S1 Episode 42: Love in Captivity

The COVID-19 quarantine has changed everything about love and sex. Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher reveals how socially distant dating can nurture a relationship by slowing things down and encouraging more substantive conversation and deeper intimacy. Long-term couples have a different problem as they adjust to 24/7 togetherness and learn to carve out safe spaces. Plus… why it’s essential to laugh, play, and stay connected with friends and family to enhance brain health.


Dr. Stieg: I’d like to welcome back one of our regular guests, Helen Fisher. Helen is a biological anthropologist and one of the world’s leading experts on love. She is a senior research fellow at 

Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute and a member of the center for human evolutionary studies at Rutgers University. Helen, it’s wonderful to have you back here talking today about dating in captivity.

Dr. Fisher: I’m delighted to be with you Phil.

Dr. Stieg:  So what is it like, what has Coronavirus done to people’s dating activities?

Dr. Fisher: Well, oddly enough, I think it’s in some strange way improving them because for some very basic reasons, first of all, I mean, the internet is out there to serve you. You can meet people any time, but now you’re at home, you’ve got the almost obliged to use these services. I mean, they’re there, right waiting for you. You know, for most people have time to talk, they’re not getting dressed up, they’re not commuting to work. They’re not meeting friends and family after work or going to various events. They’ve got time to talk and they’ve got something to talk about that isn’t superficial. The chitchat of a regular first date is gone. What they’re doing is talking very seriously with each other about their feelings, their hopes, what they plan to do after this. You know, there’s a psychologist who studied something called self-disclosure and it really does bring intimacy and commitment to a partnership faster.

Dr. Fisher: By the way, men are just as likely to disclose their feelings, their deepest feelings as women are. And I think that while you’re sitting at home, you’ve got the time and you’ve got something to talk about and you’re more inclined to actually disclose your, their heart to heart feelings about things. But there’s some other important things too. Sex is off the table. You know when you go out on a first date, you’re wondering, should I kiss him? Should I kiss her? What do I do if they invite me home? How do I handle this? It’s gone. That is off the table. And so is money. You know, on that first day you’ve got to decide once again, well do we go to a cheap cafe? Do we go to a fancy bar or restaurant? Do I offer to split the bill? Who pays for this?

Dr. Fisher: It’s gone. So some of the biggest sort of problems of the first date and early dating are just simply off the table and you’ve got time to do something that’s deeper. I just did a study with Match — 6,004 people responded in two days and the study, they wanted to know what was going on. Were people using more Internet? And yes they are. Prior to this horrible virus issue, only 6% of people were video chatting on the Internet. And now 69% say that they would be perfectly willing to do a video chat with somebody. So they’re getting on these sites. They are doing more video chatting, they’re talking about things that are more serious. And oddly enough, it’s a rather traditional form of dating. You know, when I do my studies with Match and 34% of singles have had sex before the first date and now in fact they are having to have some conversation to get to know somebody before they actually make love. So I think oddly enough it’s given us a bit of a gift.

Dr. Stieg: So what you’re really saying, we don’t have sports, I guess you can still go out and buy alcohol, but sitting and drinking alone by yourself is not as much fun as being with your buddies or going to a sports game. I have to ask you the hard question. Is it truly an interest in dating or is it just that we want human connection and you know, drinking a beer with your buddies over a Zoom or over the phone is not as much fun?

Dr. Fisher: Well, I mean the bottom line is we are mammals and we were built to court and to, you know, enjoy people in person. I mean for millions of years we weren’t doing anything on the internet. That is for sure. So when this is over, we’re going to get back to dating, we’re going to get back to having our beers with their buddies and doing our sports and going to the opera and the theater and all kinds of things. No question about it. But what’s interesting to me, I mean even in my personal life, well I, I like people to get back to work. I got, I got people calling me who haven’t reached me since graduate school days, 45 years ago. I mean every Tuesday night I, I’ve got one cocktail party at five with a group of friends and then at six o’clock I have another Zoom cocktail party. And mind you, these are not people that I see regularly, but suddenly everybody needs to reach out and I’m getting all kinds of phone calls and yeah, I can’t wait until they get back to work. It’s getting very social for me.

Dr. Stieg: So let me ask it. Do you think that the advantage to Internet versus in-person meeting people, you know, going to the bar and having to break the ice with that one liner, they get somebody interested, is advantageous and number one in that it makes it a little bit easier, but number two, it facilitates a dialogue between two people?

