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April 17, 2021
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How will you have the COVID-19 talk with family this Christmas?

Ellen thinks of herself as someone who can be friends with all sorts of people. She’s lived in liberal and conservative parts of the country, and has friends from many different backgrounds and political stripes.

But disagreements over COVID-19 precautions proved to be a breaking point. Ellen (who requested that only her first name be used) had to cut off contact after realizing that her friend became vehemently opposed to mask wearing.

Things came to a head for Ellen when her friend relayed that she’d yelled at a grocery store clerk who told her to wear a mask.

“I cut things off because I understand compassion, and differences in friendships, but when it comes to the point where you’re actually harming people, that becomes a difference in morals and values,” she said.

Ellen isn’t the only one who’s struggled with a friend over differences in opinion in what COVID-19 precautions to take.

“COVID has exposed differing views in families,” Jeff Gregson, a family therapist in Davis County, explained. “Where the struggle is really happening is with families that have probably swept things under the rug.”

It has forced those who try to ignore division to deal with conflict and differences during an already stressful time — the holidays.

I learned firsthand that as the pandemic looms over the holidays, disagreement over what safety guidelines to follow have only become more fraught. With well-meaning intent to protect my family and myself, I attempted to single-handedly cancel my family’s Thanksgiving. I was eventually cajoled into attending a small outdoor gathering where I was placed alone at a small table 6 feet away from everyone else. It was a thoughtful gesture, meant as a compromise, but as I sat at my island eating turkey, I felt isolated — physically and emotionally from the family members who sat together. But I wasn’t alone.

And while I’ve been lucky to have a family that is mostly on the same page, and accepting of the boundaries I’ve set, others aren’t as fortunate. “It takes boundaries, the word boundaries, to a whole new level,” Lisa Bahar, a licensed psychotherapist in Newport Beach, California, said.

At the end of the day, setting strict restrictions on the contact you have with the people closest to you is never easy. Our choices and world views impact others and ourselves, especially during a pandemic. Understanding each other has never been harder, or more important.

Is there a way to navigate these conversations in a way that doesn’t cause division? I sought out the advice of experts to find out.

How to have difficult conversations

Jackie Shapin, a therapist in Los Feliz, California, said she’s counseled several patients through setting boundaries with friends.

Some of her clients have created distance with friends that are not on the same page when it comes to COVID-19 precautions.

“I’ve had multiple nurses comment on how frustrated or upset they felt talking in these group chats or conversations with friends and they completely disagree with what they’re doing,” Shapin said.

If you’re in a situation to take space, then it’s OK to do that. In situations where you are living with a partner, Shapin said, having a discussion about what your hard boundaries are, and where you are willing to compromise is important.

Jackie Shapin is a therapist in Los Feliz, California. Courtesy of Jackie Shapin

If you’re feeling angry and frustrated, wait to have those difficult conversations. “Wait until you can feel neutral, or at least hold your emotions at bay so you can speak clearly,” Shapin said.

She recommends using the sandwich effect:

  • Start with something nice like “my relationship with you is so important.”
  • Then explain yourself. “I’m worried and trying to be really safe.”
  • Conclude with something along the lines of “I hope I can see you again when this whole thing ends because I love and miss you.”

Try to focus on communicating your feelings, rather than on the behaviors of others.

Taking the time to listen to each other can go a long way. “If you at least take the time to let the person share their view, it’s going to be better than fighting and disagreeing,” Shapin said, which results in both people “feeling lonely versus heard.”

Repair or let go

Some conversations still might not go well. “You may still be met with resistance or anger. Not everyone knows how to communicate in healthy ways, or listen to others that have opposite ideas,” Shapin said.

“Long term, some people might cut off friendships, or end relationships because these bigger ideas show bigger values that can really bring people together or bring them apart.”

If you do want to mend a relationship, Shapin recommends being honest, and reflecting on why a particular person is important to you.

Gregson, in Utah, said that disagreements can be an opportunity to strengthen relationships. “Conflict brings people closer together.”

Dealing with differences in values and opinions, especially in families where conflict has been avoided, can be a learning opportunity.

He recommends people take the Myers-Briggs personality test (which can be found online) and then consider which traits the person you are disagreeing with has, and why that might lead them to act in certain ways.

“COVID isn’t what created these problems. It’s just what made it more apparent,” Gregson said. Now’s the time to face them head on, because there isn’t an alternative.

By examining each other’s underlying traits, understanding what makes your loved ones tick, you can learn to appreciate their strengths, and also weaknesses, rather than feeling frustrated by the misalignments.

Agreeing to disagree

Radical acceptance. That’s the approach Bahar, in Newport Beach, recommends for those finding themselves in disputes with family and friends. “It means you give up the willfulness to try and change people’s minds,” Bahar said, and accept the situation for what it is.

Lisa Bahar is a licensed psychotherapist in Newport Beach, California John Glover

Through a technique called dialectical behavior therapy, developed by Marsha Linehan, Bahar said you can “turn your mind.” First, you have to ask yourself if you’re willing to accept, but not approve of, the situation, such as a friend who goes against guidelines to not hold indoor gatherings or travel.

Part of turning “willfulness into willingness” is noticing when you’re trying to convince others of your viewpoint (like flooding my family members’ inboxes with pointed articles about why their specific behaviors are not COVID-19 safe).

Bahar said when you catch yourself doing these things, unclench your hands and teeth, soften your gaze, and breathe.

Exhale, let it go.

That doesn’t mean throwing caution to the wind. But by accepting a situation, you can reach compromise — even if that means deciding not to gather but understanding each other’s points of views. Or, it can mean finding compromise, like my family’s willingness to hold Thanksgiving outside and distanced.

Then at least we’re apart, but not alone.

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