With the closure of schools, businesses, and social institutions as a means to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus, most families have been confined together in their homes for what has become months. For some, this has been a wonderful experience to reconnect with their loved ones in a new way. For others, this may be a suffocating loop of confined over-socialization. And for most, the experience is probably something in the middle.
For those hoping to make the most of this time with family—or even just survive it—Dr. David Dollahite, a professor of family life at BYU’s College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences, shares some professional insights.
For him, the key difference between this being a rewarding experience versus a challenging one comes down to “what might be called the 3Rs of happy families: Relationship quality, Responsiveness to needs, and Reconciliation after conflict: Relationship quality includes love, kindness, and emotional warmth. Responsiveness to needs involves active listening, patient understanding, and efforts to meet needs. Reconciliation after conflict involves being willing to admit fault (apologizing) and practical efforts to make things right.”
Of course, the rewarding nature of this experience will change from individual to individual, even within families. This is especially true during emotionally stressful periods. Certainly, this quarantine could qualify as such a time; many are out of work, worried about getting sick, and generally uncertain about how things will progress moving into the future. Dollahite says concerning the ways families can support those struggling, “Well-functioning, happy families can provide at least three important things during times of stress and uncertainty: a safe harbor where family members can enjoy physical, emotional, and spiritual rest and healing; a sense of meaning in a time of existential anxiety and significant uncertainty; and a set of routines and rituals that can have a calming, comforting influence.”
For those worrying that they aren’t doing enough, one thing to remember is the importance of “Managing expectations… [which is] the central skill in navigating life’s challenges. This can involve expecting changes and challenges to be constant; expecting ups and downs in life, in relationships, and in emotional wellbeing; and expecting that only rarely will real life live up to one’s expectations and ideals.”
The COVID-19 Pandemic may prove to bring long term changes that go beyond healthcare. When asked about his thoughts on the change in family dynamics in the long-run, Dollahite says, “Families that had relatively good relationships and merely lacked time together will probably have improved relationships, while families with relatively poor relationships and coped by avoiding each other may suffer from worsened relationships.”
So, what can be done? How can we continue to navigate the volatile world of quarantine and prepare ourselves to return back to normal life? The solution may still be unclear, but Dollahite believes that “from what I have observed, many persons and many families will look back on some aspects of the shutdowns as a blessing in disguise. Having spent significantly more time at home, alone, with family and close friends will have been a recuperative experience for many (and of course, an extremely trying and difficult time for many as well).” This will be a chance for people to take a closer look at their personal relationships. Dollahite believes that this may have beneficial long-term effects to the extent that “Some couples and families may realize that they had let life become so busy and scattered that they will want to make lasting changes in their work-family balance. Some couples and families may realize that they have problems that they really need help with and will turn to self-help books, or therapists, or other sources of help.”
Concerning what to do as we move forward, Dollahite is confident that “We will have betters answers to this question after we have results from our upcoming survey on religion and relationships before, during, and after COVID-19.” Data is currently being gathered for this study, and results will not be published until the end of the summer.