“We’re All in This Together” at a “Social Distance”

  • May 13, 2020
  • Sandra Caffo, LCSW

This pandemic is bringing out the best and the worst in human beings. “We’re all in this together” and “Keep a Social Distance” have taken on powerful meanings as Covid-19 has spread.

I am a social worker by training; used to working ‘in-person’. The current pandemic has provided many opportunities for helping, and my tendency is to find one and commit myself to that effort.

However, there are challenges.

    • I live in a multi-generational family including a 7-year old grandchild and a daughter and son-in-law in an age group very affected by the virus.
    • My husband is older than me and is a healthy, vibrant and service-minded 80-year-old.
    • I too am healthy and active while qualifying as a member of the “older population”.

I found ideas in Bowen Theory on ‘togetherness’ and ‘distance’ helpful in determining how to resolve my dilemma.

Dr. Murray Bowen observed how built-in ‘togetherness and distance’ work in families. “The togetherness force assumes responsibility for the happiness, comfort and well-being of others; and it blames the others for lack of happiness or for failure in self.” (Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, pg. 218)

    • The first part of this sounds good. “Happiness, comfort and well-being of others” are positive concerns. Surely cultivating these makes sense, especially now, and it is even better if it’s built in.
    • The challenge is the rest of the sentence which adds ‘blaming others for lack of happiness or for failure in self”. In other words, the automatic carries a kind of ‘gotcha’. You may have heard things like the following or said them yourself on occasion. I know I have.
      –   “Look at all I do for you”.
      –   “You don’t appreciate me.”
      –   “How ungrateful of you.”
    • As it does in other animals, togetherness in humans works to keep us safe.  You can’t get more basic and important than that.

When things get to be too much. ‘social distance’ emerges automatically. Examples like the following come to mind.

    • One partner now sleeping in the guest room.
    • A kid leaving home and moving far away to prove independence.
    • Shutting down and not listening to the person(s) you are having trouble with.

What usually happens is the distance goes on for so long and then people get reunited and the dance begins again. The reality is that for humans, the automatic only takes us so far.

Are we doomed to this dance you might ask? No. There is a counter-balance force built into human functioning, described by Dr. Bowen as “differentiation” or the “I” position.

“This is what I think or feel or stand for” and ‘this is what I will do or not do.”  (Family Therapy in Clinical Practice,  pg. 218) The key ingredient is staying in touch with and supporting the important people around you in family and other relationships, even when they don’t agree with you.

So back to my dilemma. Weighing the factors related to the spread of Covid-19 has resulted in the decision not to volunteer. And while I know this decision is based on principle, it is still hard to accept. Doing the right thing does not mean it will be easy.

Have you had a situation related to Covid-19 that made you weigh socially accepted norms against your own principles? I’d like to hear from you.

And I look forward to the conversation!

Sandra Caffo, LCSW
WPFC Faculty Member

4 Replies to ““We’re All in This Together” at a “Social Distance””

  1. Thank you Sandra…good reminders of how human beings “naturally” respond in a time of challenges. Good questions as to ways we can practice maturity in the face of such challenges starting with thinking of our own values, principles, and vision for our lives. Recently, caring for an ill family member made me realize that “togetherness” helped me care for her and thus, allowed for her safety. And, getting clear on my own values and principles assisted me in connecting to other family members for their input and support as well.

    1. Rosemarie, as you clearly describe, caring for family members and others whom you love presents opportunities and challenges. When I am clear on what’s important, I’m better able to figure out how best to proceed. and utilize the resources available. Thanks for sharing how you did this for yourself.

  2. When cooped up in our own homes with our families, it can be hard to get the distance needed to avoid irritability. I find it’s been a great time to practice staying calm when confronted with a loved one’s stress. And if I don’t manage this so well on any given day – well, there’s always the next day, and the one after that!

    1. Ann, I smiled as I read your post. Having many opportunities to be one’s ‘best self’ in a situation is a gift; one I remind myself of often. Creating distance can be a strategy to allow time to calm myself down and focus before connecting or reconnecting with family members in a ‘best self’ way.

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