It has been two years since COVID emerged on the scene. We have all felt the fear and uncertainty of a global pandemic, as well as the shutdowns that followed. Most of us worked from home for a year, supervised children doing online school, faced supply shortages, and have gotten used to wearing masks in public. But a casualty that has garnered little attention is the divide that has happened among friends and family members regarding the vaccine.
With 63% of Americans fully vaccinated, studies indicate that this divergence of view is beginning to affect friendships. A new study shows that one in seven people have abandoned friendships due to their opinions on the COVID vaccine. A survey of 1,000 Americans by OnePoll looked at the reasons for friendship breakdowns over the last 18 months. According to the findings, 16% of participants had cut three friends from their lives since the pandemic began — 66% of those who ended a friendship are vaccinated, whereas 17% do not intend to get the vaccination. Fourteen percent of vaccinated individuals report parting ways with non-vaccinated friends. A Canadian study found that of those who have reduced contact with a family or friend in the past year, almost 94 percent said the split was caused by opinions about COVID-19.
We live in a turbulent time when deep divisions affect all of our relationships, including our friendships. If there are significant disparities between you and your friends when it comes to vaccine preferences, there are a few things you should consider before engaging in a conversation,
If you have a friend (or friends) with whom you disagree on vaccines and the distance makes you feel anxious, depressed, lonely, and sad, we recommend the following tips:
Instead of listing all the reasons why your friend is misguided and engaging in a heated debate, stick to “I” messages. State your decision and why this is important for you. For example, if you feel uncomfortable being around individuals who feel opposite you, you could say, “I am not comfortable with [whatever you feel uncomfortable with].” Alternatively, if you are feeling judged, you could say, “I understand you did what was right for you, but I would like you to respect my personal decision here as I have for you.”
Encourage productive discourse by asking open-ended questions and eliciting information about their concerns. What was important to you about making this decision? What has your experience been like after making this decision? Have you felt judged or understood by others?
Share your personal experience and concerns. Resist trying to change someone’s viewpoint and creating a rift in the friendship. There is a delicate balance to be struck, but if you continue to show genuine concern for the other person, you can have a productive conversation.
Do not enter the conversation with the need to be “right.” Accept that your friends have the right to their own beliefs. In other words, avoid starting a conversation with the question, “Do you not care about science and facts?” or “Don’t you care about what you are putting inside your body?” Blame and judgment will immediately put your friend on the defense, and the conversation is unlikely to proceed as you intended.
Bear in mind that we have no control over other people’s opinions, feelings, or emotions about any matter. Therefore, express your viewpoint with your friend and then understand that they are free to make their own choices and have their own opinions. Engage in dialogue, maintain an open line of communication, but accept that they will do as they like.
Consider the impact your friends’ beliefs and actions will have on your friendship. Ask yourself if this is an inconvenience or a barrier you are unwilling to overcome. These factors will vary depending on the nature of your friendship and your mutual understanding of each other’s perspective, but be mindful of them nonetheless.
If you can agree to disagree, make it clear to your friend that you want them in your life. Accept that your friendship may look slightly different, but that does not have to be a bad thing. There are many ways for you to stay connected in a way that works out for both of you.
We have all grown accustomed to virtual hangouts. While you may be over Zoom/FaceTime hangouts at this point, they are an excellent alternative for those who are uncomfortable with in-person meetings. Join a reading group together, listen to the same podcast and discuss it, cook the same dinner over Zoom, take an online yoga class together or participate in a virtual trivia night and compete as a team. Make the most of the technology you have.
If both of you are comfortable, try outdoor activities that require you to wear masks and maintain social distance. Why not tailgate in a parking lot? Park a few spots apart and share some laughs and good times. Alternatively, if you are comfortable, have a picnic in the park. And, if all else fails, there are always the old-fashioned modes of communication — write them a letter, a long SMS, a quick e-mail, or give them a surprise call! It helps fill the social vacuum while maintaining contact with your friend.
Accept that this disagreement will require some adjustment but that the effort will be worth it in the end. Change is hard but stay committed to making the best of the situation. Furthermore, you can always try bringing in new ideas or adjusting the things you used to do together. We recommend staying focused on the activity itself rather than on the fact that it does not feel the same anymore. If vaccination discussions start to seep into the conversation, try to redirect the conversation by saying, “I understand this is not ideal, and it will not last indefinitely. I am grateful that we can still be friends.” You will have to put in more effort first, but if your friendship is important to you, you will eventually adjust to a new normal.
Related Blog: Specialization Series: Adjustment Difficulties
RDU Counseling for Change counselors often hear our clients express feelings of pressure to subscribe to a particular belief or face alienation/judgment from their friends. If you are having a difficult time navigating sensitive topics and maintaining relationships, our mental health counseling can help you. Our expert counselors are here to provide you with strategies and help you deal with the COVID divide more effectively!
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