Dr. Fisher: Well, certainly people, long before this virus people were saying, you know, it’s easier, I get to know somebody better on the internet rather than walking into a bar. It was very interesting article that came out really in the last couple of months and it was about college kids. Now I know that these dating sites are very attractive to older people, but I don’t think they, I didn’t think they’d be attractive to college kids, but these people, I think girls particularly, that was the article — they would rather sit around together and go on one of these sites and meet people on the site, then they would go to a big, you know, woodsy beer, drink’em up thing and just, you know, have sex with some guy that they don’t even know. Even the young who certainly can walk into a bar and find people their age, some of their interests would prefer to get to know somebody a little bit more on the Internet. They’re going to get to meeting those people in person that we will go back to that. What’s interesting to me is I think it’s really starting a new phase. You know, I mean for a long time now people who’ve met on the Internet and that’s what these are, these are not dating sites. All they are is introducing sites. I mean the only real algorithm is your own brain. You’ve got to meet them yourself. But there’s long been a trajectory in which they meet on the Internet, introduced on the Internet, and then go out and meet the person. And now I think there’s this intermediate step introduced to on the Internet and then video chat on the Internet and then go out and meet the person. And in many respects I think that’s going to enable the young and everybody else to kiss fewer frogs.

Dr. Fisher: I mean they’re going to save time, they’re going to save money. They’re going to go out with fewer people because this will be an escalation or breaking point, but when they do go out and meet the people, they will know the person better. They will have already decided that maybe this could interest me. So it’s what’s happening here with this virus is it’s slowing down the courtship process. You’re getting to know people in a more traditional way before you confront the money issue and the sex issue and the all of the rather shallow conversation really that often occurs in the first date.

Dr. Stieg: You’ve mentioned the, I guess I’ll describe it as the sexual tension that occurs probably during the first, second or third time you get together with somebody and is that the upside you see to these online processes where you can’t do that? You don’t want to do it right now because of the uncertainty of COVID?

Dr. Fisher: I mean when you meet and you do this video chatting, sex is off the table. Now when they go out and meet the person, perhaps it will have sex on the first date, but at least they will have decided that they liked this person well enough. They know this person a little bit better. I mean some of these people are spending hours talking before they go out and meet them. So I would, if you’re going to do the video to get introduced on the internet, it is sort of a new nonsexual stage that is becoming more and more fashionable. No, I mean I think that people do go out and have sex with, with people and it’s not just the young, by the way, I mean I’m beginning to think that having sex very early in a relationship is a little bit like a sex interview.I mean my data with Match show that 34% of singles have had sex with somebody before the first date, before the first date. People think that it’s very strange, particularly older people.

Dr. Stieg: How do you define first date then?

Dr. Fisher: Well that’s the important part, Phil, that is the very important part. Actually I put it in quotes to the first official date. So what we’re seeing is this trajectory which happened before the virus, which is they started out as just friends or we’re just friends and then they move into friends with benefits. We learned a lot between the sheets, not only whether somebody is any good at making love, but can they listen? Can they be patient? Do they have a sense of humor? And if that works out then they begin to tell friends and family about this person. Then they have the official first date. And so the official first date is becoming sort of more and more meaningful. In my day, and probably yours, you know my first date with somebody with somebody I didn’t know very well. It was just to get to know you. And these days the first date is actually much more meaningful. They’ve already slept together, a lot of them. They’ve had long conversations together. They’ve been friends for awhile and now they’re willing to spend their time and money on somebody. A first date in New York City can cost you $200. So..

Dr. Stieg: Oh you’re cheap.

Dr. Fisher: *laughs* That’s a scream, I’m going to borrow that. Do you mind? Well that’s a stopper. But these people, it’s a, it’s a slowing down process. What we’re seeing is the real extension of this pre-commitment stage. Slowly getting to know somebody, then having the sex, then telling friends and family, then having the official date, then slowly moving in together and married much later. Around the world, we’re marrying much later. It’s the extension of this courtship process and I’ve looked in 80 cultures, through the demographic yearbooks of the United Nations. And as it turns out, the later you marry, the more likely you are to remain married and new data in America on 3000 people shows that the longer you court before you wed, the more likely you will remain married. So what this virus is doing is continuing to slow down the courtship process, moving us more to the traditional, getting to know somebody before you have the sex. And it strikes me as that’s a good trend.

Dr. Stieg: It’s my sense that you think that online dating, online relationships prolongs the courtship and with a prolonged courtship you have a higher likelihood of having a successful marriage.

