A film of social awkwardness has appeared in our interactions with others, literally and figuratively shielding us by plexiglass. Our livelihood in the COVID era depends on us physically distancing from one another, but our ongoing relational needs depend on us being closely connected. Balancing physical and relational boundaries in an ordinary world takes understanding and practice; we grow up learning about friendships and the different relationships we encounter over a lifetime. Relationships in the COVID era are different. We desperately look for connection—we need it in order to survive. And yet, connection right now is difficult. Entering the world outside the safety of our homes feels hazardous, the potential danger we see and the protective barriers placed in front of us inhibits our abilities to enter into connection with those around us. Managing the physical and relational boundaries we each hold, while understanding the boundaries of those around us can place us in a confusing predicament.
When we talk about boundaries, we typically think about in terms of physical boundaries and relational boundaries. Right now, in the midst of COVID, people are generally heightened to protect their physical boundaries. People stay in their homes, wearing masks when entering the public arena. We stay six feet apart from each other, careful to not touch door knobs and or shake hands with others. Our greetings have shifted from hugs and hand-shaking to a wave across the room. With this long-term experience of staying isolated, our exposure to the outside world can feel vulnerable, exposed, unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Our defensive systems are locked and loaded, ready to react if we come in close contact with another person or don’t have hand sanitizer nearby. This is abnormal to how we are used to interacting with our world. Our physical boundaries directly impact our relational boundaries. When we aren’t able to hug our loved ones, greet one another with a hand shake, or sit closely without fabric covering our mouths, we see a great impact in how we relationally connect with one another. Humans need physical touch and contact in relationships in order to thrive – the struggle right now is that direct, physical touch can potentially cause harm. Knowing this, we need to make ongoing conscious efforts in maintaining our relational connections with others.
We’ve seen in-person conversations, celebrations, play dates, and work events shift to Zoom meetings. Maintaining this relational connection via technology is a fantastic substitute for in-person connection; but that’s all that it is, a substitute. It’s not the real thing. [An analogy: Rice cakes are a diet substitution. They fill a brief void in our state of hunger, but they don’t provide the nutrients that our bodies need, nor do they supply us with long-lasting satisfaction. Rice cakes leave us with wanting more, reaching out for more but leaving us with an emptiness.] We are limited in what we are able to do and how we are able to stay connected in our current state of the world, much of which we are unable to control. Substitutions can be one way of fulfilling a need for the short-term, as long as we recognize that the long-term benefits of using a substitution are slim. The immense surplus of technology use can be a great substitution for our real-world connections, but we can’t let this turn into the new norm moving forward. We need to recognize that healthy relationships require healthy physical connection, in the real. We need the nutritious, filling connection to satisfy our needs long-term. A rice cake just won’t do it.
There is power in naming things in the moment – give it life and space to exist. Tell your loved ones you wish you could give them a hug. Talk about the anxiousness you feel to be in a public space. Build comradery in the upside-down world we live in. The thing is—we can stay connected without the physical elements. We can get through this socially awkward period of time while we balance the physical boundaries with the relational. When we come together as one, we can do great things. We can build strong communities while physically distanced when we make the conscious effort to do so.