Image description: scrabble tiles spelling out stay apart
Picture the scene. You’ve been on a couple of dates, you’ve kissed, you’ve made tentative movements towards starting a relationship. Things are exciting. And then, just as you’re in the beginning stages of falling in love, coronavirus rears its ugly head. You go home for the Easter holidays and you don’t see the other person for another 5 months. This was exactly what happened to J* and, presumably, hundreds of other people around the world. Covid has put stress on all the relationships in our lives – platonic, family and sexual. But for students in particular, the picture is grim.
Very few students live with their partners, and at a time in our lives when we might expect to be meeting lots of new people, flirting and feeling the excitement of possibility, many young people now face the reality of having almost no way of forging new connections. Most undergraduates don’t live with their partners, and this has increased the strain that they’ve felt on their relationships. Without being able to meet up, see one another, or know when that will be a reality again, many relationships have crumbled under the pressure.
For many, if not most undergraduate students, the pandemic has meant a significant change in the way they date, or determined if they date at all. With social distancing restrictions, and eagle-eyed college staff, sex has become an illicit, if not impossible, activity. The high number of students living in college accommodation also makes Oxford different from many universities in the country whose students largely live in private accommodation. Despite the national restrictions in parts of Michaelmas term allowing lack of social distancing within established relationships, almost all Oxford colleges restricted household mixing to a significant extent.
Sex is important for many young people, but now couched in complexities. Not only is it now essentially illegal, but the anxiety over physical touch caused by the pandemic can make it even more stressful: one person told me that it had “fucked with [their] head”. Speaking on the phone had allowed J’s new partner to become her best friend, but it was also a “double edged sword”: “at the same time I worried a lot that it just made us platonic”. In a culture where sex often accompanies the early stages of a relationship, the absence of any physical touch at all can lead to intense cognitive dissonance.
Returning to the physical reality of how we might imagine Victorian relationships, whilst maintaining a 21st century mindset is, as one friend described it to me “a fucking nightmare”. Of the single people I spoke to, every single one mentioned having difficulty meeting new people. Dating apps, once a choice, are now a strong necessity unless you want to start dating or sleeping with one of your closest friends or household. One friend told me “I have kissed my dog more than anyone else in my life” – 2020 was certainly not rich pickings. Other students I spoke to had simply decided now was not the time – on top of changing plans, lockdown, anxiety about the future, and the current state of affairs.
With social distancing restrictions, and eagle-eyed college staff, sex has become an illicit, if not impossible, activity.
“I don’t need the stress of it” was a sentiment shared by many. There is an undeniable comedy to a lot of the situations students wanting to date this year have ended up in. First dates now consist of walking around the nearest park, and hoping that you learn enough about them in the minutes before your fingers start to freeze off. The 10 pm curfew in pubs could act as an unwelcome end to a date going well (or maybe a helpful excuse to leave). There has been a distinct lack of opportunities to engage in a questionable bop get-together, or even sit in the Missing Bean with a cup of coffee, but video-dating and picnics in December are now essential tools.
But student’s relationships also deserve to be taken seriously. The damaging experience of queer students spending extended period of time at home has also been well-documented: moving back home meant hiding their true selves from families.
For polyamorous students, the pandemic has also meant re-adjustments: M told me that whilst in normal times they “wouldn’t care to know” about the other activities of their partners, the risk factors involved with coronavirus meant asking more questions, and a total change in communication.
For those in established relationships, the pandemic has also meant working out new ways of functioning. This is especially true when one or both people have health conditions which put them more at risk. B told me that he and his girlfriend “wrap up a bit and use blankets to keep warm” so that they can see each other in the garden without risking her health. Relationships now concern the safety of entire households, and not everyone always agrees how much freedom their housemates or family members should have to pursue their relationships, or forge new ones. One person I spoke to had hidden the amount of time he was spending with his girlfriend from his housemates.
Ingenuity also goes a long way: for B, playing virtual board games together, increasingly competitively, was a new way of spending time as a couple, and having fun. A couple already used to long-distance, with the pandemic therefore not coming as a shock said: “we’re just making the most of the time”. But J, the Oxford student I spoke to who began her relationship in Hilary did not have this long-term security: “We were together two months and then it’s like bam won’t see you for five months”. This was obviously an enormous challenge, and without seeing one another it was “very tough at times”: “you’re still getting to know each other and your first fights are over FaceTime”.
The damaging experience of queer students spending extended period of time at home has also been well-documented: moving back home meant hiding their true selves from families.
At a time that she expected to be “the honeymoon” period, they were instead separated and dealing with one of the most stressful global events in decades. But speaking every day, and removed from physical distractions, she thought “that’s when I think he really became my best friend”. Ultimately, “I think we learnt most about each other when we were apart because you didn’t have the physical stuff so it was more focussed on getting to know each other”.
This was very different to the story that C told me. A fresher at a London university, she is attempting the somewhat chaotic juggling act of a first relationship, a first year at university, long-distance, and a pandemic at the same time. She said she had “barely kept [her] relationship going” and “it often feels one sided for both of us as the other one is busy so can’t put the time in at that moment. I think it would be easier if travel and university would allow us to see each other but my uni doesn’t allow visitors”.With concerns over the safety of public transport, meeting up also becomes increasingly difficult.
There is no guidebook to starting a relationship in a pandemic. No one can tell you how to fall in love over FaceTime, or demonstrate your love from 2 metres apart. Social distancing can mean feeling like you’re in a Jane Austen novel, but even the minimal flirtatious hand touching isn’t allowed. For C, the overwhelming lesson has been that relationships “are definitely not the way they are portrayed in books, movies, social media etc. They require so much effort to maintain”.
It is surely a revelation for every young person at some point that fictional romance isn’t quite the reality. But this has been heightened to extraordinary levels this year. Covid restrictions are the enemy of spontaneity. C spoke of the sheer level of organisation it took to find time for a walk. But, they also make certainty about the future difficult. Plans that once seemed settled have also had to change.
One of M’s partners moved across the country because of lockdown, and another had high-risk housemates that meant the end of meeting up. C’s boyfriend decided that starting university was a better alternative than his previous plan of getting a job. For some, it was enough to think about a better future – B and his girlfriend are “looking forward to making memories together”. But for many others, the reality of the present made the future seem very far away.
There’s been a reported spike of over 122% in interest in divorce proceedings, and it seems unlikely that young people’s experience has been any easier. For C, the realisation has been that when apart, and dealing with unprecedented times “communication is definitely the key”. With frankly little to work with, students are continuing, albeit in a very different manner, to forge new relationships, maintain older ones, and carry on living their romantic and sexual lives as young people. For J things were “shitty but worked out okay”.
No one can tell you how to fall in love over FaceTime, or demonstrate your love from 2 metres apart.
For others, this year will be full of memories of the absurdity of trying to forge relationships from a 2 metre distance, at least while others are watching. As the reality of a third lockdown really hits, it’s difficult to overestimate the effect on young people’s ability to act like normal people in their teens and twenties. The picture is not, however, all gloomy. After such a long period of time apart, J was “more appreciative when we started seeing each other again” – it was a “blissful period”, even if moving in together would not have been on the cards without the pandemic.
Finding the silver linings also helped: “I’m quite good with a takeaway and movie and whenever the restaurants are open. That’s good with me”.
* All initials have been changed.