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How To Date During A Global Pandemic

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Dating during a pandemic is tough. And with Valentine's Day coming up, we asked you what questions you have about finding love or keeping love alive in your current relationship. As a heads up, some of our discussion will be sexually explicit.

All right. So to help us talk through our questions, I'm joined by Dr. Lexx Brown-James. She's a marriage and family therapist and sexologist based in St. Louis. Welcome back to the program.

LEXX BROWN-JAMES: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: And we also have NPR host Sam Sanders of It's Been A Minute fame with us.

Welcome, Sam.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Hi. It's good to be here, although I'm still scratching my head saying, why me for romance and love questions?

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: Because, Audie, we're friends. You probably already kind of know this. My love life is like the end of a Michael Bay movie. A lot of explosions...

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: ...Destruction and ultimately unfulfilling.

CORNISH: Well, now that Sam has established his credentials...

BROWN-JAMES: (Laughter).

CORNISH: ...Dr. Lexx Brown-James, can I just ask you briefly, have you been getting a lot of romantic questions, issues coming up in your therapy?

BROWN-JAMES: All the therapists, all the sexologists I know who do relationships have been booked and busy since last March.

CORNISH: OK. We'll be leaning on your expertise for sure. But first, I want to start with you, Sam. You've been talking about love in the time of COVID a lot on your show, right?

SANDERS: Yeah. You know, we had an episode on my show all about how to date in the time of corona. We've talked to mental health experts all throughout the pandemic about how to just deal with life as well. And the one universal theme I've been hearing is the only way to get through this is to forgive yourself and to be kind to yourself. All of this is new. Give yourself a hug and just push forward. I guess, like, that's my generic advice for everything right now, but especially for the love life.

CORNISH: Be kind to yourself. That's a good note to start on. I've got a few questions for you both here from listeners. This one is from Jack Gentile. He's 21 and from Illinois. He says that dating has understandably been unusual, but he's trying. And he recently joined Tinder and went on his first date since quarantine started. Here's how he's feeling about it.

JACK GENTILE: Everyone has spent last year trying to get more comfortable being alone or being by themselves. And so now that the vaccine is starting to come out, we're sort of going back to normal. So how do you start to feel comfortable being with other people?

CORNISH: Dr. Lexx Brown-James, I want to start with you because in a way, this is a hopeful question, right? It's about looking ahead.

BROWN-JAMES: Mmm hmm. Mmm hmm. I would say for Jack and for everybody, learning to be by yourself is actually integral, and I want him to hold on to that. When they start to date, they're not going to lose themselves in somebody else's ish (ph). It's like, well, I don't really like this. I can be by myself and be OK. That is an integral tool to have when starting to seek out relationship.

Now, to start to build relationship, I want him to not, like, scuba dive soul-deep into risk-taking and vulnerability. I want them to dip their toe. So very small risk-taking is a key to start building up trust.

CORNISH: Sam, to you - this question of how one starts to feel comfortable being with other people.

SANDERS: Yeah. Well, I got to say, as someone who has been living with just my dog and working remotely at home for several months now, I've seen myself change. And a thing that I'm trying to grapple with and be OK with is that, like, our new normal post pandemic probably won't be our old normal. And so as I enter into dating or enter into friendships or try to go back into the world, I have to be OK with myself and forgive myself for things not being the same old normal they were.

CORNISH: All right. Now, I want to move to a question from Rachel Crugg. She got engaged last fall. And to her surprise, the pandemic actually brought her closer to her fiance. They aren't sick of seeing each other, but there is some monotony.

RACHEL CRUGG: How do we keep our relationship fun and special when we see each other every day in kind of our laziest selves?

CORNISH: I love getting this question at the start of their marriage. I don't have the heart to tell her that...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ...This question is relevant in the pandemic age and not.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: But Dr. Lexx Brown-James, you've been seeing couples. What are you telling them?

BROWN-JAMES: So one thing - and some people hate me for this, but I'm a go ahead and say it because I tell everybody to do that - I take sex off the table. So we can build up arousal, let's plan to do something funny every day. So we're laughing together. We're touching. Let's look at just making out. Kissing starts to decrease the longer that people are together, which are a million nerve endings that are not being tantalized on a regular basis. So let's just go for broke and have a make-out session midday for our, quote-unquote, "lunch." And it doesn't have to go further than that.

CORNISH: Now, staying with the theme of keeping a relationship exciting, our next question comes from someone in a long-distance relationship. Clark is from New York. He asked that we use his first name only because his question has to do with sex. Now, he lives a few hours away from his girlfriend. They just started dating. And they're only able to see each other once a month.

CLARK: One of the things missing is, you know, the sexy times. Like, what's out there to kind of spark that when it is a month between each time we see each other?

BROWN-JAMES: So, yeah, there are a couple of ways we can do this, right? Yes, it can get monotonous through Zoom. And we can spice things up. If you have the affordability to do it, there are long-distance sex toys that you can use that will send a vibration to your partner...

CORNISH: I'm sorry, what now? This is news you can use.

BROWN-JAMES: Yeah. There are long-distance sex toys (laughter) that - they connect to an app. So you can send a, hey, how you doing, boo, to your lover, right?

SANDERS: (Laughter).

BROWN-JAMES: And then when you're together, you have all of that arousal built up so you can do what you want to do and you can be just a regular couple and hang out. Like, we've done all the sexy things. We're tired. Let's just eat pizza and watch Netflix and hang out.

SANDERS: I have a more practical question or a suggestion for Clark. Like, this pandemic year has changed the ways in which we have to be here or there to work for a lot of us. And so maybe there's a way that they can just build in a little more together time physically, more than once a month. I don't know.

CORNISH: Speaking of which, we got quite a few questions about virtual dates, how to make them less awkward, more fun. Could either of you jump in here with some creative ideas for virtual dates?

BROWN-JAMES: Sam, I'll let you start.

SANDERS: (Laughter) I mean, you could...

CORNISH: OK, it sounds like Sam's going to need some help for Valentine's Day weekend.

BROWN-JAMES: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: I'm sensing a theme here.

SANDERS: I should have just brought my questions for the good doctor because I got a few.

CORNISH: You should have just brought your questions.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: Listen.

CORNISH: Last word goes to Dr. Lexx Brown-James.

BROWN-JAMES: So Valentine's Day is hard. I've even been thinking about this for my lover and myself, right? Do I put on, like, something sexy and - I don't feel like it. We tired over here. So (laughter) what do we do? Look for things that you can do together. Like, try and maybe send somebody a meal. Maybe you have the same meal together. Maybe you take a cooking class. But you can do things even though you're individually separated, but you're still sharing an experience and working towards the goal.

CORNISH: That's Dr. Lexx Brown-James, marriage and family therapist and sexologist based in St. Louis.

Thank you.

BROWN-JAMES: Thank you so much for having me.

CORNISH: And Sam Sanders, host of NPR's It's Been A Minute.

Thank you so much, Sam.

SANDERS: Thank you, Audie. This was fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF BNNY RBBT'S "BIG WORLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.