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Everyone 16 and older is now eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine in the United States, which in many ways marks a new chapter in our pandemic journey. Though inequities and issues around access (and hesitancy) persist, it might seem like things are brightening up. But the pathway from eligibility to full inoculation isn’t without challenges, especially as it relates to navigating friendships and other relationships.
Let’s start with the obvious: COVID-19 likely shifted some of your friendships. During a disease outbreak, particularly one spread by human contact, it’s not surprising that our ways of connecting with and relating to one another will change. But that doesn’t mean all hope is lost when it comes to your friendships. Adia Benton, Ph.D., an associate professor of anthropology at Northwestern University, who studies social relations in epidemics, says that many West African Ebola survivors she spoke to during her research formed new friendships with fellow survivors or managed to maintain the friendships they had before contracting the disease. So there’s a chance many of your most cherished friendships may have changed but will survive the pandemic intact.
Still, bouncing back can feel complicated. In short: This new chapter can bring friendship problems and drama.
Below, we spoke with friendship experts about issues that may pop up and advice on how you can maintain the friendships you hold dear.
Situation: You’re unvaccinated and your vaccinated friends are hanging without you.
Before planning catch-ups, your friendship group may ask who’s vaccinated and who isn’t, Jacqueline Chen, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Utah, tells SELF. If you haven’t been fully vaccinated yet, your friends may not invite you to social events held indoors or in large groups, or they may not want to see you in person at all. You can always take the tried-and-true route of asking your friend to mask up and meet outdoors or hang out on Zoom. But there are a few other ways you can try to deal.
1. Allow yourself to feel hurt (even if you understand).
For better or worse, people can unfairly assume their loved ones want to spend time with them unconditionally, Dr. Chen says. “So the putting on of these contingencies can feel like a personal rejection.” It is 100% okay to feel left out and hurt, Dr. Chen explains.
Some of your heightened emotions could stem from spending the year more isolated than normal. “When we’re lonely, it makes us see other people as more threatening, and we become more paranoid that other people are judging us,” Marisa G. Franco, Ph.D., psychologist and friendship expert, tells SELF. Even though you might understand where your friends are coming from, when you’re not in control over a situation, you tend to be less resilient, Dr. Franco says, so be kind to yourself during this time and don’t be frustrated at your reaction to friendship problems like these. Acknowledge your emotions and hold space for them, because they are valid.
2. Try to access empathy for your friends.
You may not need this reminder, but just in case: In those moments of feeling left out, remember how scary the past year has been (and still is), Dr. Chen says. Your vaccinated friend is likely worried about carrying COVID-19 and any virus variants back to the vulnerable people in their social circles, so the boundaries they put in place are not a rejection of you. They may also be concerned about your own safety and not want to contribute to increasing your potential risk in any way. And, as an unvaccinated person, you’ll want to be cautious about large gatherings and environments where social distancing is difficult. Have empathy for your friend, and remember why you’ve been apart for so long in the first place.
3. Seek solace in other unvaccinated people responsibly.
You may want to chat about your experience with another person who hasn’t been vaccinated, or find different ways to feel connected. But make sure that you’re tending to your overall well-being too. Dr. Franco suggests tuning into your internal state, because “if you’re feeling depressed, you would feel less connected even when you’re around other people.” Nurture yourself by doing things like practicing gratitude, loving-kindness meditation, being out in nature, or speaking to a therapist.
4. Be intentional and inventive when it comes to virtual hangouts.
I know you’re probably over Zoom hangs at this point, but until you’re fully inoculated, it might be time to get creative. Instead of your normal Zoom conversation, you might even book club together or listen to the same podcast and discuss it. Or, if you miss having dinner together, you might start a supper club where you cook the same meal on Zoom and eat together.
Situation: You’re vaccinated but want to set boundaries with your friends (vaccinated and unvaccinated alike).
Once you’re vaccinated, you may feel a sense of obligation to see people because why wouldn’t you want to after months of isolation and heightened stress, right? But just because you’re safe to hang out does not mean you need to say yes to every social invite. You may want to say no, and that’s okay.
1. Be honest about your needs.
Be up front with your friends as soon as possible, Dr. Franco advises. Tell your friends plainly that you’re still getting comfortable with the outside world, and there may be social events you don’t feel ready to attend. You might even share that you’re in touch with your inner introvert, and you think social interactions might tire you out.
2. Show your friends you are not rejecting them.
The trick is to reassure your friends that you do not want to exclude them. This lessens the chance for ambiguity. If you’re nervous about hanging with an unvaccinated friend, be intentional in demonstrating that they are accepted. Show them you are serious about finding ways to spend time with them by suggesting alternate activities, even those you may not be as interested in (like taking a walk or Zoom-calling), Dr. Franco explains. You can also send a card, a gift, or a video message to show your friends how much you cherish them.
3. Be prepared for a little bit of pushback.
If your friends are upset, remind yourself that you’re not doing anything wrong by setting a boundary, Dr. Franco explains. Try to highlight that the situation is distressing for both of you. You can say, “It sucks because you and I both want to reconnect in person again after so long, but I have to honor what’s safest for my mental and physical health.”