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Personal Connections: Negotiating how we socialize as things open up

After a weird spring of being hunkered down at home, our region is finally opening up. But things aren’t fully back to normal and may not be for a while. Experts say the pandemic is far from over and we should still be careful. But we may not agree on how careful we need to be.

Although April and May were hard in so many ways, one thing was easy. When restaurants and other venues were shuttered, no one was going much of anywhere, so you didn’t have to decide about whether to go out. Now, we all have to make choices about which places and activities feel safe enough.

Finally, we get to spend time with friends, but our friends might not have the same ideas about what’s safe. How do you balance what feels do-able for you and what feels do-able for your friends?

Step one is figuring out what you are and aren’t comfortable with (which may change as the situation changes). Step two is candid, caring conversations with each friend.

Vive la difference

What risks feel acceptable will vary from person to person, and that is not a problem. You may be tempted to judge a friend as foolhardy or uptight if they think differently than you, but please try not to.

Some people may have risk factors that make coronavirus more dangerous for them, including health issues they might not want to talk about.

Some may risk virus exposure at work and don’t want to add any more. Others may have close contact with a family member who’s in a vulnerable group.

Then, there’s each person’s overall level of risk tolerance. Some of us are just generally more open than others to taking chances. It’s OK to be bold, and it’s also okay to be cautious.

Respect and kindness

Before you get together with anyone you don’t live with, talk about what you each would like to do and what would feel relaxed and safe. Be politely curious about your friend’s thinking and level of anxiety. If you disagree, don’t try to convince them they’re wrong; just listen.

I hope you want to be compassionate to and respectful of everyone. When it comes to your friends and family, kindness should be a no-brainer, even when you don’t see things the same way.

Usually when two people disagree, it’s good to look for compromises. But because possible coronavirus exposure is a health and safety issue, the situation is different.

The needs of the more cautious person trump, in my opinion. No one should be pushed to take health risks they’re not comfortable with.

How to start the conversation

You might begin with a general conversation about your friend’s and your overall comfort levels and the types of things that do and don’t feel safe to each of you. For instance, “How are you doing these days? Are you still hunkering down? What are you doing out in the world? What kinds of things feel comfortable?”

If the two of you are on or close to the same page, great. Go ahead and plan a get-together that works for both of you.

If your friend is more cautious, ask what they might find comfortable. If you’re more cautious, talk about what you’ve been doing that feels safe.

Then, you might make plans or you might let the broad ideas percolate for a few days before you schedule an activity.

When you get specific, try to come up with something fun that will allow both of you to feel relaxed and enjoy your time together. Start with a proposal, including relevant safety precautions, then ask if that’d be comfortable for your friend.

For instance: “Would you and Terry like to come over and visit on our deck for a couple hours? If we’re six feet apart, we wouldn’t need to wear masks. We’re not ready to have people in the house yet, but it’d be great to visit with you outside.

“You can bring your own food and plates if you want to be extra-safe, or we can cook something on the grill.”

Or, “How about we pick up sandwiches and hang out on the beach with Kate and Zoey? We can each bring our own chairs. I’m OK with three feet apart, since there’s always a breeze at the beach, but we could do six feet if you like.”

Or, “I’d like to eat outdoors at a restaurant. Bob’s Bistro seems to have a good set-up with lots of room between tables, masks on the servers, and all that. Are you up for that? Or would take-out in the park work better for you?”

Sticking with the plan

I wish I didn’t have to say this, but if you and your friend agree on a plan, it’s not fair for someone to unilaterally change it.

A few weeks ago, my friend invited a couple over for an outdoor, socially distanced get-together, which everyone agreed would be safe and fun. When the friends arrived, they refused to sit outside because it was too chilly.

My friend happened to have a room big enough for them to be almost six feet apart, but she felt very uncomfortable the whole time. She also felt betrayed. I’m not sure the friendship will survive.

The take-away here is that last-minute changes can be more complicated during the pandemic. Sticking with the plan is likely the best way to ensure everyone’s comfort.

These times are challenging, no doubt about it. The best we can do to make them better is to be there for each other in whatever ways feel safe and relaxed for everyone.

Jill Whitney is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Old Lyme who blogs about relationships at keepthetalkgoing.com.

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