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How to Navigate Conversations About COVID Consent and Boundaries

Two adults wearing masks and greeting each other by touching elbows

Nenad Stojnev / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Not everyone's COVID-19 safety views will align when it comes to socializing, so clear communication is necessary.
  • Having a conversation about consent and boundaries ahead of a date or hangout can mitigate discomfort or misunderstanding and allow you to relax in the moment.

Despite CDC guidelines, not everyone is on the same page when it comes to socializing safely during the pandemic. Individuals can make their own decisions, but there's an added stress when their consequences can affect more than just the decision-maker.

The reality is that not everyone's COVID-19 safety viewpoints will align. So, in the interest of keeping others safe and comfortable, one thing we can do is communicate clearly with the people with whom we want to spend time.

Direct Communication Is Key

It's a social script we're accustomed to elsewhere, namely romantic or sexual relationships. Asking someone about their sexual habits, preferences, and STD/STI testing and screening practices can feel inherently awkward when navigating a new intimate relationship.

These days, if we want to maintain any sort of relationship during the pandemic—friendship or otherwise—while protecting ourselves and others, we must communicate in a similar way. This can be uniquely overwhelming, as the COVID conversation can feel a lot like the safe sex conversation.

"But we have to have it with so many more people,” says Judy Ho, PhD, a neuropsychologist and associate professor of psychology at Pepperdine University.

Judy Ho, PhD

Remind yourself that you're doing this for the relationship. You’re doing it for your own sanity and health. The more we can normalize these conversations, the less they’ll become a big deal.

— Judy Ho, PhD

Individuals can disagree on any number of things during a social interaction—sharing drinks or food, masks or no masks, inside or outside, socially distant or not. And the result can, at best, make things a bit awkward or, at worst, put lives at risk.

So, how can we reduce harm and avoid discomfort while pursuing the meaningful social interaction we so desperately need right now?

Get Consent

First and foremost, consent is absolutely crucial when it comes to social interaction during the pandemic. And just as in sexual relationships, it must be active and explicit. Avoiding the subject or passive agreement is not consent.

If you're planning a date or hang out with a friend, check in with that person's comfortability. What do they envision for the interaction? Are they comfortable having drinks at a bar with an outdoor patio, or would they prefer a socially distant walk while wearing masks?

Ho urges that while both parties are responsible for achieving consent, it should be on the more liberal, less cautious person to check in and assure you're both on the same page ahead of time. Don't assume everyone's beliefs align with yours right off the bat; this can lead to an uncomfortable situation once you're face to face.

La'Tesha Sampson, LCSW

Unmet expectations occur because people often believe that others should intrinsically know their needs and meet them. This leads to confusion and frustration.

— La'Tesha Sampson, LCSW

So, holding a conversation around consent is a great first step in assuring everyone's needs are met. And if it feels like overkill to get affirmation from a friend or date ahead of an interaction, it's absolutely better to be safe than sorry.

“Remind yourself that you're doing this for the relationship," Ho says. "You’re doing it for your own sanity and health. The more we can normalize these conversations, the less they’ll become a big deal.”

Encourage an Open Dialogue

Getting consent requires clear and concise communication, and making time for these discussions ahead of the interaction conveys respect and care. Communicating clear needs, wants, and boundaries not only protects you but also makes everyone's life easier.

"Don't leave room for confusion or put the onus on others to do your emotional lifting," says La'Tesha Sampson, LCSW, president and founder of Great Joy Counseling.

Convey your expectations regarding both your own actions and those of the other person. A major strain on relationships is often something left unsaid.

"Unmet expectations occur because people often believe that others should intrinsically know their needs and meet them," Sampson says. "This leads to confusion and frustration. To combat this, it is very important to first extend grace to yourself and others. This grace includes embracing the notion that like you, most people are doing the best they can."

Foster Empathy

Navigating these conversations requires empathy. This should not be an opportunity to determine one person is right and the other is wrong. There's no room for judgmental attitudes, as everyone has their reasons—public or private—for their actions. It's a very personal issue that must be taken seriously.

“Remember there is that other side," Ho says. "We don’t have to all agree, but if you want the relationship to continue you do have to be more thoughtful about what you say. So try to avoid operating from a place of defense, and the best way to do that is to have empathy for the other person, try to imagine what it’s like to be them right now.”

La'Tesha Sampson, LCSW

Ask yourself if your relationships serve you. Then ask yourself how they can be improved, and get to work. We cannot allow the pandemic to rob us of meaningful connections with others.

— La'Tesha Sampson, LCSW

However, if you've worked to establish a protocol ahead of the interaction and the other person breaks that protocol, it's important to let them know. If you have trouble with being assertive, make a plan for yourself and rehearse it ahead of time.

One template Ho recommends for this, specifically, is first acknowledging something the person has done that you appreciate, then remind them of the protocol and what you're comfortable with and finally propose a solution.

“The more we practice and get it into our brain and muscle memory, the more easily it will come to us when we’re in the moment,” Ho says.

Practice Intentionality

The reality is that it does take extra work to have a COVID-safe social life right now. And while it might be an inconvenience, it's important to remember that our actions can potentially affect a circle much wider than ourselves.

So, focus on the positive. One thing to consider is that, although these conversations can feel heavy for new romantic relationships, both parties can tell much more quickly whether their values align.

“With dating, it denotes a deeper level in conversation and trust," Ho says. "Everything does take a little more foresight. You get personal very quickly.”

Spending time with individuals who share your concerns and respect your protocols can ease stress while providing valuable connection. And being upfront about these things is beneficial to all parties involved.

"Be intentional about your relationships," Sampson says. "Ask yourself if your relationships serve you. Then ask yourself how they can be improved, and get to work. We cannot allow the pandemic to rob us of meaningful connections with others."

But in the event that you can't find common ground with a friend or potential partner, don't panic. If you can't seem to find a space that each of you can occupy comfortably, the best move might be to put a pin in the interaction or relationship for now. Accepting the circumstances and keeping their impermanence top of mind can ultimately avoid further argument, discomfort, or irreparable damage to the relationship.

What This Means For You

If you're planning a social interaction, talk about expectations ahead of time. Convey what you're comfortable with and respect the other person's boundaries. And always keep in mind that our current circumstances are not permanent.

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