What I learned about navigating relationships during COVID-19

Illustration: Out On Campus

By: Winona Young, Peak Associate

I’m not sure if therapy can count as a special interest, but if I see any article or event that involves self-improvement or healing as the focus, my reaction is usually of dorkish excitement. So when I learned that SFU Health & Counselling was collaborating with Out On Campus on a series of workshops focused on LGBTQ2+ radical self-care, I was all in. The workshop I signed up for was called, “Healthy Relationships in the Era of COVID-19” wherein individuals would talk about how to forge a healthy relationship with friends, family, and partners during the pandemic. 

For the sake of confidentiality of other people in the workshop, I will focus on my own personal experience as well as the experience of other participants who have consented to sharing their answers. Amongst them was SFU clinical counsellor Jocelyn Coburn, the organizer of the workshop, who I interviewed via email afterwards on why she began these workshops with OOC.

 

IMMEDIATELY INTIMATE

After completing a consent form confirming my registration for the workshop itself, I received a Zoom link and I immediately felt some  anxiety on what the workshop would look like. My worries melted away when I logged into the Zoom conference room and heard laughter along with welcome wishes.

We began the workshop by stating our names, pronouns, and which relationships of ours were most affected during COVID-19. I was struck instantly by how much honesty we had to indulge right away. But our cozy group stepped up; Ashley Brooks  (Out On Campus’ Director) spoke about how the relationships he felt were most affected were with his partner and friend group. Jocelyn spoke about her relationship with her live-in partner and her parents. I spoke on how throughout COVID-19, I felt my relationship with myself and my friends felt strained. 

When I asked Jocelyn later why we should focus on relationships for this workshop, she remarked on how important it is to focus on relationships other than romantic ones. She hoped that through this workshop, individuals could feel a sense of community by connecting to others in a virtual space.

“Hearing your experiences reflected back from others is so empowering,” she said. “Feeling connected and heard is so foundational to healing!”

 

GVING MYSELF COMPASSION

Ashley mentioned earlier how in pre-COVID-19 times, he felt the need to be ‘go-go-go.’ I replied with the emotionally articulate, ‘mood,’ and expressed how one problem I felt was scheduling with friends and myself. I shared with the group that even during COVID-19, I made plans like crazy to 1. keep busy, and 2. fill the frightening silence of my empty apartment. 

I expressed how I felt guilty with my long stretches of unproductivity and irritation with friends after an hour or two of calling, even though in pre-COVID-19 times, friends and I would hang out from lunch ‘til sundown. I asked if anyone else was feeling this kind of guilt. While I am spending hours upon hours of time with myself these days, and have a glutton of free time theoretically between online classes and errand running, I feel relieved to hear my friends cancel call plans. While scheduled calls were initially a comfort to me, they now felt like a burden. Time by myself now didn’t feel like my own.

While others told me they couldn’t relate (oof), they recommended that I practice being compassionate to myself. It honestly felt comforting being told by relative strangers that I needed to be easier on myself while they reminded me that pre-COVID-19 rules don’t apply these days. In my journal, I scrawled one participant’s response which was: “It’s very taxing to be alive.” 

“COVID-19 is putting stress on not only us but our relationships! It is OK to acknowledge that your emotional needs may be very different […]”

SETTING DIFFERENT BOUNDARIES

When I asked Jocelyn what one thing she wanted individuals to walk out of the workshop with, she replied with a very helpful reminder: 

“It is OK to acknowledge that your emotional needs may be very different during COVID-19 and you can adjust your boundaries accordingly,” she wrote. 

“Practically speaking, this means you may have less capacity to meet others needs right now because just existing is taking a lot of energy.”

A common problem that Ashley and Jocelyn expressed were their difficulties maintaining boundaries. Given that both of them live with other people, they both felt home situations felt strained at times by constantly being with each other. While I’m currently living with a relatively quiet roommate, I told the group how I felt pressured to constantly hangout with friends online. I asked others if they felt that difficulty of feeling tired with spending virtual time with others, i.e. what I’ve termed, “Zoom fatigue.” Others agreed that scheduling in social time even with their roommates felt different because ‘alone time’ was virtually non-existent, even if doors were closed. 

Jocelyn remarked that for individuals living with others, managing physical space was important. She emphasized that there was a difference between coexistence and cohabitating. While coexisting meant simply being in each other’s presence constantly, cohabitating meant intentionally spending time with others in different contexts and spending time with yourself at home were different. Intention, she reasoned, was important in setting important emotional and physical boundaries, whether it was with friends online or people you’re living with. 

 

PRACTICING MINDFULNESS 

By far one of my favourite parts of the workshop was when Jocelyn walked us through a mindfulness exercise that she researched online

It was surprisingly easy to do a guided meditation via Zoom. Jocelyn told us to begin by physically rooting ourselves to the ground, like having both feet placed on the floor. We were told to think of something we were having difficulty with for relationships, and while COVID-19 hadn’t impacted my relationship with my partner, I thought of how jealous I felt when they would mention their ex. Jocelyn then asked to observe our feelings — for me, I thought, “I feel jealous, I feel stupid, I feel irrational, and I feel so small.” 

She then asked to acknowledge the difficulty of our feelings, and think to ourselves, “This is a moment of suffering,” which felt cathartic to admit to myself, and helped me be more accepting towards myself. The next step then was to establish a comforting touch to oneself, like placing one’s hand over heart, which Jocelyn mentioned felt too intense for her so she would hold her other hand. And once we would be holding ourselves, she would tell us to think of our problem, and then ask ourselves, “Can I be compassionate to myself? Can I be kind to myself at this moment?”

I remember the exercise feeling very intimate and calming; and at the time of writing this, after being upset by violently triggering content, repeating this exercise helped ground me. Asking myself to feel compassion for myself made me feel peaceful, more in control of my problem, and less overwhelmed. 

FINAL WORDS (LITERALLY)

We ended the workshop by going around the group and summarizing the workshop in one word and why. Ashley chose his word to be ‘compassion,’ while Jocelyn chose ‘learning’ as hers. I chose ‘intention’ as mine. I wanted to remind myself that whether or not it’s interacting with others, or even noticing how you talk with yourself in times of stress, it’s important to be mindful and interact with others with intention. While it was definitely an emotional and very introspection-heavy way to spend an afternoon, this workshop was definitely worthwhile.

For more information on workshops provided by Out On Campus, visit SFU’s Health & Counselling’s tab of Support Options for LGBTQ2+ students. The next workshop, “Finding Community and Boundary-Setting Online” will be held on July 2.