Relationships in the Pandemic

RELATIONSHIPS IN THE PANDEMIC

All types of relationships have been affected in an array of positive and negative ways during the public health restrictions we have been living with including friendships, relationships with partners, dating, kids, colleagues, families of origin to the meaning of pets.






This applies to any kind of close, or intimate relationship that you consider important including cohabiting platonic relationships, housemates etc.

Seeing your partners professional persona
Working from home has meant that your partner has now also become your colleague in a lot of ways. Seeing how our partners work can be an interesting experience, but it can also cause frustration. It means seeing a side of your partner that you may not have seen before. Hearing how they speak with their colleagues, the kind of language they use, and their work temperament can be a surprise. Your partners work pattern or working style might also cause you frustration; you might think they’re inefficient, or disorganised. Remember that everyone’s working style is different, and that what works for you, won’t work for them.


Sex/ Intimacy
Although the psychological effects of the COVID-19 pandemic such as depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress, and sleep disturbances are being talked about in the media, there is less conversation about sexual well-being and sexual practices during this pandemic. Considering the physical distancing and travel restrictions, fears about intimacy, sexuality, and safe sexual practices have increased significantly. This is more prominent in newly settled or distanced couples and the frontline health workers, with increased risk of exposure to the virus. For them, guilt and distress associated with sexual relationships might increase primary psychiatric and sexual disorders. This, in turn, impacts relationships and emotional bonding in couples and affects healthy coping during the pandemic crisis.

Even for those with a live-in partner, lockdown isn’t necessarily an easy time to be intimate, especially for those who have children at home who’d usually be in school. For many, physical intimacy has taken a back seat to simply focusing more on day-to-day life survival.

Throughout the pandemic, scientists have warned that a lack of skin-to-skin contact with other people can cause what is known as affection deprivation, a neurological issue which can affect us both psychologically and physically. Human touch triggers a release of oxytocin, a chemical messenger which plays a role in bonding with others. It also alters the release of serotonin (a chemical in your brain which affects mood) and impacts our stress system, lowering our heart rate and reducing stress hormone cortisol. Human touch is essential to our wellbeing.

Unfortunately, sexual well-being is often neglected at the face of more significant immediate concerns. Sexuality in people’s lives can be important, and often has a close relationship with quality of life. It is always important to be certain that your partner wants to engage in a specific sexual act.


Holding boundaries
We all have circumstances that we feel comfortable with, and those that we don’t. It can feel threatening if a loved one oversteps the mark. Boundaries are a really important feature of any healthy relationship. Perhaps your partner is insistent that it’s ok to have people over, or family members take offense if you refuse their hugs. Their actions may make you feel unsafe, and you may worry that they’re putting your health at risk. Everybody has a slightly different understanding of what is ‘safe’ and ‘not safe’ for them right now. It’s important to know your boundaries and how to communicate them with your loved ones. Even though it can be scary and difficult to set boundaries, especially with strong-minded people, now more than ever it is important to practice placing boundaries.

Setting boundaries might sound like straightforward requests, but it’s hard to say things to others that may offend them. With our partners, we can tend to prefer going with the flow and going along with it but we may have a different opinion on the ways to keep ourselves safe. It might become a huge stressor for you if you have different opinions than some of your family and friends. You may be wondering how you can communicate your thoughts and feelings to others without feeling scared.

• Become aware of your boundaries: Before you begin to set boundaries with others, you need to know what your boundaries actually are. Many people aren’t sure about where their boundaries lie, or what their own thoughts are about important issues. For example, when it comes to COVID-19, it’s important to first become aware of what you believe is safe or unsafe at this time. Looking up the facts and/or talking to an objective, non-judgmental person can help with that. Overall, keep in mind that your personal boundaries are about what feels right for you.

• Communicate clearly: When you’re clear about what you feel is safe and unsafe, you can openly communicate your limits to others. This is a lot easier said than done; but if you work on managing your own anxiety, you’ll have an easier time communicating your boundaries. Be as clear and straightforward as possible. Remember that you don’t need to defend your choices or overly apologize for them.

