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Stateside: How the pandemic changed our relationships — for better and worse

sign that says "COVID-19 Keep apart"
Phil Hearing

Most of us have had some sort of bubble throughout the pandemic: a small group of people we limited ourselves to seeing while a novel virus spread among the masses. For some of us, that’s been the family members we already live with. For others it was a few, select friends we gathered with— many of us call them our “pods.”

So what happened over a year of being cut off from a larger, more interactive group of humans?

Did families draw nearer? Did romantic relationships fall apart? Did pods or bubbles of friends become stale and show signs of fatigue?

“My job is to walk with people through pain and suffering. One of the contexts I never paid attention to was an actual pandemic, and that kind of situation. So, pain and suffering, I’ve got down pat. But the pandemic piece is tough,” said Napoleon Harrington, a licensed professional counselor with Ambassador Counseling and Resource Group in Southfield. 

Harrington said the most common thing he’s hearing from couples is that the pandemic has made people relinquish some sense of control they used to have in their lives. Very often boundaries spill over, and Harrington said, those frustrations, “start to rise through the roof.” 

Amie Gordon is an assistant professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan and director of The Well-being, Health, and Interpersonal Relationships Lab. She released a survey in April asking couples how they navigate stress throughout the pandemic. The survey, which was originally intended to collect six months of data, has now been active for almost a year.

They have been surveying specific couples once every three months. Gordon said one of the factors playing into couples’ stress is the feeling that their goals or schedules were thwarted by their partner. 

“So that idea then that you're sort of around each other and your partner can walk in and, when you're in the middle of work, can distract you or you think you're going to get something done in the day, but you have to negotiate that with someone else,” Gordon said. 

Listener Cryss Campbell shares their story

In Gordon’s survey results, fifty percent of couples said they were more irritated with their partner, but at the same time their relationship satisfaction was higher.

“Experiencing something big together, something new and novel, can really draw couples together. And so even when that might be itself sort of a larger negative experience, it can create a sense of team and closeness that has really beneficial effects for the couples.”

Becoming closer to your partner was the reality for one of Stateside’s listeners, Arthur, from Grand Rapids.

“Both of us, we have various anxieties and COVID certainly didn't help any of them. They alternatively made them worse,” Arthur said. “And almost having that person next to you and sort of knowing you've got someone to take this daunting pandemic on with was very helpful. And I think we kind of bolstered each other.”

Pod fatigue and friendship friction

When it comes to pandemic “pods,” some people may find that the group they chose was not the group they want to stay committed to. Harrington says that can be true for family members, as well as partners or friends. Spending unexpected, extended time with family— especially in isolation— can be taxing, he says.

“[It] can even kind of contribute to the numbers that we're seeing related to the increase of anxiety adjustment disorder, as well as depression,” he said. “Boundaries are being challenged and put in question often. People may not necessarily know what to do in terms of saying no and creating those limitations so that they stay healthy. And if pods experience the difficulty of boundaries being overrun, they will find themselves unpodding relatively quickly.”

The virus isn’t the only thing creating tension in families and pods. The pandemic arrived in 2020, but the last year has also brought economic shutdowns, protests against police brutality and racial injustice, and a tense presidential election season. Harrington says he’s been researching how recent “multiple layers of crises” have been creating pain and frustration in U.S. households and relationship dynamics.

Nate Sterling, an electrician based in Muskegon, says that because both of his children have medical conditions, he knew they needed to take safety precautions seriously from the start of the pandemic. But, he adds, not everyone beyond his immediate family has the same views.

“We have a family who has very much chosen their politics over the health and well-being of my children,” he said. “And like, I'm not exactly going to be forgiving and forgetting that any time soon, as we move forward.”

Harrington says COVID-19 has tested friendships, particularly because different people have different approaches to navigating pandemic safety. During the past year, some people have strictly followed CDC guidance, and some haven’t. And some have been a little in-between.

“We start to make judgments and assertions about what quality of friendships we have, and what level of safety and what amount of risk are we willing to take, given all of those situations,” Harrington said.

