Sustaining Relationships With Others—and Yourself—During COVID-19

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Key Takeaways

  • Relationships of all types have been strained during this time.
  • There are options to both stay connected to old relationships and form new ones in safe ways.
  • Make sure that you are still making time for yourself.

This past year has been challenging in several ways, including how we have been forced to navigate and re-assess our relationships. Whether romantic, platonic, or otherwise, sheltering-in-place and living in an increasingly digital world has put a severe strain on daily interactions for many of us.

With this ongoing and seemingly unending difficulty, some have figured out ways to be creative and optimize their time, helping maintain existing relationships or build new ones. These methods are largely based around virtual spaces, such as online happy hours, writing workshops, and dating platforms. Meanwhile, some folks opt to multi-task, folding laundry while catching up with friends on Zoom, or taking a walk outside while talking to family members on the phone.

Though some have adapted and found new ways to connect, others have struggled with both fostering and maintaining their relationships. There are several factors that could contribute to the strain, including distance, new or changing familial responsibilities, workload, or just overall stress.

Stress is a major one, especially considering that many of the factors that have contributed to the worldwide spike in anxiety are out of our control. Individuals can, however, address the smaller, tangible parts of their daily lives, including how we approach relationships of all types during this time.

The Pressure of Loneliness

Whether out of necessity or caution, for many individuals COVID-19 has meant solitude. Relationship experts suggest not limiting your safe methods of interaction. “If safe to do so, schedule some time together. If meeting in person is not safe, just start chatting again. Or if you’ve been chatting all along, increase the intimacy of the medium, such as going from texting to FaceTime or calling. The friendships that are worth maintaining should be eager for this opportunity." says Sean Davis, PhD, a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT).

For those who are living alone, there can be pressure to reach out and foster new relationships. While this might feel like the right direction, experts say that nurturing your relationships that already exist may be a great first step. Davis says, “I’d recommend strengthening the relationships you already have in place—peripheral relationships are often used as a distraction from the work required to strengthen troubled primary relationships.”

Boundaries and Communication

Whether familial, platonic, or otherwise, the pandemic has undoubtedly caused some tension in many relationships. It can be easy to blame the stress of the pandemic on crumbling communication, but Davis says that these effects may actually just be magnifying what already was present.

“COVID has led most people to have fewer, deeper relationships. The casual peripheral relationships have been replaced with more time with family at home," Davis says. "For many, that time has led to a deepening of family connections. But for others it has led to a widening of rifts that could previously be ignored when people didn’t have to spend so much time together.

In other words, Davis says, already strong relationships may have become stronger, and weak relationships may have grown weaker, or withered entirely.

When aiming to nurture relationships during this stressful time, it is important to both develop and maintain communication and boundaries. Many of us have endured altered or heightened expectations from coworkers or friends due to the pandemic, because we are all at home.

It can be difficult to both address the need for alone or down time and maintain a positive relationship. “Have a discussion with them and explain your need for physical and emotional space. If possible, carve out a regular time and place each day where you can close the door and be alone—and respect others’ desire to do the same,” Davis says.

Don't Forget About You

Another relationship that is important to nurture is the one we have with ourselves. Davis says, "Research has shown, the more isolated you are, the more conspiratorial and negative your thoughts become. It becomes easier to attribute negative intent to someone’s actions, assume they’re thinking negatively of you, convince yourself it’s better to remain isolated, and so forth."

Sean Davis, PhD

If you’re rekindling a relationship right now, make sure it isn’t just to distract you from working on yourself.

— Sean Davis, PhD

During this time, especially for those who may live alone or with a spouse, partner, or roommate who is an essential worker, the sharp increase in alone time has allowed for ample—and sometimes too much—space for processing our own thoughts.

Often, due to the daily hustle and bustle of our lives in more normal times, we are able to bypass the necessary, but sometimes lengthy. process of working through our feelings. Now—not so much. “A lot of people have a difficult time sitting with themselves, which the pandemic has given us in spades. So if you’re rekindling a relationship right now, make sure it isn’t just to distract you from working on yourself.” says Davis.

While nobody would suggest the pandemic has been a good thing, it has provided some opportunities for self-reflection and self-improvement.

What This Means For You

Relationships of all types have suffered strain during this time. Because of the heightened tension that we are all operating under, each of our interactions can benefit from an intentional focus on not only communication and boundary setting, but effort. Experts support reaching out to the relationships that you already have and attempting to nurture them, even if it is only over the phone or virtually.

It is also important to remember that each of the relationships in your life can benefit from some grace and evaluation during this time, including those connected to your family and your coworkers. While we enter and stay in each of these relationships for differing reasons, they all require us to bring our best selves to the table, and that can be hard to do in times of stresss. Consider the best way to construct boundaries and enforce communication that will be beneficial to everyone involved.

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