Living through the COVID-19 pandemic is hard. TIME’s new advice column is here to help. Trying to decide if that dinner party is safe to attend? Fighting through your quarantine fatigue? Our health reporters will consult experts who can help find a safe and practical solution. Send us your pandemic dilemmas at [email protected], and we will choose some to answer in a new column on TIME.com.
Today, D.P. from Georgia asks:
Not sure if this is a question you can advise on, but it is one that has me upset almost daily.
I am over 80, single, and live alone. I live in a state with no mask mandate, where people pretty much do as they please as if there was no pandemic. I follow all the guidelines, stay home unless necessary to go out, and have not had a sit-down in-person conversation with anyone in eight months. But I feel that I am coping very well.
My problem is my group of good friends; only one of them who feels as I do. The others do one or more of the following: eat out in restaurants and buffets, go to nail and hair salons, go to casinos, play golf, visit with each other, had cook-outs with groups of people this summer, take trips, etc.
Many of their phone conversations, emails, and text messages involve them telling me where they have been, or inviting me to go somewhere with them. They say things like, “Oh, we’ve eaten out three or four times, and it is very safe. Everyone wears a mask,” ” We are very careful,” “everyone is social distanced,” etc. They even want to come get me and take me to a restaurant. When I say no, thanks, they say, “Why don’t you trust us?” Some want to visit me in my house. One asked, “Are you ready to go out to eat yet?” (I wanted to say, “are you ready to die?,” but I didn’t.) I have tried telling them that I go by what the scientists say, that I took a risk-tolerance test and scored zero meaning I take no risks, that I am elderly and high risk, and on and on.
My question is: Can you give me any ideas on what to say to them that doesn’t end the friendship? My other friend says they all have a death wish. She and I have thought about trying to meet outdoors someplace at a picnic table, but she has to be so careful because she is around a 90-plus-year-old man, so we haven’t done it. I like having contact with my friends, but just about every time I talk to one of them, I get upset. I don’t want to lose almost all the friends I have.
(This question has been edited lightly for clarity and privacy.)
D.P., you’re not alone in feeling frustrated with your friends this year. Between the COVID-19 pandemic, a contentious presidential election, and the ongoing national conversation about race and police brutality, many people have had tough conversations with loved ones recently. Some of those talks have forced us to recognize, maybe for the first time, that our opinions differ from those of our friends in fundamental ways. That realization can be especially painful right now, because many of us are in need of extra support, given the trauma and stress caused by the pandemic.
Your decision to try to socially distance was the right one. As a person in your 80s, you’re at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19. You should feel proud that you’ve had the fortitude to do what’s right to protect yourself and others for all these months. At the same time, staying so isolated can be disheartening over time, and we all feel lonelier still when people we care about don’t support our decisions.
For advice on helping you talk to your friends, I spoke to a pair of experts about your experience: Miriam Kirmayer, a Montreal-based clinical psychologist, and Suzanne Degges-White, a chair and professor of counseling and counseling education at Northern Illinois University. They agreed that it will probably be tough to change your friends’ minds about social distancing, but they offered advice for setting boundaries and standing up for your own needs and values.
To Kirmayer, it seems like you’ve already taken a very important first step: you’ve explained to your friends what you find important, and why you feel the way you do. It can be easy to believe that our friends already know our beliefs and how they should treat us, but that isn’t always the case, she says.
Once we’ve explained our needs and feelings, it’s important to set boundaries. Explain to your friends what you are willing to do and how you would like to be treated, then enforce those boundaries by repeating them over and over again. Kirmayer suggests using “I” language here: instead of listing things that the other person is doing wrong, explain the way certain things make you feel, like “I am not comfortable” going out to eat or to another gathering.
You can also state outright the things that you need, like asking your friends to stop telling you about their social outings. For instance, you can say: “I really would like to feel that my situation, or my feelings, are being accepted in this situation.” It may take some time before they get the message, but it’s important to keep repeating the same thing. If your friends continue to repeatedly invite you to in-person activities even after you ask them to stop, or if they keep teasing you about your beliefs, you might say, “When you say this, I end up feeling very hurt,” or “I feel like I told you this several times, that I’m just not willing or able to do this. I’m now feeling like I’m not being heard, and that’s really hard for me. Can we talk about that?”
Degges-White says you could also make it clear that you will end a conversation if someone crosses a boundary that you’ve previously set. For instance, if you tell people you’re not willing to argue about your decision to socially distance, and they try to pick a fight anyway, you could refuse to engage or end the conversation entirely. “If she respects their feelings, mutually, they should respect her feelings,” says Degges-White.
Kirmayer adds that it may help to focus on the positive aspects of your friendships. Your friends probably aren’t asking you out to hurt your feelings—they probably miss you, and you’re lucky to have a group of people who enjoy your company. As you turn them down repeatedly, they might feel like you’re rejecting them and their friendship, even if that’s not your intention. Think about the reasons you like your friends and the things you have in common, and then try to steer your conversations to those things if they’re trying to talk about social distancing. And instead of just turning your friends down when they invite you to do something, you might suggest an alternative activity, such as having a happy hour or book group via video chat.
“That helps our friends to feel as though we’re wanting to connect, we’re wanting to invest in our friendship, and can help maintain that bond,” says Kirmayer. “It really communicates our interest in staying friends.”
Whether or not you choose to remain friends with this group of people, it might be worth making a special effort to build up your relationships with people who do support your decision to socially distance—including the friend you mentioned who’s also declining invitations to go out, or members of your extended family. It’s important that you continue to prioritize building connections with other people, both for your emotional wellbeing and general health. Degges-White recommends getting a weekly online event on your calendar, perhaps through your local senior center, faith organization or library. It’s crucial that you protect yourself from COVID-19, but also remember that connecting with other people is vital for your long-term health.