Democrat, Republican. Pro-choice, pro-life. Conservative, liberal. Just a few examples of when positions taken by family members or friends can result in tense encounters and hurtful disagreements.
This year, the list can be expanded to include the following: Mask, no mask. Stay at home, venture out at will. Social distance, gather in large groups.
The measures related to COVID-19 are being debated by individuals and groups alike. There are growing instances of friends with opposing perspectives that lead to disagreement and disappointment in one another, with a potential for long-term impact on their friendships.
The recent article, Friends Are Breaking Up Over Social Distancing, conveys the story of a 22 year old man who was invited by his friend to join a group for a soccer game. With his state under a stay-at-home-order, he reminded his friend of the risks, shared the news that his grandmother was diagnosed and hospitalized with COVID-19, and cited the nationwide death toll. The friend responded with, “I didn’t need a lecture. You could have just said ‘No’.” After this exchange there was no further communication between them.
A time in which daily life is totally disrupted, a deadly disease is rampant, and everyone’s financial future seems precarious, it’s a particularly bad moment to lose friends. So when friends are at odds over social distancing Miriam Kirmayer, a clinical psychologist and friendship researcher, recommends preserving those friendships when possible, and using empathy rather than shaming to resolve the conflict.
In normal times, a rift like the one the soccer player described might be easy to repair. The knowledge that your time together might be ending is a powerful incentive to move past disagreements. But when people are anxious about the future and worried about their loved ones, it’s much harder to forgive and forget. In the current situation, “we’re all feeling increasingly irritable and frustrated, lonely, anxious, and bored,” Kirmayer said. “So we then have less patience for those around us.”
Perhaps the best way to bolster a friendship that has become tense, though, is to actively discuss it. Talk about why distancing is important to you. Help the friend in question with whatever it is that makes social distancing so hard for them. “Offer to do things to make it easier for a friend to take it seriously. Like, ‘Can I help? Can I support you in this in any way?’” Kirmayer said. “‘Can I drop off some groceries? Can we prioritize social time online so that you’re not feeling as lonely?’”
In a pandemic, everyday life is harder by an order of magnitude because people can’t physically be together. But we can try to metaphorically meet our friends where they are.