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Coupling Up on Campus: “Romantic partners” navigate a hybrid semester

<h6>Akaneh Wang / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Akaneh Wang / The Daily Princetonian

When campus matching algorithms such as the Marriage Pact and Datamatch sent out their surveys earlier in the semester, many jumped at the chance to sign up. Students looked for love, friendship, and even a bit of drama. One somewhat surprising group that joined in the excitement? Couples.

“I think a lot of people use Marriage Pact and Datamatch just for fun,” commented Anna McGee ’22, who agreed to fill out the surveys with her boyfriend Benjamin Ball ’21.

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McGee is a Managing Editor for the Daily Princetonian. Ball is former Managing Editor for the ‘Prince.’

“We did it, obviously. But sort of for shits and giggles,” said Sabina Jafri ’24 about her and her boyfriend Solomon Bergquist ’24.

Bill Zhang, a senior at Harvard and one of the Datamatch “Supreme Cupids,” summarized: “We suspect that, no matter who you are, given the virtual and quarantine nature of this year, the reason users came to Datamatch is more centered around forming connections with other people than anything strictly, seriously romantic.”

But this year has also looked vastly different for those who are looking for the “seriously romantic.” In most cases, pandemic dating has meant taking relationships faster than expected and handling a good deal of compromise — but most importantly, finding moments of connection in an otherwise isolating campus experience.

Jafri and Bergquist, who first met virtually in the fall, described their relationship as “still new, just a little baby relationship.” But they acknowledged that the pandemic forced them to take certain steps before they normally would have taken them.

“We couldn’t just see each other whenever, especially living in different cities. So we would get tested and see each other for chunks at a time,” Jafri said.

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“The second time I saw him was him coming down and staying with me and my roommates for four days,” she continued. “And that was a big step to take. But it made sense to expedite the process given how wack everything already was.”

Elliot Lee ’23 and Mel Hornyak ’23 experienced the same whirlwind romance. They feel their relationship was shaped by “amplified emotions” over Zoom and a more intense need for human connection in times of isolation.

“Over Zoom when you hang out with friends, you’re usually talking about very deep things and your emotions all the time,” reflected Hornyak. “It’s not just some person you have to see in psychology class everyday.”

Lee noted how this translated to romantic relationships, too.

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“I had a lot of revelations about love and being in love, and how I didn’t want to ever lose this feeling,” he said. “And I think that’s how we ended up doing a speed run of [the relationship].”

Lee and Hornyak decided to start dating long-distance five months ago and now are roommates on campus. They have described their in-person time together as a kind of “domestic bliss.”

Even those who waited to arrive on campus before dating reported a faster pace. Daniel Drake ’24 discussed how the pandemic has made the transition from casual acquaintance to romantic interest significantly more difficult. For him, the “talking phase” — that anxiety-inducing stage of deciphering flirtatious cues — is much harder to navigate during the pandemic.

“It’s difficult, you can’t really hang out in groups to get to know someone. So especially at the beginning it was weird — it was always us and a third wheel, sort of,” Drake said.

But Drake and his girlfriend weren’t deterred by any initial discomfort. After a few awkward, Social Contract-constrained encounters, the pair decided to take the leap into a committed relationship.

Katherine Zhu, a Harvard sophomore and a member of the Datamatch business team, summed up the difficulties today’s aspiring lovebirds face. 

“Right now, [relationships] have to be so binary. It’s hard to meet people, so either you are in a committed relationship or very single,” she said.

Related: Daybreak looks into The Marriage Pact on Princeton's campus

Bergquist and Jafri have also experienced an increased need to formalize not just their relationship status, but also what dating actually looks like for them.

“We weren’t used to being around each other so we wanted to spend all our time together, but then it started interfering with our ability to get coursework done,” Jafri explained, describing the consequences of beginning a long-distance relationship.

“I am super type A and organized, and Solomon isn’t as anal. So we had different ways of scheduling and going about things,” she continued. “Things were getting miscommunicated and lost in translation … we had to make some compromises, but now we are chilling.”

Bergquist and Jafri agreed to set a weekly time where they check in about their lives and their relationship. They use this time to talk through issues, express gratitude for one another, and reflect on how they can improve their relationship development. “It has really, really helped us stay on top of things with each other,” Jafri noted.

As much as campus life has allowed couples to grow closer, it has brought with it a unique set of challenges and constraints. The Social Contract has a notable exception for romantic partners:

“If I reside on campus, I agree to wear a face covering in residence halls and residential college facilities (except when alone in my assigned room, with roommates, suitemates, or with romantic partners as defined by the University’s Face Covering Policy).”

Yet, according to students, what legitimately constitutes a “romantic partner” is not always clear cut.

Keely Toledo ’22 is a Peer Health Advisor, and explained what she sees as the “wiggle room” inherent in this policy.

“There’s a huge range of what people consider romantic. There’s a question as to whether you could be my best friend where we cuddle or my romantic partner,” she explained. “The overall goal is to have one person who you are very close with in that sort of capacity, that you could engage romantically.”

Residential College Advisors (RCAs) Samm Lee ’22 and Josiah Gouker ’22 reflected on the lack of guidance they have received from the administration and on student leaders’ role in instituting safe practices on campus.

Safe sex supplies like condoms, typically located outside RCA doors, were located in laundry rooms at the beginning of this semester.

“I can speculate that was to promote social distancing, but the reasoning we received wasn’t overly explicit,” Gouker said.

“At core group meetings, we as RCAs advocated for the supplies to be more accessible,” Samm Lee added. “We don’t want to encourage people to break the Social Contract, but we need to make ourselves available as resources, making sure students are protecting themselves and the other person.”

University Health Services were unable to comment on these issues due to increased workload during the pandemic.

Undeniably, dating in college through the trials of the pandemic is far from straightforward. But the students interviewed can agree on one thing: it’s still well worth it. For many, the fact that these relationships are still possible is a symbol of resilience through a difficult historical moment.

Lee recounted filling out the depression screening at a doctor’s office, and marveling at how content he was: “This is easily the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.”

“When you are really in love, you create the ideal environment,” Hornyak reflected. “Even if that takes work and negotiation.”

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