Can something that’s always been true become more true? I ask myself as I stare at the dirty pans, plates, and cups that have yet again piled up to my faucet. Since I began social distancing two months ago, the moments spent standing at my sink scrubbing excessively have morphed into one long, never-ending affliction. Dishes have always sucked, but during quarantine they suck the life out of me with them.
Dishes finally done, I’m on my couch watching eating videos, because it’s Ramadan and I’m a masochist, when my phone buzzes. A text. Before I can check who it’s from or what it says, the feeling I had just rid myself of—the weight of a mountain of dishes just nagging to be done—is back. While social distancing, texting back has become a burden, each red notification bubble like another bulky, greased pan in need of my labor.
To be fair, my avoidant relationship to texting isn’t new, it’s just a lot worse now. Generally, I feel interrupted by texts, whether they are sent when I’m in the middle of work, sitting down for dinner, in conversation with a friend, or during my favorite show. Usually, I will read them and tell myself I’ll reply later. In Normal Times, when I do eventually reply to a text, I might say something like, “sorry, been a crazy couple [hours, days, etc…].” That may or may not be true, but during the pandemic, excuses are harder to come by. “Sorry I was too busy sitting on my couch to text you back,” doesn’t have the same ring—even if it is honest.
To my relief, Shira Etzion, a New York City-based licensed marriage and family therapist, said the fact that something so seemingly simple as texting back can feel laborious during the coronavirus pandemic is not at all surprising. “We're suddenly in this position where the way of communicating is 100 percent virtual and the technology that we're used to using for fun or by choice is now our have-to form of communicating,” she said.
Etzion explained that the pandemic, in which many non-essential workers are working from home, has eroded some of the digital boundaries that applied when things were normal. “It's taking some time for people to understand, No, it's not just that you are working from home and so you're present,” she said. “It's actually that you are staying home during a pandemic and trying to work.”
A major part of my own texting anxiety during the pandemic has to do with the idea that because the person reaching out knows I’m confined to my home, they’ll expect a timely response, and I’ll be left with no excuse for my delayed reply. But according to relational therapist Racine Henry, that assumption in itself is the problem.
“The benefit of all this is we don’t need an excuse, and I hope we get out of the habit of feeling like we need one,” she said. “Just because we can’t leave home as freely as we used to doesn’t mean we don’t have things occupying our minds or emotions.” In other words, it’s valid to be busy, overwhelmed, and unable to text back, even if you can’t leave your house.
It’s also acceptable to communicate that and manage expectations. Racine said an appropriate response may look like, “Can we talk tomorrow when I can give you my full attention?” or “I really want to be more engaged and I can’t right now. Do you mind if I call [or text] you back another time?”
And while managing other people’s expectations is helpful, managing your own expectations might be the key to letting go of not-texting-back guilt. “It's OK to cut ourselves some slack and have compassion,” said Etzion. “This is not the time to assess yourself the way you would in normal life.”
A hard but obvious thing to remember in all this is that the friends and family reaching out to you are aware of the once-in-a-century pandemic at hand. They may just have more compassion and understanding than you’re giving them credit for.
“We have to give ourselves and our loved ones more grace than ever before,” Racine said. “Don’t judge the quality of your relationships by how responsive or communicative people are during this time—we are all trying to get by.”