Managing a pandemic is stressful. Managing the holidays is stressful. Combine the two and it can quickly lead to stress overload. There are so many questions and guidelines that we each are trying to make work for us as individuals, couples, and families. We talked with Marie Abraham-Robinson (MS, LMFT), a highly regarded therapist based in Stillwater, OK about all these questions and more. Whatever situation you find yourself in, we hope we covered any questions you might have about managing COVID-19 and the holidays, as keeping your mental and physical health is a top priority for all.
OETA: Couples are trying to schedule holiday visits—trying to make sure each family gets a fair deal. This might be the first time negotiating something like this, nevermind the pandemic we’re facing. What are your ideas for planning a safe and amicable holiday season?
Marie Abraham-Robinson: This will require negotiations! Ideally, the couple should decide which day(s) and time(s) will work best for them. Do not over-extend yourselves. Then, find out the family’s plans. Thereafter, it’s important to negotiate, negotiate, negotiate. Ultimately, do what works best for you.
OETA: What if one family is exercising very strict social distancing precautions and the other family isn’t? How would you explain the reason you feel comfortable with one family but without the other?
Marie: Be very honest about your feelings and decisions. Explain your reasons for making said decisions, then move on. Do not over-explain. Do not over-apologize. Recognize and acknowledge that you will not “prove your point” or “convince” everyone. That is nearly impossible. Therefore, do what is best for your emotional and physical safety. It is very common to feel guilty when making decisions that work in one’s best interest. Do not let guilt deter you from doing what feels best to you.
OETA: What are your overall thoughts about “social pods” and do you think that is a good approach for the holidays?
Marie: In order to have the safest “social pod,” everyone must be on the honor system. The fewer people in the pod, the better. They should have taken the necessary precautions decided upon by those in the group. Then, consider immediate safety precautions when you get together, these include: wearing appropriate face coverings, keeping social distance, and washing hands or using hand sanitizers, etc.
OETA: What do you do when someone in your pod breaks your trust? As in going to a restaurant or not wearing a mask in public, and you find out about it, say on social media or just after the fact? It feels really hard to rebuild that trust once it has been broken.
Marie: Ask friends to honor the devised plan. If you find out that someone has broken the trust of the group, you have a few options. You may ask the person directly for clarification, OR, you may choose not to join the group after all. You do what is best for yourself!
OETA: What if a family agrees to very safe expectations of what a family gathering looks like and one or two people aren’t abiding by the rules? How would you negotiate that in the moment? I feel like I’d just make a quiet exit.
Marie: Anticipate these things and devise a plan ahead of time. Your plan may be an exit plan or a verbal statement. But plan ahead. You may have to tell the host ahead of time and in private, that you will leave if you feel unsafe or uncomfortable. Once again, remember that you may not be able to convince that person in the moment. Apologize if you feel it necessary, but do what is in your best interest.
OETA: What if one person in the relationship is fine visiting their family, but the other is not comfortable with the safety of the event they have planned? Do they just not go? What’s the best way to discuss this between partners?
Marie: Be honest with your partner. Tell them how you feel. Be as explicit as necessary. If you don’t feel comfortable attending, do not attend. If you choose to attend but want to take precautions, such as wearing a mask, keeping social distance, and leaving early, then do that.
OETA: What’s the best way to introduce someone's partner in a virtual family hangout? Avoiding things like it to feeling too business-like or impersonal...but also not like an interrogation.
Marie: Plan ahead. How do you want this to play out? Mentally devise a script. Keep it simple. Write it down, if you may forget or get anxious right beforehand and go for it. You may want to make a comment such as, “I don’t want to seem too formal, but, this is _______. This is my ________.”
OETA: A lot of people are very sensitive to following the recommended guidelines. Not people that choose not to, but people who do their best and slip up every so often. They might not be honest with others because they are worried about feeling judged. How would you handle overly sensitive people that make you feel bad for asking them to follow guidelines?
Marie: No one should have the power to make you feel anything. However, there are times when we can get triggered by others’ responses because we are human. So, use positive self-talk. Remind yourself that you are doing what is in your best interest. You do not want to risk getting sick or infecting others within your home. If you can’t remind yourself, engage with a healthy support system who encourages you when you feel overwhelmed.
OETA: I think a lot of your answers will be something like, “Communication is key.” But, planning family gatherings is hard enough when there isn’t a pandemic. What method of communication would you use to negotiate expectations with several individual households?
Marie: Once again, plan ahead. You know each person, and the ideal way to interact with them. Some may require more conversation than others. And, they may require different forms of communication. Some people prefer to speak via telephone, others will prefer a text or email response. Use the most effective method to communicate. But, by all means, communicate.
OETA: There will be a lot of compromises as we all navigate the holidays during COVID. But, what’s an appropriate amount of compromise, and what’s the best way to negotiate with a partner that doesn’t come off as stubborn or passive-aggressive?
Marie: Compromise at the limit that makes you feel best. If you try to please each individual, you will get lost in the process. Decide on what YOU need. Trust your gut. Compromise only to the point that makes you feel comfortable. People will adjust to your response. Trust that. In order not to seem stubborn or passive-aggressive, do a self-check. Assess yourself. Ask yourself… Do I sound passive-aggressive? Am I being stubborn? The answer you come up with is the CORRECT answer. No one knows you better. Trust your instinct. Respond with tact and purpose. You can do this!
OETA: There is also a lot of talk about “mental health” vs. “physical health” during this pandemic. There’s no doubt it’s taking a toll on all of our collective mental health, but do you think they should be separated? Is there a way to focus on staying both mentally and physically healthy? I see this a lot with people that are retired, widowed, or living alone.
Marie: It is very important to focus on one’s physical and mental health. Both should be of equal priority. Eating healthy, doing exercises such as yoga, practicing guided mediation, and going to therapy may be activities that help one’s physical and mental health.
OETA: Any last tips or suggestions on how to manage the holidays during this pandemic?
Marie: In order to manage the holidays during this pandemic, it is important to make your mental and physical health a priority. It is very common to feel guilty for making yourself a priority, but it is imperative for self-development.
OETA: Thank you so much for your insight and time!
Marie Abraham-Robinson is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of Oklahoma. She is the owner of MRobinson Counseling LLC, a private counseling practice in Stillwater, OK. To learn more about Marie visit here.
OETA does not provide medical advice, diagnosis and/or treatment. If you need mental health services, consider reaching out to a licensed professional. The Oklahoma office of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is a good place to start. This article is not meant to contradict or substitute any COVID-19 guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For more information on COVID-19 from the CDC, click here.