As the world fights the spread of the coronavirus, governments and individuals are taking measures to limit human contact with others. With schools and workplaces closing for weeks at a time to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the United States, people are at risk of feeling lonely and isolated.
Social distancing and isolation can be dangerous if people don't work to maintain their connections with others. Even if you are surrounded by family members at home, tensions will arise and relationships can be strained. It is imperative to cultivate relationships outside the home, even if you can’t see them face-to-face.
Fortunately for us, years of research on long-distance relationships (romantic or not) have taught us a thing or two about maintaining relationships at a distance. In 2020, we are better equipped than ever to have vivid and active social lives online. Research has found time and again that though technology has its drawbacks, technology can help us improve our relationships and people can stay psychologically close when face-to-face contact decreases if other ways of communicating are implemented instead.
Maintaining Relationships at a Distance
Use video calls to connect when possible. Video chat allows us to see the other person’s nonverbal behaviors, which alerts us to their mood and allows for clearer, more effective communication. In times where people are socially isolated, rich nonverbal cues can be even more important because they provide a feeling of “presence” that audio-only phone calls lack. On video chat, grandparents can see their grandchildren’s mannerisms and friends can be reminded of each others’ funny or endearing quirks.
Communication scientists claim that a technology platform's richness matters. Platforms like video chat are rich with nonverbal cues like tone of voice, facial expressions, and eye gaze, whereas text and email are lean. The richer the platform, the fewer miscommunications occur because more nonverbal cues increase our likelihood of effectively understanding one another.
High-quality relationships tend to use a variety of ways of connecting. People who call, text, video chat, and reach out on social media tend to have higher quality relationships and more interdependence than those who use only one mode of communication. During this time of social distancing, use your whole arsenal of tools for communicating rather than relying on just one mode.
Remember the maintenance strategies you use when face-to-face and implement them online. There are five primary maintenance strategies that are linked to higher quality relationships: positivity, openness, assurances, tasks, and networks.
- Positivity is about having cheerful and uplifting interactions with others. This can be especially hard amidst uncertainty and anxiety associated with a constant flow of news, which might make it more important than ever. Finding ways to be positive with those we love and care about can bring joy into someone’s otherwise stressful day.
- Openness is being open with others, discussing the relationship, sharing, and self-disclosing. This can be uncomfortable at first over technology, but the more nonverbal cues the technology offers, the better. Use video chat if you can for self-disclosure so you can see the other person’s reaction and offer them cues that you are actively listening. Active listening is shown through eye contact, nodding your head, and verbal encouragement like “mm-hmm” and “go on.” These cues are often missing from audio-only phone calls and texts.
- Assurances refer to assuring your friends and other loved ones that you care about them and that your relationship is meaningful to you. We often skip this maintenance behavior assuming the other person already knows they mean a lot to us. Especially in times of social isolation, assurances are important. Take the time to tell someone you love them, care for them, and that they are important to you. Do not take this for granted.
- Tasks include sharing relational work like who picks up the phone to call the other person or who sends the first text. People who share the work of maintaining their relationship report higher satisfaction than those who feel under-benefitted by their relationship (they do more relational work than their friend or partner) or those who feel over-benefited. People in over-benefited relationships receive more than they give in the relationship, which often leaves them feeling guilty. Another way you can share tasks is to share the workload for an upcoming event like planning a parent’s birthday celebration or anniversary. When the future of events are uncertain like they are right now, you might share the work of coming up with contingency plans to celebrate the event and reassure each other that a celebration will occur when the time is right.
- Networks includes maintaining a shared network of people you both know. This is easy for family relationships where you often know many of the same people. Shared contacts give you something to talk about. At a distance, networks can be maintained and strengthened via texting or video group chats. Friends can be introduced to one another to strengthen your shared network. The maintenance strategy of networks also includes connecting people to others that can help them. Connecting a friend to others who know more about working remotely is a relevant example of utilizing networks.
Practical ideas for staving off loneliness in isolation:
- Watch a movie or TV show together. Find a friend or family member you are distanced from who has similar tastes and commit to watching the same show, then calling or texting one another to discuss.
- Have a date night with another couple. Make dinner and pour some wine, then switch on the video chat to enjoy a meal with another couple, even if you aren’t able to go to a restaurant together.
- Start or join a virtual book club. Get to know others through your mutual love of books. Book clubs can easily be held online and there are websites specifically made to facilitate this activity.
- Learn something new together. Pick a topic and find a friend who wants to learn along with you. You could set up a video chat date to discuss what you’ve learned. If you have a friend or family member with a skill that can be taught over video chat, ask them to teach you! Painting, baking, building, and more can be taught from a distance.
- Create a group video chat and catch up with your whole family or friend group at once. These chats can be hard to manage with so many voices but are fun to coordinate every once in a while. You could play a game together or take turns sharing about your experience working from home and keeping the kids entertained.
- Collaborate and plan something together. Websites and apps make collaborating on work tasks easy. These same platforms can be used for planning and collaborating on non-work projects. Share a Pinterest board and pin ideas for a graduation party, house renovation, or family vacation. Start a shared Google doc and compile ideas and links.
Comment below with your ideas for maintaining relationships when in social isolation to add to this list.
Tong, S., & Walther, J. B. (2011). Relational maintenance and CMC. Computer-mediated communication in personal relationships, 53, 98-118.
Canary, D. J., & Dainton, M. (Eds.). (2003). Maintaining relationships through communication: Relational, contextual, and cultural variations. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781410606990
Shklovski, I., Kraut, R., & Cummings, J. (2008, April). Keeping in touch by technology: maintaining friendships after a residential move. In Proceedings of the sigchi conference on human factors in computing systems (pp. 807-816).