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As we continue to endure the challenges associated with the current pandemic, many of us are trying to decide the best course forward for ourselves and our loved ones. This is becoming particularly complex as we determine how to connect with our loved ones in a way that maintains our health and respects our own and others’ boundaries. Social distancing has changed how we interact with our friends and family members and has prompted conversations that we are not used to having. As we are deciding our personal paths through the pandemic, it is important to be able to communicate with one another about the safety precautions, boundaries, and priorities we are each establishing. This can be challenging given the emotional and political charge some of these topics have. Below are some ideas to guide how to set personal boundaries, how to converse with your friends and family members about your decisions around socializing, and how to manage disagreement around boundary setting.

What are your personal boundaries around socializing during the pandemic?

An important first step is to consider your comfort level around the choices and interactions you have during the pandemic. Everyone’s situation will be different, and we must recognize and honor this reality. Whereas it is in our best interest as a community to adhere to scientifically proven methods for managing the spread of illness, there might be more specific types of precautions we each take that differ depending on our personal circumstances. What works for one family might not work as well for another, and it is crucial we offer one another the courtesy and respect to make the individual choices that fit our lives. You can be more empowered toward clear communication and productive action when you know where you stand on the different precautions you decide are necessary for your specific situation. 

How do I have the conversation?

The “new normal” in which we are living has prompted conversations that are unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Consider how often you had conversations with peers about the places they visited recently, the people they interacted with, whether they’ve been in crowds, whether they are wearing masks, or if they or anyone they are around is having any symptoms of illness. These questions did not seem necessary pre-pandemic. However, we are pressed toward these more exploratory conversations as we seek to minimize risk to ourselves or to others around us. It is important to know that you can and should have these types of conversations that before now would have seemed intrusive. Doing this effectively may feel tricky and maybe even overwhelming. This is normal, as we are all new to navigating these discussions.  Here are some themes to consider as you broach conversations with your friends and family members about social interaction:  

Consent: Consent is ultimately about respect and that should be a guiding principle during discussions about what boundaries you are or are not holding. When considering interactions with others during the pandemic, our boundaries might come up for negotiation. If one family is comfortable with one set of boundaries, but another family is comfortable with a very different set of boundaries, whose boundaries should be adhered to? The simplest way to respond to this is to adhere to the set of boundaries that is most cautious. For example, if one party has established that they will only interact while wearing masks and the other party does not want to wear a mask, both parties agree to wear masks in order to adhere to the more strict boundary. 

Clear Communication: When approaching a conversation about boundaries, it is important to clearly articulate your own perspective while also seeking to listen to and understand the perspective of the other party. If both parties are able to take a respectful and open-minded stance, a negotiation can take place in which all parties’ needs are accommodated.

Language: Although there is no guarantee that word choice alone can eliminate the chance for misunderstanding or conflict, choosing your language carefully can make a difference. For instance, you might say something like “We are being extra careful with social distancing” or “What is your comfort level and what will make you feel most safe?” as a way to enter into the conversation with a tone of exploration instead of judgement. Using words and phrases such as “We want to make sure everyone feels comfortable” or “We want to minimize risk” can imply a desire to prioritize health and safety for all involved parties, rather than simply doing what is convenient for yourself. 

How do I handle disagreement about boundaries?

The reality is that there are many factors at play during the pandemic that could draw us into disagreements that are difficult to resolve. The stakes feel high for many people, which creates an intensity around the ever-evolving discussions about health, safety, and economics. It is critical to remember that there are many different views, problems, scenarios, and pressures we are all facing. We should do our best to understand our own experience, as well as the experience of others, but the bottom line is we will not always find agreement. 

It is important to know that you can always uphold your own boundaries, even if others might disagree with or judge those boundaries. Many of us worry about disappointing others, and the truth is that we might let people down. It doesn’t feel comfortable to turn down an invitation to happy hour, or to miss out on a wedding, but it also won’t feel comfortable to violate your own boundaries in order to please others. We must honor our own sets of boundaries and precautions, because nobody else can do that for us. If you suspect you are in territory for conflict, remember to use respectful language while also clearly articulating your own wants and needs.     

Language is important when you are in disagreement, and empathy and respect will go a long way in preserving friendships in the face of conflict. Phrases such as “I understand you have a different boundary and I respect your decision” or “I know we are all doing our best to take care of ourselves and these are incredibly difficult times” demonstrate that you recognize your friends and family members are also making difficult choices, even if those choices may be different from your own. Try to avoid judgment whenever possible – Nobody wants to hear “I can’t believe you’re acting this way” or “You’re being irresponsible.” These types of statements will quickly alienate others and may cause irreparable damage to your relationships. As was discussed above, choosing an open-minded, nonjudgmental approach will be more likely to elicit negotiation and potential compromise. If you are in disagreement about a boundary, try asking your friend or family member, “Would you be open to considering a different boundary?” If they are, you are in territory for collaborative decision-making. If not, you can respectfully agree not to spend time together until everyone is able to agree on a boundary that feels comfortable. 

Ultimately, we must recognize that this is a high-stress time for everyone, and we are all doing our best to make decisions that optimize our health and wellness. These decisions would vary tremendously from person-to-person in “normal” times, so it is therefore to be expected that it will look different for each of us during a time of crisis. It is important that we work toward improving the quality and clarity of our dialogues concerning difficult issues. If we can approach one another with grace, compassion, empathy and openness, we stand a much better chance of finding solutions that can work for everyone.