Editor’s note: The Mercury is publishing love stories in place of the weekly Our Neighbors profiles during February.

Stephen Bridenstine said he was willing to travel to Kansas City for a date, even though he had moved to Manhattan for work.

“If this is truly me trying to find someone for the rest of my life, what’s two hours?” he said.

Bridenstine, 35, the curator of education for the Flint Hills Discovery Center, said he arrived in town a few years ago without knowing a single person, and he had to start fresh in terms of his social life. He had done some online dating before moving to Manhattan and had a prior relationship with someone he had met through a dating app.

“I felt comfortable with that, I knew it was a way to meet people,” Bridenstine said. “I felt it was my go-to option when I moved here.”

Erin Strathe also had been using online dating apps at the time she met Bridenstine. She said she made online dating her norm while a veterinary medicine student at K-State.

“I’m not a very social person, so meeting people in real life is not something that really happens for me,” Strathe said.

Bridenstine and Strathe, 31, met through a dating app in April 2018. They matched and chatted awhile before they decided to meet at a local coffee shop.

“It wasn’t a bad date,” Strathe said. “But we didn’t fully connect at that point.”

Bridenstine said he got the vibe Strathe was a busy and exhausted vet med student.

“I’ve had dates with other vet med students, so I know how demanding that program was,” Bridenstine said. “She was going into her fourth year as a student, and it’s their clinical year; it’s a really stressful and exhausting time.”

Bridenstine said they didn’t have the right connection at the time, so he and Strathe both moved on and dated other people. However, a year and two months later on a different dating app, they matched again by “swiping” each other’s profile.

“I didn’t expect to rematch with him,” Strathe said. “I kind of wanted to see if he would swipe back and recognize me.”

Bridenstine said he remembered their first date, but he did not have any strong emotions about it. He said he agreed to meet up again, this time for a walk in City Park.

“I guess we connected then,” Bridenstine said. “Something about it was different.”

Bridenstine said he and Strathe had a frank conversation about online dating and relationships during their walk, bonding over the sharing of “war stories.” Bridenstine said he hoped he was not too cynical regarding dating in the Little Apple. Strathe said he was.

“It can become this very consuming thing, and you can put a lot of pressure on yourself,” Bridenstine said. “I know I did this to meet someone and have it be the right person.”

Strathe said she felt more comfortable going into their second date.

“We didn’t approach it like a date; we just met up to talk about our experiences,” Strathe said. “There was less pressure because we already met before.”

Both Strathe and Bridenstine agreed the biggest problem with online dating is being paralyzed by choice and attempting to fabricate the “perfect partner.”

“There are so many ways for these apps to select people and criteria, that you find yourself having to make choices about the criteria you wouldn’t give much thought to in real life,” Bridenstine said.

Bridenstine said going through the process individually before meeting provided them both with an opportunity to bond over “the insanity of online dating.”

“By the point we met, we realized there is no one perfect person that’s going to meet every single little bar that you set,” Strathe said. “You have to be more open, more realistic. I think that’s made us more understanding and more able to work through struggles in our relationship as we’ve gone through.”

Bridenstine said if he had to summarize, dating online takes “persistence and patience and wisdom.” Strathe said dating apps can be addictive, as she would go about her life and then find herself back on the app.

“For me, it was more learning about what I wanted from a relationship, more than being picky about who I went on dates with,” Strathe said.

Bridenstine and Strathe have been together for a year and eight months. They said COVID-19 has impacted them by delaying visits with family and other benchmarks of a relationship, but the couple eventually traveled to Chicago for Strathe to meet Bridenstine’s family. Bridenstine said they have found security in each other during the pandemic, and Strathe said she thinks their relationship is rooted in patience.

“After we first met, I started my first job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a relief vet,” Strathe said. “I traveled all the time … and we would only really see each other on weekends before I had to turn around and leave again.”

Strathe said she thinks that helped their relationship, as it meant they had to be intentional about spending time together. Bridenstine said that time apart helped grow their relationship — and helped them prioritize their love.

“Technology brought us together, but now it’s keeping us together,” Bridenstine said.

Their relationship has grown a step further into a full-fledged online dating success story. On Saturday, Bridenstine and Strathe decided to take advantage of the pleasant weather and go for a hike. Bridenstine said Strathe had a crazy day at work, but was still ready for a hike at the Konza Prairie Nature Trail.

“We made our way up to the top of the first big hill, and I waited for another couple to keep going down the trail,” Bridenstine said. “Then I got down on one knee with the sun just about setting, and popped the question.”

Strathe said yes.

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