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How to Navigate Relationships as Social Distancing Guidelines Change

As state guidelines continue to evolve, here are four ways to stick with socializing in a way that is comfortable to you.

Are you ready to reopen?

When the coronavirus first struck, the changes came fast and furious—and the guidance was clear. To the extent possible, especially for older adults, public health professionals advised people to stay at home, socially distance and avoid all but the most essential errands. 

Four months later, there is no universal guidance or consensus about how to step back into the world. Guidelines and restrictions around businesses, mask-wearing and other in-person interaction differ from state to state, community to community and household to household.

These varying guidelines can present challenges within circles of friends, extended families and coworkers when people have different comfort levels around gathering together for meals, meetings and celebrations.

How can we firmly but politely assert ourselves when someone we care about asks us to join in an activity that’s outside the risk-tolerance parameters we’ve set for ourselves? Here are four ideas to guide your thinking:

1) Be Specific

I’m fond of the maxim that “No” is a complete sentence—you don’t need to provide a long explanation for your response if you are declining to join in a group activity you’re not comfortable with. But if you can be specific about why you’re saying no, it can help your friends or family members understand that you are making that decision for your own reasons and not because you are judging or upset with them. You can even offer a general reason like, “I’ve been feeling more worried lately about my risk level, so I’m taking things really slow.”

2) Redefine Connection

You might not be comfortable walking with a friend along a crowded trail or eating a shared meal at a backyard barbecue. But you can tell your friends you care about them, miss them and look forward to the time when you can safely spend time together. Suggest a way to connect that you are comfortable with, like a virtual meet-up or an old-fashioned phone conversation, to show how much you value them.

3) Acknowledge the Awkwardness

You can help preserve and even build your relationships simply by acknowledging that even the smallest decisions about get-togethers and shared spaces are complicated and uncomfortable. You can use humor, or be frank about your anxieties or regrets—anything to communicate that though your decision is firm, you are wishing we lived free of the stresses of a time of global pandemic.

4) Stay Flexible

Just as the pandemic is a fast-changing situation—shifting as data emerges, research progresses and public education improves—our comfort levels may change over time. When you are declining an invitation, remember you’re not locked in to your approach. As you learn more and assess trends and emerging information, you can always change your mind when the next invitation comes your way.

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