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If our relationships with friends and family weren’t complicated enough, COVID-19 has thrown a wrench into the works. As the pandemic presses on while restrictions begin to loosen, differences of opinion on physical distancing can put close bonds at risk.
Even with guidance from public health officials, people are having to make decisions about how comfortable they are rejoining a socially-distanced world while simultaneously navigating how that world should look — something they’ve never done before.
Whatever side you’re on, it can be difficult to hear a friend criticize your life choices in an already stressful time. Let’s face it, people become defensive.
In recent weeks, many of us have questioned our friends’ morals or found relationships strained because they’re taking physical distancing less seriously than we are. And because of the high stakes, rifts created now may not be so easily mended.
With our lives turned upside down for the foreseeable future, it’s hardly a surprise some of us aren’t seeing things the same way. Because so many questions about the virus persist, many of us are trying to figure out how to socialize.
We all have different personalities, varying tolerances for risk and unique situations that alter our chances of spreading or contracting the virus. So how can we respect our contrasting stances on socializing safely without causing a rift?
"Respecting different points of view on social distancing is no different than respecting differences with other topics," says Dr. Rehman Abdulrehman, a clinical and consulting psychologist who specializes in working with anxiety-related disorders and stress.
“Respecting different points of view on social distancing is no different than respecting differences with other topics." –Dr. Rehman Abdulrehman
In most situations, we exist on a scale of avoiding or taking risks. How we assess risk varies based on information we get from friends and family, the news and events in our lives, and on our personal circumstances and experiences.
All these risk factors influence the degree to which people have been following COVID-19 safety measures — some wear masks, others don’t. Some people avoid public places, others don’t. As restrictions loosen, this disparity may widen even further.
Abdulrehman says the responses people have had to social distancing have varied because the information we’ve received has been inconsistent. But that’s not entirely surprising — we’re in a completely new reality.
"We are continuously learning about it," Abdulrehman says. "We’ve watched the news and different regions have responded differently. For many, this uncertainty makes them more anxious."
Typically, we seek friends who have similar values and beliefs to our own and in times of crisis, we turn to those friends for support. But if one of those friends feels differently about something critical, it can hit a nerve.
Tensions can arise with your own family and friends who may not be adhering to physical distancing to the same extent you are. These can be uncomfortable conversations to have but it’s important to communicate your boundaries clearly. Understanding or trying to empathize with friends who have a different approach to physical distancing is an important first step. It’s also easier said than done.
Unlike most other disagreements, a friend’s behaviours may pose a risk to your health and that of others.
These disagreements can be an opportunity for growth in a relationship if we try to understand each other’s mindset.
"Although disagreements happen between important people in your life, a respectful conversation back and forth about your perspectives is usually helpful in helping each of you see the other’s perspective," says Abdulrehman.
This means before stating your point of view, summarize your understanding of their position. Once you’ve discussed your position, allow the other person to clarify what they mean or think. Abdulrehman says serious disagreements beyond this may reflect larger issues in the relationship.
A recent Angus Reid Institute poll conducted online June 8-10 suggests a significant number of Canadians are now less stringent about following certain behaviours aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19. It found those between the ages of 18 and 34 were least likely to follow recommended social distancing measures. And while 70 per cent of those surveyed said they still rigorously wash their hands, only 36 per cent were keeping away from public spaces.
It also noted that concerns about community transmission and the infection of friends or family members remain well above majority level, with 69 per cent of Canadians still worried someone close to them may become sick.
Manitoba’s Phase 3 reopening plan began on June 21 and includes allowing public gatherings of 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors — as long as people can stay two metres apart.
If friends are planning a party but you’re not ready to see others in person, be clear and upfront with them about how you feel. There’s nothing wrong with letting someone know you won’t be attending their gathering or you’ll only be comfortable seeing them if they let you know who else they’ve been around or where they’ve been in the last two weeks.
‘I think it’s important to state reasons why we are not feeling comfortable going," says Abdulrehman. "Staying silent on the matter may leave people to make assumptions, including negative ones, about why we are not going."
“Staying silent on the matter may leave people to make assumptions, including negative ones, about why we are not going.” –Dr. Rehman Abdulrehman
If you do decide to go to the party, it’s important to monitor what’s happening there. For instance, if you were expecting a handful of people but end up in a room of 50 where you can’t safely distance, it’s acceptable to say you don’t feel comfortable and leave.
Remember: you can’t control another person’s behaviour and we can’t make other people do what we want. You can share your experiences and be understanding, but ultimately it may not change how your friends or family choose to physically distance.
"Remember that we love people not because they are the exact same as us, but because they care about us and they can sometimes provide us different perspectives about life and ourselves," Abdulrehman explains.
Getting back to more relaxed interactions, in accordance with public health guidelines, will take time and people will continue to have a range of reactions.
Disagreements can be challenging when it comes to opinions about the elderly or those with compromised immune systems.
"Though respecting different perspectives is important, this can be particularly difficult when opinions about social distancing impact people in care, be it children or the elderly," he says. "In this situation, it will be very important to ensure concerns of the party seeking greater distancing be heard."
Abdulrehman also stresses the importance of not pulling away from relationships in which you’ve had a disagreement over physical distancing, especially if the last conversation you had could be perceived as judgmental.
"If you continue to engage with loved ones in any way you feel comfortable, like phone calls and video chats, the message that you still care remains apparent," he says.
This pandemic is new territory for all of us and there are no simple solutions. But if we come from a place of thinking everyone is doing their best, we can have more positive conversations and our relationships will remain close even though we can’t be.
Sabrina Carnevale is a freelance writer and communications specialist, and former reporter and broadcaster who is a health enthusiast. She writes a twice-monthly column focusing on wellness and fitness.
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