How to Renew Your Most Important Relationships During the Pandemic
Since we have been spending most of our day indoors, we’ve had no choice but to face up to the reality of what our social lives had become before the pandemic. We finally have the time to reflect upon how the richness, regularity and connectedness of most of our friendships have taken a nosedive ever since the release of the first iPhone in 2007, ushering in an era of plummeting empathy and, as a consequence, unprecedented loneliness, depression and anxiety.
The insular nature of relationship development in the current smartphone era seems to run counter to the proclamations of enthusiasts extolling their anticipation that our screens (first the television and now our phones, laptops, and tablets) would usher in an era of global interconnectedness and understanding.
Take an Inventory of Your Relationships
This extended time indoors is a good time to take stock of your social relationships and how they have (for the most part) devolved. You can use this time to acknowledge that you are going through a commonly experienced feeling of deflation in the digital age that emerges from the Communication Reciprocation Downgrade.
What is the Communication Reciprocation Downgrade? This event occurs when you make a media-rich overture to someone (e.g., a phone call) and they offer a media-poor reply (e.g., a text or email). We have all fallen prey to the Communication Reciprocation Downgrade—I would even go so far as to say that it’s a core reason we are less happy in the digital age.
Make a pact with yourself to start taking note of the family members and friends who consistently pick up the phone or call you back when you reach out to them: they are your best social investment and, from here on out, your buffer from the ever-expanding tentacles of digitally-induced loneliness.
Perhaps before, you did not afford them the value they deserved. Maybe you took them for granted while pining over others who, truth be told, have not reciprocated your efforts for years—unless you have been willing to join the ranks of their multitudinous social contacts to whom they condescend to send the occasional brief email, IM, or text message.
Replace Resentment with Compassion
I’m not suggesting you end these relationships. A weak contact who is dealt a wake-up call in the form of the loss of their health, intimate partner, or job may become a strong connection in the future. The compassion you generate for people who have exited your social stage will help you to welcome them with an open, nonjudgmental heart if or when they return.
This compassion is not just for them, but for yourself. Why? Because any person you once liked who re-enters your social stage may become a good friend again if you welcome them with empathy and caring. A benefit of the current situation is that it’s a wake-up call to do exactly that.
Given the scarcity of people who both recognize the futility of seeking social connection (and instead receiving social information) online and are attempting to rekindle face-to-face relationships, you cannot afford to spurn them based on a festering resentment for past inattentiveness.
Even if a once-close friend or family member only wishes to be in your life on a limited basis, it may grow into a more meaningful relationship in the future, especially if they also begin to recognize the value you provide to them as a human being willing to connect in real time. Even if it doesn’t, one of the most well-known findings of social network research is that weak ties are often the ones who forward your email, post a listing on Facebook for your dream job or introduce you to the right person to help you access a new career opportunity.
While I’m not proposing that you unnecessarily end relationships out of spite or resentment, I am suggesting that you reply to an email or text from someone with whom you were once close with a phone call. If your call is not returned, leave the ball in their court and shift your social effort and attention toward those who place more value on you and your friendship. Today. Now. In the only moment in which your happiness resides.
Placing less value on social media, then, is really placing more value on yourself. It’s placing more value on those with whom you wish to develop a meaningful connection and who similarly value that connection.
Transform Your Phone into …. a Phone
To pick up the phone and call requires self-confidence and a willingness to cede the detached control of texting. As the writer Andrew Sullivan put it, “Think of how rarely you now use the phone to speak with someone. A text is far easier, quicker, less burdensome. A phone call could take longer; it could force you to encounter that person’s idiosyncrasies or digressions or unexpected emotional needs.”
“Now hold on a minute,” you may be thinking. “If no one is using the phone to make calls anymore, won’t what you’re suggesting be threatening to others? Doesn’t seem like very socially sound advice to me.” It’s a valid point that this suggestion can lead to rejection—which has been found in numerous studies to send us into a tailspin—as others may no longer be accustomed to receiving phone calls. They may feel awkward or inconvenienced and consequently balk at your challenging what has become the status quo for social overtures.
Yet at the same time, sending and receiving small chunks of information rather than talking by phone is leading people down a desolate path of loneliness, anxiety, and depression. Picking up the phone and calling increasingly unavailable people may be the lesser of two dauntingly unattractive options.
Personally, I have learned to turn the other cheek when a friend responds to one of my social overtures with a Communication Reciprocation Downgrade, primarily because I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable. Yet sometimes, refusing to accommodate the downgrade, I don’t reply to their electronic message and just call again a few weeks later.
We all need to get over ourselves and our pride during this pandemic. Why? Because we need each other. It is one of my deepest hopes that, for many of us, this period will become a giant reset button so we can learn how to slow down and develop meaningful relationships with each other once again. Our future depends on it.
I’m curious: What strategies have you developed to improve your close relationships during the pandemic? What’s working or not working for you? Share your experiences in the comments so others can benefit from them.