We are now almost eight months deep into a pandemic that has strained the already thin fabric of our nation even farther. The effects of quarantines, economic uncertainty, and the constant worry over whether we or the people around us may have COVID-19 have changed the way we see and interact with the people in our lives. Some of our relationships have evolved into warm, supportive places to land when we’re struggling and we’ve learned who has our back. Still other relationships have struggled, crumbling under the pressure of our own fears and worries; disagreements over what precautions and safety protocols are necessary; or in some cases, from too much togetherness without time alone to tend to our own self-care.
With case numbers rising in Chattanooga and throughout our state, we may be re-thinking some of the social opportunities that have felt safe: hikes with friends or walks in the park; patio brunch; sending kids to school in person… That leaves us contemplating a weary winter trapped by the same four walls, with the same people we’ve been quarantining with FOR — approximately — EVER.
So, what can we do as Coronatide stretches into infinity and we stare down the looming flu season and a third wave of COVID to help protect and support our relationships? Here are a few tips we can use with friends, spouses, and even our kids, to ease some of the COVID-induced tension we’re feeling.
Clear, effective, compassionate communication is the key to almost any successful relationship. But that doesn’t always mean it’s easy. For many of us, expressing our feelings, our needs, our desires and expectations feels hard, especially if there is a risk of hurting someone’s feelings or making them feel inadequate in some way by expressing ourselves. That said, you can flip that narrative on its head when you realize that clear communication is a gift. By talking openly, but with care and compassion, you take away much of the opportunity for misunderstanding or leaving someone who cares for you blowing in the wind trying to figure out how they can meet your needs, please you, or fulfill their responsibilities. Clear communication decreases the potential for conflict and can leave all everyone feeling accomplished.
On the flip side of saying what you need to say, to paraphrase John Mayer, is active listening. Encourage your spouse, kids or friends to share their thoughts, feelings, ideas, and needs with you and really listen. Don’t interrupt. Put your phone down or look away from the big screen, and really hear what is being said. Try not to assume what someone is asking for before they get the words out. And repeat what they say back to them. Use “I hear” statements, e.g. “I hear you saying you need me to stop nagging you about X.” Without getting defensive, explore what your partner, friend, or child is asking you for or trying to tell you by asking open-ended questions. “How can I help with that?” “What does that look like to you?” “Tell me more…”
Of course, the most important aspect of communication may be follow through: are you acting on what you’ve heard? If your friend tells you that it makes her uncomfortable when you try to hug her or get too close without a mask, are you respecting her boundaries by wearing a mask and not hugging her or are you ignoring everything she told you? Follow through on conversations is the key to successful communication.
2. Set and Respect Boundaries/Get Some Time Alone
Adjacent to communication is boundary setting. In fact, effective boundary setting requires clear communication. Spend some time getting really clear over what lines cannot be crossed during this time. With everyone under one roof and partners possibly both working from home while kids may also be schooling from home, it is important to lay out guidelines over shared space, when you can be interrupted and why, and when you’re available to family or friends. And one boundary everyone in the family needs is some time alone. Whether you want to read a book, play guitar, practice yoga, knit, nap, hit your punching bag, draw, listen to a podcast, meditate, or take a long soak in the tub, we all need space to relax our minds, express our creativity, and just have some down time where we don’t have to answer to anyone else. Yes, even your kids need some time alone. Even the extroverts. So, in addition to carving out time for fun and bonding and connection, make sure you are creating space for yourself to have some time alone and giving that same gift to others. And be firm when anyone tries to encroach on your alone time by telling them when you will be available to them and sticking to it.
3. Plan Family Fun Nights and Date Nights
One of the most fun things my family has done is Friday Night Game & Music Nights. We get Mexican takeout, put on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts and play games. Clue and Bard Speaks Profanity have both been popular choices for us, the latter leaving us spent from laughing so hard and the funny use of Shakespeare quotes to fill in the blanks. You could organize an art night, buying BOGO canvases and paints or charcoals at Michaels and having everyone create their own masterpiece; create Minute-to-Win-It type games; or all take turns reading from a beloved classic work of literature. This week would be the perfect time to break out Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, or depending on the ages of your kids, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.”
Of course, your marriage may need a little injection of fun if you’ve both been focused on working, or managing your kids’ school schedules and being homework support, worrying about finances, or just feeling frustrated by too much un-fun time together. Creating a new date night ritual can offer both an intellectual or emotional challenge in working together to plan something and offer a fun spark to fuel the romance that may have gone missing during this incredibly exhausting and challenging time.
Your creativity is your only limitation but you can always start with a basic Move & Pizza Night. Whether you order delivery or make creating your own pie part of the fun, get the kids set up with their dinner first and either get them to bed or set them up to watch their own movie in another room, then focus on each other. Look each other in the eyes and talk about anything other than kids, household issues, money, or COVID. Choose a funny or romantic movie or if it’s your jam, an engaging action movie. Leave the deep-thought required by art flicks for another time and just have fun. If you’re feeling more ambitious, plan to make a fancy gourmet meal together. Order the groceries the day before and don’t forget to plan for a fancy cocktail or mocktail to make the evening special. Or maybe you really miss traveling with your partner…if so, plan a date night to dream about and plan your first post-COVID travel adventure…grab a couple of pints of your favorite ice cream or favorite dessert and start browsing Instagram for inspiration then dive into VRBO to find your ideal Italian villa or romantic shack on the beach. Of course, you can keep it super simple and just grab a bottle of wine and a blanket, and head for the backyard to stargaze and hold hands.
4. Don’t Forget Your Friends
I would not have survived any of this without my friends. And I’ve truly figured out which ones align with my values, who makes me laugh the hardest, who accepts help with grace, and who truly has my back. I’m so lucky to know some fantastic people. My Chattanooga girls spent the first few weeks of the pandemic dropping off toilet paper, sanitizing wipes, hand sanitizer, and even wine, coffee, and anniversary surprises on each other’s porches. We cried together over the worries and stressful moments and celebrated each other for even the smallest accomplishments. We have tried to find safe ways to interact, a birthday brunch on a porch here or there, walks on the Riverwalk. At the same time, the moment anyone in our “pod” has expressed discomfort about being around any of us for any reason, it has been accepted without question or criticism or defensiveness. The same has been true for my friends in Atlanta whom I’ve been fortunate enough to visit once or twice since this all began. Talking daily via text has really been the key to nurturing all of these relationships, listening, laughing, sharing our fears and worries and the small joys. It would be easy to retract and shrink and hide out from the world, especially on days when everything seems heavy and dark, but truly being open with friends about those moments has added an element of safety to an otherwise unpredictable and unstable time.
5. Ask for and Extend Grace
It’s that simple. We’re all going to screw up, in life in general. But right now when our energies are stretched and we ebb and flow in and out of moments of hope and despair, it’s easy to snap at a loved one. We might drop the ball on an assignment or something we promised to do for someone else. We may not have the mental stamina to give in the ways we usually do. Our kids may be missing Zoom classes or forgetting to complete assignments. Our teens may balk or complain that they can’t see friends or enjoy the freedom they should be experiencing at this time of their lives. It all stinks and it’s all normal. So, when you screw up, offer a sincere apology and forgive yourself. Make amends if necessary, but let it go. And offer that same grace to your family and friends. No one has done this before. We’re all still navigating without a roadmap and we will all mess up. We all just need a little love and compassion, and perhaps, a little help getting back on track. And that’s okay.