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Looking for love during lockdown: College students on how COVID-19 upended dating

 (Molly Quinn illustration)
(Molly Quinn illustration)

Online dating sites and at-home first dates seemed to serve as the only options when the pandemic upended life as we knew it, especially for college students focused on starting their lives and building new careers.

Brooklyn Nickerson, 22, was in the middle of completing her undergraduate degree in nursing and psychology at Eastern Washington University when the 2020 lockdowns hit.

Nickerson said she was in a long-distance relationship with a woman who was in the military, and the COVID-19 safety procedures made it much more difficult for them to see each other even when her partner had a break. They broke up last June, and it was not the cleanest break, she said.

“It 100% would have been different without the pandemic,” Nickerson said.

Ben Reilly, a 22-year-old Gonzaga University computer science student, also went through a breakup soon after the beginning of 2020.

After a few months, Reilly said he wanted to “get back out there,” in the way the pandemic would allow. Getting back out there meant creating an online dating profile and posting pictures.

“If you take into context, I was coming out of a relationship, and when you first get out of that you don’t feel very good about yourself right away,” Reilly said. “Having some shallow validation that someone finds you attractive, look, I’ll be vain, I did like it. Who wouldn’t want to know they’re attractive?”

The apps Reilly used focused mostly on short-term encounters, he said. As a computer science major, Reilly said he was aware these apps have algorithms designed to learn who is the most conventionally attractive and give them more attention, and then make those who do not get a lot of attention feel worse to keep them on the app.

In other words, he said, they are not meant to forge lifelong connections.

“I grew tired of that,” Reilly said. “And I don’t blame anyone who does do that. I guess I just needed that at the time. I stopped doing that and started looking more toward, not even a long-term relationship, but a more meaningful connection.”

The traditional first date of meeting in a restaurant or in a group setting at a bar all but disappeared in the pandemic as businesses temporarily shut their doors.

Reilly said he found himself in “horrendously awkward” situations where he would meet someone at their home – that they shared with their ex-partner.

“I’ve been in situations where, you know, you’re sitting on the couch and you put your arm around someone and then you just see like a slightly menacing look as they pass through the living room,” he said.

It’s also borderline unsafe. Reilly said he imagines meeting with someone at their house for the first time is uniquely dangerous for women, who face disproportionate reported instances of dating violence, but he said he had to be rescued by his friends on several occasions for “shady” situations.

Nickerson said she enjoys staying at home, but the pandemic emphasized inviting people to her house more often and skipped some of the more traditional dating steps.

“If you’re not kept up with cleaning, you have to make sure your house is in good shape. During the pandemic things definitely got messier,” Nickerson said.

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