Dr. Fisher: Yes. That’s my feeling about it there.

Dr. Stieg: Is there a higher incidence of marriage as a result of online dating?

Dr. Fisher: It’s very hard to know. Some sites will tell you that they’re marrying a lot of people, but I don’t know how, they’re knowing that to be honest with ya. I mean bottom line is most dating sites are just for dating and once people find somebody, they don’t go back to the dating site and report in on the fact that they, I mean all over the Match offices are couples with babies that are Match babies that because they met on the internet. But one thing that I do know, and it is a recent study that came out of University of Chicago and they looked at marriages and divorces that were begun between people who met on the internet as opposed to off the internet. And they found that divorce was higher among couples who met off the internet. That meeting on the internet apparently led to more stability in longterm partnerships.

Dr. Stieg: If you had to structure something for somebody, you know, I want a take home message for somebody listening to this, what are the key kinds of questions that you should be seeking answers to in a conversation with either a total stranger or somebody that you’re cultivating an online relationship with?

Dr. Fisher: Yeah, so interesting Phil, because you know I’m so, we’re also different. I once had an experience of a guy he came, he called me up, he couldn’t decide whether to marry a woman and leave his family for the woman and leave his family with lots of money, but the issue is whether he should make this change. So I asked him a lot of questions and he said, “Oh yeah, she was so good at golf and she was such a good dresser. And she was so good companion was his friends.” And I said to him, I said, “Well, is she interesting?” And he said, “Well that doesn’t make any difference to me.” And at that moment I realized, oh my goodness, people that are looking for different things in a partnership. I could not go out with somebody who wasn’t interesting. I just, I couldn’t do it.

Dr. Stieg: So the answer to the question then is knowing what’s important to you.

Dr. Fisher: Yes.

Dr. Stieg: And asking questions related to what is important. I mean if golf’s important to you, then you ask golf questions, right?

Dr. Fisher: Yes. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Yes.

Dr. Stieg: You think that sheltering and social distancing are going to help or hinder romance?

Dr. Fisher: You know, I, I read a quote recently that said catastrophes push you to make the next step in life, to take your next step in life. And I do think that people who are in very unhappy relationships are going to divorce or break up when life gets back to normal. And I think that people who are starting happy relationships, that are in happy relationships, are going to go to the next step to marry each other or have children together or realize that they want to make a long-term commitment. So it depends really on where you are in, in your, in your relationships. Yeah, I know, I know that the divorce rate is going way up in China since people can go out. But they don’t talk about the marriages when I guess that a lot of marriages would go up too. So this is a tremendous strain, you know, I mean. I’m an anthropologist, you know, for millions of years we traveled in these little hunting and gathering groups and these people were not spending 24/7 together. I mean, for millions of years, men stepped off and went hunting and certainly all day, but maybe for several days. And women went gathering and often went to another camp to see relatives or friends and be gone for two weeks. So this idea of 24/7 is not natural for the human animal. But it’s going to put stress on all of us. For me, I think it’s a great opportunity. I think an awful lot of people are going to use this as an opportunity to get to know their partner and their family better.

Dr. Stieg: I think that we can’t, however, underplay the whole psychological stress that’s going on. I know the statistic that I just heard is in China where the, where the virus started, 25% of the doctors have quit medicine.

Dr. Fisher: Oh wow.

Dr. Stieg: The emotional stress that goes into this, and I can only imagine the emotional stress that goes on between a married couple when the relationship is a little bit difficult to begin with, it can only make it harder and …

Dr. Fisher: As a matter of fact, they’re now showing that there’s more domestic abuse. Domestic violence is going up.

Dr. Stieg: I would think so. And I think that that somehow we have to get the message across that this is the time to talk. And unfortunately, if you don’t like the person you’re talking to, that’s probably not going to be helpful.

Dr. Fisher: No question about it. I mean that’s the downside. Um, but uh, you probably know you’re talking to an optimist and there’s an upside to and the upside is that you now are almost beholden to get to know this person better and to create a home environment that in which you can flourish.

Dr. Stieg: In your recent op ed piece, you went into some detail about how you personally are dealing with the COVID crisis in your relationship. Can you give examples of how you’re trying to enhance the relationship in this funky time period?

