Freshly ousted from campus amid a global pandemic, junior Anna Albright returned home for the summer and fell for an old friend. We were speaking over Zoom from our respective apartments in New Haven, both back for a remote, distanced semester. The grainy video quality made it difficult to gauge exactly how she was feeling, but she was willing to reflect openly about her love life—both during lockdown and at Yale.
In Albright’s experience, it’s difficult to create and maintain a relationship at Yale, and she has had little success doing so on campus. “We have this go-getter attitude [with] club positions and internships, where we think that if we just work hard and have confidence, we’ll get what we want,” Albright said. “We take that approach, also, when it comes to our love lives. But that’s not how love works.”
The relaxed environment of lockdown allowed for Albright to organically develop a relationship with an old high school friend of hers, Noah*. When they found themselves back at home in mid-March, away from their respective colleges and usual busy schedules, their relationship bloomed. They took up running together and spent weeks training for a half-marathon together. During their practice, they realized that they had developed feelings for one another. But, in line with the slow-paced life of quarantine, Albright and Noah felt no need to rush into things too quickly.
When asked about love on campus under normal circumstances, Albright said she noticed many romantic relationships here at Yale to be “transactional.” Students, she thought, tended to immediately weigh whether a new person would be a viable partner. This also leads students to leap into relationships relatively quickly. She had observed a culture of seeing a romantic relationship as another achievement or accomplishment in “having your life together.”
When Albright returned to New Haven for the fall, the relationship didn’t quite fit into the picture and she broke it off. Although she thinks fondly of Noah, it became stressful to maintain the same closeness that they had enjoyed at home.
“I preferred to be single and fully present with my people here [at Yale], rather than caught up with someone who was far away,” she told me.
The COVID-19 pandemic has predictably disrupted the ebb and flow of love and dating at Yale, usually so fast-paced and chaotic. The unexpected departure from campus and uncertainty of the future has upset even our best-laid plans. But love is not at all put on pause; it’s found ways to flourish and shift in unanticipated ways. While distance has proved to be the breaking point for some, others found solace in love or reached for new, creative ways to forge connections.
Will*, a sophomore living on campus this semester, felt as though the pandemic had dampened his usually carefree approach to dating and hook-ups. He was an expressive and lively speaker, even over Zoom. “I’ve always been a promiscuous person,” he told me. “But the rising number of [COVID-19] cases is inversely related to promiscuity.”
Before the pandemic, he had been meeting people, mostly casually, through dating apps like Grindr. He was largely unrestrained by the Yale bubble in his romantic exploits, having dated students from colleges all over the Greater New Haven area. He was—and still is—keeping his mind open to the possibility of a romantic spark, but it hasn’t happened yet.
Back on campus for the year, he described feeling a newfound pressure to be more cautious when meeting up with matches. Will expressed a desire to adhere to public health precautions and consider the safety of his suitemates and himself. His rule is now “Yalies only,” which he feels is less risky given the strict on-campus social distancing guidelines and twice weekly testing.
Will’s willingness to explore beyond Yale was rare among students I spoke to for this article, and he has mourned giving up his usually open-minded approach to dating. Due to the pandemic, many have avoided meeting new people, a mindset which Will characterized as “fearing the stranger.” Although he recognizes that it is a necessity for public health, it’s still a difficult thing to come to terms with.
At the beginning of quarantine, Kayla*, a sophomore, explored options to recreate a campus experience online. She was invited to join a Discord server—an online chatting platform that allows people to create private communities, or “servers”—for another university (which Kayla requested go unnamed to preserve anonymity). Discord began largely as a platform for gamers, but has grown, especially during the pandemic, to host a variety of communities. Within a server, it’s possible to see which users are online and then initiate voice or video calls, which allows for spontaneous interactions. “It’s the closest you can get to running into someone on campus,” Kayla told me. We were speaking over FaceTime. Home for the semester, Kayla had been missing Yale.
This server had around a thousand members, most of them students at this university, and hosted virtual events. Kayla participated in an online dating competition that mimicked the style of the popular reality television show The Bachelor. The titular bachelor, a student on the server, picked between contestants as they vied for his attention through a series of virtual activities. Although Kayla didn’t win and the competition didn’t exactly go according to plan (the bachelor ended up bowing out of the dating aspect of the contest), her involvement won her some suitors.
“A lot of people on the Discord platform tended to be sad, lonely gamer boys,” Kayla said, half-jokingly. She found herself the object of their affections and realized, somewhat incidentally, that these boys were willing and eager to send her small gifts. She would casually mention wanting a particular video game or craving something from Uber Eats, and someone would offer to order it for her. “It’s a symbiotic relationship.”
None of these interactions, however, led to more long-term relationships, or even friendships. Most of the boys she spoke to over Discord lived across the country, and she never seriously considered dating someone she couldn’t easily meet in person. It was also difficult to develop an emotional connection with someone who was just “another face on Zoom.”
Kira*, a sophomore, found that the forced distance away from Yale proved to be just the thing she needed to venture into her first committed relationship. She met her boyfriend on Bumble shortly after coming home for spring break. Kira surprised herself by agreeing to get coffee with him, a first date that lasted for seven hours. They went on a second date the next day — stargazing on the beach — right before lockdown was enacted and they decided to “move the entire relationship onto Zoom.”
