A Look at Our Relationships in A Time of Social Isolation
New rules, new circumstances, but still the eternal need for love, company and reassurance. Dr. Josette Abdalla weighs in on how we can cope.
Dr. Josette, have you seen an increase in people seeking relationship counseling since the onset of Covid 19?
Yes. The number of people from different ages and social backgrounds has increased since the onset of Covid 19. The surge began early in the summer, continued throughout the summer (even though the lockdown was discontinued), but surfaced once again significantly during the last two months.
How damaging is the lack of physical contact and proximity to our friends and family?
Lack of physical contact and proximity with friends and relatives affects people in varying degrees. The impact is less on children who had issues socializing and interacting with people, or did not have strong social skills to begin with. The impact is also less on adults who tend to be self-sufficient and were always consumed with work or solitary hobbies.
Enforced distancing from people was likely more detrimental to those who, prior to the pandemic, traveled a lot, were socially outgoing, strongly attached to people in a physical way, in need of physical warmth and interaction, or engaged in out-of-home hobbies, activities or pastimes.
How does anxiety about Covid 19 affect marital harmony?
Marital harmony, of course, came top of the list in the consequences of the lockdown. Prior to Covid 19, couples had normal “me” time. For both partners, each had individual occupations that they were able to carry out without having to be inforced close confinement for long periods of time. The pre-Covid 19 normal life patterns allowed for individuality and companionship and some form of privacy.
What issues are uppermost in people’s minds?
Among the issues uppermost in people’s minds are the unusual and previously inexperienced stressors that appeared due to the pandemic. Issues like financial challenges, close confinement with a negative and/or demanding partner, having no valid or normalized outlet or relief, the extra burden of having to adjust to working-from-home conditions, having to entertain children at home 24/7, in addition to homeschooling.
Many people suffered from not having any control, possibly losing simple things that one previously took for granted, not knowing or being able to plan for the future, and the greater exposure to illness. Issues of death and after-life also appeared.
What can we do to compensate for a lack of social togetherness?
Highly accessible online communication and video conferencing apps help, while they can’t t ever replace interactions in-person, their presence has been beneficial and timely. People can now see one another and engage for lengthy periods of time over a screen (mobile or laptop) without having to be physically present.
They also have entertaining activities that substitute hobbies, or games, and even sports. Therefore, resorting to these applications in a well-thought-out way can to a certain extent compensate for social isolation.
Developing a certain routine at home, that is different from the one in the past, but that takes into consideration the particular challenges of the current situation needs to be thought of and implemented.
How to plan participation in home-bound responsibilities, entertainment, exposure to media, interactive family activities, and at the same time, some form of personal privacy.
Does the deprivation of affection and contact affect children more than other age groups?
Affection is not necessarily affected by the pandemic. That is, providing parents give children the support, physical as well as moral. The emotional aspect that is usually complemented by extended family members, relatives and friends, cannot really be replaced.
Parents need to be mature, calm, aware of the basic needs their children have and should try to maintain an appropriate balance between requirements and fulfillment of these needs.
What does affect children, in particular, is the physically interactive aspect that can only be achieved through engagement with other children. Also, if parents are uptight, stressed out, angry, short with their children, frustrated by their own or other issues, or have other negative reactions, the children will be clearly be affected.
They may express their own apprehensions, worries or unhappiness in different ways. Some are externalized, such as anger, aggression, or frustration. Others are internalized and include withdrawal, anxiety, bedwetting at night or crying.
How can parents and other family members reassure children of their love and explain why they need to distance?
Reassurance through words is part (but not all) of the ways in which children can be comforted. Established well-set and predictable routines that cater to the age-appropriate developmental needs of their children, clarification of specific responsibilities, individual and family forms of entertainment, clear boundaries, firm rules, and a supportive attitude are required.
Validating their children’s fears and apprehensions is necessary, providing parents do not feed into their anxieties and fears. Among the issues that often surface are issues related to death, illness, or disappearance of family members. Answers to these issues have to be simple, direct, truthful, but relevant to their age level and not over or under detailed.
Limiting time for related discussions (if they are constantly repeated), engaging them in finding options/solutions, writing thoughts or ideas in a diary, are among the numerous options.
What steps should people take to maintain warmth and express love and affection without putting others at risk?
Using logic and common sense are the best ways. It is important to realize that the precautionary measures are of paramount importance to everyone. Although this pandemic has no real catalog, the best one can do is to ensure that the safety measures outlined are practiced.
Following these precautions for the sake of avoiding contagion and not because of penalties is basic. There are many other different ways to maintain warmth and express love that do not necessarily involve physical proximity.
Being grateful and accepting these temporary conditions can help change one’s mindset, and can help us find ways to cope with the challenges. Love, affection, and warmth will subsequently come naturally and spontaneously.
Dr. Josette Abdalla is a licensed clinical psychologist, with a background in university teaching, clinical practice, and organizational consultations.