As the pandemic presses on and restrictions ease, Americans are trying to figure out how to socialize going forward.
“We’re going to see a whole lot of rift in dynamics, sometimes even within our own households, as people are starting to navigate what their next steps are going to be,” says Lyndsay Volpe-Bertram, section chief of psychology at Spectrum Health, a managed-care health organization in Michigan.
We have different personalities, different tolerances for risk and different situations that alter our chances of spreading or contracting the virus. So how can we respect our different stances on socializing safely without causing rifts? The techniques experts share here can help with tricky pandemic situations — and with building healthy relationships in general.
1. Understand where the stress is coming from. Before moving on to these techniques, we need to acknowledge that pandemic disagreements can be especially fraught — and why. “When we feel loved, safe, connected, we feel secure,” says Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist in Sonoma County, Calif., and author of “Joy From Fear.” During a pandemic, when so much already feels unsafe and unknown, it can seem especially important to keep our family and friend circles harmonious.
Anything that disrupts that harmony, such as disagreements on socializing, causes stress and anxiety. Some anxiety comes from our family’s desire that we accept them and our desire that they accept us, Volpe-Bertram says. “We want to make them happy, for the most part. We want to be aligned with them.”
If your family is in consensus, such as agreeing on a get-together for a birthday, for example, and you feel differently, both sides can feel hurt. (This need for acceptance applies to both family and friends, Manly says. Sometimes friends “can feel more like family than DNA family.”)
Some anxiety comes from simply anticipating a situation in which you might disagree. “We anticipate that people are going to be upset with us, that they’re going to give us guilt trips, that they’re going to stop inviting us to things,” Volpe-Bertram says.
She says the worst-case scenario we envision usually doesn’t happen: “We create a lot of scenarios in our mind, which is part of what anxiety does.” In some ways, anticipation helps us prepare for how to respond to a challenging situation, she says, “but also leads us to ruminate and really overthink situations, which is when it stops being helpful.”
No matter the roots of our stress, there are ways to mitigate tension.
2. Create then communicate your boundaries. First, decide what kind of socializing you are comfortable with. “Everybody has to do their own risk assessment,” says Gary Brown, a prominent marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles. “You have the right to set your own level of tolerance for risk.”
Volpe-Bertram suggests asking yourself, “If I left everybody else’s opinion out of it, what would I feel most comfortable with?” Identify your own rules, such as that you’ll gather with family outdoors but not share a meal.
Brown encourages writing down your guidelines, knowing they might change over time.
Next, communicate your rules clearly to let others know where you stand. Setting boundaries can be uncomfortable, Volpe-Bertram says, and requires practice. She suggests rehearsing what you’ll say so you present your decision clearly and non-defensively.
You don’t need a lengthy explanation either, Volpe-Bertram says. When we overexplain our decisions, she says, it “decreases our power when we’re communicating.”
If we offer several reasons we’re doing something, it opens up more loopholes and room to negate what we say. So the best way to communicate your decision? Believe in the boundary you set, remain confident and firmly state it in a kind way, Volpe-Bertram advises.
“Our true friends respect our boundaries, even if they disagree with them,” Manly says. But, she notes, when boundary-setting is new, sometimes we also need to give the other person time to hear and honor what we tell them.
“Give the person one, two, three times to catch up to you to get the message,” Manly said. If the person still isn’t hearing you, explain that part of continuing the relationship is that your decisions be respected.
3. Ask about the other person’s guidelines. Besides communicating your own boundaries, inquire about what makes the other person comfortable. Manly suggests asking questions such as, “Could you tell me what makes you feel safe with social distancing? What are you practicing?” By asking and listening, you show that you want to honor their boundaries. Having that dialogue will allow you to feel more connected and to savor your time together.
4. Get comfortable with saying no. Even the best delivered messages can be met with resistance, leading to more discomfort. When you start setting boundaries, not only is it new for you, it’s new for the person you are setting boundaries with, who “is probably going to push back,” Volpe-Bertram says. That other person might say things that make you feel guilty, such as suggesting you don’t care.
“Realize you have a right to your own opinion,” Brown says, especially when it comes to health and safety. “It’s more than simply being OK for you to disagree. It’s a basic right, and you don’t really have any need to apologize for it.”
If someone challenges you or says something negative, Volpe-Bertram suggests you offer something like this: “I know we’re seeing two different sides of it, and I want to respect where you’re coming from. And I would like you to do the same for me.”
“The more we can work on our assertiveness skills and feel comfortable stating what we think and what our limits are, the easier it’s going to be,” Volpe-Bertram says.
5. Acknowledge emotions — theirs and yours. When we differ with someone, it can be helpful to focus on common concerns, such as wanting everyone to stay safe. But there’s an even better approach to show that you care. “Validating the other person’s emotions...can diffuse the situation,” Volpe-Bertram says. When talking with your loved one, she suggests saying something like, “I know you really miss us, and we miss you too. This is really hard.” When we listen to others’ feelings and validate them, “it really helps to break down the tension.”
6. Know that you’ll be re-evaluating. As we see waves of new information come out, we’ll all be adapting how we socialize. “We’re still learning a lot about this disease, and we’re still learning a lot about how it’s transmitted,” says Linda Lee, chief medical affairs and science officer at UV Angel, a company that develops ultraviolet light technology to sanitize air and surfaces.
“Be open to reconsidering your boundaries, maybe depending upon how safe or unsafe you feel you are in any specific situation,” Brown says. But be sure to check in with yourself, he adds, particularly how your body responds. “Always look [at] the breathing because the breathing is the number one barometer for our bodies.” If you feel tense or nervous, this could be a sign that you’ve let your boundaries become too loose.
7. Embrace new ways of reinforcing relationships. If you’re unable to visit with a loved one, whether because of disagreements about socializing, medical issues or geographic distance, try to strengthen the bond in a different way. Outside of chats and shared activities via video, discuss plans you’d like to do once you’re able, such as grabbing an ice cream cone or taking a road trip.
“Talking about [plans] can get those positive emotions flowing and ... foster that sense of connection,” Volpe-Bertram says. She also encourages looking through old photos and videos together to share in nostalgia and happy memories.
Manly suggested “doing things where you’re actually sharing life together, maybe in ways that you didn’t do even as much before the pandemic,” such as picking flowers and dropping them off at a friend’s house, sending a letter or sharing a loaf of bread you’ve baked.
No matter how you decide to reach out, Manly says, even if it’s just a quick text or phone call, you’re letting someone know “you’re on my radar.” That can help maintain the relationship until you’re free to visit again.