Interpersonal Relationships

Staying connected during a pandemic may seem like an impossible task. Even when practicing social distancing, you can foster interpersonal relationships with many different people—significant others, family members, close friends, neighbors, acquaintances, and coworkers. These relationships impact your mental and physical wellbeing. [1] In fact, “wide-ranging research suggests that strong social ties are linked to a longer life. In contrast, loneliness and social isolation are linked to poorer health, depression, and increased risk of early death.” [2] Maintaining relationships can also reduce stress and heart-related risks. Moreover, relationships bring joy to your life!

Dr. Sheldon Cohen, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University who has explored the links between relationships and health for more than three decades, found that “People who have high levels of conflict and low levels of social support are much more likely to get sick when exposed to a virus. But those with high conflict and high levels of social support seem protected.”

You may feel particularly lonely and isolated during this time. Alternatively, the “forced togetherness” resulting from stay-at-home orders may have you feeling stressed. Fortunately, you can take steps to mitigate those feelings. First, consider those connections you have:

  • Intimate connections—people who love and care for you
  • Relational connections—people who you see regularly and share an interest with
  • Collective connections—people who share a group membership or affiliation with you

Cultivate old & new relationships by reaching out to those you already know and attempting to engage with a new group (consider joining an online community devoted to an interest you have, such as gardening, sports, or cooking). You can maintain interpersonal resilience by engaging in the following steps:

  • Actively listen to hear what other people have to say
  • Give people time and “be present” when you are with them
  • Develop and work on your communication skills
  • Be understanding and empathetic
  • Rely on your network for comfort—if you are feeling distressed, reach out and talk to close others about how you are feeling
  • Find new ways to socialize—try virtual hang outs with friends or others; you can talk, play games, and even watch tv together (Netflix Party)
  • Learn something new with someone else—take an online class or develop a skill with a friend (the shared experience will strengthen your relationship and give you a sense of accomplishment)

Steps for managing relationships under stay-at-home orders (as outlined by the Institute for Disaster Mental Health) [3] follow:

  • Remember that the real root of any current interpersonal conflict probably isn’t the relationship, but the broader circumstances of the disease outbreak
  • You might consider setting ground rules for potential points of conflict
    • This could mean discussing issues like who is allowed in the kitchen at certain times, or how long dishes can be left in the sink before they’re washed
    • It could involve rules around social interactions, like when and where certain topics will be discussed.
      • For example, you could establish dinnertime and beyond as a COVID discussion-free period to give everyone a break from focusing on the issue
  • Identify the specific source(s) of your stress, and then address them directly
  • Remember that people have different emotional needs when they’re feeling particularly distressed
    • Some people need time to calm down before they’re able to effectively discuss their stress, while others have a need to discuss it right away. Setting ground rules that acknowledge and allow space for both individuals’ needs will go a long way towards preventing additional tension.
  • Carve private mental space out of shared physical space
  • Have fun together (cook a nice meal together, introduce each other to your favorite streaming show or game, have a nonvirtual happy hour, etc.)