Will your relationships survive the rifts caused by COVID choices?


It was about four or five months into the pandemic when Lisa Francis’s* eight-year-old daughter started getting sleepover invites from another family.

Francis, who lives in Orillia, Ont., had been diligently following public health guidance, so she said no.

“And the other mom said, ‘Oh, right, you’re still doing the whole pandemic thing,’” Francis recalls.

She knew the two families had very different approaches to COVID rules and restrictions. Francis was limiting any contact beyond the members of her household, and they were avoiding indoor hang-outs in particular. But this other family was going to the cottage with various groups of relatives, and their kids were regularly having sleepovers.

“It was clear from day one we had totally different points of view.”

But because the kids have been friends since kindergarten, Francis would sometimes try and let her daughter participate in play-date invites in a way that felt pandemic-safe.

The situation came to a head in early January of this year.

At the time, Ontario was under a second stay-at-home order: You were only supposed to leave your home for exercise, work, groceries or medical appointments. Schools were closed.

The doorbell rang, and Francis opened the door to find the other mom standing there with her three kids, none of them wearing masks. They asked if Francis’s daughter could come to the park.

Francis saw that her daughter was excited to see her friend, and after weighing the potential mental-health benefits of this outdoor interaction with the public-health risks, she decided she’d be OK with an outdoor play date at the park, as long as her daughter wore a mask.

As she stood at the window, watching them walk away, she saw her daughter talk with the other mom, then remove her mask and put it in her pocket.

Francis was stunned and went outside to confront them.

“I said, do you know there’s a pandemic going on? The public health guidelines right now are to stay six feet apart,” Francis says. “And I especially didn’t like that she told my daughter what to do when I wasn’t there.”

The other woman replied that masks weren’t necessary outside, which Francis disagreed with, given that the kids weren’t maintaining a six-foot distance. Eventually, their exchange ended with the mom saying they were clearly just interpreting the rules differently. The kids then played for 20 minutes, but Francis hasn’t heard from the family since (the girls are still friends online).

“She doesn’t need to agree with how I’m handling the pandemic,” Francis says. “And I’ve learned that I can control my family’s proximity to that.”

For more than a year, parents and families across Canada have had to adapt to ever-changing restrictions, including on-again, off-again school closures, and guidance that varied by province and region. What started out as disagreements about illegal birthday parties or holiday gatherings may now also include resentment toward those who have maintained their own definition of “bubbles” the whole time (not just during specific periods when “bubbling” was allowed). Or maybe you’ve watched acquaintances travel to beachy locales, or seen your kids’ classmates pop up on Zoom screens in their bathing suits, disregarding travel advisories and mandatory quarantines while everyone else does their best to stay home.

As the social mores of the pandemic continue to evolve, the newest divide is between vaccine queue jumpers who might be fibbing about their address or medical history to move up the list, or travelling to the U.S. to get their shots sooner, versus those who are still patiently waiting their turn. We’re learning that some of our friends don’t believe the rules apply to them—or they see nothing wrong with working the system to their own advantage (however flawed the vaccine rollout may be).

These realizations introduce a host of questions: what do you do if your friend, relative, or neighbour has a complete disregard for public health guidelines? Does this make them selfish or reckless, or just uninformed? Will the relationship recover when everyone’s been fully vaccinated and gatherings are back on? Or is the discovery that they feel so entitled to make their own exceptions a permanent relationship-breaker?

Hitting pause and setting boundaries

Winnipeg-based therapist Leslie Hackett says that when a relationship is causing you stress, it’s always OK to “hit pause” and take some time to determine whether continuing it is more trouble than it’s worth. Having differences over each other’s COVID behaviour is no different—we’re all learning how to respond to a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.

“If the negatives outweigh the positives, then I think it’s perfectly sensible to think about whether you want to continue a relationship with that person,” Hackett says.

“With COVID, we can’t know exactly how things are going to go, but eventually restrictions will be lifted and a new normal will establish itself. You have to ask yourself, can I use this time to set some boundaries, or to begin to interact in a different way, so our interactions don’t cause me as much stress or negativity?”

Of course, sometimes you have little choice. If you’re relying on a family member for help with child care, it can become a very personal, sticky situation. Or if it’s your upstairs landlord who is repeatedly violating indoor gathering limits, there’s a power dynamic you may not want to upset by speaking up. If the rule-flouting person is a grandparent or teen who is a member of your household already, there’s not much you can do beyond letting this person know how their actions are making you feel, Hackett says, and by keeping a distance indoors.

Sarah Lowe,* a mom in Nanaimo, B.C., says her mother-in-law has had a more casual approach to public-health guidelines during the pandemic, which has made for some awkward conversations. Before COVID, Lowe’s in-laws watched their two young grandsons part-time, and when the first lockdown ended last spring, they weren’t comfortable with the virus risks associated with the kids returning to daycare. They’ve since taken on more child care for the family, and Lowe loves that her sons are getting extra time with their grandparents. But in February, she was unpleasantly surprised when her mother-in-law told her that she’d gone for coffee with a friend—indoors at a mall, before anyone had been vaccinated.

“You’re not supposed to socialize with anyone outside your household, so to me, that’s not allowed,” Lowe says, even if malls were, technically, permitted to be open in that region of B.C. “Going for a coffee is socializing. And then she goes on to tell us how this friend has broken all the rules in other ways lately!”

