Relationship starved: most stay distanced, others risk it
Relationship building is often a complex and graceless dance, even in the best of times. Students have made small talk with a stranger they now call their first roommate. They’ve taken a leap of faith and joined a new group for a hike or a trip to the coast. They’ve “watched a movie” with someone in the absence of that roommate. Friendships, romances and even hookups are vital to connecting and growing as people, so how do you do it in what is considered the worst of times?
There is unfortunately no good answer. The addition of social distancing, masks and a looming fear of a virus with no vaccine has brought further nuance to one of the most nuanced aspects of humanity: relationships. Stepping Out and Opening Days leaders, along with first-year students, felt this pressure immediately after setting foot on campus. “It was really difficult at the very beginning,” recalled Julius Wilhelmi (‘24). “Not being able to see how people talk or react was hard and it took time getting to know people.”
Maintaining past relationships is just as vital as creating those that are new. Though socializing among teams and close-knit friend groups continues to thrive, Willamette students mourn the loss of acquaintances that once filled the in-between moments of busy schedules. With the partial loss of in-person classes and the reduction of shared spaces, the Bistro regulars and that one friend you had from an intro Spanish class last year are no longer easy to socialize with. “You have to be conscious about your time and the comfort levels of others,” said Maia Masamoto (‘23). “I have friends who live off campus and I don’t get to see them unless I remember to reach out." These small bonds are vital for many in the Willamette community.
Dating is another aspect of life that has been turned upside down since March. New and long-term couples found ways of navigating through quarantine as well as through state, local and Willamette policies surrounding the pandemic. Online dates, Netflix Party and socially distanced dinners are just a few ways that students are able to spend time together.
To complicate things further, physicality is an important aspect of dating for many. Those living off campus are unregulated, however residence buildings have much stricter policies. Students have risked and will continue to risk contracting the virus for normalcy in dating. “People are following dorm regulations to a certain extent,” says Andrew Kropp (‘23). “But, I’ve also seen people from other dorms in my building as well as people from other years.”
On the other hand, perhaps the safest way to reduce risk is to simply not risk it. Students like Kiana Gottschalk (‘23) don’t see the potential consequences as justifiable. “I just don’t know if it’s worth it,” Gottschalk says. “I don’t know where anyone has been or who they’ve seen or if they’ve been socially distancing.” The CDC outlines these same concerns within their website. They urge individuals to ask themselves questions such as “Will you have a potential close contact with someone who is sick or anyone who is not wearing a mask (and may be asymptomatic)?” and “Do I practice everyday preventive actions?” before venturing out.
In addition to dating, hookup culture is perhaps more taboo in the context of a viral pandemic. Sites like Business Insider, CNBC and BBC released articles throughout the last few months about the skyrocketing use of dating apps. Tinder, Bumble and Grindr have been frequented by the country at large to both pass time and to meet new people, regardless of warnings against it. An LA Times article published in early June explained that physical interaction has decreased and though casual sex is included, “a minority of people have been willing to assume the risk of one-night trysts in an attempt to ease stress, loneliness and boredom.” Though caution and accountability are praised and abided by on campus, there is no controlling what occurs behind closed doors.
It’s easy to point out that the rules and regulations have made relationships more difficult. The absence of body language, facial expression and physical touch is understandably difficult for many to cope with. However, these times give individuals the opportunity to do away with the more performative aspects of relationship building in order to focus more deeply on the connection between two individuals. Things like Netflix Party movie nights, Zoom or Facetime conversations, and virtual art and cooking sessions are simple activities that ease the difficulties presented by building relationships through the seemingly endless pandemic.