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Why We're Quick to Relax Social Distancing With Family

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Seth J. Gillihan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistJuly 13, 2020

Whether it’s from quarantine fatigue or a belief that the worst is over (despite COVID-19 cases continuing to rise in most states), many of us are relaxing our social distancing boundries and getting together with extended family and friends. We might even skip the mask and ignore the six-foot distancing guideline. I have no extended family or in-laws within a two-hour radius, but it’s easy to imagine combining our “quaranteams” if I did.

While these gatherings won’t always lead to the spread of the virus, they’re not without risk. Many people are finding to their surprise that they contracted COVID at a family gathering. Why are we more likely to break social distancing for family members than for friends or strangers?

  • We crave connection. I’ve heard from so many people that they’re aching to be with family again. One person told me they hadn’t been hugged in months. That longing to be close can override our precautions.
  • Love is stronger than fear. Our two main motivators are love and fear, and when one increases, the other decreases. So, when we’re drawn to our family members, our fear may take a backseat.
  • We assume they’re safe. We feel comfortable with family, and that comfort feels safe. How could someone we’ve known our whole life be a threat? In cognitive behavioral therapy we call this “emotional reasoning”—basing our beliefs on our feelings. We tend to believe infections are passed through grossly irresponsible behavior, not through a loving family gathering or a heartfelt hug.
  • We want to show we care. It’s hard to say “no” when grandparents are desperate to see their grandkids, or when our siblings beg us to get together. It feels cruel to stay away. And once we’re with them, it may be even harder to maintain social distance. How can we turn down a hug?
  • We don’t want to seem ridiculous. If we’re the most cautious in our family, we can worry about what others will think of us. Will they say we’re being silly? Or that we’re living in fear? Resuming normal contact may be the path of least resistance.
  • Exposure works. One of the most powerful principles of CBT is that our fears diminish when we face them. That’s an amazing thing. But at times it can also work against us. Exposure is useful only when the danger is more imagined that real, and we can gain a false sense of security with an invisible threat like the coronavirus. If nothing bad happens when we socially distance at a small family gathering, maybe we feel like it’s okay to take the next step and join a larger group—with or without masks. Feeling emboldened can lead to a slippery slope, and eventually we might abandon social distancing with family altogether. 

If you’re considering being with family while the pandemic continues, think carefully about what makes sense. Keep in mind that in principle, our relatives are just as likely as strangers to carry and transmit the virus. Be cautious about quaranteaming, too. Once we expand beyond those we live with, all bets are off. We never know for sure how cautious others are, or those they’ve been around. The chance of contracting the virus increases exponentially as our number of contacts goes up.   

If you do decide to rejoin family, follow sensible practices to stay safe. Refer to guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); they currently include washing hands often, keeping six feet distance from those you don’t live with, and using a face mask to protect others.

Resist pressure from family to go beyond what you’re comfortable with. Each of us ultimately is responsible for our own choices as we balance safety and being with those we love. This might require negotiating what others do around you, such as requesting that they wear a mask when you’re together. If you’re more cautious than others, acknowledge that you’re okay with being seen as overly concerned, and thank them for understanding.



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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and host of the weekly Think Act Be podcast. He is author of The CBT Deck, Retrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan provides resources for managing stress, anxiety, and other conditions on the Think Act Be website.

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