Throughout lockdown, many of us felt the same about our lives and emotions. We grieved for the freedom we once had, learned to sit with the uncertainty, rode the dip days. We sat tight when our motivation went into hiding and came to terms with the fact we were living through Groundhog Day – also known as the infinite present. There’s been this real sense of ‘we’re in this together’.
Some people are ready to move on with their lives – to meet friends, to get back to work. Others are more reluctant, anxious about what this new future holds. And this mismatch is not exactly a recipe for happy relationships – whether that’s between partners, family members, friends or housemates.
“Things are very conflicting and there are very opposing feelings,” says Lucy Fuller, a UKCP-accredited psychotherapist.
Fuller says our brains are trying to process a lot of conflicting information. There’s the excitement of returning to normal versus the sadness of the fact it’s a new normal. We still don’t fully understand what’s going on, either: will the virus die out in a few months or will there be a second wave? We don’t know.
“There is so much conflict everywhere,” she says. “Whereas when we started lockdown, it was actually very simple. There was a collective feeling about what was going on. It was about: you need to protect the NHS, you need to stay indoors. It was focused and clear.
“What’s going on for us [now] is a complete reflection of what’s going on outside.”
“There is so much conflict everywhere.”
And this conflict is causing an emotional divide. You may be in the camp of people who is ready to socialise in small groups outside. Your friend may be in the camp of those who are too scared to leave the house. And a family member might want to stick to the one-person outside rule, instead of groups.
Because of this, you may be questioning your family and friends’ choices more than ever. Fuller likens the divide this can cause to the Leave/Remain Brexit split.
Judgment is also problematic. It can make you feel worse if you judge others for their movements, and it can also lead to tension. People previously told HuffPost UK a fear of judgment led them to form their own de-facto ‘bubbles’ of those who knew about their social movements.
“Many people operate on the level of thinking that they are right and the other person is in the wrong,” Sören Stauffer-Kruse, a relationships psychologist who runs The Counselling Practice, told HuffPost UK. “It is not up to us as a friend to judge the other person’s position.”
How can we ease the tension this is having on our relationships, then?
Firstly, we must acknowledge that other people’s actions are out of our control. Instead, therapists say we should focus on what we can control. If you’re anxious about leaving the house, you can turn down group barbecue invites – and perhaps just meet up with one friend for a walk, instead.
Stauffer-Kruse said friendships where both sides understand that behaviour is motivated by emotional need will fare better and have less conflict. “Good friendships are based on understanding we all have our own point on such issues,” she said.
Things may be harder if you live with someone who is approaching the easing of lockdown differently to you. In that case, it’s important to rely on your ability to communicate well and compromise.
Pam Custers, a counsellor and psychotherapist who runs The Relationship Practice, recommends working out a “co-created solution”. One person in the household might feel it’s fine to attend a barbecue at a mate’s house, while another might feel uncomfortable about that. She says the conversation has to go along the lines of: ‘Ok, you’re happy to do that. But how can you reassure me that what you’re putting in place is going to protect me?’ says Custers.
“It requires us to be very adult in how we approach this”
For the person who is perhaps more anxious, it’s about acknowledging that the other person might really need to go see friends for the sake of their wellbeing. “It’s for the two of you to negotiate a way of doing it,” says Custers.
You have to decide what you’re comfortable with and invent your own house rules, says Custers. “It requires us to be very adult in how we approach this,” she adds. “In the same way you would sit down and work out how you’re sharing the bills, who’s buying the food, this is another discussion and it needs to be had.” Have the conversation regularly, too, as the rules change.
This advice is true for all your friends and family, whether you live with them or not: keep an open conversation. “We need to discuss this each step of the way,” Custers concludes, “it’s not a one-off conversation, it’s an evolving conversation that has to be done with openness.”