Illustration by Jubilee Hernandez
Each week, Dr. Took-One-Psych-Class-Sophomore-Year will be answering Colorado College’s questions about the one thing that most perplexes our student body: Love on the Block. This week, we ask about how those in newly formed long-distance relationships can overcome the challenges thrown up by our response to COVID-19. With social-distancing measures in place, and with campus life dispersed, how can we best keep our relationships alive? Email your burning questions about love, sex, and relationships to Catalyst@ColoradoCollege.edu for a totally free, totally anonymous consultation in these very pages.
Dear Dr. Took-One-Psych-Class-Sophomore-Year,
I’m a first-year student who’s been dating another student for just a few weeks now. The two of us have been friends for most of the year, but we weren’t anything more until just a few days before we heard the news that we wouldn’t be able to return to campus for Block 7. We went our separate ways: she went home to California, while I went to stay with my family in New York. Then we heard that we wouldn’t be able to go back to campus for Block 8, and we’re both under stay-at-home orders in our respective states, so I have no clue when I’ll be able to see her again. We’ve been trying to make this work, but our relationship is so new that video calls feel a little strange. Should we keep trying to make it work, and how?
Absence, we have all heard, is supposed to make the heart grow fonder. James Howell, the writer and historian, once observed that “distance sometimes endears friendship, and absence sweeteneth it.” But these are strange times, and it isn’t so surprising that some of our proverbs don’t seem to ring true right now. It is one thing when we are at a distance from those we love while the rest of the world goes about its business as usual. We may take comfort in knowing that our beloved is all right, and in knowing that the distance between ourselves and those we love can be bridged at some definite point in the future.
But today, it feels as if everything is pretty much up in the air. We can’t hope to make plans, because we can’t know whether events outside of our control will render them meaningless tomorrow, or next week, or next month. While we can’t plan so far ahead on the Block Plan either, at least it has its own regularities, and the rest of the world seems stable. Not so today.
Love is one thing rendered strange and difficult by our response to COVID-19. This is true both for those separated from their loved ones and for those seeking new relationships. We are, as it’s often remarked, social animals, and even if taking space from each other is in our best interests, it still presents us with hurdles: for our mental health, for our collective life, and indeed for our relationships.
You and the person you’re dating have been put, by sheer circumstance, in a tricky situation. You didn’t meet in this brave new world of social-distancing, but your relationship isn’t old enough for you to rely on a history in order to navigate the difficulties. Some of the challenges here are common to many people in long-term relationships. A married couple in which one person is a healthcare worker and one person is vulnerable to the coronavirus will have some of the same difficulties: it can be hard to stay romantically connected by virtual means alone, and particularly without physical intimacy.
A romantic relationship tends to have some friendship-like qualities, and these can survive virtually with some effort. But it often has sexual aspects, and these can prove more challenging to simulate. That’s not to say it can’t be done. But effort will need to be put into figuring out what kinds of virtual sex work best for you and your partner. There are, fortunately, ample resources about this online, and you can find helpful suggestions there about cybersex, phone sex, sexting, and even digital remote stimulation. It’s important to be especially communicative about your needs in this regard with your partner. It may feel strange to be negotiating these sorts of things at a distance, but practice makes perfect, and it will get less awkward with time.
Your relationship is, as you mention, pretty new, and that can add another dimension of difficulty. You might not be that comfortable talking about these things with your partner, or you might not be so sure you want this relationship to be long-term and committed. But, you worry, you can’t go on dates or spend time together in order to figure these things out. And it isn’t even clear when you will be able to do that — not for a while, at least. Things are so hectic, and everybody is so anxious about what the future holds, that you wonder whether it’s worth trying to make things work.
Here’s my advice about that: if you think it would be worth trying in person, it’s worth trying virtually. Sure, video calls are awkwardly more intimate than dates, yet weirdly less intimate at the same time. Sure, it can be difficult to have genuine conversations about subjects like sex when at a distance and on a screen, especially in a new relationship. Sure, you don’t know when you’ll see your partner in the flesh again. But these aren’t like the troubles that plague typical long-distance relationships, where there are plausibly other not-long-distance options.
Everybody’s in something like the same boat with respect to this. So you may as well attempt a virtual date or two, and see if it gets easier. You might try to broach an awkward subject, knowing that it’s worth having the conversation for the sake of a relationship that could be promising. And while you can’t be sure about the future, you might try to make adjustable plans to see your partner in the summer or fall; that way, you’ll both have something to look forward to together.
When everything is up in the air, it can feel like hope in a stable relationship — particularly a new one — is misguided. And our anxiety about other things, about everything, can affect our views about what’s worth doing or trying. So let me reassure you: hope in this relationship isn’t misguided, and it’s worth trying to make it work. It might not work, and that’s all right; the trying is the point. You might have ended this relationship if you were on campus, too. But if the extra effort is worth it to you, and if you’re willing to make some adjustments, the possibility of love, even if it has to be sustained virtually for a time, needn’t fall victim to this crisis.