Differing Opinions on the COVID-19 Vaccine and Our Relationships

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Key Takeaways

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has served to divide some relationships with loved ones along the lines of vaccination.
  • While in some cases there may be valid reasons for refraining from vaccination, such decisions have repercussions.
  • Given the tensions that COVID-19 vaccination disagreements may cause, relationships may take more work to maintain.

While vaccine hesitancy has decreased over time, many remain unvaccinated across the country. Tensions between those who have been vaccinated and those who remain unvaccinated have the potential to cause a rift in some friendships and relationships with family members.

Unfortunately, these disagreements extend even beyond vaccine decisions, as many people still refuse to wear a mask, or put their mask back on, which can cause strife in personal and government relationships alike.

Choosing to Vaccinate

Pam Iverson, a 44-year old Black mother, writer, and activist, based in Atlanta, GA, says, “I have been fully vaccinated. All of my immediate family have been fully vaccinated, including my 12-year-old son. My ex-husband’s household and my partner’s ex-wife’s household, which are both part of my household’s social pod, are fully vaccinated as well.”

While most of her close friends have been vaccinated, Iverson admits that some are not, as she describes how a few are still either on the fence or are waiting for time to pass so they are more comfortable that there will not be serious side effects, but some have decided to never get a COVID vaccine. “Most of the latter group express mistrust in the medical and scientific communities, as well as in the U.S. government,” she says.

Iverson shared that her strong and outspoken support for the need to vaccinate the population at a high percentage as well as her opinion that the government should have mandated COVID-19 vaccination at the federal level has contributed to some tensions in her relationships with unvaccinated friends. For example, when she hosted a small gathering for Juneteenth, Iverson required proof of vaccination to attend, which excluded some friends who wanted to come.

Pam Iverson, writer and activist

Many believe it’s an individual choice and that I should just focus on my decision and not worry about anyone else’s. But a vaccine meant to combat a pandemic doesn’t work at an individual level.

— Pam Iverson, writer and activist

In terms of personal relationships, Iverson says, “Several of my social media posts have prompted unvaccinated friends to reach out and ask for an opportunity to explain their decision and express their disappointment in my perspective. Many believe it’s an individual choice and that I should just focus on my decision and not worry about anyone else’s. But a vaccine meant to combat a pandemic doesn’t work at an individual level.”

While she has not lost any friends, Iverson recognizes that some of her friendships have become more distant due to differing views regarding vaccination. “Ultimately, I have navigated tensions by choosing to share my opinions publicly on social media rather than persistently challenging the personal choices of my friends directly. That way, they know how I feel and are free to engage the issue with me or not,” she says.

The Decision Not to Vaccinate

Heather Stokes, a 38-year old Black doula, writer, and activist, based in Bridgeport, CT, says, “I am unvaccinated. There were several factors that went into my decision not to take the vaccine. Firstly, I avoid medication as much as possible in my everyday life. I do not take as much as an aspirin for headaches and prefer to use natural remedies and/or methods when I am sick. So when the vaccine came about it was an easy choice for me.”

Stokes explains that she had COVID-19 and survived, despite describing herself as obese and diabetic, which is why she was considered high risk for complications from the virus, as was her 67-year old mother who got it from her. Since they both survived by using home remedies, minimal medication, and no visits to the hospital, Stokes feels strongly about not getting vaccinated. “Thirdly, I do not trust our government. I do not believe they have our best interests at heart and I believe that this vaccine may cause more harm in the future rather than help,” she says.

While she has decided not to get vaccinated, Stokes reports that she is diligent about wearing her mask, and has not had any tensions in any of her relationships with families or friends, which most likely stems from the fact that she refrains from initiating discussions about her choice not to vaccinate. “If someone asks if I am vaccinated or not my response is that I am not vaccinated and I have no plans to do so,” she says.

Stokes explains, “Any further conversation is shut down as I am not going to justify my choices to anyone. I have had some coworkers accuse me of not caring about their health but my boss supports my choice so that is all that matters to me. I do not oppose anyone else’s choice to get the vaccine. I believe people should do what makes them comfortable and what is best for them, their family, and their body.”

