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Navigating Friendships and Relationships During the Pandemic

Dealing with common boundary-setting issues in an uncommon time requires work.

Can I have friends over during the pandemic?

No one expected how personal and uncomfortable the fallout of the pandemic would become in every aspect of our lives.

Perhaps today, going to a restaurant with your best friend makes you feel unsafe.

Perhaps your parents would prefer to connect on video chat rather than have you come over.

Or perhaps you and your roommates now need to agree on house rules about grocery shopping and mask wearing.

Many social norms from our pre-pandemic life are out and continually morphing as COVID-19 levels oscillate. While everything is seemingly up for debate, one thing we can agree on is that navigating these changes and constantly assessing personal boundaries in your friendships and relationships can be taxing.

We asked Marci Gleason, a UT Austin professor and relationship expert, to offer some advice on how to work through challenges like these.

Gleason’s research looks at how close relationships influence individuals’ ability to cope with stress and major life transitions. Although she is not an expert on COVID-19, she is an expert on balancing our relationships and mental health – something we all need right now.

“This pandemic is a very new situation. It is affecting everyone and all at the same time. That is one of the reasons these types of conversations are really exhausting,” says Gleason.

Gleason notes that most of us have dealt with communicating boundaries and value judgments in our relationships before, but usually within the natural course of our close relationships. During the pandemic, navigating our comfort levels is an issue in every relationship right now. We are being overwhelmed by common problems during an uncommon time.

“That is a lot of sensitive conversations to have at one time,” she says. “It is really hard.”

That is a lot of sensitive conversations to have at one time. It is really hard.”

Marci Gleason, Associate Professor Department of Human Development and Family Sciences

Gleason offers these tips for how to make those conversations a bit easier.

1. Don’t Frame Choices as Right or Wrong (Even if You Think They Are)

Value judgments can be hard on our relationships. No one likes to feel criticized. That can be hard when you feel strongly about a topic. You should always try to express understanding for the other person’s point of view during the conversation.

2. Make House Rules

How you feel about masks, social risk levels and hygiene needs to be discussed and respected if you live together. Your choices affect each other’s health, and this dependency can feel vulnerable. Agreeing on rules such as “always wear a mask in public” or “no friends inside the house” will reduce the need to discuss boundaries repeatedly.

3. Focus on Your Risk Level

When making plans or discussing house rules, try to use I statements that focus on your own personal risk level. Talk clearly about what you are and are not comfortable with, without making others infer what you think they should be doing.

4. Remember to Show You Care

Because of social distancing, we can’t see friends and family as we are used to. This distance can put a strain on our bonds. Make time to text or call those you care about just to say you are thinking about them. Do what you can to make sure they know they are still a part of your life.

5. Don’t Let COVID-19 Dominate the Conversation

It might be all you are thinking about, but don’t make it the only conversation you have for the next couple of months. If you do find a way to socialize in person or online, make space for non-pandemic life.

6. It’s Normal to Feel Awkward

You might not be able to escape discomfort in setting boundaries, but you need to honor yourself and what you believe in. It is important to talk about these things so you don’t put yourself in a situation that feels unsafe.

The lingering pandemic means that you will probably have to put in more work for relationships that previously were easy to maintain. Gleason says to avoid shying away from the effort needed to balance your boundaries while staying connected with your community. Our close relationships and support systems are precious and key to our mental health.