In a time marked by social isolation, loss, and loneliness, one would think that romance were dead. How do you capture the sweetness of a first date when it’s mediated by a computer screen and a Zoom meeting ID? How do you keep a relationship going when the partner who you counted on to live down the street (or down the hall) is suddenly several time zones away?
But people are persistent. When I arrived back on campus in August, the stories I began to hear from my friends and acquaintances about ‘love in the time of corona’ were full of surprises, clever adaptations, and unexpected joys. So I set out to investigate how students were keeping their love alive.
For some, the pandemic separated them from their significant others unexpectedly. For others who were already in long-distance relationships, the shutdowns had the opposite effect.
Leah Seldin ’21, whose boyfriend of nearly five years goes to college in New Jersey, said that the pandemic allowed them to spend more time together than they otherwise would have. The initial adjustment for their relationship wasn’t separation, but being back together. However, transitioning back to a long-distance relationship with the start of the semester was a far more challenging adjustment. Unlike prior semesters, where they would visit each other every few weeks, they now must spend much longer periods of time apart.
“I really think coming back to school hits so much harder,” explained Seldin. “Because I was like, ‘I don’t remember how to do this.’ I do remember, but when you spend every single day-ish with someone for five months, and then you go to nothing again and just expect [to] do the same pattern…. It was a very hard adjustment, and it is a very hard adjustment.”
Sara Bouchard ’24 is in a newly long-distance relationship with her boyfriend of two years, who goes to university in Ireland. Like Seldin, for her, being able to spend time with her boyfriend over the long months of quarantine was a blessing in an otherwise isolating time. Fortunately, she and her boyfriend have lots of practice spending time apart, as his family usually travelled over winter and summer breaks. The harder transition, she said, was the transition to college itself.
“I think like the biggest adjustment was not between us, because we already knew how to communicate virtually,” said Bouchard. “Now I have to like be in college…. The college adjustment was more than the relationship adjustment.”
For other students, campus closure meant unexpected, lengthy separations from their significant other.
Ori Cantwell ’22 and his partner have been together since last November, but throughout quarantine, he was in Washington, D.C., while his partner was living in Europe. The time zone differences meant they were living on very completely schedules. They would wake up to each other’s texts from several hours earlier and would plan weekly FaceTimes when they could find the time.
Dealing with this distance required a lot more communication. He and his partner had to talk more openly about how they wanted to spend their time together, given how difficult it was to make their schedules line up.
“I feel like that forced us to be like better communicators, to have healthier boundaries…and be clear about what we needed from each other,” said Cantwell. “[B]ecause when you can’t actually see each other in person, you have to be really intentional with the time that you do have together…. I think it’s just made it easier now in our relationship when something’s difficult or like, even when we only have a limited amount of time, one day to see each other. We’re very clear, like, Oh, let’s just talk about this thing.”
Other students also noted that the pandemic has changed how they approach quality time and communication. These days, spending time with someone means going through the hassle of figuring out masks, outdoor meeting spots, and much more. For Luna Mac-Williams ’22, that deliberateness makes the time more meaningful. If someone is willing to go through that hassle, then it means they care.
The pandemic posed unique challenges for relationships that were at their early stages. How do you show someone you care (and that you’re interested) from afar? Mac-Williams became close with her now-partner, Leslie Rosario-Olivo ’22, when they were cast in Mac-Williams’ musical “Corazones” last semester. While there were some flirty vibes between them, Mac-Williams noted, nothing happened until right before spring break. They kept in touch through texts and letters, but their relationship didn’t follow a linear path.
Over quarantine, Mac-Williams’ struggles with depression at first led her to pull back from the budding relationship. After several months, however, with her mental health improving and her writing, editing, and jewelry business going strong, they began to talk more and more, discussing their boundaries, anxieties, and expectations. Eventually, Mac-Williams decided to go for it and consciously reject the type-A planning mindset that she applies to other aspects of her life.
“Nothing has to happen on any schedule romantically,” she reflected. “Do you ever go for a walk in your garden or like in a public place, and you see mushrooms kind of sprout, and they’re really big. And you’re like, ‘that just happened overnight. How did that get there?’ And like nobody planted that, like that just kind of grew because the conditions were right. And that’s what it feels like this relationship is. It’s this big, beautiful mushroom that I did not expect but kind of did because the conditions were right: the rain, and the water, and the time that runs at its own pace.”
That analogy, which Mac-Williams explained came out of a conversation with Rosario-Olivo, stuck out to me as a fitting description of how the ways we navigate time in our relationships can change. Many noted how the pandemic has led to greater intimacy with their romantic partners, sometimes more suddenly than they anticipated.
Over quarantine, Sarah Albert ’23 and her boyfriend spent many months apart, but during that time, they exchanged letters and personalized gifts. Sending letters back and forth allowed them to grow much closer.
“Relationships had to escalate to survive,” reflected Albert. “It’s kind of emblematic of how people really do open up and…get more vulnerable when shit hits the fan.”
Another student, Kalli Jackson ’22, echoed Albert’s observation, musing that quarantine led her to open up in ways she might otherwise have avoided.
“The intimate thing to do with someone, rather than cuddling with them, or going to do their favorite thing with them, now had to be asking them their opinions on things or asking them what they think about certain things,” said Jackson. “[It] was definitely a really big step for me, just because I know that opening up to people is a scary thing. And I think in quarantine, that’s all you can do.”
The chaos of the pandemic has also led to a shift in how some think relationships should progress.
Simon Gaughan ’22 and his girlfriend had been dating for three months when the pandemic forced them apart. After several weeks apart, he visited her for a month, but when his summer internship was cancelled, he ended up staying with her all summer. It was his first time meeting the parents, not just in this relationship but in any. This was an intense, but incredibly positive development.
“I mean, I never would have moved in with my girlfriend after only dating for three months,” remarked Gaughan. “Because, you know, there’s that stigma of like, ‘that’s moving too fast; it’s not going to work; that’s foolish; that’s stupid; what if you break up, blah, blah, blah.’ So it did kind of feel like…oh, I’m doing this thing that everyone says is a really bad idea. And it worked out really, really well.”
His experience has led him to question the ‘normal’ dating timeline.
“So maybe there are other norms in relationships that we just kind of blindly stick to without really interrogating whether they need to be there,” said Gaughan. “Maybe it should be more acceptable for people to move quickly in relationships…. So yeah, that’s one of my big takeaways.”
Note: Kalli Jackson ’22 and Luna Mac-Williams ’22 are Contributing Writers at The Argus.
Hannah Docter-Loeb contributed reporting
Irene Westfall can be reached at email@example.com