Love in the pandemic: Vassar couples battle touch starvation, distance

Christopher Unruh ’23 with his girlfriend Shanya Galbokke Hewage ’23. Courtesy of Christopher Unruh.

Where have the Vassar couples gone? Gone are the sights of them cuddling inside Deece booths and making out in the library’s 24 hour section—sometimes I can barely remember eavesdropping on conversations in the bathroom about the hookups that happened at a party last night or hearing the mysterious loud noises coming from a shower stall as I brush my teeth and pretend not to notice. But while I sometimes recoil at the sight of The Vassar Couple, I admit that I miss them. With fewer chances to interact with students on campus, I’ve wondered how couples can manage to find love and stay in love during the pandemic. And so I’ve turned to the experts: three Vassar students currently in relationships who have offered their own experiences of, and even advice about, love during COVID-19.

For couples that met pre-pandemic, distance became a major challenge when students were sent home last year. For Christopher Unruh ’23, who started dating his girlfriend Shanya Galbokke Hewage ’23 in fall 2019, the campus shutdown meant he and his girlfriend would be 2000 miles apart from each other, with no chance to visit in-person for the remainder of the year. Instead, they relied mainly on FaceTime to communicate. “Although I am appreciative that we live in a world where we can see each other’s face, albeit over a screen,” expressed Unruh, “it’s much harder to communicate and really connect on an emotional level due to the distance and the impersonal atmosphere that is involved in that format.”

The hindrance that distance poses has made Unruh extremely grateful for finding love prior to the COVID-19 period. “I was already dating and didn’t need to bother to try and date during a pandemic, which is probably a thousand times harder than normal,” Unruh said. “I didn’t really try and seek out a relationship pre-pandemic. It all just sorta happened, and I’m thankful it did.”

Meanwhile, the drawbacks of long distance relationships seemed especially difficult for couples who convened just at the beginning of the pandemic. Itamar Ben-Porath ’21 fondly reminisced how they met their partner, Morgan Stephens ’23, in the middle of last year’s spring break. They recalled, “We first met each other properly pretty early on in the spring semester last year. I knew their roommate by way of VJU [Vassar Jewish Union], and since my best friend was studying abroad, I had a lot of spare time and was looking to make new friends, so I ended up spending a lot of time in their social circles. We met at the Deece, just hanging out with mutual friends.” 

Although they saw each other often, it took a while for Ben-Porath to catch feelings. One evening at a drag show, however, had them considering making moves. “We’re both disabled, so we had seats reserved for us. [My partner] asked their roommate, who’s a member of VC Royalty, to seat us next to each other,” explained Ben-Porath. “But we only really hit it off over spring break after the world had already ended. Starting on March 14, we would FaceTime for hours every night. In that time I got to know them really well, and I found that they were cute, and funny and had a million crafts-related talents, and their own set of mannerisms, and I just felt like we connected incredibly well with one another. About a week and some later, the penny dropped for me.”

Ben-Porath admitted to being a bit surprised after establishing mutual feelings with their partner because of the timing of their relationship. But the couple has managed to circumvent the struggles of long distance relationships through texting and Facetime. “I saw someone joking a while back that because everyone was either long-distance or living together 24/7 in the pandemic, we all get to have a taste of what it’s like to be lesbians, and so far it’s pretty amazing,” Ben-Porath joked. They added, “Because we didn’t meet in person for a while, we also got to have some conversations about consent and expectations before we actually did anything, which I think ended up being really healthy.”

While digital networks serve as the main forms of connection and communication for Vassar couples, the need for in-person connection has led students to break social distancing protocol. One anonymous student told me, “Obviously we had to accept the risk of breaking social distancing pretty much from the outset. We weren’t going to wait for the administration to give the green light, you know?” 

Although the student claimed they only broke social distancing in private and have used the pod system with their partner, they expressed frustration in how they appeared in public with their partner. “The thing is, we still need to appear to social distance in public, which creates this uncomfortably performative dynamic of being worried about other people seeing affection in public. The fact that Vassar has adopted the model of having students rat each other out for standing too close together hasn’t helped matters in that regard.”

For this anonymous student, virtual connections through platforms such as Zoom cannot compensate for the touch starvation that all students—dating or not—may feel. “Just having someone who’s implicitly okay with physical affection fills a need that was really starting to gnaw at me during the months between leaving in the spring and returning in the fall,” the student explained. 

The student also pointed out changes in the Vassar dating scene since the pandemic. “Vassar had an extremely ‘casual’ dating scene, so to speak—only a few of my friends at any given time were in relationships,” they explained. Prior to COVID-19, Vassar seemed to be more of a hookup culture, but the decrease of opportunities to meet new people has changed what students are looking for in relationships. “I can’t speak too much to the overall trends, but a few of my friends who I wouldn’t generally think of as being the type for monogamy have mentioned going on dates/being in steady relationships,” the student said.

Ben-Porath expressed a similar sentiment, adding the need for closeness in distanced times. “At this point, I doubt people are getting together much at all,” they said. “It’s also a lot more intimate if you are with someone, though; there’s a lot of trust involved, which can be stressful but also valuable, and it definitely encourages a lot more closeness to your own small circle.”

In terms of maintaining relationships—digital or in-person—an important component is communication and honesty, as Unruh emphasized. “If [you’re] trying to date, be clear about intentions and what you are comfortable with in regards to seeing each other in the pandemic,” Unruh advised. Recalling his struggles with the campus shutdown, he added, “Having to be [in a long distance relationship] for so long is just hard and never fun. But I also realized that you just need to go with the flow—be honest, open and communicative—and it will all work out if you make sure it does.” Unruh has since then united with his girlfriend on campus this semester, where they try to spend time together by watching movies or going on walks together.

And for those trying to find love in the pandemic? “Don’t be afraid of starting long-distance/remote and seeing how it goes,” Ben-Porath encouraged. “It’s a little weird conceptually, but so worth it if you can get a good one.”

As the College approaches the final weeks of on-campus learning, who knows what will become of The Vassar Couple? Restrictions have since then lifted—students can dine in the Deece through reservations, are allowed to see people in pods and can interact with each other at more campus events. But you won’t find couples snogging each other in the food truck line for a while—you’ll just have to wait.

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