socializing in 2021

What Has the Pandemic Done to Our Boundaries?

Photo-Illustration: by the Cut; Photos Getty Images

The other day, a friend called me on the phone to complain about another friend — a cherished hobby for us both. In 2019, or any year before it, the inciting event would have been an inoffensive request: My friend’s friend invited my friend to dinner. More specifically, dinner at a restaurant, indoors, with 15 or so guests. The governor of their state has made indoor dining legal, but my friend was horrified. She is not yet vaccinated, and only a few of the people invited to dinner had been. She declined the invitation, and was annoyed when her friend accepted the RSVP curtly. I dutifully supported my friend’s decision, agreeing it was outrageous of her friend to ask her to dinner, but I was also distracted, suddenly overwhelmed by the coming social conundrum my friend’s situation portends.

For now, her decision was an easy one. But soon, maybe a month or two from now, our declinations will lose their faultlessness — no longer the presumed default of the responsible citizen, the no thank you will once again require explanation.

As vaccination continues to ramp up, and restrictions continue to drop, we will be freer to spend time with friends and family than we’ve been in more than a year. There will be many happy, teary reunions, and if Twitter is to be believed, a number of supremely hedonistic parties. The expectation after a year of collective deprivation is that we all want to celebrate its end together. And I think we do, mostly. But maybe not quite as often, or with quite so many people. Some daydream only of a single friend joining them on the very same couch where they spent 2020.

“Once things open up, I think the pressure is going to be on,” says Spela Trefalt, an associate professor at the Simmons School of Business. Trefalt expects the winding down of the pandemic to expose the tension between both what we want versus what we think we want, and the differing desires between friends (and family members, and co-workers). While the threat of COVID-19 provided the most solidly impersonal excuse the homebody may ever have, it forced the socialite to submit so severely they may resent their less-extroverted friends and acquaintances for not feeling as frantic to meet up. Each relationship is a negotiation between its members, and over the past year, many froze. Once opportunity is reintroduced, so too is an increased potential for hurt feelings.

“If you’re going to see someone, it’s going to be someone you really want to spend time with,” says Taejah Vemuri, a psychotherapist at Urban Balance. “You might not put the effort in to see someone you don’t really connect with.” On the one hand, it’s healthy to prioritize valued, rewarding relationships. On the other hand, it’s relatively rare for any two friends to value each other to the exact same degree. There are friends we’re likely eager to see as soon as it’s safe to do so, and some, perhaps, who we realize we haven’t missed at all.

“One of the reasons that setting boundaries is hard is because they have implications for relationships,” says Trefalt. “It’s saying: ‘I don’t do this with you.’ We don’t say it in those words, but those are the messages that may be perceived.” In relationships where one person perceives a need to make up for lost time, and the other wants to resume once-monthly hangouts as if no time had passed at all, tensions are sure to arise. It’ll be easier to arrive at new/old boundaries with one’s best friends — the people with whom you can be brutally honest — but less so, perhaps, for one’s medium friends (a category hard to define, but one which I’m sure call several examples to mind).

If there’s any silver lining to our pandemic year — and that’s a big if — psychologists say it was all the time it gave us for self-reflection. “Times of stress can be times of great learning,” says Jeremy Nobel, founder of the Foundation for Art and Healing and faculty member at Harvard Medical School. Crisis compels us to reevaluate the way we organize our lives, he says, including our routines, our rituals, and, yes, our boundaries. Most of us have, by now, ideas about how we might return to something better than “normal” life, and the tricky part now is applying those principles to real, unpredictable life. Nobel compares the challenge to Goldilocks’s: setting too few boundaries is a problem, but so is setting too many; the latter, he explains, is a common stress-management tactic — a way to exert control over a situation that is largely outside it.

Undeniably, COVID has illuminated a great deal about ourselves and the people we love and thought we knew. People you know have pivoted to full-time scolds, and others have spent the year in an alternate, apparently risk-free universe. Most, perhaps, are in the mucky, morally ambiguous middle. In the end, I expect very little will have changed. The introverted majority, long accustomed to martyrdom, shall soon resume their (fine: our) whining. The extroverted will invite them to things, and later, give up. And in the background, on separate text threads, we will complain to our like-minded others — finally, finally, about something different, and yet much the same.

What Has the Pandemic Done to Our Boundaries?