Dr. Fisher: And I, and I think this hopefully will be helpful to other people do first. First of all, I just want to tell you that you know, my boyfriend and I six years ago decided that we were going to have what we call LAT “Living Apart Together”. So he lives up in the Bronx, in New York and I live in Manhattan and we decided sometime ago the two to three nights a week we would be separate that I would go out with my girlfriends in New York. He’s more of a homebody that he can do the things he wants to do, at home. So we don’t see each other every night. Now we completely trust each other. I mean everybody knows who, where everybody is. It’s not an opportunity for adultery. Neither of us was interested in that. Bottom line is this COVID experience has forced us to live together 24/7. And so I’ve sort of made a whole list of things that we do and that I could recommend others. 

Dr. Fisher: First of all, you got to have a safe space. You’ve got to build some part of that apartment where when you are there, you cannot be interrupted. And in fact, I’ve got luckily my own room in his place and he knocks on the door and asks me if I’m busy, if he has something to say. So you’ve got to create a safe space. And if you’ve got children in the house, let them choose their safe space. Apparently, you know, the human animal needs autonomy. We need this feeling that we are in control of our lives and when we don’t have a safe space, we can feel hopeless and sometimes even hostile. So that’s really important to carve out a space where when you’re there that’s yours, you can do as you please. Nobody can bother you.

Dr. Stieg: In this period where we have to do perform social distancing. You’re married in a two bedroom apartment with four children. How does one maintain sanity? In that scenario? You define the ideal circumstance. Two people, two bedroom apartment and you can get away. I got that. Now let’s make it real.

Dr. Fisher: You know, for millions of years, people told stories. They assembled around a campfire but you can certainly assemble around the kitchen table at a certain time and tell stories. You can begin to play games, puzzles and you can even ask children to go and cook lunch. Well it might not be a great lunch, but at least you’ll laugh and they will acquire some new skills. And laughter is the elixir of survival. I mean laughter evolved to get us through tough times. I know one young woman with her new husband has moved into his parents’ house and there’s 11 people in that house and in the evenings they play charades and they play card games. And they play with puzzles and there’s a distinct time when you are doing this. There’s a distinct time where it’s quiet time. That can be a distinct time. When you all exercise together. I mean you can turn on music and have an hour of dancing. Even if you can’t dance, you can teach the children to dance. You can get a new recipe and the whole family is sort of cooking together. You can sit around the dining room table at night and play what I call the glad game. Everybody goes around the table and says something that they are glad about. I mean, this is a time children don’t have to be maniacs. Children need schedules. They need free time and they need to know what’s going on and they need to have some say in how the day will proceed.

Dr. Stieg: So what you’re describing is an individual, a couple, since we’re focusing on the marriage component here, is they have to be the parents and they have to devise a schedule that creates a lone time for the kids, family times with the kids. Alone, time for each other. Husband and wife time. But it’s really, it just gets down to scheduling and knowing what’s important in your lives.

Dr. Fisher: It’s also essential to play. Play drives up the dopamine system in the brain. It, it boosts memory. It’s good for the immune system. It’s good, reduces cortisol and cholesterol. Play is important.

Dr. Stieg: I do think though, the positive unintended consequence is that the workforce is changing. It’s going to become more remote. People are going to be working from home because it is a positive environment, which is going to reduce the impact of interpersonal relationships. The other day I was in my office and I said to the residents, I’m going to go for, I want to go round, and the residents jumped up and said, “Oh, I’ll go with you.” Just because they wanted to get out and be in somewhat of a social environment, even though we would keep our social distance and walk six feet apart, but, then you’re still walking into an ICU where people are sick with COVID, but people need contact.

Dr. Fisher: Exactly, and they like big groups. Laughter is contagious. Cheering is contagious. Fresh air is a thrill for the human being. And I think they’re going to get back to packing in stadiums, packing in theaters, packing in operas, going to the movies, going to restaurants. But just like you say, there’s going to be, it’s going to be a long tail is going to be a slow going. Some people like you said are going to go straight out and drive a hundred miles an hour. They’re going to be so happy to get out of here. I think it’s more of a personality style. I mean some people are more cautious. There’s a gene for social norm conformity and you know sort of following the rules and there’s also genes for restlessness and energy and curiosity and the drive to discover. So I think that some people will get right out and go crazy and others will be quite cautious about it.

Dr. Stieg: Helen as always, you’re enlightening. It’s good to see that relationships will exist through COVID and I thank you for your insight as to how we can go about maintaining those relationships. As always, it’s an absolute pleasure to have you on the show. Thanks for being here.

Dr. Fisher: And same Phil. Thank you.