Nobody’s perfect. Anyone with a hint of self-awareness and honesty will acknowledge that. But often, recognizing our failures helps us to overlook those of others. After all, we usually find it far preferable to put up with a bit of frustration over our friends’, loved ones’, and coworkers’ foibles than to give up entirely the pleasure of having them in our lives.
Yet, it seems that in the last two years something has changed. Significantly. All you have to do is watch the nightly news to see it. Violent outbursts on planes, on buses, in subway stations, at schools, and workplaces. Patience seems to be in short supply these days and sometimes it feels like you’re more likely to get a wallop upside the head than a kind hello when you venture out of your house in the morning.
How do we explain this newly contentious world we’re living in? It’s not all that difficult actually. Thanks to COVID-19, we’ve pretty much been living in a state of continuous fear and lockdown. As the number of months in isolation increased, so too did the number of traditional social norms and rules of etiquette we were more than ready, willing, and able to break. In short, we’ve lost our manners. And there’s a psychological explanation for it.
The Demise of Relationship Tolerance
Sartre once said, “Hell is other people.” Fortunately for us and the world we live in, most people don’t share such misanthropic views. In fact, as a species, we humans are pretty much pre-programmed for sociability. There’s even a term for it. It’s called “relationship tolerance” and it’s usually all that stands between civilization and chaos.
Fundamentally, relationship tolerance refers to three principal attributes that should define how we engage with and relate to others: Acceptance, respect, and appreciation of difference (1). If you think those are characteristics sorely lacking in our world today, you would be right. Though we are only just beginning to emerge from the pandemic, and research on its psychosocial impacts remains relatively scant, there is already substantial evidence of the toll that both the pandemic and consequent lockdowns have taken.
Significantly, the effects of prolonged quarantine can be seen not only in our interactions with strangers and acquaintances, but also in our dealings with those closest to us, from our romantic partners and spouses to relatives, friends, and coworkers.
For example, in a comparative analysis of self-assessed relationship quality of married and dating couples before and after lockdown, Ahuja and Khurana (2021) found significant declines in the couples’ relationship satisfaction assessments, with both married and dating couples reporting a substantial decrease in love, intimacy, and passion in the relationship following the lockdowns (2).
Similarly, a study by de Moraes Filho et al. (2021) found that the relational changes brought about by pandemic lockdowns led to a decline in friendship tolerance, particularly among highly educated males (3).
As troubling as the impacts of the lockdowns on intimate and friend relationships may be, there’s an even darker side. More specifically, there is mounting evidence of a troubling increase in stigmatization, racism, xenophobia (4).
In the face of prolonged lockdowns, we’ve not only become physically distanced from others, including our most intimate friends, relatives, and romantic partners, but we’ve also become emotionally and psychologically distanced from them as well. That reality threatens our relationships, our health, and our culture.
Negative Coping in the Face of Crisis
As pervasive as the decline in relationship tolerance may be, it’s also quite understandable, even “normal.” It is, fundamentally, an attribute of evolutionary survival mechanisms, combined with the often predictable neuropsychological response to the prolonged, significant, and largely unprecedented stressors of a global public health emergency.
Indeed, research in the domains of psychiatry and neurobiology has provided important insight into how the collective human mind, body, and spirit have been affected by the crisis. For one thing, studies have found that the advent of the virus has profoundly undermined people’s locus of control, inducing a harrowing sense of uncertainty, fear, and helplessness (4, 5). These stressors, in turn, have contributed to a precipitous decline in emotional regulation while significantly increasing reactivity (6, 7, 8).
In other words, we’re less able to control our emotions, less able to cope with and bounce back from the inevitable stressors, setbacks, and disappointments of life, and far more likely to overreact when they occur.
There is an evolutionary basis for this. Hyperarousal, hypervigilance, and hyperreactivity are the brain and autonomic nervous systems’ instinctive, reflexive, evolutionary responses when danger is present. However, the mind and body can’t withstand that state of hyperarousal for long, and that’s when we begin to develop coping mechanisms, many of which are unhealthy both for ourselves and our relationships. This includes, for instance, the tendency to withdraw, to become aggressive and hostile, and to become intensely, even pathologically, risk-averse (9, 10, 11, 12).