Kira attributed her relationship to the pandemic. She admitted that if Yale hadn’t shut down, she never would have given someone on Bumble real consideration. And somewhat counterintuitively, she told me that, “During COVID, I was more bold on dating apps and more willing to meet up with people.”
Kira explained that, deprived of the wealth of romantic opportunities that being on campus offered, she began to take dating apps more seriously, especially at the beginning of the pandemic in March. Once lockdown was enacted, she and her now-boyfriend became exclusive.
Kira thought that distance from campus life helped her “reconsider all these expectations people had for [her],” including the pressure to have casual sex. In her experience at Yale, she felt that boys she met often wanted to have sex immediately and weren’t willing to commit to a relationship without first getting intimate. Because of the pandemic, she and her boyfriend were forced to take things slowly, something that Kira found refreshing. She attributes the strong foundation of their relationship to the long online period, which forced them to “slow down and become willing to commit.”
For the fall semester, she plans to stay in her hometown, where her boyfriend also lives. But when Kira returns to Yale in the spring, she will have to weather a bicoastal, long-distance relationship.
Emma*, a sophomore, met her girlfriend on a very unconventional platform — Librex, an anonymous discussion forum restricted to those with an Ivy League email address. At the beginning of lockdown, Emma posted in Librex’s general Ivy League thread asking, “Are there any queer women on here?” She received a variety of responses and matched with some commenters, which allowed her to direct message them.
For Emma, who is politically conservative, it’s been difficult to navigate the queer dating scene at Yale. She told me, “When I posted [on Librex], I just wanted to find someone to talk to about being a queer woman. I wasn’t looking for a relationship.”
But one commenter stood out. When Emma first spoke to her now-girlfriend, they were both anonymous users on Librex. They connected over a shared sense of loneliness at Yale, stemming from uncommon political opinions and not fitting into the student body. They also had similar professional and academic interests.
They revealed their identities to each other after a day of talking on the app and moved into texting. At first, the conversation remained largely platonic, mostly focused on schoolwork and career goals. There was also the consideration of the five-year age difference between Emma and her girlfriend, who is a graduate student at Yale.
Once Emma arrived in New Haven, having moved here for the school year, she met up with her now-girlfriend. She was initially nervous about how their relationship would translate to being in-person and explicitly romantic, but Emma told me that she feels that it has only strengthened since meeting up. They have been dating since.
Quinn*, a junior, felt that the pandemic placed a newfound pressure on her relationship, which had already survived periods of long-distance.
She met her boyfriend on move-in day her first year at Yale. It’s disputed where exactly they first bumped into each other — either at the beginning or the end of a tour of their residential college. They lived in adjoined suites, but didn’t start dating until the following spring. It was her first “adult relationship” and her first time falling in love. They went through their fair share of difficulties — they had been long distance the summer before their sophomore year and planned to be apart last spring because Quinn was studying abroad (though once the pandemic worsened globally, all Yale students were called back to the States). “The summer, bizarrely, was the happiest time in the relationship,” she said. We were speaking over Zoom, and she seemed wistful. “We got to be fully present because there aren’t a billion other things on your mind.”
They were in the same state over the summer, so it was possible to see each other over weekends. It wasn’t as hard being long-distance during lockdown because “life was on pause.” They had seemingly endless amounts of time to devote to talking to each other. “During a pandemic, all the benefits of being in a relationship are amplified — the convenience, the companionship, the safety of having a dedicated partner,” Quinn told me.
But when it came time for the fall semester, Quinn’s boyfriend left the States to be at home with his family and Quinn came to New Haven. As life creeped back to normalcy and school started back up, Quinn said, “It seemed as though our lives were resuming [after lockdown], but very much separately.”
Somewhat unexpectedly, this was the period of long-distance that the relationship could not survive. It was difficult to conceive of a concrete future together because it was unclear when Quinn’s boyfriend would be able to return to New Haven. They struggled with the question of: “What does a relationship mean when you don’t know the next time you can see that person, and you don’t have a date to peg your hopes on?”
Quinn and her boyfriend broke up during the fall semester, over the phone. When I spoke to Quinn, she was still trying to figure out how to recover from the conclusion of a long-term relationship during a period of reduced social contact.
“It’s very strange because life is a lot quieter these days, so it’s a tough time to go through a loss like that,” Quinn told me. She added, laughing, “But maybe it’s also good, because otherwise I would have gone to Woads and done something stupid.”
Despite the unprecedented nature of this semester, students I’ve spoken to have all tried to regain a sense of normalcy, whether it be through discovering new communities or forging romantic relationships. They’ve embraced, wholeheartedly, the imperfect forms that love takes during these strange times. Most Yalies seem to have taken this opportunity to learn new lessons about themselves. Something I learned, personally, is that we get so caught up in relationships at Yale to somewhat relieve the pressure we feel to make the most of our time here. This is meant to be the prime of our lives, but we are pulled in so many directions, all the time, beholden to academic responsibilities, extracurricular pursuits, and social endeavors. The pandemic and its mandated social isolation has distilled life into its essential elements, challenging us to decide what really matters in the end.
I thought back to my interview with Quinn and how she perfectly encapsulated what many of us are feeling right now: “I am learning that it’s okay that there are times when life doesn’t feel so glowing and ecstatic, which we are told that every moment of college should be like.”