Gordon says that usually, friendships don’t require the same level of boundary negotiation that, say, romantic relationships do. But amid the pandemic, friendships suddenly face a lot of new questions— particularly if the parties involved have different priorities about health and safety.

“We have to be really cognizant,” she said. “Is this someone I want in my life? Is it worth the effort, you know, to go through the safety measures and see them? Or is it someone I want to see all the time, if they're going to be moving into my pod?”

Harrington says he’s been talking with clients about evaluating how healthy and nourishing friendships— whether virtual or in-person— have felt lately.

“We're focusing on the kinds of folks who are showing that they respect what's happening and also paying attention to the risk level that they place on us. So it becomes very important for us to pay attention to who we're bringing in close and who we're not,” he said.

Meet me on Zoom

Dating during the pandemic has taken on its own set of rules. Many singles are spending more time on online dating platforms. But as Gordon points out, some research  suggests that people interested in finding a long-term partner should aim to meet in-person, which is challenging. 

“There's also some research that kind of brings into light some of the issues with online dating and encourages people to get offline as quickly as possible and to actually meet in person. And of course, the pandemic is posing problems with that,” Gordon said. 

And yet, Harrington points out that many people dating online are building connections with one another virtually before taking the potential risk of meeting face-to-face. 

“And so my impression is that the trust-elevating techniques that people are using, they're paying more attention to what trust is and what it means to them and how they can actually create another meaningful relationship,” Harrington said. 

Jenny Kinne, a listener from Grand Rapids, experienced a breakup during the pandemic. When she decided to enter the dating scene again, she found herself getting to know people online much better before meeting them in-person. 

“I think dating during the pandemic has made me much more conscientious of who I decided to give my time and any form of physical or emotional intimacy to,” Kinne said.” So I have been grateful that it's now more of a cultural norm to get to know someone better before meeting them. And I have been able to create, I think, deeper potential relationships in this space than I would if I were more frequently meeting up with people casually.”

Solitude or loneliness?

While 2020 may have been the year of the “pod,” some people have been navigating the pandemic alone— or mostly alone. Gordon says she worries about the mental health of people who’ve spent the pandemic solo.

“Social belonging is one of our deepest needs, and when we can't get that met, that can pose real problems for how we feel, both mentally and physically,” she said.

Harrington says that he’s heard from some people that they’ve appreciated the opportunity for some solitude. 

“Solitude is actually healthy,” he said. “There's a lot of folks who are making the most of this period of time that allows or encourages more solitude.”

But, Harrington and Gordon add, there’s a difference between solitude and isolation.

“That's such a key distinction— of whether it's something that you're choosing, to be alone, and enjoying that time with yourself and maybe getting involved in new activities or just, you know, enjoying the the freedom to be you, versus feeling [it’s] imposed on you in a way that creates loneliness and a desire for connection that you're not able to satisfy,” Gordon says.

“There's still a pandemic going on.”

After a year of pandemic life, things seem to be shifting a bit. Spring is coming. More Michigan kids are going back to some sort of in-person school. And as of April 5, all Michigan residents who are 16 or older will be eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. 

But returning to the kinds of in-person interactions we were used to prior to the pandemic may still take time. 

Listeners share their story about friendship during the pandemic

So what can you do for your relationships— and for yourself— as you wait for in-person interactions to become safer? Gordon says that people are pretty adaptable, but we can still remember that it’s okay to lower our expectations and remember that there is still a pandemic going on.

“We sort of fall into that, where now, ‘Well, this is life. I should be doing it at the same level. I should be feeling good at the same level that I always used to feel,’” she said. “So reminding ourselves or having outside people remind us that no, it's not. This is still a very different life than the one we thought we'd be having at this point.”

Harrington says that this past year, he’s been working on slowing down.

“Slowing down is a really important thing to do now, especially in light of the times, because when you slow down, you get to understand a lot more about where you are,” he said. “You can begin to be more bold, take risks, live life more freely, and you find the courage to do things that you never really found before.”

This post was written by Stateside production assistants Catherine Nouhan and Nell Ovitt.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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