• Remember it is okay if others aren’t happy with your decisions: The people in your life might not be happy with your boundaries or accept them. They may even try to convince or pressure you to do things their way. Standing for your boundaries and values doesn’t make you a bad person, even if it upsets other people.

• Make a plan: If you know a particular person might trigger you or get upset when you set boundaries, come up with a plan of action. Before you get emotional, thoughtfully work out how you might respond and exit the conversation if it gets overwhelming. It’s hard to think clearly when you’re in the moment and nervous. So, come up with a plan beforehand. It will always be a little uncomfortable, and sometimes a little difficult, to set boundaries with certain people. But over time and with practice, it gets easier.


Division of household tasks
COVID-19 has turned kitchen tables into home offices and classrooms, putting a spotlight on the countless household tasks typically performed by women. Travel restrictions, cancelled activities, and a rapid transition to remote work and online learning, have shifted family routines, roles and relationships, particularly in how domestic tasks are divided in the household. Tension and conflict over sharing of household responsibilities if both spouses are in paid work are routine. Managing time during the lockdown was difficult as the demarcation between work and home became blurred. The pandemic has created an opportunity to start a dialogue about the distribution of household tasks between partners. It has allowed a chance to create the space to have the conversations about who does what and what really is fair and how to share it.

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As already stated, the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought both positive and negative aspects to many relationships. For those who are currently living within an abusive relationship the pandemic has brought added pressures and worries. Where previously the workplace, possibly, provided a reprieve from the constant abuse and control from an abusive partner, the kitchen table/ small bedroom has now become the place of work. There is less opportunity to escape the excessive control, manipulation and power of an abusive partner. The Gardaí and the Courts Service have reported an increase in domestic violence incidents since the start of the pandemic. At the beginning of the pandemic, with reduced access to State Services such as social services, Courts and counselling services victims of domestic abuse felt more vulnerable and trapped than ever before.

As State agencies adhered to the new restrictions imposed by the national health guidelines and adapted the provision of their services, victims of domestic violence continue to have access to and valuable support from the Gardaí, the Courts and social services to help them secure protection measures and find safe places to live.

If you are affected by domestic violence within your home, don’t be afraid to reach out for help – the emotional support and practical advice is there within your own workplace. The Civil Service Employee Assistance Service (CSEAS) provides free, confidential* support and practical advice. We can assist you in accessing appropriate support from State agencies. It may feel scary to take this first step in contacting the CSEAS, but it is a courageous and important step to a better way of living. When it is safe to do so – pick up the phone and call our central CSEAS no. Ph. 0761 000 030. You can speak to an Employee Assistance Officer directly and in confidence. At the end of this article you will find additional links to relevant services for on-going support and advice.

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One of the lesser discussed impacts of the restrictions has been the effects on friendships. Having to stay within your locality for much of the past year may have considerably changed your interactions and connections to friends. Some friendships will have become stronger while others may have drifted. As in all times of crisis such as bereavement or separation, stronger connections and friendships tend to come to the fore. And similarly it will not always be the relationships that you expected that grow or diminish. As restrictions begin to lift this is a very good time to reflect and make a plan to Reassess, Reset and Re-engage in friendships.


Reassess:
No friendship is perfect. Even the best of friends can be annoying, over demanding, unequal, or unreliable at times. As we all can be to others too. But overall and over time the best friendships are a positive influence that nourish you socially in your life. Can you say this about your friendships? If a friendship is consistently taking more than its giving, making you feel worse about yourself, or regularly draining could this be a toxic friendship that you need to change or may be better off without? It’s okay to question this. Now may be an opportunity to take back some control and let some friendships change or go.

To reassess it’s important to put some shape on your thoughts. This can be done by writing down your thoughts and/or talking them out with someone in your life or an employee assistance officer if needed. It’s also important when doing this to try and understand your own feelings and expectations of friendships. We all have our own unwritten and often unsaid rules and expectations of others and friendships. These will rarely match up exactly with others unwritten and unsaid rules for life so it’s good to know what you are bringing to the relationship too. And allowing space for difference.