Lowe, who has underlying health conditions, found this hard to tolerate. She appreciates that her mother-in-law’s need to socialize with a friend is important to her mental health, but wishes she could have continued that relationship in a way that was less risky. (Going for a walk outside, for example, wouldn’t have worried her.) Lowe tried to tell her mother-in-law how she felt about the mall coffee by repeating the health rules as she understood them, but admits that having a more direct discussion about this was difficult.

“I want to have those conversations with my in-laws, but I’m getting free child care. How far do you push those conversations, even though it’s about safety?” Lowe says. “It’s so hard.”

The pandemic has also caused Lowe to rethink her relationship with her next-door neighbours, who also have little kids. Pre-COVID, the two families got along very well. Last summer, it was a relief for everyone to let the kids play together outside in the front yard after months of lockdown. But when fall arrived, her neighbours sent their kids to school and daycare, and both parents were going to work in person, whereas Lowe’s kids were home full-time, and Lowe and her husband were working remotely. Lowe started trying to keep a greater space between the kids when they played outside, and her neighbours noticed.

“She just made a comment one day, ‘Oh, some people don’t want to get that close,’” Lowe says. Her partner explained that they were being very careful because the risk to their family is very real. But since then, Lowe has noticed unfamiliar cars in their neighbours’ driveway and believes that they have hosted both sides of their extended family indoors to celebrate a child’s birthday.

“We have steered clear of them because their bubble is enormous, and their actions are scary,” Lowe says.

Although she expects to continue her relationship with her neighbours—in part because they live beside each other—the way she thinks about them has shifted.

“Eventually, I think, we’ll get back to playing with them in the front yard, but I’ll always have this thought in the back of my mind: Oh, I guess the rules don’t apply to you the same way that they apply to me,” she says. “This whole situation has really centred me in terms of my friendships, who’s important to keep in contact with, and who’s ‘periphery.’”

Don’t feel pressured

According to Ashley Miller, a Vancouver-based child and adolescent psychiatrist, it’s important to accept your own limits. Don’t feel pressured to adjust your behaviour or opinions to suit someone else’s more lax observances.

“Honouring your own limits is so important in this, because what often happens is you get somewhere, there’s some social pressure, you cave a little bit, and then you resent the other person,” says Miller.

She encourages parents to be empathetic with their children—and with the other parent, or person in question—when they are explaining why their friend might have fewer pandemic-related restrictions on their activities, or why they aren’t able to have playdates with a friend whose family’s choices make them a high-risk interaction.

“It is hard to fake what you think, and kids can tell from your body language what’s going on in your head,” Miller says. “We can say, ‘You know, I feel a bit annoyed, but I know that people are doing their best and I’m trying to remember that.’ We can talk through that internal process with our kids.”

Try to find creative ways to help them maintain a connection with their friends, even in the case of families with different pandemic behaviour, Hackett says. It’s important for kids’ development.

“If they are being so unsafe that contact with them would really put you at high risk, then you might not want to have any,” Hackett says. “But it is worth figuring out other ways to allow your kids to socialize, because friendship and connection are extremely important for all of us, especially kids whose development depends on social interaction. We have lots of ways of keeping in touch these days, especially online.”

Should you speak up?

As for whether to take a friend or relative to task for the lax way they are following guidelines, both Hackett and Miller say it depends on the nature of the relationship. A close friendship or family relationship could benefit from an honest conversation about how someone’s behaviour is making you feel, but it’s probably OK to skip it with someone you are able to avoid until life returns to a new normal.

When broaching the topic, Hackett says people should try to centre their own feelings without criticizing the other person. It’s also important to consider what you can reasonably hope to achieve by having the conversation in the first place. At this point, most people are aware of the rules, so if they’re not following them, it’s likely by choice, she says.

“If people’s decisions to go against public health recommendations are connected to their political views, then there’s a lot of potential for conflict,” Hackett says. “Be aware of that. You might not change anybody’s mind, but if somebody asks you why you don’t want to come to their party, you can just say, ‘I really don’t feel comfortable with this. I know I can’t control you, but I am choosing not to participate in this activity because it’s really just not safe right now.’”

Miller says it’s also helpful to consider that there might be a reason why your neighbour or friend seems to be flouting the pandemic rules. Her own response to rule-breakers has changed over time.

“At the beginning of the pandemic I felt really upset, because I’m a doctor and if you’re not following the rules, it’s like you’re hurting me and my colleagues,” she says. “But as I understood more about the reasons why some people were not following the rules as much, I became a bit more empathetic towards it.” For example, some people have a harder time with the mental-health impacts of social isolation, and aren’t able to follow the guidelines to the gold standard without risking depression, or other serious negative consequences, like violence in the home, Miller explains.

For others, such as essential workers, the rules might not make much sense to them if they were already going to work in-person every day on public transit, or in a crowded warehouse, for example.

If you are close to the person in question, talking to them to find out what is driving their choices might help you discover a way to look beyond self-righteousness or judgment, and shift to empathy. Miller chose to focus on what she could control, rather than focusing on the rule-breakers.

“A small minority of people really don’t care about others, sadly. But it’s healthier to focus attention on the people in our lives who do care, and those everywhere who are doing the right thing,” Miller says. “I think most people are in that middle zone—they care about their family members, but they may just be struggling in their own ways.”

*Names have been changed.

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