Relationships in the time of COVID-19

May 4th, 2020
This article is featured in the Offering Hospitality issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

Socializing during a pandemic 

In the fourth century B.C., the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote in his work Politics, “Man is by nature a social animal.” The more recent work of psychologists and neuroscientists has proved Aristotle’s belief to be true. Alongside our physical need for food, water and shelter, we also need to form relationships and belong to a group. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s work connects the size of our brains, compared to other animals, to the size of our social group. We are genetically wired for socialization, for working and being together. Thus, COVID-19 poses a particular challenge to us as humans. By socially distancing ourselves to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus, we are going against our natural instincts and psychological needs. 

So much of our culture is built around gathering together in large and small groups, at churches and concerts, in backyards and restaurants, all of which has been brought to a halt through lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders for the good of public health and to protect the most vulnerable members of society. 

But even as we maintain physical distance from one another, many people are adapting and fostering social and emotional closeness via technology. Book clubs, happy hours, and game and movie nights have moved from homes and bars to Skype, Google Hangouts, Zoom, Twitch or Facetime, to name a few outlets. We are worshipping and watching concerts together on Facebook Live and logging into Zoom for virtual coffee hours. Work conversations and meetings happen on Slack or Microsoft Teams instead of in a conference room or by the proverbial water cooler. No longer limited by geographical proximity, it is just as easy to schedule time with long-distance friends and family as it is for those in the same city. And with the external demands on many people’s schedules greatly reduced, it is less challenging to find time to virtually get together. 

While technology may make social connection across distance easier, this time of intense social distancing is also promoting relationships with physically proximal neighbors. Now that we are home more often, and as warmer, spring weather approaches, conversations over fence lines and from front porches occur with more frequency. With gyms closed, walks and jogs around the neighborhood serve to burn energy while also getting some fresh air and nurturing connections with others who are out and about. 

Closer to home 

Though social media and technology have facilitated our relationships with those outside our homes, for the most part our primary relationships remain those within our own households. While we used to spend just a few waking hours with our partners and children, suddenly, we spend all of them together. In our confinement, home has now become a shared workplace, school, playground, concert venue and movie theater. Balancing work life and domestic life, learning and play, childcare and the demands of running a household in a time already marked by stress, uncertainty, and grief can create friction even in normally well-functioning relationships. In troubled relationships, on the other hand, the pressure can exacerbate the cracks that already existed. 

We are living through a moment of unprecedented, widespread communal stress. Community events, athletic competitions, and trips of all kinds have been canceled or indefinitely postponed. High levels of unemployment and a significant amount of financial uncertainty compound on top of our forced reckoning with our mortality and human frailty. In the face of a deadly pandemic, even people with privilege and stability are emotionally stressed and grieving the loss of normalcy. At the same time, we are without access to many of our support systems and coping mechanisms. 

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) are widely known and provide a useful framework for managing our emotions during this time. It should be noted, however, that movement among these stages is rarely linear, and any one day might bring an experience of a number of different stages. As we are all dealing with tough circumstances, we might find our emotional responses differ from those to whom we are closest. Being in a different stage of grief from a friend’s, a spouse’s, or a roommate’s means the potential for conflict will grow. We might also find ourselves more likely to take out our negative emotions on those who are physically closest to us at this time. With this in mind, it is unsurprising, though still distressing, to learn that instances of child and partner abuse have escalated worldwide, according to The New York Times

Skills and strategies for coping 

One of the unhelpful ways our stress often manifests is through comparison with others, particularly with the version they present on social media. For those whose jobs have gotten more demanding or complicated by working from home while also parenting, it may seem like everyone else is just relaxing and binge-watching Netflix. For those who have lost jobs and are navigating the unemployment process, they may be envious of those working, while those working outside the home are themselves anxious about exposure to the coronavirus. Even those who currently have an income are anxious about how long that might last, not to mention those who are dealing with health crises involving themselves or their loved ones. It is crucial to remember that this is a difficult situation for everyone and to extend grace and compassion to one another and to ourselves. 

Handling these feelings may require more self-knowledge and self-awareness than we are used to, but being aware of when we are getting tense or annoyed and need a break can positively benefit all of our relationships. Strategies like communicating our needs with one another, deep breathing, taking time for exercise or simply spending time outdoors can help us constructively deal with difficult emotions. As Christians, setting aside time for prayer and reading Scripture, particularly the Psalms or the Prophets, can aid in situating ourselves within God’s plan for the world. Scripture can also remind us that we are neither the first nor the last to suffer and that we are part of God’s community across geographical and temporal bounds. 


When loved ones won’t socially distance 

A major area of conflict in some relationships right now is centered around how different people interpret and bend the rules when it comes to social distancing. As a matter of public health, policing one another’s adherence (or lack thereof) to social distancing shows up in our relationships. Many adult children have found themselves frustrated by their older parents’ insistence on attending a book club or dropping by a friend’s house. Neighbors watch judgingly as cars gather in front of a house on their block. Individuals struggle with how to tell their roommate that a significant other can’t come over to visit anymore. Furthermore, social media enables us to discern that some people aren’t exactly adhering to the rules of social distancing. 

Underlying many of these exchanges is fear, especially when those playing fast and loose with the rules are in populations vulnerable to COVID-19. No one wants to prematurely bury their parent or grandparent. With some cases being asymptomatic, the situation of unknowingly spreading the virus with potentially fatal results is horrifying. Some of the negative mental health effects of isolation have led people to stretch the definition of “essential” travel and business, at the risk of unnecessarily exposing themselves and their housemates. It can also be frustrating for the rule-followers to see others flouting guidelines, knowing that the spread of the pandemic affects us all.

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