"..The highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them" - President John F. Kennedy
"I am missing affection, and I promise I won't do anything stupid. We are adults, and we get how dangerous this can be." Dereck's piercing blue eyes looked at his sister as they shared a therapy hour on how to handle a pandemic within a family of adults.
Amanda remained unconvinced.
"When you get set on a plan, you are like a bulldog. You go after it, no matter what the odds of trouble. I don't trust that you will check to see if your date has been vaccinated for the coronavirus before you kiss her goodnight. I just can't believe that you have that much self-discipline, and even if you did, you like this girl and self-discipline more often." She spoke gently but firmly, as though she knew her brother too well.
Dereck turned to me on zoom. I offered the siblings a family session to manage family disagreements about how careful to be now that guidelines are looser and genuinely confusing.
Dereck just met Meghan on the internet and set up a time to see her in person. They were maintaining social distancing, but they liked each other a lot. Both were starved of affection from living alone for four months during the pandemic, and both intended to be careful.
How harmful could a little kiss be? After all, they are adults, careful to hold safety guidelines.
My clinical psychology practice has been busy helping people deal with the pandemic. I see a rift in dynamics within families now living in the same house for months. People are starting to navigate what their next steps are going to be, and it is tricky.
I found myself trying to help them create family guidelines. After all, the indiscretion of one person could inadvertently make nearby family members ill, but how can it be made fair?
I struggled to find a simple statement that would guide everyone, but family members have different personalities, tolerances for risk, and anxiety levels to tolerate potentially dangerous outcomes. Therefore, how can we respect our different stances on socializing safely without causing rifts?
Here are five pointers I developed to help my clients. They also build healthy relationships in general.
1. Safer is Better: The bottom line is that it is impossible to be too careful with a deadly illness that has wiped out thousands of healthy lives. As Dereck considered the potential danger of a slip-up, he quickly agreed that "safer is better," and that he could live with the frustration of erring on the side of caution to protect himself and those he loves.
2. Discuss a Safe Path of Action: Pandemic disagreements can be especially fraught with danger and frustration because, during a pandemic, so much already feels unsafe and unknown. It is imperative to keep our family and friends synched with the strictest guidelines to protect all who come in contact with any family member. Anything that disrupts that harmony, such as disagreements on socializing, causes stress and anxiety. The simple guideline "safe is better" can unite a family around the common goal of health.
3. Create Boundaries, Discuss, and Then Agree on a Plan: Each family member needs to assess their risks, but everyone needs to agree if they share space. Once they garther their guidlenies, write them down and ask all for agreement, then tell family members this needs to apply to everyone sharing space, as long as there's danger. Setting boundaries and guidelines can present your decision clearly. Being cautious is wise, and after all, "safer is better."
Give family members a way to disagree and solve problems. Discuss your boundaries with others, and inquire about what makes the other person comfortable.
A question worth asking might be, “Could you tell me what makes you feel safe with social distancing? What are you practicing?” By asking and listening, you show that you want to honor their boundaries. Having that dialogue will allow you to feel more connected and to savor your time together.
4. "No" is a Viable Answer: When you start setting boundaries, not only is it new for you, it’s new for the person you are setting boundaries with, who is probably going to push back. If someone challenges you or says something negative, you can reply, "The more we can work together by stating what we think and what our limits are, the easier it’s going to be.”
5. Positivity Creates Cohesiveness: Find ways to support the family's strength during an ongoing emergency in the world. Strengthen the family bond by finding ways to enjoy time together safely. Play a game, get an ice cream cone, or take a brief road trip or boat ride together. Get loving emotions going to foster that sense of family connection.
Questions to ask:
1. Am I ready to put safety first? Why or why not?
2. Can you think of times when safer is not better concerning world health?
3. If we all put safety first, how much illness might we prevent?
To Consider: How dangerous would it be if half of Cape May County's citizens decided to not decide by safety first?
To Explore: Coronavirus information on the World Health Organization's website.
ED. NOTE: Dr. Judith Coche practices clinical psychology in Stone Harbor and Philadelphia. She invites responses through her website, www.cochecenter.com.