The long-term impacts of the coronavirus – on our bodies, our brains, on society – won’t be fully understood for years. One of the most unsettling questions is how the pandemic has changed our relationships with people we love but who we’ve disagreed with on the threat of COVID-19 and the steps necessary to stay safe.
COVID has altered family dynamics. Fights over mask-wearing and social distancing created new rifts, and for those split on politics pre-pandemic the crisis deepened fractures already formed.
There’s the sister who wouldn’t socially distance at all and the one who only socialized outside six-feet apart. The husband who refused to wear a mask and the wife who wouldn’t leave home without one. The aunt who said she’s in no rush to get vaccinated and the cousin who signed up for a shot the minute he was eligible.
The most cautious family members butted heads with the more risk-tolerant ones. Even for families who largely agreed on COVID restrictions this past year, the continued uncertainty of an increasingly vaccinated world has created challenges around returning to “normal.” When it comes to resuming life, not everyone is on the same timeline.
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USA TODAY spoke with two psychologists on how families can work to repair relationships damaged by disagreements over COVID. These are their tips for moving forward:
Determine if both people are willing to work on the relationship
Melissa Boudin, clinical director for Choosing Therapy, an online therapy platform, said nothing can be accomplished unless both family members are interested in healing.
“You have to sit the other person down and say, ‘OK, we’re not seeing eye to eye on this. Are you willing to talk about it and meet in the middle somewhere?’ That’s where that conversation starts,” she said.
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People need the opportunity to hear one another out, to compromise where they can and set strong boundaries in places they cannot.
Start from a place of empathy
Loren Soeiro, a psychologist in private practice in New York City, said during these conversations it’s important to start from a place of empathy.
“I mean it in the specific way of actively trying to understand where the person you’re speaking to is coming from,” he said. “Forgetting about trying to convince them, forgetting about the distance between them and yourself, and really making that active effort to understand why their views make sense for them.”
Soeiro said sometimes these conversations can be easier between family members because there is a basis for intimacy. Other times, it can be twice as difficult, especially if communication problems are entrenched.
Understand the emotions driving behavior
“It’s important to be totally open-minded and just hear the other person out,” Boudin said. “It doesn’t mean that you have to agree.”
Conversations around COVID can get heated. It’s easy to get angry or defensive. It’s important to stay calm and ask questions about what’s driving the other person’s behavior.
The goal is to help meet a person’s needs in a way that both people are comfortable with, and to make room for compromise.
If someone needs to let off steam and wants to go to on vacation and party, maybe you can suggest they choose a secluded destination or one that doesn’t require a flight. If someone is vaccinated but is still afraid to socialize, maybe you can suggest one-on-one interactions until they’re comfortable with larger gatherings.
Communicate clearly and set boundaries
It’s important for people to clearly and non-judgmentally explain to the other person what is important to them, why it’s important, and how that person’s current behavior makes them feel.
“If you’re a parent that could be saying, ‘When people are around our child and aren’t masked, it makes us feel really anxious and worried and we’re not comfortable with it.’ Part of it is communicating feelings accurately in a fair way,” Soeiro said. “Not saying, ‘You’re making us feel that way,’ not blaming, just saying, ‘When this happens, here’s how we feel.'”
In any relationship, Boudin said you can only control your own behavior. This is why it’s key to establish clear boundaries, whether that’s only socializing outdoors, or with masks, or after a period of isolation. It’s also fair to acknowledge that your boundaries may be difficult for others.
“It’s OK to say, ‘We’re sorry, we don’t want this to cause hurt,'” Soeiro said.
Why it may not always be best to address the past
Soeiro said the expression “Don’t brush anything under the rug,” is not true for everyone.
“There are families who get along better if certain subjects are just not discussed, and after a while in some relationships, you learn where the trouble spots are and you learn how to steer around them,” he said.
Ideally though, if someone is causing you hurt, he encourages a direct conversation that begins from a place of empathy.
For family members who have been tested by COVID, Soeiro said time will help heal these wounds.
“Stick with patience and empathy,” he said. “The other person wants something that you can probably understand. And it doesn’t help all the way to understand why that person is sticking to their guns in a way that’s hurtful to you, but it’s a start.”