When shelter-in-place began families almost celebrated the opportunity for increased time together. Adults lucky enough to work from home and able to afford it (big ifs) embraced the opportunity to slow down. Parents relished the breather from carpool, after-school activities, errands, social obligations and the keeping-up-with-the-Jones’ rat race. They instituted game nights, Zoom chats with relatives, family meetings and bike rides. Folks learned to cook and bake instead of eating out and sourdough bread starter became a thing. Long- postponed projects were finally tackled and, God help us, do-it-yourself haircuts had a moment.
Four months later with too much of a good thing and no end in sight, the bloom is off the rose. We face an overwhelming laundry list of stressors: School and childcare closures, isolation, depression, loneliness, boredom, uncertainty, politics. Adult children afraid for their elderly parents. Coronavirus cases climbing exponentially. Overrun hospitals. PPE and testing shortages. Essential workers risking their lives. Growing evictions and food lines. Contradictory advice and confusing, ever-changing guidelines and mandates.
On top of it all, the togetherness. Oh, the togetherness!
Too much isolation (real or emotional) generates anxiety, as does too much time together. And heightened anxiety leads to amplified togetherness forces in a vicious cycle. This is expressed with increased demands to go along with the group. Combine an anxious family with the very stressful circumstances of a pandemic and you have a recipe for problems! Conflict at such a time is often a reaction to the increased togetherness pressure. Other symptoms can flare as well like depression, increased drinking, physical ailments, problems with a child and many others.
More mature and less anxious families allow for increased expressions of individuality. They have more relaxed attitudes about time together and time apart. They encourage different opinions and beliefs. They don’t gossip as much and are better at direct communication and problem-solving.
But even the most mature family is now experiencing a heightened level of stress and uncertainty. Under these circumstances the natural move toward togetherness can be seen on the societal level with increased tribal groupthink about whether to wear a mask (wear it!), or whether statues should stay up or come down. In calmer times, people could perhaps think about these problems more objectively and negotiate solutions but under the sway of anxious togetherness it doesn’t happen. The same emotional processes occur in families.
How can you cope with all this stress and lock down-induced togetherness? How do you carve out a little individuality even during shelter-in-place?
- Commit to one-to-one time with as many family members as you can think of. Phone calls, emails, walks, video chats, whatever. Single out the people in your home and beyond. Intimate connections do more to foster individuality than larger group events, although those are nice too.
- Use the one-to-one time to learn something new about the person you are with and tell them something new about you. Instead of gossiping about someone else, keep the conversation between you and the other person.
- Pursue at least one goal for yourself. Learn a new language, take a class, practice internet pilates (my personal favorite), teach yourself about Bitcoin. Anything involving intellectual effort. But do it alone, just for you.
- Work on respectful expression of differences. Even in situations where there is general agreement, consider where your opinion differs and offer it. For example, “In general I agree with you but here’s how I’m thinking about the situation a little differently…” or “I have some thoughts that may differ from yours, would you like to hear them?” If you own the thoughts as yours and make it clear you are not trying to convince anyone else, there’s a better chance of an amicable exchange of ideas, even with challenging subjects.
- As always, practice “I” statements and take “I” positions. It’s pretty clear that speaking for others (“we” statements) doesn’t allow for much individuality. Neither does automatically going along with the group (or reflexively rebelling) or forcing others to do so. Figure out where you stand on any given issue from the mundane, (picking what you want for dinner) to the serious, (responsible behavior during the pandemic). Represent it to others. Listen to their opinions, weigh the options, think through the consequences, make up your mind, and act accordingly.