By Susan Birkenshaw
February 2021 is upon us. and while this, traditionally, is a romantic time of year it may take on a new twist of meaning for many of us this year. Valentine’s Day has so many ideas behind its concept. It could mean anything to any of us – from horrific murders, to the loss of a Saint or even love – long-enduring or love at first sight! For me, it is a time to consider and strengthen relationships of any kind – romantic, friend, family or even with your furry four-legged friend!
This has been a long and weird year of lockdowns, health fears, personal loss, and even worldwide turmoil and political unrest, which has brought me to considering how the relationships that are most important to us can survive and thrive. So, I have been on a quest to find out how my pals – close and worldwide – have created success in the relationships they hold most dear. In mid-December 2020, I sent a 5-question survey to 40 of my friends and connections around the world – representing a cross-section of singles and couples, with responses from both men and women aged 45 to 78. Much to my surprise, I received almost 60% back.
My questions were simple to write but when I started to write my own answers, it was much more difficult than I anticipated. The questions I asked all related to the lockdowns in 2020 and included the respondent’s top three critical relationships, what was most important to keep these relationships moving forward, what gets in the way, what is next in keeping relationship success going in the near future and how are we feeling about the coming year 2021 – specifically and in general?
Here are the respondents’ common themes. First, friends old and new are critical – my sense is that by year’s end everyone is craving connections and a wider variety of conversations, especially if they are living alone. I know that my mom who is 94 years old – spry, savvy, and with-it – wants desperately to be able to meet new people in her seniors’ residence, not because she doesn’t like those whom she knows but because a variety of connections give her energy!
Second, the absolutely most important connection was family – the definition here changes often from a single person (spouse, mother, brother, one person from the family at large) to a broader focus, say with a weekly family group ZOOM meeting. I find it fascinating that these definitions were not surprising when I spoke to my respondents – for example, I spoke to one person who has a large and widely spread family and the most important connection he has is his sister. On pondering this, he found this realization curious, but then his comment was “Well, my kids are busy, and I shouldn’t bother them!” I’d say this is something to think about.
Another critical insight that came up regularly was the friends who were long-term pals, the ones people have known for as long as 70 years. These come in the form of college or university friends, friends from first jobs, spouses of 50+ years, siblings who are close and supportive, and of course kids and grandkids.
In reviewing all the answers that I received, I found the most common themes of what worked and keeps the connections ongoing is a shared history, using technology (many learned new tech) – playing bridge online, fitness classes via ZOOM, simple phone calls. People develop new mantras that become important to them, often quotations: “It will be fine in the end and if it’s not fine, it’s not the end.” And my New Year’s Resolution, which I can’t claim to have written myself, but it works for me: “Think with honesty, speak with sincerity and act with integrity!”
Most of my respondents were grateful for two or three common things – laughter was first, honest conversations and a friends’ network that remains optimistic/supportive/challenging. Those who have pets of any kind were grateful for a different type of responsibility and sounding board: “Lucy (my pug-dog) doesn’t talk back but she does listen to my ideas as I talk them through, and she really does hear my sad tones when I need a cuddle!” “No matter what, I have to walk the dog!” “Sure, I can’t travel but it’s not as difficult to have a dog who I love when I have none of that choice.”
What I found deeply saddening was when I asked what gets in the way or makes it difficult to keep these important connections going in the times of lockdowns, there were many responses that were self-critical (“it’s my fault that …”) or less than positive when reviewing personal successes during 2020.
There were detractors or negatives common throughout the responses, such as fear of so many unknowns – COVID, economy, lack of personal value; perceived personal laziness; anxiety was a big issue along with self-doubt; lack of personal purpose; really poor time management with no personal schedule and if there is one, it is often tipped by a well-meaning spouse; no energy and becoming complacent.
The whole impact of COVID fatigue eats away at our personal foundations and the lack of clarity from each other and from any government agency is getting to us. Many of us are suffering My fear is that self-sabotage might become a habit and excuses are easy; since 2021 may continue to be stressful and fear-ridden, we all need to find ways to avoid these horrid habits. They get harder and harder to break!
Now, thinking about this new year we find ourselves in – what will we do better, how do we feel about the short-term future, is there any reason to be optimistic? My survey folks all had a similar responses – their goals and commitments to themselves and to their relationships all had a similar flavour. We all want to use our time better – more personal development that may be on our own or include our close connections, protecting the good health we have so that we could if absolutely necessary ward off any disease or virus. Increasing family connections came up surprisingly often – more regular Skype or ZOOM with siblings and more honest asking for support, simple help, or ideas for problem-solving – either personal or business-related.
My last question was one that I asked to test the waters of where our lives might be going in 2021; of the two dozen or so responses I received back, an overwhelming number of people are quite optimistic about what this year will bring. Without a doubt, there is some pessimism, which seems to stem from the anger so many feel about the things the news media spit out every day (many of us have turned off the news). This pessimism also stems from fear of the disease – especially in those who have vulnerable family members.
Most were looking forward to the vaccine process; most are quite proud of what they have learned in the lockdown months, and many had a clearer plan about how they will handle the isolation of lockdown better. People definitely see things that sit at the end of the vaccine rainbow – hugs without fear, shoe shopping, a meal with nice menus instead of QR codes and certainly live entertainment, including concerts and galleries and sports with a real audience.
Finally, focusing on Valentine’s Day 2021, I believe that it is a perfect time to rekindle the fun in self-care, relationship nurturing and the romance in our one-on-one relationships. So here is a simple list of ideas of things to put energy back into your most critical connections. Of course, all of these ideas can be done purely as self-care, over ZOOM or Skype with your closest folks or in person with your live-in partner.
- Find some sunshine, outdoors play or simply sit on the balcony. SAD (seasonal affective disorder) is truly a thing – commit to getting enough Vitamin D.
- Have breakfast in bed.
- Recreate a special event – go on a date, attend a concert (Spotify), take an art class.
- Create a scavenger hunt within your lockdown boundaries – around your condo, in your back yard – like an Easter egg hunt for kids or adults!
- Take a class on a subject new to you – mixology, wine appreciation, Van Gogh painting night, singing (yes, to yourself works!).
- Game night – cards, Monopoly, gin, JENGA – dig out the old cottage board games – checkers, chess, even Chutes and Ladders.
- Movie binge night – yes, you can do this on the net! Each one of your “safe” group gets to choose a title.
- Write a love letter – romantic, grateful or expressing things others may not know about you or how you feel about them. You don’t need to hit the send button – this is for you and those you choose.
- Plan out series walk routes – for yourself alone or with your partner and another series of routes for your connections in their neighbourhoods. Take the time to make it interesting for them – Google Maps is incredible for this. Please stay safe here – walk in the daylight.
- Plan an incredibly special meal for yourself, get your group to do the same, choose a common time and then cook and eat with them at a ZOOMed table – there is something about breaking bread with those who mean the most to you.
- Stargazing – take a long moment to look up when walking the dog just before bed.
Here’s what I have learned from this exercise. Any relationship or connection will benefit from some simple reminders.
- “Pay It Forward” works when you find yourself grateful for some amazing thing in this time of lockdown.
- Be strong!
- Share a smile!
- Be kind – to yourself and others!
- Wear a mask – safety for you and others, and purely simple respect for those around you!
Thank you to my “survey pals” – I deeply appreciate your thoughts and time and willingness to share.