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Topics: Ethical Living | Health

How to settle family disputes about COVID-19 at a distance

Psychotherapist Sarah Patterson has some tips to navigate tricky emotional situations


When the COVID-19 pandemic hit North America last year, David Walters* was quick to adapt public health recommendations and hoped that his family would do the same. “My mother has cardiac issues and my father has severe diabetes,” he says, adding that his father has since been diagnosed with cancer. Both of his parents are in their 70s, and Walters knew that the virus could be devastating to either of them. And, as the partner of a frontline worker in a hospital, Walters was acutely aware of the dangers of COVID-19.

While Walters made a point to practice social distancing and avoid non-essential activities outside of the home, his sister was living a very different life. “Last summer, she took four road trips with her kids during which she visited numerous elderly relatives and stayed inside other people’s homes,” he details, noting that COVID numbers are high in her region. She often shares photos on social media that show her having close, unmasked contact with friends and co-workers, or attending birthday parties and other gatherings. She also continued to visit with their parents — a cause of stress for Walters, who agonizes over whether he goes to the grocery store too often.

He has addressed his concerns with his sister in a roundabout way but avoided tackling the subject head-on. Emotions are higher than ever, and Walters isn’t convinced they can have a productive conversation about their differences.

Sarah Patterson, a psychotherapist based in Burlington, Ont., is hearing a lot of these stories in her practice. “Family relationships are where I’m seeing the most conflict but also hurt feelings,” she says, noting that much of the tension she sees stems from the goal of protecting senior family members. In addition to anxiety about the safety and well-being of loved ones, social comparisons are something Patterson is seeing a lot of during the pandemic. As you make sacrifices as an individual or family, you may find yourself contrasting those sacrifices with the behaviours of friends, family or community members. “It’s hard enough to live with these guidelines and restrictions, but when we see others not doing the same, it’s frustrating.”

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Patterson almost always recommends dealing with tension directly. “When we fear conflict, a typical strategy is avoidance,” she says. “Or when we do deal with it, we’re so heated and upset that it ends up being a messy conversation that doesn’t go well.”

Working through family discord can be difficult — particularly when families are deliberately creating physical space from one another — and not everyone has the emotional intelligence to navigate these situations successfully. That said, Patterson doesn’t want families to sweep these discussions under the rug or wait until the pandemic is over to face them. “One of the things the pandemic has shown us is how essential our family relationships are,” she says, noting that we’re all feeling the absence of our loved ones, which contributes to heightened emotions.

Patterson suggests trying to see each family member’s viewpoint. This might not change anyone’s behaviour, but it can help you understand the feelings behind people’s choices and actions. This knowledge, in turn, can help you repair those primary relationships — namely, your parents and siblings, children or other close family members. Give each family member an opportunity to express their sadness.

“These conversations need to be ongoing,” Patterson says. She also recommends that as restrictions and case numbers change, people should check in with each other and reassess boundaries as needed.

Before having these discussions with others, it’s important to know where you stand and why. Patterson suggests identifying your own boundaries and rationale in order to feel confident in your choices. Be aware of any anxiety or guilt that may be influencing your mindset, and recognize that other people’s decisions will be coming from differing perspectives, needs and experiences. Ask yourself if there are calculated risks you’re willing to make, and discuss the needs and feelings of everyone in the family. Make attempts to repair the situation if you become defensive or feel misunderstood or hurt, and recognize repair attempts from others. “When we feel heard and understood, we are much more likely to come to a mutual agreement or understanding.”

At the end of the day, the separation brought on by a pandemic feels unnatural and is bound to create issues among even the closest families. Many of us are desperately craving the normalcy of an in-person conversation, a family dinner or a hug. What’s logical might not feel right. “When we are forced to make decisions that go against our hardwiring — our basic need for togetherness with our primary relationships — what can help is to focus on how we can stay connected.”

Resolving family conflict doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with one another, but it means choosing to listen and empathize, communicate with respect and work toward shared healing. It may be difficult, but it’s worth the work — after all, the pandemic won’t last forever, but family will.

*Name withheld at interviewee’s request

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