Some good questions to ask yourself may be:

• Why are we friends?

• Do we have shared interests?

• Does this friendship make me feel good overall?

• Do I engage in unhealthy behaviours in this friendship?

• Are some of the difficulties temporary or did they exist before restrictions?

Many friendships are built on common interests or activities which may have been paused and as these return these friendships may re-emerge with very little effort.

Some friendships will have deepened during restrictions as you have supported each other through such a difficult life changing situation or simply had more time to give them. This is a very healthy and positive development for many people. While other friendships will have weakened from lack of engagement as we all understandably have had limited attention and energy during the restrictions.


Reset:
What do you want from your future friendships? While reassessing your friendships is a very useful thing to do it’s important not to get bogged down in this either. Recognising what you want from friendships in the future is more productive.

Research suggests that casual social acquaintances and causal connections also matter more than we may realise. The cumulative effect of small but positive casual interactions during our day has been found to

• Buffer us from stress

• Increase trust in others

• Increase our confidence

• And even leads to greater cognitive functioning

Again this may have actually improved for many people under restrictions who have maybe had more interactions with neighbours, more interactions with people in local shops and more time in their day to let these little conversations develop in a less rushed environment. But for others the possibility and ability to have these little interactions may have weakened and need resetting. If this has been the case for you acknowledge that this has happened and try to make a conscious decision to re-engage in these interactions. Research from University of Kansas amongst others has looked at the idea that we all exist in a Social Biome which is an individual ecosystem of relationships. The concept suggests that we need a variety of friendships from deep connections right through to casual interactions to shape our emotional, psychological and physical health. Interestingly the research indicated that how people feel when they are alone is the greatest indicator of a healthy social biome. Being alone is not the same thing as being lonely and is in fact a healthy part of our makeup.



Re-engage:
As we start to potentially re-engage with more friends there are some steps we can consider taking that might help with this reintegration. Many people will be delighted to be able to meet up in person with people they haven’t seen for a long time and re-engage in group activities that have been curtailed. We’re likely to be feeling anxious or perhaps unmotivated about meeting up with friends again. Both can indeed be true for the same person.

Here are some suggestions to help ease back in to the reengaging with some friendships:

Keep some of the benefits of online connections. While you may be fed up with video calls they may also have created and facilitated some connections that you may want to maintain.

Loneliness requires action – It’s a hunger that needs to be fed. Invite people to meet up or do particular activities rather than waiting for invitations.

Some social anxiety is very normal. A lot of the rules of interaction have changed. We all know that feeling of discomfort of watching crowds on television or maybe seeing people hugging. It will take time to see how these changes settle in us.

Build confidence gradually – You can start with sending text messages to people you maybe haven’t had much contact with, or re-engage with a call before meeting up in person. This takes the pressure off meeting up for the first time in a long time.

Don’t avoid safe social situations. Avoidance of too many situations can feed anxiety and all the associated negative effects of this. But do establish boundaries that you are comfortable with and discuss these with friends before meeting up whether this is where you are comfortable meeting, with whom and for how long. If we don’t express these preferences people will make assumptions which may be incorrect.

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Background
Throughout human history people have lived as part of kinship groups. There are biological reasons for attachment to family members, and the young depend on the mature. As children, human beings need a safe base from where they can explore the world. That safe base needs to be provided by the family or primary care-givers of the child. The social environment within families can vary greatly from one family to another. Where one family can be loving and supportive, another may be cold and undermining. The atmosphere of the family can fluctuate over time. As we go through the life stages, the nature of our interactions with our families may change, but, if we are fortunate, family may provide us with a sense of security and belonging.


COVID-19
The support available varies between families, and can fluctuate through time depending on many factors. A responsive family will increase its support levels when needed. In challenging times such as the COVID-19 pandemic, when the public health emergency represents another layer on top of all of life’s other challenges, it may be very beneficial if family members can come together to support one another in whatever way works for each individual. COVID-19 may present the need to reorient ourselves towards the needs of family members. We can ask our loved ones if there is anything we can help with, and in turn we can suggest ways in which others can help us. Good communication can be a great help with this.

