“Stop your grumbling,” Mom used to say. “If you don’t like the way things are, change them.”
While maternal wisdom has its merits, does it apply to our ongoing situation of 2020? The pandemic has thrust upon us many obstacles beyond our control. Maybe we have a right to complain.
More recently, I think Mom was right. Maybe we have more choice than we think. Better yet, maybe she and Dad instilled in us the conviction that, God helping us, we have the relational fiber and faithful love to thrive in month eight of COVID-19. This is what I found in a study I conducted seven weeks after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic.
Change of plans
Like many other people, my initial response to news of COVID-19 was, “This is happening over there, and it will soon pass.” I was all set in April to launch a study on close relationships to see if the ideas of covenant relating really made a difference in marriages and friendships. Then COVID-19 hit. It became apparent that even if I stuck my head in the sand, people’s answers to my questions would be tainted by their experiences living in home isolation.
So, I changed my tack and asked a new question: Does a covenantal approach to relationships help us thrive—not struggle—even during a worldwide pandemic? You can bet I had never asked that question before. I went about gathering over 750 surveys from church-going people and unchurched, age 18 to 80, women and men, stuck at home or working the front lines, in order to answer my question.
What did I discover? How can we apply these insights in our congregations?
Covenant values matter
In the big picture, I learned that holding a covenantal view of close relationships helped people weather the storm of pandemic change and frustration. By covenantal I mean valuing family and friends as much or more than oneself, aiming to become holy—not necessarily happy—together and belonging to a faith community where positive role models teach and live by similar convictions.
The facts: The more people hold covenant values, the more likely they trusted their isolation housemates, felt emotionally supported by home partners and rated life as pretty good despite the pandemic. They also reported experiencing less fighting with the people with whom they lived, as well as less anxiety, fear and loneliness during lockdown. That is quite the testimony of living abundantly—even if it did not feel like it at the time.
The survey also included questions about “contract values” in one’s relationships, such as focusing on oneself, protecting one’s rights, keeping things “even,” hoping for happiness and breaking off if relating gets rough. As you might guess, people who hold these values appeared to struggle. In fact, they experienced less trust, support and satisfaction and more fighting, anxiety, fear and loneliness.
My conclusion: Contract-minded people need our support. How can we model covenant relating to them? How can we show that interdependence with others in authentic ways yields life, not constraint?
Gramps and Gram doing well
I also found that people 60 years old and older were getting along best, especially better than young adults in their 20s. This may seem counterintuitive in light of media stories of older folks being most at risk, especially in care homes. However, the group in this study were 60 to 80 years old, living at home, empty nesting and financially secure. Such people enjoy stable marriages and were already accustomed to spending time together—alone.
By contrast, young people were the most disrupted. Those attending university or high school were cut off from friends, sent home, switched to online learning and stuck with family. You will recall the upheaval when everyone was competing for workspace, leisure space, kitchen time and alone time. For sure, parents living with kids under foot struggled a lot but kids and young adults even more so.
How can we reach out to high school, college and young adults today? Are there meaningful ways we can connect people intergenerationally? Have we capitalized on the strength of mature parents to nurture stability among 20-somethings?
Some coping strategies are better
Another dimension I examined were the coping strategies people used to manage pandemic chaos. Some were adaptive (helpful) and others maladaptive (not helpful) even if we thought both helped.
The results show that people who exercised more times per week, attended church more per week, ate better (compared to before the pandemic) and engaged in fewer hours of entertainment media per day were more relationally resilient.
I spoke with one woman who said, “The first thing I did was ask ‘What can I control?’ and the answer was to prepare great meals for my clan. They loved it, and I felt significant in doing so.” Showing control over diet, exercise, and media are keys to coping well.
Are we choosing to eat healthy food rather than convenient or fatty meals? Do we get out to walk, hike or bike in wide-open spaces? Do we limit our entertainment media to one to three hours per day rather than binging on five hours or more?
Attending church seemed to be a positive way to cope, too. It helped people stay connected to covenantal values and find personal support. This does not mean attending church is a magic bullet for everyone. I think it means that followers of Jesus who connect meaningfully with his body were already primed to weather the COVID-19 storm and that showing up at church—even online church—was a sign of values such as commitment and sacrifice they already held.
As leaders, we might consider how to develop proactive activities that bring people together (safely) to enjoy adaptive fun. Let us not give up on meeting together.
Finally, I also studied whether or not people were being honest with their answers compared to how they were really doing. Psychologists call this trait social desirability; it is the tendency for some people to put their best foot forward in public settings by making statements they think others want to hear in order to look good. People who are high on social desirability often tell little white lies when asked how they are doing because they want to appear fine.
The study shows that people high on this trait were more likely to say they were coping better and struggling less than they really were. That is, they inflated their answers on trusting others, feeling supported and judging life good and deflated their responses on being argumentative, anxious, afraid and lonely. One could call this optimism—or denial. It is optimistic because it reflects a silver lining amidst hardship, but it is denial by not acknowledging true struggle.
As leaders, how will others view us if we always appear calm and collected when we are really hurting? Will they feel free to approach us for support or avoid us because we appear too with it?
I am thankful
As a covenanter, I have experienced the relational benefits described here. Last year, the day after Thanksgiving, my mother passed away. I think she hung in there for one more family party! We will miss her this year yet reflect on her legacy—how she modeled resilient living by depending on God, prayer and patience while raising us. I would like to think she did well in modeling relational grit and faithful love. For that, I am thankful.
Bill Strom is professor of communication at Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C., where he teaches and researches relational communication. His books The Relationship Project and More Than Talk: A Covenantal Approach to Everyday Communication recognize biblical virtues and ways of relating that help people thrive in friendship, marriage and work.