Relationship Tips

How To Diplomatically Avoid Unvaccinated Family Members and Friends Over the Holidays

Kells McPhillips

Photo: Getty Images/lechatnoir
This time last year, many families were celebrating Thanksgiving miles apart thanks to the pandemic. Pfizer and Moderna hadn't yet submitted their COVID-19 vaccines for emergency Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval, and it simply wasn't safe to gather. Flash forward a year and several vaccination approvals later, and people are still stuck in long-distance relationships with their family and friends. And this time, it's not because of a dearth of vaccines; it's because—despite the fact that both the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have declared the COVID-19 vaccine both safe and effective at preventing serious or fatal cases of COVID-19—only 68.4 percent of the total U.S. population have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

The gulf between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated has made setting boundaries over the holiday season all the more critical—and all the more challenging. So if you're wondering how to avoid vaccine-resistant family and friends this season, you're certainly not alone. A recent survey of 2,000 U.S. residents conducted by market research company OnePoll found that over half of those polled expect to have arguments about the vaccine with their families, while a whopping 72 percent of respondents say they don't believe they'll ever convince their hesitant loved ones of the importance of the vaccine.

It's a frustrating time, period. So we asked counselors and other experts to offer their best advice for keeping your boundaries intact through January 1—whether that means excusing yourself from a holiday catchup with your hometown friends, wearing your mask a New Year's Eve party, or disinviting your mom from Christmas.

How to avoid unvaccinated family members this holiday season

So you've been invited to a holiday party where someone (or multiple someones) haven't been vaccinated? Jessica Dyer, LCSW, says that, when it comes to rejecting the invitation, a phone call or a text message is suitable. "I would assess what helps you to feel the most comfortable and what your individual relationships are like. It can be helpful to set the tone of the conversation with the person. Calling on the phone can allow you to be direct and exit the conversation. While texting may allow you to feel more clear in your communication, [texts] can easily be misinterpreted, so that is something to consider," says Dyer.

Once you have them on the line or tapped your text messaging app, Anusree Gupta, LPC, an EMDR-certified therapist in Austin, Texas who specializes in trauma, anxiety, people-pleasing, and relationship issues, recommends telling your mother-and-law (or whoever it is) about your concerns using a multi-step process. First, identify the action that makes you feel uncomfortable. Next, tell them how you feel about their action and express what you need to do to honor your boundaries. "For example, in this case, you can say something like, 'You not being vaccinated makes me feel unsafe and concerned for my health, so I will not be able to see you for the holidays," says Gupta. Keep it direct and straightforward.

"Whenever people set boundaries, there is the possibility that people will push back to try and achieve what they want." —Jessica Dyer, LCSW

Of course, the chances that the person on the other end of the line will accept your rejection without comment are, well, pretty darn slim. "Whenever people set boundaries, there is the possibility that people will push back to try and achieve what they want," says Dyer. In this case, they want to see you. But now's not the time to cave. "You can acknowledge the feelings behind the pushback while holding firm to your boundary," she says. She recommends saying something like, "I understand that you really want to see me this holiday. I wish that I could see you too. In order to stay as safe as possible, I will only be seeing people in person that are vaccinated. I look forward to the time that we can see each other in person again."

If they continue to push, you have a decision to make: Do you want to have a conversation about the vaccine, or do you want to move on? If you absolutely don't want to spend another minute debating the vaccine (understandable), it's time to go through the escape hatch. Dyer recommends saying something along the lines of, "I hear this is really hard for you and you want to see me in person. I am not able to talk about this anymore." Then you can hang up.

If you do feel like having a conversation, John Koch, PhD, senior lecturer and director of debate at Vanderbilt University, says now is the time to do so. "I would encourage people to let debate and discussion happen if it is productive," he says. "For it to be productive, both sides need to be willing to listen to each other, provide evidence, and look for areas where they agree with one another and focus on those points of agreement for figuring out ways forward." For example, maybe you both decide that wearing masks and going for an outdoor walk could work. And if it's important for you to see your high school friend or your cousin in-person, hey, you have a compromise.

However, a discussion may escalate beyond the point of resolution. At which point, Dr. Koch recommends bringing the topic to a close. 'You can do this by saying we are not going to find any points of agreement on this subject, so let’s talk about something else or just end the conversation if they refuse to drop the subject," he says.

Above all, remember to do what's necessary to make you feel safe and healthy this holiday season. "This is a really challenging time," says Dyer. "Be gentle with yourself.”

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