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Couple found love at Occupy Boston

A bond forged in crowd who shared fervent beliefs

Anya Karasik, 18, and Robert Stitham, 25, are one of many couples who started a romance at an Occupy encampment. A pair who met at Occupy Wall Street were married in Zuccotti Park in Manhattan.
Anya Karasik, 18, and Robert Stitham, 25, are one of many couples who started a romance at an Occupy encampment. A pair who met at Occupy Wall Street were married in Zuccotti Park in Manhattan. BECKIE LOEWENSTEIN/Beckie Loewenstein

November 15 was a busy day at Occupy Boston. Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons was speaking at the camp. Crowds had gathered in the drizzle. Protesters toiled to make their tents ready for the rain.

But Anya Karasik, 18, and Robert Stitham, 25, only had eyes for each other.

Holding hands outside the food tent before the encampment disbanded, they were the archetype of an Occupy couple - he, a red-headed Mainer with tattoos on his arms; she, a petite upstate New York girl with a heart-shaped face and a boyish haircut, wearing a knit grandmother sweater three sizes too big.

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“Look at that sweater,’’ he said, grabbing her around the waist. “It’s so corny, it’s awesome!’’

He planted a kiss on the side of her neck.

The two met at Occupy. They had known each other for 11 days. They had been a couple for three.

“Everyone was like, dude, you guys should get together,’’ Stitham said.

Karasik nodded, grinning goofily. She had not been looking for anyone to date when she came to the camp. But time runs more slowly at Occupy Boston. After a few days of knowing Red - that’s what she calls him, because of his hair - she felt as if he was one of her closest friends. “He’s, like, the first real person I’ve met in a long time,’’ she said.

Karasik and Stitham are one of many couples who forged a bond at Occupy. It was not long until Occupiers were stealing kisses at the food tent, holding hands during general assemblies, cuddling on the bench near the Gandhi statue.

But now, after the end of the encampment, which lasted a little more than two months, those who found love among the tents are struggling to keep the flame alive.

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Dewey Square was not the only encampment where romance bloomed. A couple who met at Occupy Wall Street tied the knot in Zuccotti Park.

For these young adults - a generation whose romantic interactions usually involve a labyrinth of texting and sexting and flirtation-tinged Facebook status updates - romance at Occupy Boston, they said, seemed much realer.

Karasik said she doubts the two would have embarked on a romance without the intimate precincts of Dewey Square.

“Say you meet someone at Starbucks,’’ she explained. “You’re not just going to go up to them and start hugging them and swinging them around and stuff in the middle of the Starbucks. There’s a lot of social restraints, but at Occupy, everyone’s very, like, free.’’

“And walking around barefoot, playing hula hoop, and playing a guitar with only four strings on it,’’ Stitham interjected.

“And it’s all about expressing yourselves and stuff,’’ Karasik continued. “I think that’s a huge part of why it did jump off so fast.’’

That immediate closeness between strangers was exactly what drew people at Occupy Boston together, said Robert Epstein, a psychologist who is founder and director emeritus of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies.

Epstein studies what causes people to fall in love. The Occupy movement - large crowds of passionate people with similar beliefs living in tight quarters - was practically a psychologist’s dream.

“It’s hard to imagine anything like it, outside of a real war zone,’’ Epstein said.

Falling in love, he explained, is often based on two key emotions: vulnerability and empathy. A relationship often starts when one person feels needy, and the other wants to help. Think of a wartime nurse nurturing a wounded soldier back to health.

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But at Occupy, almost everyone felt both vulnerable and empathetic: All the protesters feared a police eviction, and they all wanted to stand in solidarity with “the 99 percent.’’

Whether these romances can endure after the end of the encampment, Epstein said, remains unclear. The roller coaster of emotions that causes people to fall in love in high-stress situations allows lovers to gloss over differences.

“One person wants children, the other hates children, or maybe there are incompatible political views that you didn’t see during the Occupy protest,’’ Epstein said.

Karasik and Stitham are still together, but there are challenges. He has a 2-year-old son, whom he has not yet allowed Karasik to meet, and he is looking for work in Maine or Boston.

Her parents pushed her to enroll in community college, so she is back living at home in upstate New York. They are involved long-distance, but it is hard. She misses sleeping beside him in a tent, picking up trash together on Dewey Square, sitting on his lap in the camp with nothing and everything to do.

But they often argue. When he does not answer her texts and phone calls, she feels ignored. He often worries that she is flirting with other guys from home. She sometimes wonders what her life would be like now if she had stayed in Upstate New York.

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“If I’d gone to school in the fall, I wouldn’t have met Red, and that would have been awful, because he’s so wonderful,’’ said Karasik. “But at the same time, my life would be more stable right now than it is.’’

They don’t know when they will meet again.


Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.

Editor’s note: This story about relationships that began during Occupy Boston featured a man, Robert Stitham, who is a registered sex offender, according to state records. Had his status been discovered during reporting, the story would not have been published.