When we speak of family, we can think of our family of origin, it can also mean a family unit with children, a blended family, or a family that caring responsibilities for other members. Families have different make-ups depending on the individual situation. For example, we may have more control and autonomy if we are a parent within a family unit than we do in our family of origin. If we have our own family unit including children there is extra responsibility on us. For example, children may need psychological reassurance from their families, as well as supervision in getting adequate sleep, exercise, nutrition and controls when it comes to screen time.

Restrictions put in place to deal with the public health emergency have been disruptive for relationships generally, and very often for family relationships beyond those with whom we live. We may feel a loss of opportunity to engage with our neighbours and our community, as well as those family members who live further away, outside of our immediate locality. We may have serious concerns for the health and wellbeing of family members. We can also feel the loss of the opportunity to celebrate happy occasions. Sadly, when a loved one passes away, we may also be unable to participate fully in the traditions of mourning and rallying around the bereaved family.
Certain family members such as elderly relatives, people with underlying health conditions and children may be vulnerable for various reasons.


Support
It’s very important to feel emotionally supported in our close relationships. Positive social relationships, or their absence, have a strong impact on our wellbeing. All supportive social relationships (e.g. family, friends, partner, and neighbours) can be a source of comfort and assistance. This can manifest in numerous ways. Support can take the shape of practical help, emotional support, social support and other things.
Like friends, family can play a major role is terms of the social supports available to you. Some of the benefits of social supports include:

• A sense of security

• Better resilience when dealing with stress

• Heightened self-esteem

• More connectedness and belonging

• Better mental well-being

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It’s true to say that we spend more time with our closest work colleagues and work friends than we do with our own partners or family members. We often know how long it took them to get to work, what mood they are in, what they eat for lunch, how their kids are doing and what they think about world events. However the change in work arrangements has led in many cases to a very significant shift in this dynamic and for many people a real loss of connection.

The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly changed the work environment for all civil servants. For those working from home the changes are even more obvious.

This being the case the nature of our work relationships will have also changed. As with other relationships in our lives during these times some work relationships will have grown and improved while others will have diminished. When restrictions lift its timely to reflect on how some work based relationships have changed and how you may want to shape them for the future.


Relationships with work friends:
“Friendships of Convenience” is a term often found when researching work based friendships. This is the idea that we are simply friends due to proximity and sharing a closed space. And while there may be some truth to this it also underestimates the value of these friendships and connections. In some roles it’s these connections to other people that makes perhaps a mundane job enjoyable or even bearable. Work friendships are:

• A source of work satisfaction

• Help us meet our social needs

• Create a sense of belonging and identity

• Can provide a refuge or counterbalance form different or difficult other relationships in our lives

The potential diminishing or loss of these friendships due to new working arrangements can have a real negative effect. In many new situations the move to remote working has neutralised the social aspect of work. If you have found this to be the case in recent times there are things you can do to try and improve the situation.

1. Acknowledge the loss. Everyone has had limited energy and motivation in recent times and its ok that some relationships have drifted. Perhaps you are in contact with colleagues on your team through shared work experiences but the people you miss are those you went for break with or had regular conversations with through other interactions.

2. Identify who you miss. Write down the names of 3 colleagues you miss either connection or friendship with.

3. Reach Out with specific times to connect. If you keep saying to someone “we must catch up or have a chat” but it’s not happening change the narrative to lets log on 15 minutes before the next team meeting and catch up for a chat. Or let’s check in every Friday afternoon. Whatever works for you, but be specific.

4. Friendships have a formula. Friendships generally require consistency, vulnerability and positivity to sustain them. This means creating regular contacts, giving of yourself and sharing parts of your personal life and providing positive feedback to each other.


