, offered advice and tips for specific scenarios that Woo and other women shared with us.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

If you’re concerned about trusting someone again

I feel pressure to start dating again but have feelings of uneasiness about trusting people especially with all of the new variants of covid-19 emerging. When things first started opening up, I got ghosted by the person I was dating during lockdown so putting myself back out into the dating scene has been hard.”

— Tiffany Woo

When you’re ghosted, there’s no closure to the relationship, leaving you to navigate the throes of ambiguity. And when left with ambiguity, most people tend to search for a reasoning that makes sense, often putting the focus on what they did to make the ghoster do such a thing. Please remember that when a person ghosts it says more about them and what they are incapable of — healthy communication, consideration and a level of maturity — than it does about you.

It also makes sense that your ability to trust has taken a hit. It’s okay to take time to rebuild your ability to trust by surrounding yourself with kind people, allowing yourself to process what you’re feeling, and taking your time letting new people in. It also may be helpful to get honest with yourself about what your comfort levels are due to the variants of the coronavirus so when you do go back out into the dating scene, you are able to communicate this.

— Sahaj Kohli

If you’re experiencing social anxiety

There is totally pressure to go full force back into dating again. It's the first question you're asked when reuniting with friends. I feel anxious due to getting more socially awkward over the pandemic and feel rusty with my own friends yet alone going out with a stranger I don't even know.”

— Layla Ahmad, 28, Toronto

Remember that the pause button that the pandemic pushed applied to everyone, not just you. The world wasn’t out there competing in charm competitions while you alone were hibernating; many, many people are feeling rusty and awkward along with you. So, when thoughts creep in about “wasted” time, try to reframe them: Most people slowed their dating (which is not the only purpose of life!) this past year, and nothing was lost.

But even deeper, I’d urge you to take a step back and think about what you really want. Not what you want to want, or what you think you should want, but whether the urge to date actually feels like it’s coming from within you — or from outside of you. If it’s really yours and you’re just anxious? Reframe the fears, breathe, nudge yourself through the awkward, and then give yourself some grace.

— Andrea Bonior

If you’re just getting out of a serious relationship

My husband and I separated in January 2020 but officially divorced March 2021. Everyone wants me to start dating, but after this and 17 years in a relationship/marriage, I don’t even know where to start! “

— Andrea Cozzitorto, 40, Hamilton, N.J.

Even if everyone wants you to start dating, that doesn’t automatically mean it must happen. Are you honoring your own voice here?

If you’re ready, but just understandably nervous about jumping back in after a divorce (plus a pandemic), remember that you can start very small. You may not need even need to do anything at first, if the clearly large Single-You Fan Club wants to start making introductions (and then make you popcorn as you try the apps).

As for trust, that takes baby steps, too. It builds naturally when the person you’re seeing shows their worthiness of it, and it can’t — and shouldn’t — be forced. When they respond with compassion to something vulnerable you share; when they do what they say they’ll do; when they reveal positive aspects of their character not for show but because it’s who they are — that’s when you’ll feel it growing.

— Andrea Bonior

If it feels like you’re running out of time

I finished graduate school in December of 2019. 2020 was supposed to be my triumphant return to socializing and dating. Here we are a year later and I'm just now dipping a toe back in the dating pool. I feel an enormous amount of pressure, but I'm mostly putting that pressure on myself. At my age, I didn't have a year to lose.”

— Elizabeth Marsh, 36, Denver

You were ready to strut out onto the red carpet of your life and the carpet was pulled from right under you. It makes sense that you feel disoriented and disappointed. There’s no road map for how life should go, and the pandemic has made that even more true. Maybe you haven’t been dating or meeting new people, but you have accomplished other things in the last year. You’ve been tending to more pressing needs because of covid-19, and now that the world is opening back up it’s okay if you don’t have the same momentum you felt before.

Even if you recognize that you’re placing that pressure on yourself, that narrative is rooted in something else — your family history, culture, society. I’m wondering where that pressure is really coming from. Ask yourself what micro-steps you can take so you can reclaim your agency and inch your way toward your bigger goals without guilting, comparing or pressuring yourself to make up for “lost time.”

— Sahaj Kohli

If you’re concerned about personal space and boundaries

I’m a widow (four years now), and it’s time to see what I want. I’m finding men want to forego the formalities and invite themselves (in) to my home as a way of meeting and ‘seeing if we have chemistry’ but I’m hoping to meeting on neutral ground and can’t believe that anyone thinks letting them into my own home could ever be a good idea. I was married 32 years and had the highest love until my spouse passed. I grew up in our marriage and now I’m not even sure what or who I want, but I won’t ever know thru dating apps only dating.”

— Scottie Jeanette Madden, 59, Lake Arrowhead, Calif.

I’m sorry for this staggering loss. What a beautiful love you had for three decades! Though no one could ever replace your husband, you built a life with a good man — which should give you faith that they exist. If you’re not comfortable with the apps, that’s understandable, but dipping your toes in doesn’t have to commit you to anything.

Limiting early dates to neutral ground is not just advisable, it’s a safety necessity. So I’m frustrated that there are any men assuming that they should automatically be granted access to your front door — or even your address. Thankfully, lots of other men out there have more of a clue, and more respect for your comfort. Affirm your boundaries clearly in the early stages, and think of it as a screener in itself — if someone tries to steamroll boundaries, that’s useful information that saves you some time.

— Andrea Bonior

If you don’t know what to talk about

It's strange as there's not as much to talk about like before, because we're just now re-entering the world again to an extent. It's also awkward to have to ask if someone is vaccinated. Some dating apps list the option and some don't. It makes you wonder if people just don't want to disclose openly that they aren't vaccinated.”

— Shruti Shah, 33, New York City

Social interactions are definitely harder now after a year-plus of not being in situations where small talk or building new relationships was as prominent. And it can be especially tricky to navigate the topic of vaccinations. Instead of waiting for the other person to bring it up, consider being more upfront and sharing your expectations around vaccination status when you are ready to move to the next stage of meeting in person. For instance, you may say something like, “I would love to meet up. Just so you know, I am vaccinated, and right now I am only comfortable with meeting other folks who are also vaccinated.”

Setting and communicating your boundaries will allow you to get a better idea of how the other person responds to, and respects, it. This information will allow you to gauge if you’re on the same wavelength as the other person and/or if you like their communication style — important for any relationship. Also, when you do get ready to meet someone in person, consider doing an activity, so you can still enjoy each other’s company without the pressure of having to fill the entire time with conversation starters.

— Sahaj Kohli

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