These negative coping mechanisms mean that you may even begin to see the behaviors of those around you, behaviors you once tolerated with ease, as being not merely intolerable but threatening. Even at the level of the unconscious, you may come to see your relationships as undermining your desperate efforts to regain some sense of safety and control, and so you either defensively withdraw or you offensively act out against those you care for. You find yourself unable to let go of the small things.
A Ray of Hope
As deeply rooted in both our psyche and our evolutionary biology as the decline in relationship tolerance may be during periods of prolonged stress, there’s still hope. There are definitive steps that you can take to protect yourself, reclaim your locus of control, and preserve your relationships.
If you want to regain your relationship tolerance and restore your connection with the important people in your life, then you need to start by knowing yourself. Understanding your personal triggers, the emotional hot buttons that lead you to (over)react is the essential first step in defusing them. As these triggers so often operate at the level of the unconscious, bringing them to conscious awareness enables you to better respond and act upon them in a healthier way. Instead of automatically reacting, you become an empowered agent consciously acknowledging the emotions instead of being buffeted mindlessly by them.
Research shows that practicing mindfulness also offers substantial benefits both during and after lockdown (12, 13, 14). Learning to recenter in the moment, to be present, helps to arrest the dangerous cascade from anxiety to worry to maladaptive behaviors.
In addition, there is significant evidence that techniques derived primarily from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help to mitigate the psychosocial impacts of the pandemic and pandemic lockdowns. For example, resiliency training, especially those rooted in cognitive reappraisal and the use of humor, help to reduce the anxiety and fear that often incite relationship intolerance (15, 16, 17).
Another important strategy you can use to regain your relationship tolerance in the aftermath of lockdowns is simply to engage as much as possible with other people in whatever manner you feel to be safe and productive for you and your family. For instance, studies show that those who are engaged in sports, as well as those who quarantined with more people, were less likely to experience the sharp declines in relationship tolerance than those who have spent the last years largely alone (18, 19). The evidence further suggests that even engaging in group teletherapy programs can substantially improve emotional regulation during highly stressful times such as these (20). This strongly contributes to your ability to practice tolerance in your interactions with others.
How Casa Alternavida Can Help
At Casa Alternavida, we offer an array of services to help leaders, teams, and individuals learn to live their best life. Our multidisciplinary team is dedicated to teaching our guests how to cultivate the skills they need to express their emotions and optimize physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. For group retreats, we offer training in communication and cooperation, team-building, goal-setting, and vision-sharing. At our wellness retreat, you and those you care for, from families to coworkers, can regain the skills you need to recover from the impacts of fear and lockdown and rebuild the relationships important to your life and success.
Casa Alternavida was founded on the principle that there are healthier, “alternative” ways to balance life and work. This alternative is to stop the unconscious addiction to stress, overwhelm, and struggle to focus on a healthy, balanced lifestyle that yields better results. Our practitioners are trained to support you with unraveling those unconscious commitments so you can actively create the lifestyle you want to be living, take charge of your well-being, and reset bad habits. We are experts at creating playful experiences in nature that inspire deep personal insight and long-term positive behavior change. Teams walk away from our facility with new excitement for their projects, practices to work smarter, and a deep appreciation of their companies. If you are a business that cares about your employees and wants to enhance your workplace culture, we are dedicated to providing alternative ways of building resilient leaders and teams.
Hjerm, M, Eger, M.A., Bohman, A. et al. A New Approach to the Study of Tolerance: Conceptualizing and Measuring Acceptance, Respect, and Appreciation of Difference. Soc Indic Res 147, 897–919 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-019-02176-y
Ahuja, K.K. & Khurana, D. Locked-Down Love: A Study of Intimate Relationships Before and After the COVID Lockdown. Family Relations 70(5), 1343-1357 (2021). https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/fare.12582
De Moraes, I.M. et al. Sociodemographic and Emotional Factors Associated with Tolerance in Friendship Relationships in the COVID pandemic. Rev. Enferm. 11(2), 1-17 (2021). https://docs.bvsalud.org/biblioref/2021/04/1177361/53180-266067-2-pb.pdf
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