Who’s faring well? Relational resilience during COVID-19

(above) Trinity Western University in Canada

By Bill Strom, PhD,

Seven weeks after the World Health Organization’s announcement that COVID-19 was a pandemic, I was fortunate to gather information from 781 people living in varying degrees of social isolation, in an effort to discover who is most at risk as the pandemic continues, and how we can lead to more effectively meet their needs.

The participants in the study were mostly students, staff and alumni associated with Trinity Western University. Subjects were living in North America and Asia, aged 18 to 70 years and older, and predominately female (69%). I asked questions regarding 1) age, education, gender, personality and approach to relationships, 2) ways people coped, and 3) signs of relational thriving or struggle (such as trust or aggression).

Doing so allowed me to answer questions such as: Would being older or younger help or hinder resilience? Would gender count? Or being an extravert? Or the number of times a person exercised per week, or played Xbox? What predicted relational thriving or struggle? Here’s what I discovered:

Mature people faring better than young adults

I found that people 60 years and up were far better off than young adults aged 18-29 (with others in between doing “okay”). An explanation might be that mature folks experienced less jolt and more stability than 20-somethings. Most over 60 enjoyed empty nest homes with long-time spouses, whereas young adults, who were mostly university students, had to leave campus, finish school online, manage family relationships, and worry about ‘what’s next’ for summer employment.

As schools continue with courses online this fall, students will keep feeling the brunt of displacement, no campus life and low-touch learning.

How are you reaching out to high school and college students who can no longer hang out face-to-face with friends from school?

Social distancing really hurts if you’re wired to be social

While men and women did not differ on a general “weathering well” scale, they did differ on relational responses: During lockdown, women reported more distrust, more fear of people, and more loneliness compared to men. From other research, we know that in times of crises, women are more likely to turn to trusted and familiar friends and family for social support, whereas men tend to focus on task-related ways to cope. The pandemic cut off women from the very people they would normally engage in order to give and receive care. No wonder isolation hurt.

Do your women’s ministry activities allow time for sharing meaningfully? How might you encourage this among women who already know and trust each other?

Watching Netflix Is great, but there’s a limit

In terms of coping strategies, people who exercised more hours per week, attended more church online, ate better food (compared to before the pandemic), and engaged fewer hours of media per day, were more relationally resilient. Quantity of food and alcohol, however, did not matter.

Especially concerning, was that media consumption correlated moderately strong with all the relational indicators: The more one engaged with media (on a 0-8 hours per day scale), the less likely one indicated interpersonal trust, feeling supported, and being satisfied with life, and more likely people experienced interpersonal aggression, social anxiety, social fear, and loneliness. But keep in mind that these results are correlational, not causal, We can’t necessarily say that using media causes poor relationships, nor that poor relationships drive one to use media more. They are both likely at work. However, a modest amount of media (1-3 hours per day) can help us unwind and enjoy time with others.

Being flexible yet stable wins the race

In terms of personality, the results indicated that people who are “open to new experiences” and “emotionally stable” were faring better at week seven than those who prefer rigid routines and often experience negative emotions. Being more of an extravert helps too because socialites are able to use their rich online network to send and receive support.

When life Is about “we”, not “me”, we can do this together

A final insight was that people who held “covenantal values” versus “contractual values” were living more abundantly. That is, the more people embraced things such as putting others first, being willing to forgive, respecting scripture, and being engaged in a local church, the more likely they coped better, trusted more, felt supported, and rated life as satisfactory. At the same time, these people reported being less aggressive, less anxious, less fearful and less lonely, than people who rated high on contract values (such as looking out for oneself and trying to keep relationships even). I found this convincing evidence that relating God’s ways bring life.

Fostering relational resilience: Ideas for you and your team

Keep students and student leaders on your radar. Consider ways to connect your younger team members with their charges face-to-face with appropriate social distancing — not more Zoom.

Encourage meaningful support among women — and men — who know and trust each other. Mixing leaders who have little relational history may simply lead to superficial conversation and stress.

Recognize and evaluate coping habits. Encourage your team to critically reflect on their coping habits, and to be aware of which habits or healthy or not.

Lean into the strength of covenant relationships. People need faithful community. Share with your teams these study findings and encourage them to reaffirm their steadfast faithfulness with each other and with God.

 

Bill Strom, PhD, is Professor of Communication at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia, Canada 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.

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