Verywell Mind discourages the use of COVID-19 treatments that are not FDA approved and urges everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

Boundaries Can Help

New York-based neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University, Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, says, “Unfortunately, wearing a mask and getting a COVID-19 vaccine has become highly politicized. Hence, conversations about vaccines and masks end up being somewhat about politics, which can lead to a strain or damage in your close relationships.”

Sanam Hafeez, PsyD

If one person says they do not want to talk anymore, respect their wishes. Never lecture, threaten, or shame a loved one for having different viewpoints.

— Sanam Hafeez, PsyD

Hafeez explains that it is possible to salvage relationships among loved ones with different viewpoints on the COVID-19 vaccine, wearing masks, etc, as it can help to try not to get defensive when your belief system is being attacked or challenged and create boundaries instead. “For example, you should have a conversation with your loved one about what you feel comfortable talking about and topics you do not want to discuss,” she says.

Especially if tempers tend to flare, Hafeez says that it can be wise to plan in advance for how to handle such challenges, like a joint decision to take a step back until both individuals have calmed down. “In addition, try sharing your story. Talk about why you got vaccinated or wear a mask, and allow your loved one to ask you questions,” she says.

Hafeez elucidates, “This way, you can figure out your loved ones’ concerns, and you can acknowledge that it is normal to feel concerned. Then, address those concerns and reasons for getting the vaccine or wearing a mask. You also need to listen. Listen to your loved ones’ concerns and be empathetic.”

If a loved one expresses that they are hesitant to get the vaccine because of how quickly it was developed, Hafeez recommends helping them to understand the facts and steer them towards legitimate sources, but also know when to stop the conversation. “If one person says they do not want to talk anymore, respect their wishes. Never lecture, threaten, or shame a loved one for having different viewpoints,” she says.

Listening With Empathy

Ariel Landrum, MA, LMFT, licensed marriage and family therapist and certified art therapist at Guidance Teletherapy, says, “The divisiveness of vaccines and wearing masks have caused rifts, ruptures, and even breaks in relationships between families and friends. Differing viewpoints on how to respond to the current pandemic, specifically in the USA, are marked with polarization, instead of an exploration of the spectrum of differences.”

For individuals wanting to salvage relationships through this frustrating time, Landrum recommends listening with empathy to make informed decisions. “Allowing friends and family to share openly, and attempting to listen to that sharing with empathy, will help in mending hurt relationships. Remember that empathy does not mean we agree, or that we are complacent; it means that we are willing to allow others’ feelings to be heard and understood because they have value,” she says.

Landrum explains that open-ended questions, information sharing with permission, and honesty can all help. “One common mistake many people have made during these difficult times, in an attempt to create a resolution, is to bombard loved ones with new information. They will share sites, articles, videos, interviews, and data in an attempt to convince their loved ones to change their mind about their stance on certain issues,” she says.

Ariel Landrum, MA, LFMT

Most people appear to be doing what they believe is best for themselves and the people they care about. This basic understanding of motivations can help us reconcile some differences.

— Ariel Landrum, MA, LFMT

Landrum says, “This, unfortunately, has the opposite effect. Often, that individual will ignore the information shared and could discontinue communication, retaliate with their own data, or shift to ridicule. Instead, when trust has been built, in order to maintain it, we must ask permission to share new information. We must include asking if they are open to new information, and what is the best way for them to receive it.”

When it comes to building trust, Landrum highlights that friends and family members are not making active attempts to be harmful to themselves or others. “Most people appear to be doing what they believe is best for themselves and the people they care about. This basic understanding of motivations can help us reconcile some differences,” she says.

Landrum says, “We must also trust ourselves, and therefore build boundaries around friends and family that we will no longer be able to put the mental and emotional labor into reconciling with them. Though the ultimate goal may be to mend harm done to the relationship, we must also acknowledge when there is no longer a relationship to mend.”

What This Means For You

It can be challenging to navigate tensions with loved ones with respect to COVID-19 decisions, but there are strategies that can help to salvage relationships. Listening with empathy, asking open-ended questions, and setting boundaries can all be worth considering. Especially given the stress of this global pandemic, relationships with family and friends may require more effort to maintain in these trying times.

By Krystal Jagoo
 Krystal Kavita Jagoo is a social worker, committed to anti-oppressive practice.