Relationships with work colleagues:
While some work relationships are friendships others are more professional relationships or connections. These relationships may require a different approach to reignite them if they have gone stale. A survey of 12,000 workers in the US, Germany and India found that as workers moved to remote working there has been a significant drop in productivity in collaborative tasks. The lack of connection that can be created in a traditional work environment has led to less people asking for help or advice and a weakening of informal networks of information sharing and morale building. To try and strengthen these relationships it’s important to:

Seek out and create joint tasks. Working together on potentially a difficult piece of work can cement a bond between colleagues.

Create opportunities for one-to-one conversations. In fact for many people not working and conversing in an open plan office allows for deeper conversations and connections. These connections can be very difficult to create in a virtual team meeting so allowing time for 1-1 meetings is vital.

Ask people how they are doing and give them time to answer. An important part of making connections with colleagues is not allowing the tasks in hand to be the sole purpose of conversations.

Virtual Handshakes – If you are facilitating virtual team meetings allow time at the start and end for “virtual handshakes”. The bit of chat and checking in that happens in these moments is important for creating connectivity and trust.

Reassess dynamics that may have changed due to required responses to the pandemic. Perhaps a more directive style was needed to put certain things in place quickly but is this style of management and working continuing? And if so is it leading to a lack of collaboration and side-lining of some individuals or sections? While this may not be intentional some bruised relationships may need to be intentionally rebuilt.

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The CSEAS is also available to support you and to request an appointment or make an enquiry please contact us:

Tel: 0761 000030
Monday – Thursday: 9am – 5.45pm
Friday: 9am – 5.15pm
Email: cseas@per.gov.ie

Appointments are available evening and weekends if required. Video conferencing is also available.

 
 
 

CSEAS Resources

CSEAS Working Parent Series

CSEAS People managers guide booklet

CSEAS Effective Communications leaflet

CSEAS Counselling, Psychotherapy, Psychology – How do I Choose?

CSEAS Anxiety Support

External Resources

Women’s Aid – Domestic violence service in Ireland. 24-hour helpline – 1800 341 900: www.womensaid.ie
Men’s Aid – Domestic violence service in Ireland. National Confidential Helpline – 01 554 3811: www.mensaid.ie
Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. 24-hour helpline – 1800 77 8888: www.drcc.ie
Sexual Assault Treatment Units: www2.hse.ie/sexual-assault-treatment-units
LGBT Ireland – National Helpline – 1890 929 539: lgbt.ie
Citizens Information: www.citizensinformation.ie
An Garda Síochána www.garda.ie
Tusla – Child and Family Agency: www.tusla.ie
The Courts Service of Ireland: www.courts.ie

Additional Reading

– Sarner, M. (2021). The social biome: how to build nourishing friendships – and banish loneliness. The Guardian. www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2021/mar/24/the-social-biome-how-to-build-nourishing-friendships-and-banish-loneliness

– No Name. (2021). How the coronavirus pandemic is affecting friendships. Deutsche Welle www.dw.com/en/how-the-coronavirus-pandemic-is-affecting-friendships/a-56577661

– Mo, N. (2020). The Pandemic Is Changing Work Friendships. The Atlantic. www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2020/07/what-pandemic-doing-work-friendships/614407/

– Morgan, K. (2020). Why your in-office friendships still matter. Bbc.com.www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200925-why-your-in-office-friendships-still-matter

– Dahik, A; Lovich, D; Kreafle, C; Bailey, A; Kilmann, J; Kennedy, D; Roongta, P; Schuler, F; Tomlin, L; Wenstrup, J. (2020). What 12,000 Employees Have to Say About the Future of Remote Work. Boston Consulting Groupwww.bcg.com/en-us/publications/2020/valuable-productivity-gains-covid-19

– Trimble, A. (2020). The impact of Covid-19 on working relationships. The King’s Fund www.kingsfund.org.uk/blog/2020/05/impact-covid-19-working-relationships

– The COVID-19 Social Study is a research study run by University College London, exploring the effects of the virus and social distancing measures on adults in the UK during the outbreak of COVID-19: www.covidsocialstudy.org/results