Absence makes the heart stronger

Ana Gomez-Salvatierra, a third-year student at California State University Monterey Bay (CSUMB) and her boyfriend of five years – who also attends CSUMB – were sent back to their respective homes in the Los Angeles area last year in March, along with many students who lived in on-campus housing. They did not know that a two-week break from campus would turn into a semester-long one, which eventually turned into a whole school year of quarantining and online learning.

“We did not think it would last this long, so we figured we would see each other really soon,” said Gomez-Salvatierra.

Luckily, Gomez-Salvatierra and her boyfriend were able to adapt to the changing situation and their relationship hasn’t come out of isolation any worse. The couple only meets in-person about twice a month because of their distance from one another. Gomez-Salvatierra said despite this, she and her significant other are able to manage not seeing each other for extended periods of time through their accessibility to “other forms of communication.”

Ana Gomez-Salvatierra is the president of Active Minds, a club dedicated to supporting mental health awareness. The staff advisor for the club, Jessica Lopez, has been a counselor at CSUMB’s Personal Growth and Counseling Center (PGCC) for 10 years. Lopez specializes in marriage and family therapy and she believes the pandemic has offered couples the ability to strengthen their communication skills, as well as bond in new ways. 

“Relationships are hugely important and impact our mental health in a lot of ways,” Lopez said. 

She said the foundation for college students’ relationships now stem from their relationships as children. These relationships could have been with a student’s parents or with the family students chose for themselves when they were young. According to Lopez, relationships are hugely important, as they fill many needs and allow people to feel “recognized as a valued person.”

“The pandemic can actually be kind of like a positive thing in terms of relationships,” Lopez said. 

As odd as this may sound at first, Gomez-Salvatierra agreed with Lopez. When talking about her relationship Gomez-Salvatierra said the “pandemic helped bring [her and her boyfriend] closer.” 

Lopez said the reason distance can have a positive impact is the focus it puts on communication and building emotional intimacy with a partner. 

“Communicating, sharing what you need (and) being as forthcoming with your expectations of how the relationship might look” are key aspects to having a healthy relationship according to Lopez. 

“Your partner can’t really read your mind,” said Lopez. “So it’s important to take a risk. Tell them what you need and allow for them to show up for you.” 

Lopez repeatedly stressed that communication is key in a healthy relationship. However, she encourages couples to offer their partner time to process and to remember disagreements don’t need to be resolved immediately. 

Research into the effects of the pandemic on relationships is ongoing, but it appears that both new and more established relationships can survive and even thrive during the pandemic. 

“I feel that in my relationship – especially throughout the pandemic – we were able to create those spaces for each other to just be honest about our feelings, about everything that has happened, and find ways to support (each other,)” said Gomez-Salvatierra.

For students who weren’t in a relationship going into the pandemic and haven’t yet found one, but are interested in starting one, Lopez said there is hope. 

“It is still very possible to engage in and to be able to build a relationship even while socially distancing,” said Lopez. “It might look different than someone’s traditional way of meeting someone or maybe dating, but I do think that’s possible if it’s something they are seeking.”

Lopez’s advice for single people is to maintain hope in that just because you’re not dating or paired with someone right now, it  doesn’t mean you will never be. But, she also noted singles might need to adjust their expectations or ideas on how to initiate that positive self-talk. 

“I recently (went through a breakup) around the middle of the month during the start of the pandemic, so it was a little difficult for me to get back up on my feet,” said Rochelle Ayana Cabero, a fourth-year at CSUMB studying communication design. While she enjoyed being single and had lots of support from loved ones after her breakup and despite her close interactions with friends, there was still a part of her that “felt like something was missing.“

Another huge thing to consider when dating during the pandemic is safety. This “forces one’s hand to actually build a little more of that communication and intimacy in a totally new way,” Lopez said.

This was true for Cabero when she started meeting new people. “Before setting any dates, I asked questions such as ‘how COVID-safe are you?’” 

Cabero also remarked that adjusting to dating during the pandemic was easy since she was already used to meeting people online and making connections digitally.

If students are looking to strengthen their relationships, either in a romantic relationship or with friends, Lopez offered a variety of suggestions. One of her favorite sites to refer students to is the Gottman Institute, which published research-based articles on relationships. She also recommended checking out the book “How to Be an Adult in Relationships.” 

A free resource provided to CSUMB students is You@CSUMB, a platform to work on mental health that showcases articles regarding relationships.

“To be in a successful future relationship – and as cheesy as it sounds – just be yourself wholeheartedly and remember to take things slow,” Cabero said. “Always prioritize your own feelings and self, don’t let anybody alter your choices and let your own decision be your own, not others’s. That’s all! Just continue loving yourself first before anybody else.”

“I feel that it’s important in a relationship to ask each other how to support one another and learn each other’s love language,” said  Gomez-Salvatierra. “Create a safe environment where y’all can be honest to each other and figure out how to work together.”

Whether students are in a long term relationship, starting a new one or looking to strengthen their relationships with family or friends, commonly stated keys to a healthy relationship are communication and truthfulness. 

Honesty is always the best policy.

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