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Frozen Networks

Pandemics implicate how we think about our social support networks.

You may not remember the exact time or even day when it happened. But it did—for all of us. The possibility of meeting various and new people in distinct contexts is now a memory and a dream. Prior to the pandemic, each day provided the possibility of sharing space with people in a variety of contexts and situations—work, gym, neighbor’s houses, school, church, volunteering, clubs. And then they were gone. Not just the situations, but what the situations made possible in ways that few of us previously considered.

Are you feeling trapped? Stuck? Hopefully, you are surrounded by people who love and care for you as you do for them. Nonetheless, you can love someone and still feel stuck and claustrophobic. Your loved ones are probably thinking the same. It’s nothing personal, but at the same time, it is absolutely personal.

Arek Socha/Pixabay
Source: Arek Socha/Pixabay

Our need for interaction and support does not go away in the midst of a pandemic. Rather, it is likely intensified because many of us are scared, anxious, uncertain, and trying to adapt to circumstances that were not of our own choosing. And so we turn to the people nearest to us in our shared, physical spaces. And this may be a spouse, partner, child, or parent. Someone you deeply care about and who cares about you. But something is different, perhaps even strained.

You are more frustrated with them.

They are more frustrated with you.

Your patience level is at an all-time low.

Their patience level is at an all-time low.

But you care for this person.

And they care for you.

Social contexts matter because they provide us instructions for knowing how to present ourselves. They give us permission to enact various parts of ourselves called forth by particular contexts and expectations. We act one way at home that doesn’t translate well at school. And we talk differently when amidst friends than we ever would with family. We reveal vulnerabilities to a partner in ways we would never conceive of sharing at work.

Even when these dynamic social contexts are not accessible and we are left with only one unchanging context for interaction with the same person/people, hour after hour, we don’t stop wanting to find an audience for our social and support needs.

When we channel the breadth of our needs and desires into the very person/people we are sharing physical space with during the pandemic, relationship confusion—and frustration—inevitably occur.

This form of “context collapse” can distort our relationships because our multiple and diverse needs for support and self-presentation get compressed into one audience. How can’t it create relationship confusion and frustration when you want one audience—or one person—to give you absolute freedom to share what you are thinking in one moment and then in the very next minute, offer an objective viewpoint? How can’t it create relationship confusion and frustration when you want one audience—or one person—to remain authentic to their own beliefs and listen to you without judgment? How can’t it create confusion and frustration when you want someone to love you unconditionally while also holding you accountable to the previous boundaries of your relationship?

A casualty of channeling all of our various hopes and needs and expectations onto one audience is an inability to recognize who is nearest to us. When this happens, frustration and disappointment cloud our ability to acknowledge and appreciate what this very person, this one person nearest to us, can provide as we preoccupy ourselves with wanting them to be everyone else but themselves.

Caregivers often experience this form of relationship confusion as they may feel like they are called to be the audience for all of their loved one’s needs. In addition to their pre-existing relationship with their loved one, they may feel compelled to fill the role of friend, supporter, comforter, doctor, nurse, physical therapist, listener, and on and on. Trapped in static definitions of what it used to mean to be in a relationship with a loved one—parent, child, spouse—a caregivers’ relationship reality is always different than what outsiders can appreciate. It’s always something more. Always something less. Always something similar. Always something different. And always more complicated and contradictory than it used to be.


Bazarova, N. Choi, Y. (2014). Self-disclosure in social media: Extending the functional approach to disclosure motivations and characteristics on social network sites. Journal of Communication, 64, 4, 635-657. I am reconceiving the mediated construct of “context collapse” to highlight similar audience in-person impacts that have resulted as a result of pandemic stay-at-home orders.

Thomson, D. & White, Z. (2019). The unexpected journey of caring: The transformation from loved one to caregiver. Rowman & Littlefield.

Marwick, A. & Boyd, D. (2011). I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately: Twitter users, context collapse, and the imagined audience. New Media and Society, 13(1), 114-133. I am reconceiving the mediated construct of “context” collapse to highlight similar audience in-person impacts that have resulted as a result of pandemic stay-at-home orders.

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